Greece is not only the islands and the white marble of classical monuments, and if you wish for an adventure nothing could be better than taking the small narrow gauge train inland from the coastal city of Volos to the Meteora monasteries, high on stone pinnacles left over when the softer ground eroded. Meteora means “in the middle of the sky” and that is exactly where these medieval churches and cloisters are situated.
Of course you can go by coach tour – any tourist office in a larger city can book you on one, and if you are on a charter tour you may even book this excursion from home. But then you will miss out on the adventure part, which starts with boarding a train much smaller than usual and rattling along together with local people travelling between small towns and villages! There is nothing like a train journey to get talking with hands and feet if your Greek isn’t what it should be, and most likely you’ll make some new friends and get to taste some local food on the way – either from what your fellow travelers share, or buying something while you lean out from a window and a vendor of sesame buns or small spits with grilled meats runs along the train carriages at a stop. The train stops in Kalambaka, and today there is no difficulty in finding a hotel or a room for rent there on your own, at least if you don’t go in the main tourist season. This is a bad idea anyway, since the heat will detract from your enjoyment of long walks and hikes in a lovely nature.
One of the great pleasures of visiting the Meteora actually is walking, getting higher and higher up, following the meandering paths from monastery to monastery till you come to a sudden steep rise where steps hewn out of the cliff let you climb the last part of the road to one of your goals. There is also a road winding through the stone pillars and if the paths prove too much to take on several days in a row, it is possible to take a taxi to the day’s destination and walk back. Give the Meteora some time if you can, two days is a minimum to walk and to visit the most famous monasteries. Not every monastery can be visited, and many of them are cliff-top ruins no longer inhabited, with no means of access since the monks stopped winching up visitors in baskets hanging on a rope. Bring a pair of binoculars to see the crumbling walls and bird’s nests at a distance!
Visiting the monasteries still functioning, you should check in advance that you haven’t chosen the day or days when they are closed to visitors. It costs a small fee to visit at each one, understandably since this treasure has to be kept up even though there is no great drive to live the monastic life in Greece today. Women should be dressed in skirts that go below the knee, since the Greek orthodox church frowns upon ladies in masculine outfits (trousers), and both men and women should wear clothes with long arms, not showing too much flesh… another reason to avoid the height of summer.
Already in the 9th century hermits had climbed the rock pillars to be nearer to God. Here they led a meditative life of prayer, hardly ever visited and only meeting on Sundays for prayer together. During the 11th century it is thought that the first real monasteries came into existence, built by more ordinary monks who still wished to live solitary lives far from other people – but perhaps not quite as lonely and hermit-like as their predecessors. They had found a perfect place for being near to the heavens, and a practical one during the time of Turkish occupation. Now the monks climbed higher and higher to get away from the unrest of the times, until they got up on the almost inaccessible pinnacles to build their churches. Everything – building materials, food and people – had to be brought up in large baskets swinging in mid-air, hauled up manually by monks turning a great wheel with a rope.
In its heyday there were 20 monasteries on the rock pillars of the Meteora. Today only six still have monks (or in one case, nuns) and can be visited. In all of them you will find paintings of saints, martyrs, church fathers and biblical scenes on the walls. These paintings are special – they are not the splendid byzantine art you see in museums, and neither are they influenced by western painting or even Islamic art. What you see here is what was painted when there really was no Greece any more, but only an occupied Ottoman province, and these monasteries tried with all their might to hold on to the old traditions. It makes the frescoes very moving, and in some cases you’ll find them truly beautiful.
Of the monasteries you can visit, the Great Meteoron is the biggest. It was built on the highest rock during the 14th century, and as a Serbian emperor gave all his riches to this monastery it became the most powerful of them all, and also the most richly decorated. Here you find a maze of medieval architecture and in the refectory – the dining hall of the monks – there is a small museum today.
You can also get to Varlaam, which takes its name from the ascetic Varlaam who was the first to build his cell and chapel here, long before the buildings from the 16th century you see today. Then there is Roussanou Monastery where you get by crossing a small bridge from another peak, which really makes you understand the isolation of these places in ancient times. Agios Stefanos is the only convent for nuns in the Meteora. From here you have a magnificent view – reason enough to visit, if you begin to feel all the wall paintings blur in your memory. The monasteries of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas and Agia Triada make up the rest.
If after this you can be interested in another church, visit the Cathedral in Kalambaka before you take the train back again– this is a basilica from the height of the Byzantine Empire, and sadly the only thing medieval in the town, since Kalambaka was destroyed by the Germans in World War Two.
Finally, don’t miss the village of Kastraki, picturesquely nestled under the mountains and a haven for rock climbers and less adventurous hikers as well. Sitting at a restaurant table with a bottle of Greek retsina wine while the stars come out and the sheer, enormous blue-black rock wall towers over you is a special experience, and if you look closely enough, maybe some of the stars are lights from monastery windows or hermits caves. Time does strange things in such strange places…