Just in case anyone was wondering why the skirt doesn’t really match the rest of my outfit… Out of respect, girls had to put on the provided sarong-like skirts upon entering the monasteries. 💃
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3 towns, 2 days, 1 heck of an adventure. It began with a gruelling 5-hour train ride from Larissa Train Station in Athens — I realised that this train didn’t chug like the way the train from Basel to Cochem did… they either screech or ‘tschhh’ like a prolonged hissing of a steam engine. We had little space in our cabins (Greeks call it ‘compartments’ instead), so little that the elderly lady beside me, shaking her leg, continuously kicked my sister who was sitting across me. The unintentional nudges would always end with weak giggles and shy apologies — “Συγνώμη!” (pronounced as: Sygnómi, meaning: sorry).
In between brief naps, I awoke to quaint, orderly villages, spherical clouds which hung above Earth in an otherwise sea blue sky, and cotton fields which amusingly looked like a flatland of shrubs with a serious case of ‘dandruff’ — except, of course, the ‘dandruff’ was the cotton. Also, we wondered why everyone was on the phone with someone named Ella. We found out that έλα (pronounced as: éla) simply means hey/ hello/ come haha! Read more about this here.
During our time in this region of Greece, we went on 2 guided tours: The Sunset Tour and The Morning Monastery Tour, the former which focused on a brief introduction of the area and bringing us to view the most spectacular sights of the Meteora rocks, while the latter focused on a more in-depth look of the monasteries.
It is estimated that somewhere around the tenth century the first hermits began to arrive in the area, seeking spiritual isolation, and making homes for themselves inside hollows and fissures in the rocks, i.e. caves. Some of the sheer-sided, sandstone peaks tower almost 600 metres above the plain, so scaling them was no easy feat, especially when the only tools the monks had at their disposal were self-made ropes and ladders!
This ensured that the area remained inaccessible to all but the most determined visitors and intrepid climbers. The monks led a life of solitude, meeting only on Sundays for worship. As more and more monks congregated in the region, a rudimentary monastic state was formed, and by the end of the 12th century, an ascetic community had settled in Meteora.
Of the 24 monasteries originally constructed on the summits of Meteora’s towering rock sculptures, only eight remain today (only 6 of which are public — 4 monasteries and 2 nunneries). Monasteries were destroyed by bombing (instructed by Hitler and Mussolini) and when the last monk up there died and there was no way to enter the monasteries anymore (read more below under #4), thus resulting in its decay. These six monasteries form one of the largest and most important complexes of Greek Orthodox monasteries in Greece (second only to Mount Athos), and are also the second most visited tourist attraction in the country (The Acropolis in Athens is the first). The monasteries are likened to living organisms which started small but grew bigger as the population of monks increased.
The monasteries have small, low doors so that when one entered the monasteries, they’d have to bow. This act is not only translated to respect but also to a form of protection for the monks. Why? Because if thieves/ bandits/ enemies were the ones entering the monastery, the residing monks would chop their heads off before they could step in.
Monks, being considered the mediator between people and God, were offered silver and gold by the locals, but it is a tradition which ceased because of thieves who used to steal all of these precious stones.
Meteora, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1988, is a geographical region in mainland Greece where you’ll find immense towers of sandstone rock, split by earthquakes and weathered by wind and rain over millions of years. The name, Meteora, is of Greek origin, literally meaning ‘suspended in the air’/ ‘in the heavens above’/ ‘columns of the sky’/ ‘no support‘ due to the sheer height at which the monasteries stand, isolated from each other and hundreds of metres above the fertile plains below. It is, as the monks consider it, suspended between Heaven (God) and Earth.
Our tour guide for the first tour was Dimitris, who used to be a banker in Romania who managed other people’s millions, who realised one day that he’d like to plant trees in his backyard and that would make him happier than any amount of money, and who finally quit everything he had going on for him and returned to his home in Meteora where he now brings tourists for guided tours of his beautiful hometown for a living. Something funny — Dimitris told us that there is only one rule in Greece, and it is that locals get priority in traffic, no matter what. He also knew Singapore so well that he was aware of it being ‘a fine city’ (because of all the fines) and even knew how to say 谢谢 (thank you)!
The Sunset Tour
#1 Holy Trinity Monastery (Agia Triada)
This monastery is the most popular, most dramatic (built on a solid rock that resembles a clenched fist) and least accessible of the six, and one that was used in the filming of the final scenes of the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’. It is perched on a steep and magnificent rock and we had to follow a pathway that directed us initially to the foot of the rock before we walked up about 140 steps to the entrance of the monastery, which was lined with marigolds.
Fun fact: Roger Moore from the movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’ now lives in Kalampaka!
Its chapel, Timios Prodromos (St John the Forerunner), was a small circular church with a cupola, rock-hewn, and decorated all over with wall-paintings of fine art dating from 1682, was intricately detailed and gorgeous. Only one monk lives in this monastery — he happens to be a chemist!
It was here that our guide pointed out to us that each and every monastery/ nunnery has a yellow, double-headed eagle flag put up to represent Orthodox Christianity. It is the most recognisable symbol of Orthodoxy today (other than the cross) and was the official state symbol of the late Byzantine Empire, symbolising the unity between the Byzantine Orthodox Church and State, that is, a “symphony” between the civil and the ecclesiastical functions of Christian society.
In addition, the heads of the eagle also represent the dual sovereignty of the Byzantine Emperor, with the left head representing Rome (the West) and the right head representing Constantinople (the East). The claws of the eagle hold a cross and an orb (this combination is on the official flag of the Ecumenical Patriarchate today), or in some similar depictions with a sword and an orb.
#2 St. Stephen’s Monastery (actually a nunnery) — from a distance (we will enter it on Day 2)
Dimitris told us that it is surrounded Thessalia valley, which is the biggest, most fertile valley in the region. We were treated with an extraordinary landscape up there and, with the help of Dimitris, scored a few shots with it.
#3 Varlaam Monastery — from a distance
#4 Proof of the holes that were bored into the rocks to help the first monks build the monasteries
Zoom in, the holes or slightly to the left of the green growth on the bottom right of the picture.
The first monks who were part of the building of the monasteries dug holes to help them climb up the cliffs, but destroyed the path behind them so no one else could follow. Every other person who enters the monastery, enters by a pulley system: the guest sits in a net and the monk(s) in the monastery above pulls them up. Hence, when the last monk in the monastery dies, no one is able to go up to it anymore. — And yes, that means that even today there has to be at least one monk up there at any one point in time, i.e. one monk, according to a rotation system, stays overnight by himself till the next morning.
#5 Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron — from a distance (we will enter it on Day 2)
A popular rock-climbing and hiking destination, this 246-metre tall giant structure is located in the middle of the Thessalia valley.
A plateau formed on the top of this rock, where a chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit was once erected. This tiny monastery was the oldest one in the region of Meteora, dating back to the 10th century. The long-shaped caves on the side of the main road where scaffolding is still visible indicate the spot that served as an isolation area* where ‘misbehaving monks’ were sent to. Other monks who sought peace and clarity voluntarily went to this area of isolation as well.
*The isolation area is commonly mentioned on travel websites as a ‘prison’, but the locals feel like that word is much too harsh.
When viewed from most directions, Aghion Pneuma has the shape of a massive mountain with the exception of the perspective from East: from here it appears as a slender and stunning tower, so beautiful to be taken as the very symbol of the entire Meteora area. Furthermore, when viewed from the West, it has an uncanny resemblance to an elephant!
“BeYOOOtiful!” Dimitris called it.
#7 St. George Madilas (meaning: St. George with the Scarves)
This is the most popular local cave/ hermitage site, dedicated to St. George and located in one of the steepest slopes of a high rock, right outside the village of Kastraki.
Its meaning is justified by a traditional custom that originated in the era of the Turkish Occupation in Greece. In the 17th century, a local Muslim landowner cut some trees from the sacred forest that was dedicated to Saint George.
The version that I read online: The Saint then caused the paralysis of that man’s hand, but he was cured after he offered to the Saint his wife’s veil, a most valuable gift according to the Muslim religion.
The version that our guide told us: The man accidentally slashed his own hand and, to stop the bleeding, his wife tried tying her veil around the wound. Unfortunately, the bleeding didn’t stop, so she prayed to the Saint and her husband miraculously stopped bleeding.
To symbolise that act of appreciation honouring Saint George, believers hang colourful scarves once a year on a rope supported by trees, near the cave’s entrance. Every year, young men from the neighbouring village participate in an annual climbing competition, bringing up the new donated scarves (around 500 scarves) and then carry down the old scarves which are cut up and shared with the villagers to take home as talismans for good luck/ health.
Read more here.
Dimitris shared with us about his childhood — the caves were his playground, and the rocks his castles. There were no phones either so his Mum never knew that he climbed up the tallest rock in the region, and did ‘the jump’.
It is a past time for young teenage boys to climb up the rock, one part of which included a terrifying jump across a gap between two ledges (if one were to fall through it, he’d fall a height of about 250m!) — if the boys didn’t do it, their friends would call them ‘chicken’!
“You know Pokemon Go? I think it’s great… it got people out of their houses, but… the game has no GPS data and had no idea that it had put a Pokemon on top of Meteora’s tallest rock,” Dimitris tells us.
Just behind from where we were standing at the lookout, there was a house with dozens of cats walking around freely within its fences. Dimitris told us that Greece is known for being ‘the country of cats’ and that the very lady who owned this house owned 30 cats! (Dimitris’ family owns 6 cats!) Cats are kept to protect the owners from rodents and vipers (a type of snake), which is the only snake in Greece that requires an anti-venom serum.
#9 At the ‘Rabbit Rock’ (See my ‘rabbit ears’?)
Here, we got to smell wild rosemary and mint!
#10 The Monk Jail
In isolation and in separate cells, monks were downgraded to hermits and forced to live in this jail.
Right across it, do You spot the hidden monastery (whose name I fail to recall)?
A little after 7, we reached the location for the best view of the sunset and the rock was already squirming with other photo enthusiasts and tourists. It was perfect timing to view the natural, historic and spiritual wonder of Greece that is Meteora get painted with orange, salmon pink and purple before it slowly but surely transition into the darkness of night.
To be continued…