Meteora, Greece: The Holy Houses on the Rocks

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Six hours north of Athens, travelers are transported back seven centuries and find themselves in Meteora's stone forest, amidst monasteries almost suspended in space and time, perched high upon the rocks.

Driving north of Athens is strangely awkward, especially in an old Opel lent us by a Greek friend we’re staying with in town. The car wheezes a bit as if reproaching us for going into higher ground.

The hedgerows along the highways encroach on the road and the lane markings painted on the asphalt complicate the lane we’re driving in — there’s only room for one lane but the powers that be have painted in two. Ah, we think, if they can’t handle their country’s finances why would we expect them to make a good job of their roads?

Our thoughts are interrupted as travelers’ thoughts often are in this magnificent land that is “the Cradle of Democracy.” A statue by the road has just come up. It marks the Battle of Thermopylae.

The date was 480BC and the combatants were, as always at that time, the Greeks defending their land against the epic Persian armies of Xerxes, who this time was returning after his defeat 10 years before at Marathon. King Leonidas I of Sparta leading the Greek citizen-state army, knowing his stand at the narrow pass was being outflanked, dismissed his column retaining only a small force that included the 300 Spartans who died holding off the Persians and so became a legend.

Thermopylae monument. Religious markers show where a death has happened. When we find domestic animals blocking the road it is no surprise to us there are accidents.

We push on. The road sign we’re looking for comes up surprisingly fast: Kalambaka! Suddenly we are upon the stone forest of Meteora, surely one of the oddest freaks of nature and one of the greatest works of man.

The roadside markers are to memorialize family members but the figures mounted on tall poles are apparently superstitious attempts by natives to ward off evil. And finally this old Opel reaches Meteora.

In Central Greece, the strange stone chimneys and rock formations of Meteora, most of them more than 1,200 feet high, dominate the plains of Thessaly and the medieval houses around them. But, as if this awesome evidence of the touch of our Creator somehow were not enough for the senses to contemplate, a handful of hermits and ascetics in the Middle Ages chose to build their magnificent tributes to God on those eagle-like aeries — monasteries almost suspended in space and time.

St. Nicholas Anapafsas (top) and Rousanou (bottom).

A visit to Meteora, six hours from Athens by car, is a journey back seven centuries to an age when man sought eternal life by a living death — a 24-hour ritual of prayer, meditation, and incarceration in churches soaring so high above reality that time stood still.

It was 1336 when Athanasius, a restless, foot-weary monk from Mt. Athos, came upon this valley and the spectacular rocks forming its crown. He decided to build a church upon the flat rock Platylithos, the tallest and most impressive of all the formations. Initially, the group he formed lived on platforms supported by logs driven into crevices in the rock. There, they practiced their communications with God — “their only companions, the rosary and ceaseless prayer.”

Holy Trinity Monastery

To avoid attacks by Serbian and, later, Turkish brigands the monks went higher and higher until finally, they reached the top. Their only contacts with the outside world were ropes and ladders and nets in which they pulled up their provisions and themselves.

Varlaan is a favorite with visitors. It still has the wooden ladder that was such an improvement on being hauled up in a straw basket.

Monasticism at Meteora, having flourished into a wealthy community of 24 monasteries, peaked in the 17th century. By this time, it had attracted the best of the artists and scholars of the post-Byzantine era. Unfortunately, monasticism then declined as its very prosperity led to jealous quarrels over its acquired riches.

Rousanou hangs there impressively although from a different angle it is seen to be several buildings.

Today, only six of the monasteries are inhabited. The most splendid of them all is the tallest on the great flat rock that is more than 2,000 feet high: the Monastery of Transfiguration of the Great Meteoron.

Only recently has it been realized that its odd-shaped windows are lenses that reflect precise lighting onto special frescoes and icons at important times of the earth's rotation. When the sun hits them the icons are on fire with a religious intensity.

Some of the art was stolen during the decline of those monasteries.

“What an insult to God!” said a visitor beside us.

“That painting, the Martyrdom of the Saints, is a bigger insult,” said his wife. “Think how they suffered for their religion.”

Lenin Nicolaides, a proud novice monk at the time we met him, preferred to direct our attention back to those glass lenses in the wall.

"Our windows are chronometers good for the next 50,000 years," he said.

The six monasteries may indeed last that long. “After all,” says Nicolaides, “Did not Matthew say:

‘The rain descended, and the floods came,

And the winds blew,

And beat upon that house;

And it fell not,

For it was founded upon a rock.’"

Reaching the Rocks

Meteora starts two miles from Kalambaka — 250 miles north of Athens and a six-hour journey by car. You can also reach Meteora from Athens by train or bus. It you're doing it on your own, book your hotel early. There are three hotels in Kalambaka but it seems odd that those booking have to initiate the reservation without knowing what the charges will be!

Now that Meteora is on the UNESCO World Heritage List it has become so popular it would seem prudent to make the journey in a two- or three-day tour with a long established operator like, say, Viator. We have used Viator in two or three countries — they have a two-day tour with a pickup at your Athens hotel for about $250 that allows a brief visit to famous Delphi on the way and a night in Kalambaka.

During a visit to the monasteries wear sneakers — you'll be climbing a lot. For admission, dress conservatively. Women should wear skirts with hemlines below the knees and keep their arms covered; men should not wear shorts.

Photography is allowed inside — even with flash — but not in the church proper.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.