The rock pinnacles of Meteora in Northern Greece. Photograph by David Celdran
Travel Destinations

Of monasteries suspended in sandstone pillars

With a modern highway in place, the once isolated monasteries of Meteora are fast becoming one of Greece’s most popular tourist destinations—but it’s still possible to reach the UNESCO World Heritage Site on foot and enjoy the view as ancient monks used to
David Celdran | Oct 02 2018

It’s a curious sight visitors come across when scaling the stairway of the Grand Meteoron, one of six monasteries suspended on sandstone pillars overlooking the Plain of Thessaly and the Pindus Mountains in Northern Greece. For a few times each day a gondola carrying a monk over a deep ravine separating the modern road and the ancient building passes overhead. The makeshift cable car is a primitive form of transport similar to a system used by monks in the 16th century to ferry passengers and supplies to the monasteries. Up until the construction of the modern highway that now connects the city of Kalambaka to the UNESCO World Heritage Site above, the only way to get to the summit was with ladders, or baskets and nets pulled by rope.

A monk on his way to the Great Meteoron aboard a cable car

The crude cable network introduced in the 1500s made the climb less perilous and cut the time of the journey. And if ever the monks were endangered, as they often were by marauding armies and local bandits, they simply drew up the system of ropes, pulleys and ladders to keep their brethren out of reach. The gondolas and ropes have since lost their purpose, but for the few monks left who use them, they provide a convenient way to escape the nosy crowds at the entrance gate.

The city of Kalambaka at the foot of Meteora

For the monks and hermits of the 11th century, the remote location and steep cliffs of Meteora were the ideal conditions for building an impregnable complex of monasteries that would be safe from the invasions threatening the cities of Byzantine Greece. Likewise, Meteora’s isolation and setting above the clouds offered the perfect environment for the mystical beliefs and meditative nature of their brand of Orthodox Christianity. Just how they were able to build such magnificent monuments on the imposing heights and inhospitable terrain remains a mystery, but build it they did. By the 16th century, 24 monasteries were in place. Of these, only six are left standing today. The oldest and largest of the surviving monasteries is the Great Meteoron established in 1340. Built at a height of 615 meters above sea level, it’s nothing short of an engineering miracle—even by today’s standards.

The Monastery of the Holy Trinity

The Grand Meteoron is home to a dwindling number of hermetic monks—three as of last count. But a large section which includes the Church of the Transfiguration with its immaculately preserved Byzantine mosaics and frescoes is open to the public. Visitors enter via a steep stairway of over 300 steps that follow the natural contour of the sandstone cliff it was carved from. During the peak holiday season, the tranquility of the place is lost in the crush of tourists, but in the lean months of fall and winter, the monastic atmosphere that was, until recently, uninterrupted for almost a thousand years remains unspoilt.

The path up to what was used to be an inaccessible part of the Greek countryside is now open to anyone with a car and the three-euro entrance fee. Meteora may have survived the invasion of the Ottomans, the aerial bombing of the Nazis, and countless natural catastrophes; unfortunately, the monasteries closer to the main road are in danger of being overrun by tourists nowadays. Thankfully, those like the Holy Trinity, which remain challenging to reach, have maintained their spiritual atmosphere and mystical quality. It could just be a matter of years before the chasm separating the outlying cliffs is bridged, and a new road and visitors center are built, but until that day comes, travelers who choose to trek up the cliffs and above the clouds in Meteora may still catch a glimpse of time standing still.

 

Photographs by David Celdran 

This article originally appeared in Vault Issue No. 24, 2018