A Very Brief History of the Monasteries of Meteora
The mystical, beautiful and awe inspiring clifftop monasteries of Meteora have a long history in this region of Greece. The monks came to Meteora area of central Greece as early as the eleventh century to live in the caverns and caves of this amazing place. By the fourteenth century, construction started on monasteries on the precipices of the enormous columns of rock jutting into the sky from the valleys hundreds of feet below. The monks wanted a place to live in peace despite the increasing invasions from the Turks. The remoteness of the rock caverns and columns, and the difficulty of traversing the sheer rock landscape leading to the monasteries made them nearly impenetrable. The rope bridges and pulley systems used to transport people and supplies from the mountain side to the monasteries on their isolated precipices could be easily removed, making access by invaders practically impossible.
Like the giant at the top of the bean stock, the monks had full view of anyone trying to trespass on their holy island in the heavens. The only way to gain access to the clifftop monasteries when the monks cut off the rest of the world was to climb hundreds of feet of stone wall, in full view of the monastery above and the monks who guarded it. Despite the sometimes violent history linked to the villages and monasteries of Meteora due to the numerous invasions and attempts to conquer the area, serenity and peace are still the prevailing sense that overwhelmed me at each holy site we visited, even those more popular with the tourists.
The Monasteries of Meteora
Lack of time prevented us from visiting all of the clifftop monasteries of Meteora in our short visit, but we did tour three of them. Our initial thought was that seeing a few would be enough to capture the essence of clifftop monasteries, and any more than three would start to feel redundant. We came to regret our decision and could have easily spent several more days in the region seeing every monastery and hiking through the cliffs.
Every monastery we visited was so different from the others, and invoked a different sense of serenity or awe. The history, artistry, and mood of each was unique, and I have no doubt we would have continued to feel this had we explored the rest of the monasteries.
The Monastery of Holy Trinity
A monk in a streaming black robe and a long silver beard walks serenely along the top of a wall surrounding a courtyard, looking over the edge and down into the valley below. He is in a private section of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity where visitors are not allowed. I am watching him from a bench in a part of the grounds open to the paying public; I don’t want to intrude on his privacy, but I can’t look away. We are one of the first tourists to enter the monastery this morning, so all is still peaceful and quiet except for the low whistle of the wind caressing the hilltops. The serenity of the scene is perfect, and I hope the monk will forgive me for my intrusive eyes but it is because of him the scene is perfect.
I wonder if he resents our presence here, all of us tourists who come to look over the walls of this amazing place built on the tip of a stone pinnacle to look down the sheer rock walls to the valley hundreds of feet below us. Do they feel their privacy is invaded as we walk quietly through the interior of the monastery, gawking at relics and enjoying the beauty of the artwork in the inner chambers? Some of us are here because this is the monastery of “For Your Eyes Only” and part of James Bond legend. We want to see the place where Bond scales the sheer rock wall leading to the monastery, where Melina shoots the bad guy with her crossbow, or where Kristatos shares his pistachios with Bibi while he lay wounded. Some are here to take in the wonder of these holy places built in impossible locations with serenely beautiful grounds. And some of us were drawn here for the first reason but it is the second reason that we will remember.
I must admit my initial reason for wanting to see this specific monastery was driven by my love of all things James Bond, but now that I’m here, I’m feeling moved by the serenity of the location. I think this may be what Jack felt like when he climbed the beanstalk to find the giant’s kingdom in the clouds. It’s amazingly quiet here and one can’t help but feel contemplative looking out over the vast landscape of mountains and valleys. There is a peacefulness that cannot be ignored while sitting in this clifftop monastery.
The Great Meteoron Monastery
An endless line of tourists and visitors progressing slowly up the zig-zagging stairs built into the cliffside to the Great Meteoron Monastery almost deterred us from seeing the monastery. A long, slow walk shoulder-to-shoulder with crowds of people just to gain entrance almost didn’t seem worth it. Fortunately, we decided to stand in the line and make our slow progression to the entrance. Even here, the old and traditional are intermingled with the contemporary. Ahead of us are two monks who have traveled far to visit this holy place, standing in line with their tickets to gain access and wander the grounds with the rest of the paying public. Behind us is a group of twenty-somethings from Asia, snapping selfies and posing so that the vast expanse of valley below is visible behind them. I can’t understand what they are saying, but the word “selfie” is apparently universal and I hear it several times.
The monastery is the largest and oldest in the area filled with holy relics, ancient manuscripts and awe-inducing frescoes. The ancient kitchen is still intact with a heavy iron soup pot hanging over the hearth, wooden casks, metal plates and stone bowls lining the walls and cupboards. In the library are beautifully illustrated books that date back nearly a thousand years, and intricately carved crosses behind glass. The detail and dedication required to produce these mesmerizing pieces is admirable.
Every corridor, every wall, every archway, every room is worthy of study with its carved columns, fresco-painted walls, elaborate paintings, and displays of artistry. The amount of detail is impossible to take in if a person doesn’t slow down and take the time to appreciate it. Even non-believers like me can feel the holiness of this place, the devotion and spirituality that went into every stone of the structure, every wooden archway of the corridors.
Outside the entrance to the chapel stands a large table encased in glass on three sides with burning candles stuck in the sand, placed there by devout visitors. There are stacks of candles around the edge of the table, available for anyone who wishes to light a candle in prayer, in memory, as a sign of devotion. Donations for the candles are optional. The case is attended to by a solemn and reverent monk. He removes the candles that have burned down to tiny nubs, smooths the sand base, and replenishes the candles. I watch him as I enter the chapel, the deliberateness of his quiet devotion as he performs his tasks staying with me as I move in much the same way through this place of worship. The ancient relics and amazingly detailed frescoes throughout are awe inspiring, and reverence seems in order even from those of us who are not devotees.
As I exit the chapel, truly moved by the depth of history, the beauty of the art, and the significance of the artifacts, I stop to await my companions near the table of candles. The monk is there, still fulfilling his duties, but his disposition has changed. He is angry and arguing with group of tourists mulling around the table. There are many older women and several older men speaking a language I don’t understand but that sounds eastern European. The women grab handfuls of the stacked candles and put them in their purses. Some of the women have walked with their stash over to a broad windowsill to layout scarves, napkins, and tissues to gently roll the candles for safekeeping before shoving them into their handbags. They alternate between ignoring the agitated monk—now hastily gathering up the stacks of candles and placing them back in the cabinet behind the table—and muttering what I can only assume are insults at him for having the audacity to try to deter the women from stealing all the candles.
I am appalled and fascinated by this exchange all at the same time. The women make no effort to hide their actions and seem quite indignant about the monk’s anger. Could they possibly believe it is their right to take the candles for themselves and truly not understand the intent of the free offerings from the monk for the use by the devoted? The monk’s anger and agitation is just as fascinating and perplexing to me as the women’s indignation. I thought monks were meant to be calm men, accepting of adversity and immune to anger.
But then I remember these monks are the product of a centuries-old order known for their willingness to fight to protect the home, land, country that is their own. These monks are still here because they refused to be pushovers, refused to meekly succumb to the invaders who wanted to take what was theirs. Why should I have expected meekness in the face marauding grannies stuffing their purses with plunder? The monastery suffered some loss at the hands of these women, but far less than might have been because of the quick actions and stern response of the monk.
Still shaking my head at the strange scene I’ve just witnessed, my companions and I head out to the grounds to take in the views from the gardens and patios that extend to the edges, and even beyond the edges, of the cliffs. I am admiring the simplicity and overwhelming peacefulness of potted flowers placed in a row of brick arches. An older woman admiring the same scene turns to me and holds out her camera, gesturing that she wants a picture of herself by the flowers and I obliging take several photos for her. She returns to me smiling, hand outstretched for her camera, which I hand back to her. She peers at the screen on the back of the camera and her smile fades. Shaking her head, she hands the camera back to me and moves to stand by the flowers again. I take several photos again, unsure what she disliked about the first ones but still trying to do my best to give her options, then hand the camera back to her. Again she shakes her head, but this time she doesn’t gesture for me to take more, choosing instead to walk away while mumbling under her breath in a language I cannot understand but a tone that is universal in expressing contempt.
I’d looked at the photos I took before handing the camera back and thought them quite good. I’d framed the photo to include the arch, the flowers, and a full shot of her. I hadn’t cut off the top of her head or chopped off her feet but yet the photo was close enough to see her brightly smiling face. Some things, like the gesture to take a photo, are universal across cultures, but other things are so completely foreign and totally impossible to understand for both cultures involved that the gap only widens. The women taking the candles seemed truly baffled and insulted by the monk’s actions, and he felt the same toward them. The woman with the camera seemed truly disappointed in my ability to take a decent photo while I could not figure out what she could possibly have wanted me to do differently. In the end, each of us parted ways thinking the other to blame for the frustration and disappointment.
The Holy Monastery of Rousanou (Rousanou Nunnery)
I felt like a character from a fairy tale walking through an enchanted forest as we climbed the wooded path to Rousanou Nunnery. Sunlight filtered through the shimmering leaves to light up the purple flowers covering the floor of the forest, inviting us to follow the path ever deeper into the woods. At the end, we are rewarded with a picturesque wooden walkway and a stone bridge that spans a short but deep crevice surrounding the nunnery. Despite the rocky precipice upon which the structure is built, the small piece of land is quite lush and green with immaculate gardens. The grounds of the other monasteries appeared more utilitarian, but the gardens here seem to be proof of the presence of women.
The nunnery is small but filled with amazing artwork and a beautiful chapel. Like the monasteries, the spirituality of the space invokes reverence in the those of us trespassing as tourists and we move quietly through the corridors and rooms, trying to be respectful in our voyeurism.
At least most of us are trying to be respectful…again, there seems to be a divide that goes beyond hand signals and gestures. Several people in a tourist group are snapping photos, flashes blazing, despite clearly displayed signs indicating “No photos, please” in several languages below a drawing of camera in a circle with a line through it. An attendant whispers to the picture takers to please stop snapping photos and points to the sign while shaking his head. He gets no response and tries again in several languages other than English, but still the tourists look blandly to the sign before pointing and shooting their cameras again.
I shake my head in disgust, doubting this behavior can be attributed to cultural differences and deciding it is just plain self-centered rudeness on the part of the tourists. I try not to let this taint my enjoyment of the nunnery, but I just want to be away from the group and instead wander outdoors to enjoy the peacefulness of the gardens. I glance down to the winding road below as I cross the bridge to descend into one of the gardens and catch a glimpse of a row of tour buses parked along the shoulder at the base of the path. I’m just as much a tourist as the people who crowd into those buses, but something about the way they disembark and swarm into a place like the nunnery fills me with disdain. They are like ants, I think, running amok and ruining the peace and enjoyment for everyone else. It’s not fair of me, I know, but it is an impression that I can not seem to shake.
We start our descent down the cliffside on the winding path but take a detour where a branch of the path turns back up the hillside in another direction. The trail is narrower here, and the wooden slats give way to dirt and rocks. The forest is a denser and the flowers more varied as we roam and I am not disappointed when a cat suddenly joins us on the trail. Cats have been everywhere in Greece and I find their presence familiar and comforting now. She rolls on her back for a belly rub when I get near, then pops back onto her feet and walks along amiably as though an established part of our little group.
We crest a hill and the trail opens into a small opening with a wide view of the valley below. All of us, including the cat, stand quietly taking in the sound of the wind whistling through the trees to plunge into the valley below. We scan the horizon, then study the village below looking for our familiar buildings. The peace of Metoera has returned to calm me again as the last traces of irritability caused by the rude camera happy tourists vanishes.
The wonder of this place is as palpable in the rocks, in the trees, and in the air as it is in the man-made structures of the monasteries. Strength as much as serenity radiates from the very core of the place and the people who inhabit it, and I fervently pray that this is not my last visit to Meteora.
What to Know About Touring the Holy Monasteries of Meteora:
Please be respectful when visiting the monasteries as they are active places of worship and monks still reside in many of them. There is a dress code that should be observed by visitors:
- Women should wear long skirts. Skirts should go to the feet, not just below the knee. The monasteries will provide wrap-around skirts at the entrances for women to use if not dressed appropriately for touring the site.
- Woman are discouraged from wearing pants or trousers, Skirts that cover the knees are not long enough as floor length is preferred.
- Men should wear long pants or trousers. Shorts are not encouraged, and I saw some men with the wrap-around skirts covering their legs because of wearing shorts.
- I also recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes. I don’t recommend wearing sandals as many of the paths are dirt or gravel, and much of the walking is at an incline.
I saw many people, especially women, who disregarded the request of the monks to cover their legs if not wearing floor length skirts. Please remember that you are a visitor in their home and regardless of how you feel about the rights of a modern woman, the monks are welcoming you into their space and should be respected. It is well worth the awkwardness of wearing a maxi-dress for the tour, or donning one of the monastery’s wrap-around skirts, in order to enjoy the privilege to see inside these mystical and holy places.
Best Time to Visit the Clifftop Monasteries of Meteora
The mystical Monasteries of Meteora are a popular tourist destination, so the summer months will be the busiest. The best time to visit Meteora and see the monasteries is in the shoulder seasons of April to May or September to November. Not only will you have smaller crowds to contend with, but the cooler weather will be appreciated for the long uphill hikes to get to most of the monasteries.
Even if you drive to the entrance of each monastery, there is still a hike up long, steep pathways or staircases built into the cliff sides, so you will work up a sweat. As mentioned before, women should wear long skirts and men should wear long trousers, and comfortable walking shoes are recommended. The cooler temperatures of the Spring and Autumn will make the visit more pleasant.
Monasteries of Meteora Closed to Public One Day Each Week
All of the monasteries are closed to the public one day of every week. The monasteries each choose a different day, so on any given day only one or two of the monasteries will be unavailable to tour. If you plan your visit to span two days or more, all the monasteries will be open at some point during your visit.
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