June 24, 2019, Metéora, Greece — Other than our national parks in the Southwest, these are the most spectacular rocks I’ve ever seen. Conglomerates of granite and limestone, they are pockmarked with caves, like those below, that attracted 10th-century hermits who needed someplace to get away and meditate. How they got up to them isn’t known, though modern free climbers could probably figure it out. In fact, today this area is very big on the rock climbing circuit.
Our guide, Kriton, said, ‘Please tell me you see the elephant in this rock.’ Hint: Find the eye...
Here’s where we were headed... to the little buildings on top of the middle peak. The Saint Barlaam Monastery, founded in 1517. Btw: If you were in a fraternity or sorority, you had to learn the Greek alphabet. But you learned it all wrong... e.g., beta is pronounced ‘vee-ta.’ So while the name is Saint Barlaam, it’s pronounced Varlaam..
By the 12th and 13th centuries, the hermits had become monks who decided to build churches away from the world — on top of these mountain peaks. They grew grapes for wine and ate grasshoppers in homemade honey. Eventually there were 24 monasteries in these mountains. Only 6 still function today, and we visited two of them.
The Saint Barlaam monks built their church in the 14th century, and painted its murals in the 15th and 16th. Photos weren’t allowed: imagine the tiny narthex, church and sanctuary with walls totally covered in depictions of the life and death of Christ and other stories from the Greek Orthodox scriptures. The monks’ cells, refectory, etc., came later.
In olden days, the monks went up and down on wooden or rope ladders or in a ‘basket’ made of rope — think of cargo being offloaded from vessels before the advent of container shipping — that was lowered then hauled back up from the porch-like protrusion on the right. Being this isolated was not only good for meditation and monastic life, it was good defense against invading Turks, who were a constant threat and attacked as late as 1818. Today a small motor powers a rustic little gondola that crosses the gorge from the ‘mainland’ to the mountain peak, loaded with food and anything else the monks need, like building materials.
Steps were carved into the mountainside in 1921. They’ve been modernized since, and it’s not a bad 150-step climb. The asphalt road was reconstructed in 1972 and is very good, though very twisty.
The church was the first structure atop the mountain, and it is filled with icons.
This one enhanced with gold and silver is covered with glass, which gives the photo an impressionistic feel.
Next we visited the Saint Barbara Roussanou nunnery, below, as seen from Saint Barlaam’s. It had been a monastery until the 1960’s. The little church was so crowded you couldn’t turn around. At 3 Euros per visitor, the nuns raked in a lot of money the day we were there.
You can’t get back to the bus without running the souvenir gauntlet. I resisted. Metéora means ‘hanging in mid-air.’
Here’s the view from our hotel the evening before, when we arrived in Kalambaka, a little town below the peaks.
To get a better look at this fascinating landscape, rent For Your Eyes Only, which was partly filmed here. #