Thursday, November 7, 2013

Meteora: A Place of Refuge in the Sky

While in Thessaloniki we did a day trip to Meteora, one of the largest and most important Orthodox monasteries in Greece, second only to Mount Athos.  

It is of course a UNESCO World Heritage site and is listed under a number of categories.  We take a train to the edge of the plain of Thessaly to a town called Kalambaka from where we reach our accommodation at Kastraki.  We are excited to be here and after checking in to our guest house, we go for a walk.  It is rather late in the season and the town is deserted but we enjoy the cool fresh air - a welcome relief after the fumes we had been breathing in Thessaloniki. 

Meteora literally means “suspended in the air”, and through the dark shadows of the night we can almost see the huge sandstone pinnacles that tower around us and encircle the town.  I am so excited to be here and can’t wait for daylight so I can see the surrounding landscape a little better. 

We are in one of the oldest inhabited places on earth.   They have found radio carbon evidence of human presence from over 50 thousand years ago in the caves just a few miles from here.  It was around the 9th century that an ascetic group of monks first moved in the crevices in the rocks.  It is exciting to be in a place that is perhaps one of the oldest examples of communal living.  While the exact date of establishment of the monasteries is unknown, it is believed to be around the 11th or 12th century.  The monks felt secure high up in the rocks, which could only be reached by climbing a rope ladder.  Any time they felt threatened, this ladder could be drawn up.  Around the 14th century about 20 monasteries were built partly as a retreat from the expansion of Turkish raids.  Today, only 6 of these structures remain.   

In true monastic style we decided to spend an entire day hiking to each of the 6 monasteries after taking the bus to the farthest one.  It gave us a real sense of this incredible place.  We breathed clean air and listened to the silence only occasionally broken by the sound of the wind in the trees or the distant bells of a goat herd.  We saw incredible views, stopped to chat to the locals and saw the day change from overcast to bright blue and then to rain clouds that never actually gave way to rain but instead rewarded us with a brilliant rainbow.

Only two of the 6 monasteries were actually open but they gave us enough of an insight to what life must have been like here.  One of the monasteries we visited (St Stephen’s) was actually for women. 
My biggest disappointment was that I could not really engage with any of the monks.  I had so much to ask them, but every time I tried approaching one, they quickly averted their eyes and walked away. 

Two local women who were hiking the hills gave us a little more information about the place.  The monks lived here in a completely sustainable fashion relying little on the surrounding town.  Today, with the numbers of tourists that visit, and the dollars that flow in, life for the monks is a little bit different. 

I am so glad we visited Meteora.  It is perhaps one of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen and the memory of walking these hills will stay with me forever.  

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