It was a dark and cold winter daybreak in a vacant parking lot somewhere in Larissa, the capital city of Thessaly Region in central Greece. We were sitting in the car, crouching and shivering inside our thick jackets while waiting for the engine and the interior of the car to warm up and the frost on the windows to melt. We would soon start driving towards one of Greece’s most famous – and, indeed, most beautiful – sights: the Meteora.
Meteora is a geologically peculiar rock formation formed by stone, sand, and mud deposited at the bank of an ancient lake by rivers flowing into it over a period of millions of years. Due to the numerous caves offering natural shelter on the rocks’ faces and the streams flowing between them, the area of Meteora had been continuously inhabited by Neatherdals and current humans for tens of thousands of years. The oldest man-made structure found in the area is a 23.000-year-old stone wall which partly blocks the entrance of a cave.
Meteora were then briefly forsaken for a few centuries – after their biped dwellers learned how to build houses and they didn’t rely on caves anymore – until they got reinhabited by monks, starting with small groups of ascetics and hermits in the 9th century AD. Small monastic communities kept operating during the next few centuries, formed by individuals who climbed to the pinnacles of the rock pillars, seeking refuge from persecution, haunting conscience, or just the mundane. By the end of the 14th century AD, Thessaly was constantly scourged by Turkish raiders, whose menacing scimitars became something to seek refuge from for yet greater numbers of people. More than twenty large, citadel-like monastic complexes were, from then onwards, built on the tops of the rocks. Being reached by the monks only by means of removable ladders or windlass, the monasteries remained virtually inaccessible to all intruders-to-be throughout the recent centuries – aside from the Nazis who, of course, shelled them and looted them. Today the Meteora maintain six functioning monasteries and receive enormous numbers of visitors from all over the world who flock there to witness this prodigious natural wonder and invaluable site of the world cultural heritage.
The sun rose from behind us while driving on the straight highway heading east through the plains of Thessaly. We couldn’t get a direct glimpse of it, as thick sheets of grey, inauspicious clouds were accumulated overhead. However, no drop had yet fallen, so that a hope of enjoying a dry day was still allowed; especially if we were going to hurry up. We had covered about 60 km already, and we were approaching the city of Trikala, whence we had to drive north for another 20 km to arrive at our destination. We were planning to get there early, and we would have been, if it wasn’t for that goofy bloke in the blue uniform who suddenly jumped in the middle of the road, waving his arms frantically for us to stop.
It was the law enforcers, the maintainers of order, the protectors of the nation… the almighty Greek police. There were three motorbike cops, starting the day’s tedious shift with setting a checkpoint on a roundabout. They had, apparently, not long ago finished the shift’s first coffee and decided to control someone, so to kill some of their idle time. And I had happened to be that someone. They were a typical example of Greek bumpkin policemen: who joined the police because many a generation of their ancestors had also done so, and their brains would have never sufficed for imagining any other way to make a living for themselves; who try to appear great and important to others while, subconsciously, they only conceal their low self-esteem and confidence under their uniforms and insignia; who think they are wise and they know a lot but, apart from other policemen, the far-right party executives, and a few more lunatics of the sort, they have no other source of information.
They controlled our documents, and then the two of them got busy with checking our stuff and the car, while the third one – evidently having confused himself for Hercule Poirot – started asking me all sorts of irrelevant, personal questions. The only item they managed to find in my car to interest them was a small plastic bag with some tax-free, black-market packs of tobacco… “Aha! These are tax-free, hah?” “It’s tobacco.” “I see it’s tobacco. But it’s tax-free.” “Sorry, but I don’t quite get what you mean.” “You don’t get me, huh? Where did you buy these from?” “From a shop somewhere in Athens. They were on discount.” The control was unfruitful: no illegal items leading to uncovering an international crime syndicate were discovered; the promotion, honorary distinctions, and flattering commendations by comrades and fellow villagers had yet to wait. He, however, took advantage of the chance to fight against his boredom and detained us a little longer, babbling to me about the faults of the current Greek government, the crisis in Ukraine which betokens an imminent, global Putin empire to which Greece will be a favored child, and other such nonsense.
We were finally let to go. Like the sky was up to deriding us, no sooner than we got back on our way, a heavy storm broke out. It was obviously not the perfect day to explore Meteora on foot. We could still, though, drive a little around in the car. We took the right turn right before entering the town of Kalampaka by the foot of the rocks. We tried different roads, wondering at the epic views of the precipitous rocks being whipped by the strong rain, and wound up at the Monastery of St Stephen.
This is the most easily accessible of all the monasteries of the Meteora complex, as one can reach by car all the way to its entrance. It was founded sometime in the 15th century and has been operating constantly ever since. In combination with its holy mission, it also acquired a military one during the Macedonian Struggle when it served as headquarters for Greek fighters. In 1943 Nazi troops bombed the monastery, and arrested and imprisoned its abbot. Finally, in 1961 it was converted to a female convent, and as such it keeps functioning today.
We spent quite some time walking around the premises of the monastery, wondering at its beautiful, old buildings, sumptuous artifacts, cute little gardens, and the marvelous views down to the valley of Pineios River. Despite the rain, the numbers of visitors were high. Quite a motley agglomeration of folks: Greek and other Orthodox pietists hoping to influence their fortunes by kissing the holy icons and buying off God at the designated for the reason sacred souvenir shop; groups of Chinese tourists who happened to be there just because that was where the bus hired by their travel agency brought them…
Originally we weren’t planning to stay for a second day. But as the weather was such, we drove to Kalampaka and settled at Edelweiss hotel, hoping for a fair day to follow. We had an easy day strolling around the vivid, picturesque town and resting in our hotel room. Dazzling light did then infiltrate the room through the windows by early morning. A gorgeous, brilliant winter day had just begun, I witnessed upon coming out on the balcony. It was time to go hiking. We packed, took utmost advantage of the provided hotel breakfast, and off we set.
I took a quick look at the map and spotted a nice route to do. That started from the monastery of Saint Nikolaos. We parked the car in the small lot outside of the abbey and took the trail which leaves off the curve of the road (39.7232-21.6228). The first part of the trail ran through a pleasing oak forest. The recent rains had its air filled with exquisite freshness. We continued up the slope to the west, between the rock of Great Meteoron on the north and the smaller rock on the south, and we met a dirt road leading north. The road was alternately passing through forest, where the fallen oak leaves formed a red carpeting on the ground, and across green meadows, where astounding views of the rocks and their surroundings were to be marveled at.
Upon reaching the end of the rocks on our right, we met a crossroad (39.7353-216281). We took the right and we were soon standing below the Ypapanti Monastery. That small monastery was the one I liked the most out of all we got to see. Hidden from the crowds in a narrow passage between two rocks, it is built inside a tight cavity some 50 m up a vertical cliff. The monastery had long been utterly abandoned – probably due to the long record of monks whose faith didn’t suffice to help successfully climb up the tall rock face and lost their lives trying – until, more recently, a staircase was carved sideways along the rock. This allowed the monks from the neighboring abbeys to restore it and occasionally hold masses.
We continued our way up to the rock across the monastery where a statue of some warrior-monk hero stands and a wondrous panoramic view is to be enjoyed. We then headed south up the green slope, and down again the other side, till we met the road right in front of the Varlaam Monastery. Varlaam was a bloke who lived in the 14th century and was the first to climb the rock – no climbing shoes, elastic ropes, chalk, carabiners, and all those things… quite a feat – and set the foundational infrastructure of what came to be one of the largest and most renown of all the monasteries of Meteora.
We huddled together with the tourist throng and got to slowly ascend the carved stairs up to the monastery. The architecture, the elaborate paintings and holy vessels, the views… all was great. What intrigued me the most there, though, was their opulent collections of historical relics which they have exhibited for the general public, as manuscripts dating back to nearly a millennium.
Clouds had amassed once again over the sky of Thessaly by then. We took the steep path leading down to the lower road from the monastery’s entrance, and we were soon back in the car. It was time to drive away. That was all pretty much about the trip to Meteora.