The expression ‘seeing once is better than hearing twice’ is the best fit for the Greek Meteora. It is really very difficult to imagine huge rocks towering in the mid-air (the Greek word ‘Meteora’ means ‘suspended in the air’) and dotted with small monasteries. They remind me of the futuristic landscapes of Salvador Dali that are regardless of time and space. The photographs only partially capture the fantastic beauty of 500-metre mountains formed several tens of millions of years ago at the bottom of a prehistoric sea, and now rising in the middle of a large plain.
Among these mountains, you feel the full power of nature and human spirit. It is no coincidence that this place was chosen by the Greeks for the construction of these monasteries. It seems that the rocks rising to the sky seem to be turned to God and are the best place for praying. However, the monks give a much more practical explanation for the location of the monasteries: these peaks difficult of access and cut off from the world are the quietest and most secluded places, nothing prevents from long praying and a truly ascetic lifestyle in these mountains.
Meteora has been known since the 10th century as one of the most important centres of monasticism. The first hermits climbed up to these places even earlier, cut platforms and depressions in the rocks and lived in the caves. Much later, houses and chapels were built. In total, more than 20 monasteries were built at Meteora-Greece, 6 of which - two for women and four for men - are still active today. The Holy Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ (Great-Meteoron), the Monastery of Varlaam (All Saints), the Monastery of Saint Stephen, the Holy Monastery of Trinity (Agia Triada), the Holy Monastery of Roussanou, and the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of Anapafsas (or Agios Nikolaos) are open to tourists, which makes it possible to visit the unique monasteries of Meteora that are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and enjoy the beauty of the surrounding nature.
The view from the high cliffs is breathtaking. One can only imagine what feelings the monks experienced when they climbed up to these rocks before the roads were laid to the monasteries and stone steps were made in the early 1920s. For a long time, it was possible to get into the monasteries only using suspension wooden ladders, or with the help of special nets, in which the monks lifted each other up. A lot of heavy stones used for building the monasteries were lifted in the same laborious way.
Some of the rope footbridges and ladders (of course, more modern but looking no less dangerous) are still used there. And between some peaks, you can notice a cable car looking like small old wagons moving on thick ropes.
Tourists from all parts of Greece, including the islands, come to see Meteora. But it is most convenient to do while vacationing on the Chalkidiki (also spelled Halkidiki) peninsula, or on the ‘Trident’, as it is also called because of its shape. There are dense coniferous forests, secluded beaches, ancient fortresses and cozy towns. The largest and most interesting city in the region from a tourist point of view is Saloniki or Salonica (also known as Thessaloniki), founded in 315 B.C. And two hours from it, Meteora is located in the west of the Thessalian valley, not far from the town of Kalambaka (also known as Kalampaka).
For ecotourists, enthusiasts of hiking and trekking, it is a special experience to walk along the valley, watching the rocks towering high in the sky. There are several hiking routes, from the simplest trails to the longer ones with ups and downs. With the help of an instructor, you can try to climb up these small slightly sloping rocks. Naturally, the region is also popular with rock climbers, but it is believed that for rock climbing, it is better to choose other rocks not to disturb the peace of monks and pilgrims.
By the way, there is Mount Athos, another important Orthodox Holy place on Chalkidiki. A special permit is required to get to this part of the peninsula. But anyone can sail around by a sightseeing boat and admire the churches and monasteries located on the Holy Mount Athos. The Russian Orthodox St. Panteleimon Monastery is one of the largest and most beautiful ones. The travellers can get a better look at the monasteries and the nature of the peninsula using either binoculars or a simple magnification on the camera or phone screen.
During our trip to Athos, the haze created a halo over the Holy Mountain. It was a good omen for us. We decided to return to Chalkidiki and go to Mount Olympus, a mountain no less famous and popular with tourists.
Photos courtesy of the author