Tuesday, July 30, 2013

For Your Eyes Only: The Monasteries Of Meteora

The Roussanou Nunnery
James Bond's For Your Eyes Only was filmed here.  These bizarre granite nubs located 300 meters above the plain in Central Greece are truly a sight to behold.  Meteora literally means "midair" and this aptly describes both the hilltops and the numerous monasteries that are perched atop them.  I first learned about the Meteora Monasteries when I saw the cover of Frommer's guide to Greece.  The picture of a lone building sitting atop a cliff was intriguing and I wanted to learn more.  My research told me that 30 million years ago this entire area was a vast inland sea and when the waters receded, they left these rocks behind.  This would explain the gnarls, carvings, and swirling patterns that only erosion by water could create.

Long view

Close up of the water (and weather) carved rocks
It is believed that during the 10th Century monks first lived as hermits amongst the numerous caves that are a part of the hills.  As more monks came to the area the first monastery, the Great Meteoro, was built in the 14th Century by St. Arthanasios.  Fast forward one hundred years and there were 24 monasteries dotting the Meteora hills.  Solitary life was far from easy in these monasteries.  While the high altitude provides relief from the stifling temperatures in the summer, high winds make for very cold winter days.  Everything, from building materials to food and water had to be carried in.  There were two ways to reach the top of these hills; you could either climb steep paths or you could utilize a rope, basket, and pulley system to hoist goods from the ground to the top.  Both methods are still utilized today.

Now this holds a lot of wine

Today only six remain open to the public.  While a paved road now takes visitors to the base of each monastery, long treks up numerous steps are still required to make it to the top.  (As we learned, in the July sun, that means it is a very hot climb).  But as we discovered, the effort is well worth it.  We visited three  monasteries during our visit to Meteora.  Megalo Meteoro, or the Grand Monastery, was by far the largest.  The views from the top were breathtaking and we loved exploring the nooks and crannies that were open to the public.  We explored the vast wine cellar and discovered that these monks loved their wine as they had casks and barrels of all sizes.  The "old kitchen" while well equipped, looked like the preparation of every meal would have been  tedious production.  In the ossuary, which was filled with row after row of skulls, we saw the shrine to the deceased monks.  Upon entering the chapel, dark yet opulent and smelling heavily of incense, even Sidney immediately fell silent.  Back outside in the bright sunshine he perked right up as he spied a water fountain which was a welcome sight in the midday heat.
Dead monks

On the next hill over, we visited the Varlaam Monastery which while smaller than the Megalo Meteoro, provided us with amazing views of where we had been.  The visit to the Roussanou Nunnery required the steepest climb but the sweeping views made my initial fears worth it.  (This entire day was a challenge to this height fearing traveler).  While all of the monasteries were well kept, the grounds of the nunnery seemed more immaculate.  The building itself felt more compact and we didn't see any evidence of wine making on the premise.  Whereas the entrances to the monasteries had been manned by slovenly looking young men, nuns were at work in the nunnery collecting admission fees and monitoring the attire of visitors.  (Women are required to wear skirts inside all of the monasteries and those who weren't already wearing them were provided with scarves that could be transformed into hastily made wraps.  Men were supposed to be wearing long pants and as Glenn suffered through the intense heat in his we saw many men entering these holy places with knobbly knees showing).  We also witnessed nuns sitting in corners of the nunnery silently making handcrafts.

All of the Meteora Monasteries were impressive but what I found the most awe inspiring was the physical location of each holy place.  Perched upon the top of these hills, I continued to wonder about the effort and sheer willpower that constructing each of these buildings must have entailed.  Which option was better- trekking goods up the hill or hoisting them in a basket?  I couldn't decide which view was the most impressive: the top of the hills looking down provided one perspective but sitting at the bottom looking up was equally awe inspiring.  The sweeping view from our hotel room balcony provided yet another perspective.   I enjoyed all of the views.  Everyone says that the best time to visit the area is in the winter when the hills and monasteries are snow covered.  Now if only we can schedule a return visit to see if we agree.

Meteora is in the middle; the Pindos Range is in the background

The morning view of the mountains as seen from
our hotel room

Night time perspective

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