More improbable places

Yesterday we wised up and took the bus to the top the highest and oldest monastery in Meteora, the Grand Meteoron. We arrived just as the monastery was opening, along with several hundred other tourists.

After seeing the impossibly precarious exteriors of these buildings, the interiors were bound to be a little underwhelming — and they were. Even at the largest monastery of the bunch, quarters were quite cramped. Even though the monastery wasn’t active, we were only allowed in a small portion of the grounds. In an inactive monastery, I would have loved to see what a monk’s cell looked like, and to be able to peer over the edge of the cliffs from various vantage points. Instead, we were only allowed in the central church and a few other rooms. The church at the Grand Meteoron, while indeed elaborately ornamented and quite different in style from the ones we’d seen in the rest of Europe, was still just a church.

The frescoes (no photos allowed, naturally) depicted gruesome scenes from the lives of the saints — beheadings, disembowelments, and burnings at the stake. There was a very large, very low-hanging, gold chandelier in the main sanctuary, which was unusual and interesting in its own right but also made it more difficult to see the frescos.

I suppose the unappealing nature of the church and other aspects of the monastery could have been part of the program: Maybe the monks need some visual deprivation as a foil to the spectacular environment they inhabit.

One positive aspect of my disappointment in seeing the Grand Meteoron’s interior: I was regretting less my near-miss of Varlaám the day before.

Nora and I were determined this day to hike the entire 10-kilometer distance from Grand Meteoron to Ayíou Stefánou, and then down another couple kilometers into the large town of Kalmbaka, two kilometers from our hotel. Since Varlaám and Ayias Triádhos were closed, we would only be able to see three monasteries, possibly catching St. Nicholas at the and of the day to make it four.

As we left Grand Meteoron, we were treated to some excellent views of Varlaám:

But the next monastery we’d actually be able to visit was the dramatically perched Roussánou:

You can also see the trail we took, in the lower right of this photo. The trails here are for the most part quite rough and poorly marked, but it wasn’t especially difficult to find our way (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment), thanks to an excellent description of the route in the Rough Guide to Greece. Here are Jim, Nora, and Greta working their way through the worst underbrush we’d faced yet:

Greta probably had it the worst, since she had to wear a skirt in order to meet the dress code in the monasteries. Jim and I were hot in our long pants, but at least we could see where we were stepping, and didn’t have to pull up skirts to cross tall barriers.

Here Nora navigates the last of our “short cut” to Roussánou.

As we approached Roussánou, we were able to look back and see three of the other monasteries: Varlaám, Grand Meteoron, and St. Nicholas:

Roussánou was immaculately kept, and appeared to be active (this makes my count three active monasteries, but perhaps I was mistaken about one of them). But again, no photos were allowed, and honestly, other than the view from the top, none was especially worth taking. At this point, Greta and Jim walked back to our hotel, and Nora and I continued alone on a very rugged trail. We lost the trail at one point, and had to do some “exploring,” as Nora put it, but eventually we figured out which way we needed to head, and crossed a small canyon beneath another spectacular monastery, Ayias Triádhos, closed on Thursdays. Here’s Nora after we’d found our way, with Roussánou in the distance:

And here she is after we’d made our way back to the road to Ayias Triádhos:

Here, finally, is the last monastery, Ayíou Stefánou:

Our guidebook claimed this was the obvious monastery to skip if you were running short on time, but Nora and I both found it quite charming, and well maintained by the nuns who still live there. We were even allowed to walk through many of the grounds, including an immaculate garden with stunning views of the valley below.

The two chapels had been badly damaged in World War II, but they were undergoing renovation (and having new frescoes painted) while we visited, making for a very interesting visit.

After that, it was about a 45 minute walk back down to Kalambaka, where we bought ice-cream sandwiches and caught a cab back to Kastraki.

Overall, an amazing two days. I’m writing this post on the bus back to Athens, and the ride is quite bumpy, so that will have to be it for now.

This entry was posted in Euro2007. Bookmark the permalink.