The Meteora monasteries (“monasteries suspended in the sky”) are a hotbed of Orthodox monasticism, north of Greece on the edge of the plain of Thessaly, near the town of Kalambaka. They are Orthodox Christian monasteries perched atop impressive gray rock masses, carved by erosion and called “Meteora”. The site is classified as a World Heritage Site since 1988 and is a major tourist site in Greece.
To vary from the usual good weather, today is a rainy and gloomy day! It is therefore a bit disappointed that I go on a day trip to the famous Meteora Monasteries. What I did not know is that the gray clouds give the place a more mystical allure despite the coldness.
For many travelers, Kalambaka (the town at the entrance of Meteora) is the ideal starting point for a visit the monasteries. Note that only six of them are still active today and some restrictions apply: no mini-skirts and covered shoulders for women, no shorts for men. However, most of the monasteries offer (and sometimes sell, “there’s no small profit!”) large scarves which can be tied around the waist to cover the legs or carried on the shoulders.
We leave Kalambaka early in the morning after an overnight stay following my trip to Delphi. Friends moviegoers, you probably know that the monastery of Aghia Triada (Holy Trinity) was used as the setting for one of the scene of the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” in 1981.
You probably remember the famous scene with Roger Moore seeping into the monastery with a hanging basket pulled and operated with balances? Well, it used to be the only way to reach the monastery. It was around 1920 that the current stairs were built for easier access. Unfortunately, we do not follow the footsteps of James Bond today, as we just admire Hagia Triada Monastery from afar. However, we can visit the interior of two other monasteries. We start with Agios Stefanos (St. Stephen).
This is the richest of all the monasteries of Meteora and it is also the most accessible for tourists. At the entrance of the monastery, an inscription mentions the presence, in 1180, of the hermit Jeremiah and the construction, in 1192, of the first buildings on the headland. The history of the monastery is then marked by the visit, in 1333, the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos Paleologos. Enthused by the warm hospitality of the monks, he offered them land and money in abundance.
In 1545, the monastery became independent of the diocese of Staghi. 1798 saw the construction of the church of Saint Charalambos. In 1850, the monastery built at his own expense School Constantine in Kalambaka, and offered 80,000 gold drachmas for the construction of a secondary school in Trikala. In 1960, the monastery, almost deserted, was converted into a monastery of nuns, and prosperous since. The small chapel of St. Stephen, built in the eastern part of the convent and known for its frescoes, is our first visit. Frescoes offer beautiful representations of Saints, one of the dominant Virgin. On each side of the door of the narthex stand the angels Gabriel and Michael in the company of the founders of the monastery: Antoine Catacuzene and Phloteos. The church also houses a bishop’s throne and a templum, both wood carved. Photos are prohibited inside, so we just admire the place in silence. We then go through the refectory which displays postbyzantines icons, manuscripts, vestments and other valuables. Today, the Sisters of St. Stephen teach Byzantine music and religious painting.
Before we left, I venture into the rear gardens of the monastery, where you can admire a beautiful view… Well, by good weather only! Right now, I can hardly see the village below, but it gives me the impression of being in a flying city, hidden by the clouds! Ok, I definitely watched too many movies…
A few minutes through the gift shop to buy some postcards before going back into our bus and heading to the next monastery, Roussanou. This “nunnery” has an uncertain history. We do not know if it really was founded in 1388, and the origin of its name remains unknown. The first inhabitants may have been called Roussanos and may have been from the village of Roussana. In 1545, the brothers Joasaph and Maxime restored the monastery, then in ruins and esthablished there a communal lifestyle. Delivered to decadence, looted many times, Roussanou was maintained and renovated after the war by a nun who devoted the last years of her life to its rehabilitation.
The old three-storey building operates then today as a convent of sisters. It can be accessed by two paths either side of the monastery. Most tourists go up by one of the path and go back down by the other. This is undoubtedly one of the most amazing monasteries, thanks to the bridge suspended in the air which allows access to the building itself! In the first room on entering the narthex, there are beautiful frescoes of saints, represented very crudely as martyrs. On the lintel above the door leading to the nave is the Preparation of the Throne representing a crowd of men and of angels in the colors of a river of fire. The three angels preside the scene; one holds documents relating to the actions of the soul on trial, the second holds the scales of justice and the last one chases Satan, who tries to steal the soul on trial. On entering the second part, the nave, we can see on the right side beautiful paintings dedicated to Saint Barbara, and below, the Resurrection and the Transfiguration of Christ.
Photos and videos are still prohibited and nuns are watching us! They prefer to see us go to the little shop close to the entrance to spend our money on photos, posters or postcards. Only pictures and videos on the terrace are allowed and that’s good, because the view is amazing, even despite the bad weather! You can see a few of the other monasteries and the road that goes through the region. Awesome!
After this second visit, we go down the second path to arrive just in front of the bus park. We then take the road that winds between the meteors with a few photo stops before heading back to Athens. Early morning when I say the bad weather, I expected this day to be a bad one regarding the pictures, but ultimately it was a great trip, rich in culture and discovery! I even have to say that the bad weather gives the monasteries another dimension and I almost prefer these photos to the ones I would have taken by good weather. I even met two very friendly girls from Quebec, Canada, a mother and daughter who completed a tour of three weeks in Greece. We met back in the evening in Athens and had quite a long chat about our respective trips around a great meal in a tavern in the center of Athens. A wonderful way to finish the day!