I’m not big on the idea of joining a monastery. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about self-sacrifice, devotion and the return to a simpler lifestyle. I just have a real issue with the idea of wearing a robe all the time, and in my case, would find it physically impossible to fulfill a vow of silence of any length over two minutes. Well, maybe two and a half if I’m thinking real hard.
But if circumstances ever required that I run off to join a monastery – such as evading an angry loan shark or testifying against a mob boss – I know exactly the place where I would join: The otherworldly monasteries of the Meteora, in Thessaly, Greece.
I know. Most people conjure images of boxy whitewashed houses overlooking the sapphire blue of the Mediterranean when they think of Greece. Either that or pockmarked marble pillars such as at the Parthenon or Delphi, which serve as reminders to the faded glory of one of the world’s greatest empires that endowed us with gifts such as theater, democracy, and an alphabet that is essential to fraternities everywhere. But there is more to Greece than just the usual suspects, and the Meteora is the quintessential poster child for the ‘other’ history that played out in this ancient land.
Reachable via a three to four hour drive from Athens, the principal town for this World Heritage Site is Kalambaka, which is nestled at the base of the enormous pillars of rock that provide both the backdrop and namesake for this unique landscape. From a term meaning ‘suspended rocks’, the Meteora are towers of erosion-smoothed sandstone jutting out of the fertile plain, and are dotted with several still-active Greek Orthodox monasteries perched precariously on top of their impossibly sheer-sided pinnacles. Originally the site of a religious retreat founded by a cave-dwelling hermit in the year 985, the first of over twenty monasteries was built in 1382, though today only about six remain active.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that anyone bothered to install stairs to reach the tops. Before that your only option was a harrowing ride in a winch-drawn basket. Though I can’t even begin to fathom the kind of faith it takes to make that ride (not in God but in the power of monk-made ropes) if you think about it, it all kind of makes sense. What else could make you more aware of your own mortality and draw you closer to your Maker than a basket ride up a towering cliff side? I’m sure I’d be contemplating the meaning of life if I were in such a position where I might not have much of it left.
The biggest, oldest and highest monastery is the aptly named Great Meteoron, situated on a peak at 2,045 feet. The day that I saw it, the clouds above conveniently parted just enough to allow a few shafts of light to surround it like a halo. I mused that regardless of the beliefs of its occupants, the setting alone truly lent itself to a search for the divine.
What is perhaps the most photogenic of the monasteries is that of Moni Rousanou. Capping a narrow spire of rock, it is dwarfed by an even larger pillar of stone situated directly behind it, thereby providing a sense of scale that is hard to grasp elsewhere. And if you care about such things, that’s the one that always makes people say “Oooooooh” when they see it in my photo album.
Along the winding road are various lookout points, allowing for some tremendous views. My personal favorite was one accessible only by scaling a slightly-sloped rock face with what I felt were God-given footholds, so that even an amateur, unequipped rock climber like me could observe the awe-inspiring view of this forest of rock and the cluster of Kalambaka town far below. My friend Paul and I had made sure our wives weren’t watching when we climbed up, and as Paul – blonde-haired and dressed all in black – was splayed against the rock in an attempt to lower himself down, I just could not resist asking him if he had six fingers on his right hand. If you don’t get the reference, well . . . then maybe you belong up there with the monks.
Given its remote location and the distances (not to mention steep climbs) between monasteries, if you plan to visit the Meteora on your own, I recommend that you rent a car. However if you’ve come to cast off the shackles of modern society and renounce all worldly comforts, then skip the car and get ready for the calf workout of a lifetime. It’s just a shame that the robes won’t allow you to show them off.
Depending on how interested you are in frescoes, icons and other Orthodox paraphernalia, the Meteora can be comfortably seen in just a day, though an overnight in Kalambaka (alternately spelled Kalampaka) will allow you to do so at leisure and with greater opportunity for some great souvlaki and baklava. And if the former doesn’t convince you of the existence of a deity, the latter certainly will.
Of course, if you really need a place to crash, you could always join one of the aforementioned monasteries. The lifestyle might be hard to swallow, the robes may be itchy, and the images rather creepy, but the view from the Meteora is just shy of heaven. And if you decide to run off there, take solace in the fact that you’re not the first to do so, and you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate life’s big questions as they’re hauling you up in the basket. Amen.