Meteora: The Gates of Heaven

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Almost a decade ago, I took a road trip to the Grand Canyon. Even though I had seen pictures of the deep valleys, I wasn’t prepared for the awe-inspiring site. As I caught my first glimpse of the vast expanse, I had a visceral reaction feeling simultaneously insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yet comfortable that humanity fit into the natural order of the world. I tell you this because the same thing happened upon my first sighting of Meteora, which is almost a Grand Canyon in reverse.

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Huge sandstone pillars shoot up thousands of feet into the sky. They are so immense and beautiful that it doesn’t seem real.

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Apparently, 30 million years ago, the plains of Thessaly (where Meteora is located) were submerged under the ocean and these rock formations were created.

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It’s no wonder that the first inhabitants of the Meteora were hermits who chose to live in natural caves in the rocks in order to be closer to God.

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I can completely see the appeal. If there’s a holier place on this earth, I have yet to experience it. The calm magnificence of the rock formation is almost palpable.

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The first monasteries were built in the 11th century and at the height of the monastic community (16th century), there were 24 monasteries. Currently, there are only 6 still in operation, but these are still quite impressive.

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We drove up the mountainside, but prior to access via paved road (in the last 30 years or so), the only way to get to the monasteries was by walking up and then using retractable ladders. With the violent history of the region (with invasions by Franks, Serbs, Catalans, Albanians and Turks), the inaccessible nature of the monasteries was practical. There was this entertaining depiction of a German soldier were plunged to his death as he tried to climb the rocks in order to place a Nazi flag at the top. It was, naturally, divine intervention.

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We personally visited two of the monasteries currently in operation. The first was Grand Meteoron, which is accessible by 200 or so steps.

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As you can see by the sign, women could only be admitted if they were in dresses with shoulders covered (hence my scarf in all of the pictures). I didn’t see any monks during our visit, but there were a number of private areas where visitors could not go.

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There were also a number of Holy cats. They seemed well fed and well cared for (not the norm here) and there was even a fat, little 3-legged kitty who clearly got extra helpings at the dinner table.

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Even though the monks currently have a more modern kitchen, they kept the only one in its original condition (very enterprising of the church). They also had the old cellar and other previously functional rooms necessary for the day to day operations.

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The vistas were breathtaking.

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The next monastery we visited was Saint Stephen.

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This monastery did not require a cardio workout to get in. You just had to cross a small bridge over a deep (1000 foot) ravine.

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I was surprised to see that this was a women’s monastery (or so I’m assuming by all of the nuns that I saw). In fact, it actually looked more feminine. There were a number of lovely gardens and there were feminine details, such as lace curtains. Grand Meteron felt much more utilitarian.

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After visiting the Meteora, this site has been bumped up to the top of my “must see” list of things in Greece. Perhaps it’s that I’ve been to the Parthenon dozens of times, but to me, these monasteries were far more impressive.

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If I didn’t have to be a nun to gain entrance (they would surely kick me out for my language alone in the first 24 hours), I could certainly live there. The setting suits my hermit-like nature to a “T.”

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