Driving across the vast, flat plain of Thessalia, from Volos we are struck by the fertility of the soil and the variety of crops being grown. It feels strange after the landscape of barren soil and olive trees that we are used to in other parts of the country.
Feeling the effects of the scorching sun, we seek some relief by stopping off at Trikala, an unremarkable town famed as the birthplace of Asklipios, Greek god of healing. But the heat from the plain seem to be intensified in the streets of the town and even under the shade of the trees in the central square, it’s hard to cool down. We head off as soon as we can to Kalambaka where we have booked a room for the night.
The reason for this journey across northern Greece is to visit the famous monasteries in the air of Meteora. As we approach, Kalambaka massive grey rock pinnacles like elephants’ legs loom up out of the flatness and uniformity of the plain. Relaxing on the balcony of our hotel room and recovering from the heat, we start to get a sense of the strangeness of these rock formations.
The rock face is smooth and pitted, a bit like pumice, but these rocks aren’t volcanic in origin. They are the sedimentary remnants of a sea that covered Thessalia millions of years ago.
Hermits started to inhabit the caves in the rocks in the late 10th century and in the 14 century two monks, Athanasios and Grigorios from Mount Athos came to live in the area. It was Athanasios who built the first monastery, the Megalou Meteorou in 1344.
A winding 10km circuit roads with sharp bends takes you round the main monasteries. The first one you encounter on the clockwise circuit is the 14th century Agiou Nikolaou Anapausa, the smallest of the extant monasteries perched on one of the lower peaks.
As the road climbs up out of the plain more of the monasteries come into sight and the next one on the route is Roussanou, a convent built in the 16th century and dedicated to the Transfiguration and to St Varvara.
Continuing up the road we come to Varlaam, named after a hermit who scaled the peak and took refuge here in the 14th century, while the monastery started to be built about two hundred years later. It is the most Byzantine in style of all the monasteries in Meteora.
Every view here is a potential photograph and above Varlaam there’s a wonderful natural viewing platform.
The light is also constantly changing, now spotlighting certain monasteries, now casting others in dramatic light, as in the shot below of the Megalou Meteorou. I could spend days, months even, photographing this ever changing scenery in its many moods. This monastery was founded by St Athanasios, the monk from Mount Athos in the late 14th century.
It became the richest of the Meteora monasteries when the Serbian Emperor, Symeon Urfos, retired here to become a monk and donated all of his wealth to it.
Access to Agias Triadas (first build in the 14th century), dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is via a cable car which looks quite old and rickety. Certainly not something you would like to use in a wind.
The final building on the route round Meteora is the nunnery of Stefanou, first built in the 14th century.
Despite c.1m visitors Meteora attracts every year (we were there at the end of the tourist season), it has a wonderfully peaceful, silent atmosphere. I wonder how disruptive visitors are to the life of the monks and how much contact the monks have with them. Can visitors stay in the monasteries, as they can at Mount Athos? Do they have to follow the monastic regime? What is the monastic regime? How do they survive in such solitude? Do they grow their own food? I suppose they make their money from visitors (entrance fee is 2€).
It makes me think again that I would like to do a pilgrimage to the monasteries of Mount Athos. Time to start planning this trip – even if it takes a few years before I get round to it.
It is easy to see what is was that attracted hermits and monks to seek refuge here for contemplation and prayer. When Byzantium fell in 1453, icon painters sought refuge here (as well as at Mount Athos and in Crete) to be able to continue their work.
There are a couple of icon workshops at the bottom of the circuit that cater to tourist buses. Most of the pieces are mass produced, but there are a few icon painters work here. They paint on canvas, having sketched in the outlines first, applying the paint from the darkest to the lightest colours. The painted icon is then glued to an old piece of wood and gold leaf painstakingly applied. The whole process for an A5 size icon takes 2-3 days and they sell for 300€ apiece.
At the second icon workshop we fall into conversation with a Romanian girl who has been working in Greece for 8 years, and a Polish lad who works in Greece during the tourist season (May-October) and then returns home. Both love living in Greece because there’s no stress compared with their homelands. “I feel younger here”, says the Polish lad. They tell me about a senior executive from Siemens in Germany who has retired to this area with his wife to live in peace and quiet away from the stresses of corporate life. Apparently he has his own well and generates electricity from solar panels.
It seems as though Meteora is still attracting people who are seeking refuge from the pressures of daily life.