Katraski, closest village to Meteora.

The rock walls of Meteora loom above the northwestern plains of Thessaly in central Greece, like sentinels from another planet. Some of the rocks are more than half a kilometer high. The surfaces seem to be smooth (not jagged like your usual mountain) except where patterns of large round hollows, like the marks left by bursting bubbles in lava, run along the sides. Many of the rocks have striations, deep grooves running parallel to each other from the top to the bottom of the rock.

These bare upright rocks don’t seem to fit in this landscape of low mountain ranges, flat plains and the mass of trees and greenery everywhere. I felt that I was looking at objects from outer space.

On a recent search of the Internet I saw a picture of an asteroid. The asteroid was elongated (as are the Meteora rocks). Other similarities were the smoothness of much of the surface area and the pockmarked patterns.

Could the striations be the result of small particles scraping the sides of boiling meteorites as they burst through the atmosphere? Meteorites usually slow down a lot if they are small. The larger ones don’t, and they’re moving at something like 70 kilometers a second.

If this is so, the meteorites hit this hilly area so hard that they pierced like arrows deep into the earth’s surface. Parts of the meteorites would have broken off, and may lie hidden under the tangle of vegetation covering the stream in the deepest parts of the valley.

Well, it’s just an idea. But now I empathize with that tiny ant I see crawling along the bottom of the rockery. Except that he crawls far better than I do.

People come to see the massive Byzantine monasteries built on the very tops of the rocks ― today 6 remain from 20 or so originally built. The monks chose these sheer rocks because of their inaccessibility. Today, however, good roads wind up the mountain-sides.

 

We decided to go to the top – the largest rock of all, on top of which is the monastery of the Great Meteoron, and work our way down.  

Most people go by bus or taxi, but we wanted to walk. It was a cool morning in May, good walking weather, hardly anyone on the road. We saw several youngsters (in our case, anyone below 70). In the distance several parties of rock climbers, attached with ropes to each other and led by guides, were climbing up massive rock-faces.

The day before the walk we had discovered a pebbly goat path which led through a field and along a tree-shaded valley. Now we walked to the very end of the path and, sure enough, it joined up with the winding main road.  

We often stopped to look down the mountain, across the valley and plains – green forests, blue sky, tiny red-roofed villages, even snow-topped mountain peaks (the Pindus range) in the distance. Occasionally we heard the sound of running water in the stream just below the road, and at one point it was close enough to take a drink.

By the time we reached the top the sun was overwhelming everyone with its warm embrace and the parking ground in front of the Great Meteoron was packed with buses and cars.

The monks wanted to get away from the crowd. So the crowd came to them.

Stalls throng the space between the parking grounds and the entrance, and then – once you’ve climbed the steep stone steps up that last cliff-face – you pay an entrance fee to get inside the monastery.

How they built these magnificent stone buildings so long ago (the Great Meteoron was built in the 14th century) seems a sheer miracle – in the beginning everything had to be pulled up these steep rocks by muscle power. Even today ropes are used to haul food and equipment from the road to the building. Some monasteries have a mechanical wheel and cables, but others still use ropes attached to a platform.

The Great Meteoron is surrounded by a high stone wall. The buildings include the main three storey building which looks like a fortress, a beautiful church and a sort of chapel structure.

We joined the stream of visitors walking up stairs, along various levels, through different buildings and rooms. Everything was neat and well cared for.

On the various levels there is a refectory, with long wooden tables, simple wooden chairs and kitchen utensils which were in use hundreds of years ago, a museum and a museum shop. Inside the church the walls are crowded with brilliant frescoes of biblical scenes, but photographing is not allowed. It has a large storeroom containing hundreds of skulls of dead monks. One cannot go in, but there is an opening in the top of the door through which we peeped.

On the upper terrace I had a distant view of several other monasteries perched on other rock peaks. The monasteries seem to be “planted” in a straight line with the Great Meteoron, almost as if the peaks had been planned that way.

At the top we all sat down gratefully on the balcony.

The balcony juts over empty space, with a view for 50 kilometers – maybe more. Someone had planted irises in a small “garden” on the slope which curves down to the valley floor. Bees buzzed busily below on the slopes, while the buzz of talk around us was mainly Greek. 

On our way back we had a quick look at the monastery of Varlaam. A room holds a 16th century barrel. The wooden barrel, which takes up all the space in the room, could contain 12,000 liters of some liquid (presumably wine).  

Getting to the monastery entrances means walking up many hundreds of steps. We had just enough strength left to climb the steps to a third “monastery” which has been converted into a nunnery (St. Barbara). Below the wall of rock on which the nunnery is perched is the road. Next to it we saw a metal platform for hauling up supplies. It had four thick ropes attached to it, and they led straight up the rock-face to, presumably, the kitchen.

As usual we had planned our holiday slightly off season. A last minute check with the Internet had shown us that it was raining in Meteora, so we had reversed our plans, and visited two islands first. By the time we arrived at Meteora (almost mid-May) the rain had stopped.

We could have stayed in the large town of Kalambaki but decided to walk through it and on to the village of Kastraki, which is closer to the monasteries.

In Kastraki we found, on our second try, the sort of room we wanted. Among things like cleanliness and reasonable prices, we always look for a view.  We had a corner balcony which overlooked the plains and snowcapped mountains as well as, on one side, a gigantic and mysterious rock. The small, red-roofed houses of the village stretched up a low mountainside until they were stopped under the sheer rock wall.

Our room was near the church. During the day we heard the chimes signaling the hour. Came night – silence. The chimes are “turned off”.

A nice touch to a memorable experience.

 

 

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About the author

Mike Porter

Mike Porter was born in South Africa. In Johannesburg he became a newspaper reporter on the Rand Daily Mail, besides writing for the Sunday Times, Zionist Record and, years later, for the EP Herald...
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