Undoubtedly the most spectacular natural wonders we encountered on our 1997 dream trip to Greece were the monastic mountain retreats sometimes known as the Sacred Rocks of Meteora. Relics of an ancient river bed in the foothills of the Pindos mountain range in central Greece, a cluster of super jumbo-sized boulders became hide-away homes for medieval monks. Teetering like darkened bowling pins behind a pair of sleepy villages, they were called Meteora because they looked like meteors suspended above the landscape. Greek Orthodox monks clambered somehow to the tops of these huge rock faces to escape annihilation by invaders. As many as 14 mountain top communities were founded, access being made mostly by ingenious hoisting mechanisms. Half a dozen only remain operative today.
We visited two of them on a memorable late October morning with snowflakes falling on a steeply curving mountain access road.
Our seasoned tour bus driver, we learned after alighting close to one of the mighty rockbound monastic structures, had never encountered snow in that area. Given the scarily steep and curvy roadway, we were so glad that he kept a steady hand on the wheel.
Our first stop allowed us to see St. Stephen’s Monastery, the most accessible of these remote retreats, where instead of steps visitors could simply cross a small bridge to reach the entrance.
We did not go inside but wandered outside, marveling at the solidity of this sprawling structure nowadays occupied by a small community of nuns.
Other still occupied hill top monasteries spotted along the roadway were known as the Monastery of Varlaam, the Monastery of Rousanou, the Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas and the Holy Trinity Monastery.
A lung-challenging 250-step climb up the sheer mountain face took us to the cozy confines of the Great Meteoron Monastery, the largest of the group. Ladies were warned to wear skirts that covered their knees. One who tried ignoring the command had to be lent one from a supply closet before being admitted.
Monks sometimes boarded suspended cable cars to move between sections of the monastery.
A byzantine chapel inside displayed richly coloured tableaus depicting the most horrendous forms of martyrdom experienced by the saints of early Christendom.
We couldn’t help wondering whether they served to inspire monks to stay and pray or to run away and take their chances elsewhere.