Castles in the Sky: The Monasteries of Meteora

The fabled monasteries of Meteora stand nearly half a kilometre in the sky; ‘Meteora’ translates literally as “middle of the sky” (Wikipedia). My journey to these great structures, however, involved as much horizontal travelling as vertical. Both were immensely special in their own ways.

For me, the journey from Athens to Meteora was not a direct one. Like a n00b, i had been misled into thinking that the optimistically named “Hostel Meteora” was situated at the foot of those towering stone formations. Instead, the directions took me on a five-and-a-half hour journey to the town of Trikala.

Trikala: Home of a God

The spiritual home of the god Asclepius, and the site of an Ottoman mosque (built by the legendary Mimar Sinan of Blue Mosque fame himself), I had expected Trikala to be an amazing and exciting town to break the journey at. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Trikala turned out to be a quiet and sullen town baking in its own tropical heat, almost Malaysian in its greenery. I spent the one day I had here waffling between the train station, the bus station, and the Hostel (a considerable twenty-minute walk), trying to decide if i should risk a sunset rush on the very day of arrival itself. In the end, i decided to play it safe, and catch the first train to Meteora the next day…

 

Walking into the Sky

…i arrived at Kalampaka (the station where Meteora was located at) too early the next day for the shuttle bus that would take me all the way up to the monasteries.

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So what does an ODACer, confronted with mountainous stone formations, loaded with a full backpack do, when there is no bus, with plenty of sights to see on the road?

He walks.

It took me the better part of two hours to reach the biggest monastery of Meteora, the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron. By then, having stumbled through dense (vertical) undergrowth with a roughly drawn map, I was so exhausted and discouraged and lonely that the sight of curious and excited dogs made me cry out in joy. Company! And that would have been the highlight enough – but there were still the monasteries to see!

And well, frankly…I was not too impressed by the gory and blood-soaked murals that (highly) imaginative priests had painted onto the walls. With decapitated heads, roasting torsos, butchered limbs, these murals rivaled any vision of the Chinese underworld you could find at Haw Par Villa. The Chinese often get a bad rep for their gory visions of the underworld. But look at what Orthodox Christians can dream up too! Then again, put a group of men on a hilltop with nothing but their imaginations, and maybe that is what you get…

From the Great Monastery itself, I threaded my way down slowly and gently, taking time to sketch, drink lemonade, snap a million pictures, and (on one occasion) throw on a raincoat hurriedly as I witnessed a cloudburst far away on the plains below Meteora.11822727_10153339951882013_6217602202839658090_n.jpg

 

Little Pilgrimmages

This was a special journey, a difficult one I had stumbled into for a lack of time and money (it being my last [fore-planned] European stop). With a full backpack carrying a week’s worth of barang-barang, I had navigated my way along winding and windy roads up to the great Monasteries.

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My backpack and me

Then, scorning the hordes of tourists in their swollen tourbuses and taxis, I had elected to walk the rest of the way down – a choice that alone took me nearly another three hours, waving at buses and cars that roared past me on the hot afternoon road.

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I did not, and still do not regret having taken the difficult road on my own two feet; in some ways this choice made it a special journey to a special place. It was a sojourn marked by frustration, anxiety, confusion and uncertainty – but also by wonder, spirituality, growing confidence – and sheer, unadulterated joy at the stark, vivid beauty of Creation.

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