16 May 2020

The Name of Meteora

The monasteries of Meteora had always captured my imagination, perhaps ever since I had seen a low-resolution photo of them on a travel agency website a couple of decades ago. They seemed difficult to access, only after a few hours or days of cautious mountain hiking and perhaps climbing as well. How would one be otherwise able to reach the monasteries perched on top of those rock peaks?

Panoramic view of the northern side of Meteora. Notice the monasteries at the top of the mountains. One of my most favourite composite shots.

Our little blue car, a one-litre engine rental vehicle, had struggled ascending the highway coming from Thessaloniki. Foot fully pressing down on the gas pedal, I could see the speedometer needle gradually move left, 100 km/h… 90 km/h… 80 km/h... shifting to a lower gear didn’t help much. The highway ended halfway so it didn’t make that much of a difference then, the road twisting in turns before straightening out, opening the curtains to the odd-shaped, yet still majestic, mountains. There wasn’t much traffic – it was the month of June – but just enough to make it a little bit of a challenge to record our signature video snippet: C. standing still on a skateboard as if she were a mannequin, me pushing her like I would move furniture around, going from one side of the video screen to the other. Yes it’s silly, but that’s me. Let’s see if I dare to publish that video publicly – or any other of my silly video projects for that matter (lip-syncing in 2003 or my own Indonesian “music” in 2017 even though my singing is awful – my nephews and niece were captivated when I showed those to them, so maybe there’s something to them after all?!).

Arriving to Meteora

No monastery could be seen atop the rock formations. But my imagination of hard-to-reach monasteries would prove rapidly mistaken. After one last turn of the road, the peaceful town of Kalabaka appeared. The fruit market was still taking place in some of its hilly streets, old men and women slowly attending to their business, waiters lazily trying to grab the occasional tourist to their outdoor seating areas. We hoped to find the same amazingly delicious 1-euro-a-kilo strawberries that we had eaten and blended in Athens – but they were nowhere to be found.

Sight of Meteora from the town of Kalabaka (also known as Kalambaka)

Sure enough I had approached Meteora the same way I had wanted to visit Machu Picchu in Peru or Borobudur temple in Indonesia or Sepilok’s orangutans in Borneo. To me, they were of difficult access, the reward of hour-long hikes or motorcycle journeys through the jungle. Civilisation had however decided differently. Urbanisation had spread to all the confines of the world. The Inca city or the Indonesian temple were located a mere half an hour or so from the nearest town, by road what’s more. Likewise, the monasteries of Meteora were there to be seen, just around the corner of a well-maintained road coming from the town. The road would be winding around the hills, reaching each monastery a few dozen metres away.

Monastery of Rousanou, seemingly lost in vegetation
Monastery of Varlaam
Monastery of Rousanou on the left, the winding road in the middle, and the minuscule monastery of Agios Nikolaos on the right.

But the magic was still operating. The forest had been preserved on the mountain slopes. Every opening became an opportunity to take a photo of the same orthodox monastery from a slightly different angle. 24 monasteries had been constructed between 1350 and 1517 on top of those huge boulders. Access was made difficult on purpose, as monks were retreating from Turkish occupation. Yes, Greek-Turkish “issues” date back quite some time. I don’t think any Turkish soldier ever made it to the monasteries though, even if 6 of the original monasteries only remain today, most of which can be visited.

Grand Meteoron monastery

The biggest one, so-called “Grand Meteoron”, reminded me of the absolutely thrilling 1986 film The Name of the Rose with Sean Connery (I can’t believe he’s turning 90 this year). Certainly not because of the weather which was blazing hot during my visit; I remember the film narrative taking place in the winter. Perhaps it was the relative isolation of those monasteries, the paintings of disciples and saints, my own imagination of what life could have been like during the Middle Ages which all contributed to those cinematographic memories. Truth be told, that film was probably the inspiration for the chants selected in the first part of the following video I created using footage shot with a drone (I’ll admit a secret: all the views of the video are probably exclusively from me, I really do like my little creation and the addictive music I chose).

As a matter of (stupid) principle, I don’t read books if I have unfortunately watched their film adaptation first. On that topic, I don’t tire of passionately talking about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written in 1899, and Francis Ford Coppola’s outstanding transposition into the Vietnam War with Apocalypse Now 80 years after the book was written.

For some reason, I still remember an old copy of Umberto Eco’s novel, eponymous of the film, which was present in my university campus room, left there by a previous tenant. Ironically the pages of the book were damaged and stained...

Painting in the Grand Meteoron monastery
Grand Meteoron monastery. I really like this photo, it gives a good sense of the architectural complexity and the dizzying height at which it was built.
Grand Meteora monastery. You may notice the ropes on the far right side of the picture, part of the pulley system.

24 hours were enough to explore the relatively small area – the two farthermost monasteries are a mere 5 kilometres apart via a unique road – and to enjoy the sunset light on the old stones. One could however spend significantly more time to take in the full breadth of the scenery and photograph the same rocks and stones from different angles (above, below, on the side, inside) and at different times of the day. In fact, pay close attention to the photographs I’m posting throughout this story: some are of the same monastery but from an entirely different perspective. “Same, same... but different”.

How many monasteries can you spot on this photo? That’s right: 4. Rousano on the left, the tiny Agios Nikolaos in the distant background, Grand Meteoron at the very top, and Varlaam on the far right.
Monastery of Agios Stefanos and the town below.
Monastery of Rousanou in the sunset light, at 8.41 PM.
No idea why I was doing the finger gun gesture (I’m at complete odds with Bolsonaro on the political spectrum), most likely simply pointing at the scenery.
Monastery of Varlaam, again with the pulley system clearly visible. Yes, the same monastery posted above but from a completely different angle. That’s what makes the region so interesting.

The funny story is that while access to most of the monasteries can be done today on foot (one of them does require to use a flimsy horizontal elevator – which I didn’t try, I’m not crazy, I’m unlucky enough), access was back then only possible via long ladders lashed together or with large nets used to haul up both goods and people. The story goes that the ropes were replaced only "when the Lord let them break"...

Monastery of Varlaam
Some big rocks
More big rocks