The Meteora monasteries rise at the centre of Greece, where Pinios river emerges from the deep canyons of the Pindus range and surges into the Thessalian plain.
These are gigantic rocks etched by time into a variety of shapes; grey stalagmites rising towards the sky, they appear as nature’s gift to the pious who, dnven by faith, have opted for solitude and a life of worship.
The Monasteries, with their wooden galleries and corniced rooftops, crown the summits of these formidable pinnacles.
Precariously hanging over the sinister abysses, with the Pindus range at their back and the vast plain, woods, gorges and picturesque villages below, these unworldly hermitages compose one of the most breathtaking sites on earth.
In the late Byzantine period and during Ottoman rule this monastic community became a sanctuary of the persecuted. On these barren and inaccessible rocks a centre of Byzantine art was created.
The history of the Meteora monastic community begins in the 11th century. During the 9th century hermits settled in the caves and crevices of the rocks. On Sundays and important holidays they gathered in Doupiani, near Kastraki (where the monastery and church of the Virgin Mary was later built), to read mass. As monks increased, the cloisters of Doupiani and Stagi were created.
The development of the community, however, may be more thoroughly traced from the 14th century onwards when the first monasteries were established.
Between 1356 and 1372 the monk Athanasius founded what was to become the most important of all the Great Meteoron at Platis Lithos. Athanasius imposed very strict rules on the community, including the exclusion of women from the area.
In 1388 John Uresis, a disciple of Athanasius and a grandson of the Serbian prince Stephen retired to the monastery as monk Joasaph and endowed it with many riches and special privileges. Soon the Great Meteoron gained preponderance over all of the communes and hermitages of the area.
The development of the monasteries as well led to the illustrious period of monastic life particularly in the 15th and the 16th centuries. Gradually the community began to deteriorate; of the twenty-four monasteries that had been built throughout the years, only very few continue to operate. In fact only five monasteries are still inhabited today -the Great Meteoron, Agia Trias, Varlaam, Agios Stefanos and Roussanou (the last two by nuns).
A good paved road makes access to each of the main monasteries easy and interesting. They may be visited in succession on a single trip (21 km from Kalambaka and back).
On the left of the road to the monasteries, at the foot of the Meteora, stands Doupiani hermitage and the 12th century chapel of the Virgin. Nearby are the ruined monasteries of Pantocrator and Doupiani.
The monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas built slightly before 1510 it was decorated in 1527 with beautifully preserved frescoes by the famous hagiographer Theophanes the Cretan.
Close by are the ruins of the monastery of Agia Moni, built around 1315.
Six km out, the road forks south and northwards. At the turning, on our right we go by the Roussanou monastery, probably built in 1288 and renovated as a monastery in 1545. It contains frescoes of the Cretan School, made in 1560.
Following the southern route, which will eventually take us to the monastery of Agios Stephanos, we first come upon the Agia Trias monastery, built between 1458 and 1476 by the monk Dometius. Situated on a particularly beautiful pinnacle, it is reached by a circular flight of stairs (approximately 140 steps).
At the end of the road is the nunnery and Museum of Agios Stephanos. A steep gorge separates the pinnacle from the main cliff. The two rocks are connected by a bridge. Referred to as a hermitage at the beginning of the century, in 1333 Agios Stephanos was visited by Emperor Andronicus the III Paleologus.
The head of the saint is preserved in the monastery’s cathedral Agios Haralambos. In the old church of Agios Stephanos (1350) one can still admire the beautiful gold-leaved woodcarvings, wall paintings and old icons.
Back to the crossroads and on the northern route one soon comes upon the monastery of Varlaam by climbing 195 steps. It was built as late as 1517 by the brothers Theophanes and Nectarios, sons of a rich family from Janena, on the site of the old hermitage of the hermit Varlaam.
The frescoes in the chapel of All Saints are by the famous hagiographer Franco Catellano, done in 1548; the Narthex in 1566. The chapel of the Three Hierarchs was renovated in 1627.
The road stops at the Great Meteoron, the biggest and the most important of the monasteries. In older days ascent to the monastery was made by jointed ladders and by nets or baskets. Today one goes up a flight of 115 steep, irregular stairs cut into the rock face. Thanks to lavish endowments the Great Meteoron became autonomous and acquired many valuable works of art.
One should also visit the exquisite church of the Transfiguration with fine frescoes, fascinating to the visitor, and an intricate twelve – sided dome. Of interest too are the monastery’s Refectory – today a Museum – and its Library’s numerous manuscripts and rare books.
When stopping at these isolated monasteries and looking at the Pindus range and the Thessalian plain down below, one understands why the hemmits chose this spot in order to serve God and approach him.