Perched high above the world, these monasteries in Greece fill Kavitha Selvaraj and C.S. Raghuram with wonder

Sunrise in the town of Kalambaka in the Thessaly plains of northern Greece is like a picture postcard: the first rays of sunlight puts in sharp relief the colossal towering grey rocks of Meteora that rise abruptly where the plains meet the Pindora range. On these vertigo-inducing giants are small caves carved out the rock face by ascetics and accessed only by a rope ladder; one small misstep and it’s the abyss below. The pinnacles of these precipitous rocks are occupied by monastic settlements that seemed completely unreachable and so minute in relation to the grandeur of this natural geological composition. This entire scene fills the beholder with wonder.

Fascinating irony

These monasteries, inhabited by hermits who have renounced their worldly ways, are suggestive of their location halfway between the earth below and the heavens above. Ironically though, the seclusion and the spartan lifestyle of the monks in their search for inner peace and worship of God, became the very attraction for tourists across the world. Practising Greek orthodox Christianity, the monks spend most of their day in prayer, interspersed with activities such as wood carving, handicrafts, vegetables gardens and the upkeep of the monasteries.

Many of these monasteries that dot the mountains around Kalambaka are either inaccessible or in different states of disrepair. The few that are open to public can be visited at pre-arranged times and being a part of an organised tour is a a convenient, hassle-free way of doing so.

Our first stop was the monastery of Saint Stephen’s, the more easily accessible and better preserved of the lot. From a humble beginning as a hermitage with cells for monks and a small chapel dedicated to St. Stephens, it grew into an impressive community with a basilica, guest lodgings, reception and visitor centre. The priests and nuns are now involved in significant social and religious work in Trikala and Kalambaka and research and instruction in Byzantine music. It was set up in the 14th century by Serbian ruler Antonios Katakouzinos, and had enjoyed the benevolence of Byzantine rulers throughout its history. The basilica, built in the 15th Century with a single aisle, triple-arched doorway connecting the nave-narthex and a wooden ceiling is attractive in its murals of saints, archangels and the founders. The ikonostasis, with plant and animal motifs and the Bishops lectern, in mother of pearl are also noteworthy. The larger, but less ornamental church within the compound is the Church of St. Charalambos, erected in 1798. Carved wooden screens with scenes of martyrdom and a wooden panel over the altar are the few embellishments present.

Dramatic location

The monastery of Rousanou, named after its founder and built around 1280, occupies a more dramatic location on the pinnacle of narrow peak with a narrow set of steps leading up to the entrance. Such is the limitation of space for this monastery that the balcony from the reception hangs over the rock face, hundreds of mt above the valley floor. This is an ideal location for both a photo shoot and for the heart to skip more than a few beats. The church is a cruciform-shaped, two-columned nave structure with a dome and adorned with paintings of exceptional quality. It was intriguing how people built these monasteries and churches, let alone access these places. In the beginning, ascetics drove pegs into small crevices and ascended by erecting scaffolding on these pegs. This was followed by rope ladders, which the monks also used to transport tools, tackles and basic provisions on their backs. Pulleys with rope cages were used to transport building materials and anything heavy. The process was slow but the perseverance was exceptional. Having visited these two monasteries in greater detail, we drove around the mountains catching glimpses of the remaining monasteries of Barlaam, Meteoron, Aghia Triada, each just as breathtaking as the other.

The bus ride back to the town of Kalambaka at the end of the day was in total silence. Perhaps, all of us had suddenly become conscious of the stark contrast between the lifestyles of these monks and many of us, surrounded as we are by every conceivable convenience and amenity. Our life had just been put in perspective.