Continued from yesterday”¦ When we left from the hotel, the bus headed northeast, slowly winding its way down the steep mountain towards the beautiful ocean below. Once we got to the shore of the Gulf of Malis, we turned northwest into a large valley of farmland.
We were surprised to find that a big chunk of this valley is man made land. Our tour guide told us 70% of Greece is mountainous, but our guidebook said 80%. We wonder if the disparity in the numbers has to do with all this relatively recently reclaimed land we have been driving through the last couple days?
We climbed up a narrow mountain range. As we neared the top, we could see ahead of us was yet another large farm valley, called the Plain of Thessaly. This is a natural valley. As we descended, we could see our destination ahead, the closest of the mountains at the north end of the valley, somewhat isolated from the rest. It is called Meteora, which means “suspended in the air”.
As we drove through the Plain of Thessaly, we found out that we were in the heart of central Greece, in an area known as the “bread basket”. This area gets the most annual rainfall, and is the most fertile. The day was almost over, so we stopped at a hotel about 5 km away from the mountain for the night.
We piled back in the bus at 0830. We drove the 5 kilometers to the town at the base of the mountain, called Kalambaka, then the bus began to wind its way up. It wasn’t until we were climbing into the hills that we realized this mountain houses a series of sharp, vertical sandstone rocks. We stopped at a viewpoint and got out. The guide pointed out six monasteries that were all built either at the top of the vertical cliffs, or into caves in the sides of the cliffs. Three were destroyed by an earthquake, three still stood and were actively in use today. The creators of “300” likely used the cliffs these monasteries hang on as the basis for the cliff the oracle was built upon in the movie.
We marveled at the buildings. How did the first person get up there? These buildings were as high as 1800 feet above the plain. The only way up would be to rock climb, and we suspect they might not have had as good safety gear back in the 11th century as they do nowadays. How were simple monks able to make buildings on such a precarious surface as a jagged cliff top? Don’t you need a team of architects and engineers to pull of such a feat? How did they get the building materials up there? Rocks are heavy! The guide told us that goods were lifted up and down using nets or baskets. People were sometimes transported in the nets, as well, or used a rope ladder. He pointed out a box on a pulley system at the monastery closest to us. He said it is still used to transport materials today, which is much easier on a delivery person than taking it to the monastery’s front door. We were lucky enough to be there when a delivery was happening. We watched the box get stuck and the monk hang over the edge of the building, and the very high cliff, trying to get it working again. Scary!
We piled back in and continued upwards. Originally, Meteora was inhabited by a few religious hermits who lived in the caves within the rocks, possibly as far back as the 9th century. The first building was erected at the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th century. By the end of the 12th century, an ascetic community had formed. With the Ottoman occupation in the 1400’s, many people fled to Meteora to escape persecution. Over 20 monasteries were built in total, today only 6 still stand. Meteora was named because the monasteries all seemed to be suspended in the air.
Our first stop was The Holy Monastery of Grand Meteoron, the largest of the monasteries. From the parking lot, we had really good views of a couple of the other near by buildings. The second picture gives you a good sense of how tall and sheer these rocks are.
We turned our attention from the complex we were about to enter. There were a lot of stairs, and we were a tad bit sore from all the hill climbing the last couple days. Bridges and stairs were added to all the monasteries in the 1920’s to make them accessible from the road.
We weren’t really sure what to expect, and were quite surprised by how big and sophisticated the community once was. There was once 300 monks living here, today there three. It was founded in 1340, and structures were steadily added through the 1500’s. It was “embellished” to essentially be a fortress to defend themselves against Turkish attackers.
The first thing we saw as we walked in was”¦ to be continued”¦