By Father Panayiotis Papageorgiou, Ph.D.
Originally printed Aug. 7, 2011.
It was astonishing as we turned the corner to find ourselves at the feet of these huge boulders — the Meteora (suspended rocks) — rising up from the Thessalian plains. Even more astonishing was the view of red-roofed buildings sitting on top of the boulders. These are monasteries, built hundreds of years ago, where ascetic hermit monks have sought to reach heaven by ascending from the common life of the world around them to a life of continuous prayer, away from the distractions of the world. Today the Meteora is included in the UNESCO Word Heritage List.
Stretching out around the foot of the Meteora are small villages where tourists and pilgrims, like ourselves, seek accommodations for the night. We had booked a room at the Adrachti hotel and went around the base of the mountain following our iPhone GPS trying to locate it.
I was on a special trip with my son and daughter to experience Greece in a way that we had not done before.
Carefully maneuvering the rental VW Passat through the tiny uneven road of the town called Kastraki we ended up at this breathtaking location where an old home was converted into a 12-room hotel. We finally found Adrachti!
To our surprise, the pleasant, welcoming, young hostess/owner spoke impeccable English with a slight British accent and as we quickly found out, she was from Australia married to a local boy. The hotel was financed by a European effort to help small businesses in the countryside.
I looked around in awe at the sandstone rock pillars rising on each side and could not get enough of the view in. This place is amazing.
We quickly unloaded our suitcases and moved into our very nice room. Wood and stone had been combined to create elegance and comfort with a rustic touch. The view of the Meteora flooded our senses as we opened the curtains. We turned on the air-conditioner to cool off. Greece had been engulfed for days by a heat-wave, not unusual for the middle of July.
We could not wait to see the monasteries. After receiving directions from our host, who had returned to take over from his wife — a pleasant Greek chap with a very thoughtful and mature look at life — we took off driving up a side road weaving through the rising rocks and getting closer to the summits. We had to hurry to catch the St. Stephanos monastery (today inhabited by Orthodox nuns) before it closed at 5:30 pm; the six major monasteries found here have set hours for visitors because the monastics have been overwhelmed by pilgrims and tourists alike who arrive by the busloads not only from Greece, but also from Europe, the Balkan countries and even as far as Rumania and Russia. They take turns in closing up completely to visitors one day a week. St. Stephanos is closed on Tuesday. Today is Monday. This was our last chance to get in.
As we ascended, the view became even more breathtaking. The monasteries sitting securely at the summits of the rock pillars seemed as if they were there to decorate and complete the natural look of the stone. As our car moved through the pillars of rock we noticed cracks and crevices on the sides of the mountains that seemed to have been inhabited at some point. Here hermits came over a thousand years ago and made their abodes, building wooden stairs from the bottom to reach the crevices and setting up their dwellings between the cracks of the rocks. Today, the noise from the towns underneath has driven them away, looking for more remote and secluded spots.
At St. Stephanos, more than thirty nuns live in seclusion on the summit of one of the pillars, separated by a wooden bridge from the rest of us. Years ago, the only way into the monasteries of Meteora was in a basket hanging from a rope. Today we drive up; even here the world has made its inroads. We hurried along with the other visitors through the low entrance into the courtyard and headed for the church as time was running out.
The interior of the monastery has the classic arrangement of the monastic communities of Mount Athos, except that space is of a premium and has been used cleverly to serve their needs. The nuns were pleasant and eager to offer hospitality. After venerating at the ancient church, whose interior walls are covered with frescos of saints and biblical depictions, we were taken into the “archontariki” (where guests are received) and offered sweets and lemonade. This is not a museum, but rather a living community. Several of the nuns came over to greet us and offer small gifts for us to take with us. They were thrilled to find out that we live in America. We discovered that they knew our bishop Alexios of Atlanta who comes here to visit almost every year. They kept asking questions about life and the state of the Christian faith in America. We were glad to share our experiences and tell them about the many who thirst and hunger for authentic Christianity in the new world. Time flew, it was past 6:00 pm. The bell started ringing calling the nuns to the Vespers prayers. I got up to leave apologizing for occupying them for so long. They were very gracious, not showing any sign of wanting to rush us out.
We were the last ones to walk back out over the wooden bridge. The nun who escorted us to the door waited for us to cross over before she remotely shut the metal gate behind us before the bridge. They would not open up again until Wednesday.
We drove back, filled with joy at the hospitality of the nuns, but also with a certain pain in the heart that we live so far away and would not see them again for a long time, if ever. We stopped to take pictures from certain angles as the sun was setting and casting its rays from the West, treasuring those few minutes we spent with these women who have left the world to live a life of unceasing prayer and positioned themselves on these pillars rising up toward heaven as if to be closer to God even physically!
We headed downhill planning how to enjoy the evening in the town underneath and also get some needed rest so that we can continue our pilgrimage to the other five monasteries in the morning.