The Pindus range forms a formidable barrier to passage by land between the Aegean and the Adriatic. High, precipitous mountains with sharp, twisting valleys betwixt and between. This posed a particular problem for the Romans as, stretching from the Gulf of Corinth up into the Balkans, the Pindus divided their European provinces from their Asian ones. Invariably spurred on by a challenge, the Romans used their engineering ingenuity and stubborn determination to hack a route through the middle, the famed Via Egnatia.
For over 2000 years, this route was followed by Byzantines, crusaders and Turks. It was only at Greece’s pre-crisis pinnacle that ambition and method were combined (not forgetting a big dollup of EU funds and the magic of securitisation…) to drive a better route round, over and through the mountains, the Egnatia Odos .
I mention this as, soaring up between Ioannina, our origin, and Meteora, our destination, were those very same Pindus and we were fortunate enough to follow the Egnatia Odos across. This made for a fantastic journey, speeding through the jagged wilderness parallel to the Roman road. Spectacular scenery was a constant only interrupted by dozens of tunnels scoured through the mountains.
At one point we took a wrong turn, diverting us onto the age-old road up the mountain. We soon realised the substantial benefits of all that hard labour. Finding ourselves on a steep, crumbling, windy path framed by limited barriers and mighty drops, we quickly chucked a very precarious “u’ey” and returned to modernity. Given the scale of Greek government inefficiency, I doubt the Egnatia Odos was value for money (it cost billions), but it is nice to think that our generation has mirrored an achievement of the Romans and linked East to West.
All of a sudden, the Pindus fell away before us. The road snaked sharply downwards and we emerged on to a valley floor. To each side, the remnants of the mountains veered away to the side and, before long, Meteora emerged before us. It was quite a sight.
Dozens of giant grey-beige columns of rock spring up into the skies. Coming in an array of sizes and arching shapes, they grow from the earth like an off-the-scale petrified forest. In between, greenery grasps cliff edges, chasms and narrow valleys. Clinging to the top of many of these stacks are centuries old monasteries. If that was not enough, an audience of snow-capped mountains frames the scene. Try as I like to provide a helpful comparison, I have never seen anywhere quite like it.
A startlingly beautiful place to visit, but what drove monks to live here, half way up into the sky? The answer is security. Retreating from the unsettled times that spilt out from the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire, monastic communities sought safety, huddled and cramped onto to the narrow cliff tops.
From humble beginnings, a number of these monasteries grew in stature and grandeur, culminating in a wide array of impressive churches, wealth and power. A mesmerising example is Megalo Meteoron (“the great place suspended in the air”). This is the largest of the monasteries, founded in the fourteenth century and embellished with the riches of a former Serbian king who retired as a monk to contemplation in the clouds. It combines features of a fortress and a palace with the rich frescoes of its domed church at its focal point.
At its peak, there were two dozen monasteries clinging to the precipitous landscape, ranging from simple cave dwellings to the aforementioned quasi-monk-palace. Only six have survived the centuries in active use, and one of my favourite parts of driving the single narrow road that cuts through the landscape and wandering the significantly narrower paths was spotting remnants of those buildings and communities long since vanished. Half a crumbling wall on a column peak, signs of an old alter in a cave.
On first seeing the monasteries the second thought that jumps to mind (the first being “wow”) is “how the hell do you get up there?” The flip side of a formidable impediment to those wishing to sack and steal, is a major challenge for day-to-day living of the residents. Clearly it helped (and indeed helps – Meteora is still an active monastic community) that monks have a habit of keeping themselves to themselves, but occasional access to the world is essential. The reality is that different monasteries overcame the problem in different ways.
My favourite is clearly the systems of pulleys and nets. The idea of bearded monks being lowered down ravines in giant rope nets is wonderfully absurd and fantastically real. At the monastery of Varlaam the monks had to be hauled over 300m up a vertical cliff!
In other monasteries, series of steps hewn out the side and, in some cases, insides of the rock columns are the only way up. We had loads of fun trekking up these uneven winding walkways with Niko and Alexi strapped to our backs. Unfortunately, they would not let us in the nets.
Once at the top, the interior of the monasteries were fascinating, providing a window into a rare continuous past in Greece. Places of high learning in the Byzantine style, fused with practicalities of self-sufficient communal life in the clouds – opulent gilded churches rubbed shoulders with bakeries and breweries.
Fascinating as this all was, nature won out for my attention. The stack-top views were amongst the most jaw dropping I have witnessed anywhere in the world. Each different angle provided another marvel. The pictures barely do it justice, but beat my words.
As a parting comment, I think it fitting to share my favourite experience of our visit, an enchanting fusion of man and nature. Snaking up the winding lower road from Kalabaka in the late afternoon, we had decided to try and explore one more monastery before the day came to its close. Settling on the nunnery of Rousanou, we parked up the car and started on the circling climb up to the entrance. As we reached the narrow high bridge which linked to convent to the outer world, we took a moment to look back from where we came. The sun was beginning to set, shooting softened colours across the bewitching landscape. After dropping sharply into the narrow, twisting valleys, the land rose as two giant columns, framing the horizon.
We knocked and were greeted by an old nun. We had clearly missed visiting hours, but she kindly let us in. Consequently, we were left on our own to explore the centuries old surroundings without the bustle of fellow tourists. We declined an invitation to a service commencing in the small frescoed chapel which sat at the centre of the dwellings, but benefited from the chanting second-hand as we lingered in the background. I was transported beyond the norm, listening to the mesmeric verses while peering out a narrow window to the world which lay precariously below and beyond this mountain top refuge. A brief glimpse into the lives of the dozens of nuns (and monks before them) who devoted their lives to worship in this remarkable place.
COMPLETING THE CIRCLE - ATHENS BOUND
Sad that our time in Meteora had been too short, we jumped back in the car and set out on the last leg of our road trip around north-west Greece.
Descending from Kalabaka, we were soon on the plain off Thessaly. Yet again on this trip we were passing through an area of Greece that defied my preconceptions. No longer mountains, swamps or islands, we were crossing a land that was dead flat fertile fields from horizon to horizon. We were in the Kansas of Greece.
The novelty soon wore off. After a couple of hours on the road, it was a joy to reach the edge of the plateau and climb up and over the hills to the south. As we made our way back onto the Ethniki Odos (the national road), I was excited by the planned stop-off ahead of us. Thermopylae. To anyone interested in the history of Europe (or a fan of the movie “300”), the name conjures up heroic images from a time when the history of Greece, and arguably Western civilisation more generally, stood at a perilous cross roads. Leonidas and his men perished at the hot gates, holding up the advance of the mighty Persian army just long enough to allow a coalition of Greeks to steel themselves and sent the Persians packing at the epic encounters of Salamis and, eventually, Plataea.
What did we find? A hot spa and tacky statue. Even the sea had left. What was once the cliffs crashing down into the sea, with only the hot gates to let passers through, was now hills falling on a marsh plain. Over the intervening 2,500-plus years the sea has retreated a couple of miles and took the original iconic setting with it.
With the beautiful views of the Evian channel to console us, we drove on into Attica and back to where we started, the northern suburbs of Athens. It was just a glimpse, but the other side of Greece was truly impressive. There is so much more to this country than I realised. So much more to discover…