Friday, 11 April 2014

42. Wonder: Meteora

(For the Meteora preview, please click here.)

Some places are like a fairytale. They appear to belong to some other world, enchantment hanging in the air. In central Greece is one such place. The strange rock formation known as Meteora eased into vision as our train approached the small town of Kalambaka. By the time Danielle and I had stepped off the train into the arms of a taxi driver, there was no mistaking it - an awesome wall of rock rising vertically, dominating Kalambaka's humble whitewashed walls and red-tiled roofs. In shades of greys and browns, the pockmarked rock slabs are a stark and ominous entity. Everything else seemed tiny in comparison. We felt even smaller by the time our taxi driver had driven us out of Kalambaka to our guesthouse in the village of Kastraki, where improbably-shaped and massive pinnacles clustered, partly surrounding, as though misshapen fingers of a giant's hand poised to grab the village out of existence.

But this isn't the fairytale. This is just a series of weird rock formations. The fairytale is what sits on top of some of these rocks: medieval monasteries. Let's cut to the chase, this is what they look like:

In order, these are: the Monastery of the Great Meteoron, the Monastery of Varlaam, the Monastery of Rousanou, the Monastery of St Nicholas Anapafasas, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, and the Monastery of St Stephen.

Meteora is a strange and wonderful place, and testament to the dedication of monks doing things the hard way. Let's make a quick distinction between the different types of monks. In western Europe, the traditional monks we think of are the Franciscan monks, formed in the 13th Century, or the much earlier Benedictine monks coming from way back in the 6th Century. Clad in brown, grey, or especially in the Benedictine's case, black robes, these monks were quiet beacons of civilisation in a world where society had collapsed following the end of the Roman Empire. They established monasteries, and through them quietly kept alive learning and culture throughout the Dark Ages. Packing your son off to a monastery was a way to ensure he got an education. But in the east, things were different. Society continued, the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire flourished, and monks weren't so concerned about general learning. Their learning could be "purer", devoted only to God. This created a more single-minded breed of monk, far more interested in leading a hermitic lifestyle than his western counterparts. For them, simply going to church and having a pray wasn't enough, they needed to take things a step further. They needed total isolation to devote their time into whipping themselves into a trance-like state in order to receive a divine vision. Well, you don't get that in a church, and for some even an existing monastery wasn't remote enough. You need the absolute middle of nowhere, somewhere where there's no chance of anybody stumbling over you, or interrupting your endless chanting. The remote rocks of Meteora were a perfect fit.

The history of Meteora is a murky one. As though removed from time and space, it is absent from any ancient history going right up until medieval times. Neither Greeks nor Romans thought the formations worth noting, at least as far as we know. The appearance of monasteries upon them likewise failed to capture the interest of historians - all we know about them is from the monasteries' own archives. And most of that is extrapolated from legal documents rather than any deliberate histories. Even 19th Century western travellers to Greece bypassed the area, more interested in the Classical monuments than a bunch of medieval monasteries. For all we know, the monks might have just made everything up, a bunch of elaborate fabrications .

But assuming we can trust the monks - and if you can't trust a monk, then who can you trust? - then history in Meteora begins in the early 14th Century. Likely, a few other hermits had been kicking around before then, with some traditions suggesting as early as the 10th Century, but this would have been low-level hermitting at best. Today, seeing the monasteries perched on peaks, it is the height and seeming inaccessibility that immediately appeals; but for the monks it was the remoteness of the location that worked for them, and the caves, and so the history begins with Doupiani. Doupiani is taken from the Serbian "dupljane", which means "hollow" or "cavity". The site is long abandoned, but in the 14th Century arose as a small community of monks, though hardly yet a monastery. The ruins of the small monastery that was later built can still be seen if you look closely, although the site is entirely unmarked. I spent the best part of an hour trying to figure out how on earth to reach them without seriously risking my life, before concluding there was no way. The monks had really wanted to find some solitude.

Therefore rocks and height didn’t first attract hermits, it was remoteness and caves. But this was just the beginning, and in the 1340s, things got real when a hermit monk called Athanasios appeared. He amassed a small group of followers, but soon got fed up with having to climb back down from his rock to go to church every Sunday - so he brought the church to the rock. The greatest of all Meteora's monasteries was founded, the appropriately-named Great Meteoron (which in fact lends its name to the area). The remote, isolated monks of Meteora had begun to organise themselves.

While this hardly sparked a dramatic influx of hermit monks, it's fair to say that word of mouth seems to have spread, and Meteora developed into a series of monasteries. Local tradition claims at least 24 monasteries in its heyday, with actual historical records noting fourteen by the early 16th Century, going up to nineteen by the 17th Century. But several of these were just offshoots of larger monasteries; perhaps around twelve is a more likely number.

There are six today, as pictured above, with the rest ruined almost beyond any recognition. Over the course of a couple of days, Danielle and I went to explore them. The village of Kastraki is a perfect launchpad for this, being an easy and pleasant walk away. The weather was perfect spring loveliness as we ventured out - warm, fresh, and sunny - and the views of the colossal rock slabs that comprise the compact range of Meteora breathtaking, unfailingly so. The paths and road were steep, but steadily so - this was no Inca Trail - and Meteora had a peculiar quality of changing its appearance gradually as we strolled. Pinnacles seemed to move position in relation to neighbouring rocks; the formations appeared to alter. The rocks are so large and irregular that what from one angle looks like a spike from another becomes just a ridge with a sudden drop. One rock suddenly becomes two rocks, separated by a sheer chasm. Though the rocks are sheer dark slabs, everywhere else is leafy, green, filled with nature. The walk to the monasteries was a magical one. The fairytale was beginning.

Yet, we were alone on our fairytale walk. Most people choose to drive, take a taxi, or surely the most reprehensible way to visit anything on earth, join a dreaded tour group. Outside the monasteries (mostly just the Great Meteoron and Varlaam really) rows of giant white buses were parked. Sometimes a throng of awful children or grim-faced Russians congregated; worse, sometimes they were packing the monastery. "Here we are guys, one hour here, then the next monastery." What a horrible way to visit places. It entirely misses the point. Our walk was a peaceful one of slow-moving fantasy scenery, building the background to these improbable sky-high monasteries. Theirs was a rapid-fire highlights tour, like watching the goals rather than the whole game. Sure, you've seen something nice; no, you've not really experienced it.

But my Wonders tour has made me very hardline with such matters. Like a monk, I've developed something of a single-mindedness in my approach.

There are many routes you can go to visit the monasteries. From Kastraki, the first you see is the Monastery of St Nicholas Apapafsas, seemingly growing from the rock, continuing its vertical lines. But this wasn't the first we visited. Choosing the scenic route, a charming little forest walk, we appeared by the backdoor of Varlaam.

After the Great Meteoron, Varlaam is probably the next most significant of the monasteries. To my eyes, it's more impressive. It was established in 1350 by a monk called Varlaam, then deserted, until resettled in 1518 by two brothers - actual brothers, I'm led to believe, not just monkly brothers - called Nektarios and Theophanus. Built sprawling across the peak of a 373-metre high rock, it's a dramatic sight. All the monasteries conform to a general plan in the Orthodox style of the monasteries found in Mount Athos, so they are not unique constructions in themselves; rather it is how they conform to this plan that makes them special, adjusting to the physical limitations imposed by the rock, with the unique setting this then offers. Varlaam, like the others, has a central court dominated by the katholikon, that is, the central church. Surrounding this are offices, monks' cells, chapels, a kitchen, refectory, and cloisters. Defensive walls are, as you'd imagine, not required. Deep cisterns, or reservoirs are cut into the rock which gather rain water: obviously there was no running water at this height, and the effort of transporting water up hundreds of vertical metres would barely have been possible. Collection and rationing of rainwater was the way to go, although by the end of summer the stinking, stagnant water would have become more a grim necessity than a pleasure.

Varlaam's katholikon is a gorgeous brick-and-stone thing. It was apparently built in just 20 days, after having collected materials on top for 22 years. Theophanus, by now an old man, was said to have been on his deathbed during its construction, but upon hearing of its completion managed to rise from his bed and see it, raise his hands in the air in praise - then go back to bed and promptly die. It's gorgeous on the outside, and equally gorgeous on the inside. There's supposed to be a no-photo policy of the interior of the churches, so... sorry...

If everything looks like it's in good condition for a 500-year-old monastery, then you're right, it is. The six active monasteries have been extensively renovated over the last few decades, following war damage and simple aging. In the past, benefactors gave them money or, even better, land from which the monasteries could generate money, but these days, tourism is now the big moneyspinner: 3 entry per person, and there are quite a lot of people. Renovations have converted areas of the monasteries into small gift shops and museums, although these aren't garishly done, and they've avoided the temptation for cafes or holiday stays. The upside of it all is that all six monasteries are today in great condition, looking a lot newer than their age. As these are still living, breathing monasteries, this fresh, clean look seems appropriate.

Like the other remaining monasteries, Varlaam is today accessed by climbing a winding path of steps - 195 if you're counting (I wasn't, I just took the figure from a book). These are not original features, they were cut in the 1920s by order of the Bishop of Trikala, whose jurisdiction Meteora had come under since 1899. It seems likely the the bishop wanted to keep an eye on the monks without risking his life every time he paid a visit. And it's perhaps a good thing for the tour groups that he did so - I'm not sure they'd have appreciated the former method: being put in a net and hauled up to the top by a rope and pulley system, a hundred metres or more, swinging around in the wind, at the mercy of God and the strength of the rope. Rope ladders were provided as an alternative. Like Mont Saint-Michel and its rapid tides and quicksand, this one-time perilous inaccessibility is part of the legend of Meteora's monasteries. As it happens, the pull-it-up method is still used today for getting supplies, although the mechanisms are modernised.

In case you think life in a monastery was all peace, quiet, and endless heavenly reflection, all that space and time sometimes caused monks to stew. Varlaam is very near the Great Meteoron, and it seems that the monks of the Great Meteoron didn't take kindly to this upstart appearing nearby. The monks of Varlaam planted a lovely garden, it is recorded, and the Meteoron monks watched it jealously. After long conspiring, they paid Varlaam a visit - and hacked the garden to pieces with 40 axes. Between 1564 and 1582, numerous disputes between the two arose, so often that the church patriarchs of Constantinople had to intervene, and actually threaten them with ex-communciation.

Much of the other trivial incidents over the centuries are now lost though, never recorded. Mostly, daily life was quiet. On Sundays and feast days, the monks would sing hymns throughout the night, for the rest of the week it was prayers for half the night. Meals were just once a day - bread, beans, water, and a little fruit or vegetables, but nothing like fish, cheese, or milk, and certainly not wine. They ate alone. It was a quiet existence.

When there are six different monasteries, inevitably you end up comparing which you like best. I think Varlaam was our favourite. It's big and dramatic, the details attractive, and has the added quirky feature of a giant rock by its entrance.

But all the others have their different charms and personalities too. The Great Meteoron isn't just the oldest monastery, it's also the biggest. From the outside, it doesn't appear to have quite the improbable appeal of inaccessibility that the others do, but inside it's surprisingly spacious and is probably the most interesting to wander around. Its katholikon is beautiful.

For many, Rousanou Monastery might be the favourite. It's now a nunnery, as it happens. Probably, it's the prettiest of them all, the most fairytale, although it's smaller and a much more limited visiting experience. The two bridges - only built in the last century - linking it to the real world are its most characteristic feature.

Probably named after an early benefactor, St Nicholas Anapafsas is close to but a little lower down than the Great Meteoron and Varlaam, but some might regard it as the cutest, like a baby brother. Nonetheless, the rock is 85 metres high. It's a small monastery, with a lovely terrace at its peak, and a cute little bell tower that, oddly, had speakers playing local radio next to it. Most intriguingly, looking over a wall, there is a single, sheer pinnacle of rock just below, with the remains of some kind of construction on it. The rock is so inaccessible, it just begs the question that hang over all of Meteora - how on earth did they get there? Let alone, how did they then build stuff up there?

Nearby are more inaccessible ruins, a church called Agia Moni. Again - how?

Overlooking Kalambaka, the other two monasteries - St Stephen's Monastery (now a nunnery) and the Monastery of the Holy Trinity are a little adrift from the rest, on the other side of the Meteora rock formation, about an hour-and-a-half's casual stroll. The third oldest monastery, established in the 14th Century with the katholikon built in 1476 after 70 years of getting the materials to the top, the Holy Trinity is particularly spectacular.

The town of Kalambaka is a steep walk down from Holy Trinity, and along the way, on the adjacent peaks, towering way above us, I saw yet more ruins. Really - how?

I loved visiting Meteora, and would happily return in a heartbeat. The scenery is spectacular, the monasteries enchanting, the walking never too strenuous. I was absolutely fascinated by the glimpses of ruins, often in the distance, and would love to be able to reach them, albeit likely at great danger to myself. The entire place is magical.

In terms of being a Wonder, however, we need to remember what I'm looking for: man-made Wonders. Of course, many of my Wonders blur the boundaries between natural and man-made - the Banaue Rice Terraces, Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China to name but a few. Nature plus man can be a potent combination. But there needs to be an awareness as to what the exact appreciation of the scene really is. Plonk a hut on Mount Everest, and your appreciation is the incredible mountain, with a nice hut on the side. Build the Great Wall for thousands of miles along the crest of mountain ridges, and the appreciation is the incredible snaking wall that goes on and on along the top of peaks and ridges, with terrific surroundings. Mount Everest will look amazing with or without the hut; the northern Chinese mountains become something truly special precisely because of the Great Wall. For one, the appreciation is nature, the other it's man, despite both having a say in each scene.

What is it then for Meteora? Because there's no doubt these monasteries are great. Take them off the mountain and put them in fields and they'd still be cute, but they wouldn't be so spectacular. But we could say the same for Machu Picchu; the difference, however, is that the sprawling Machu Picchu defines the scene. The monasteries of Meteora do not. They are a little like the Cristo Redentor in that they are part of a fantastic landscape, and enhance it like multiple cherries on top. But the crazy cliffs and vertical chunks of rock that make up Meteora would be fantastic regardless. The monasteries are captivating and incredible achievements by a bunch of single-minded monks with an unintended eye for the fairytale, but their natural surroundings are dominant.

Some criteria then.

Size: Shorn from their scenery, the monasteries themselves are just regular Orthodox monasteries, and not particulaly massive. Of course, including the rocks, they become hundreds of metres high.
Engineering: Impressive for their location and the limited means available in building. The constructions, per se, are not ground-breaking.
Artistry: Of the Orthodox style, but well done, well maintained, and hugely charming to walk around. The katholikon interiors are gorgeous
Age/Durability: Around 500 years old, although we see a very refurbished version.
Fame/Iconicity: Overshadowed by Greece's more ancient monuments.
Context: Truly spectacular, as part of a weird range of rocks and peaks. They attain a fairytale quality.
Back Story: An intriguing series of tales and half-truths, shrouded in rather a lot of mystery.
Uniqueness/Originality: They're not the only mountainous monasteries in the world - monks everywhere love to build inaccessible monasteries - but they have a very special quality.
Wow Factor: The main "wow" is simply reserved for the rocks, but the monasteries themselves look amazing on top.

Meteora is very, very special, and has been one of my favourite places to visit. I want to go back. I could spend days and days wandering in the spring sunshine, exploring (or trying to explore) ruins, visiting monasteries, dodging rocks from mysterious forces, and admiring the awesome landscape. It's a very special place, and I absolutely recommend it - although I suspect the main two monasteries could be clogged by tour groups in summer. As a Wonder, I'd put it firmly in the category of the Cristo Redentor - the "cherry-on-top" style of Wonder, complementing a fantastic scene, but not entirely defining it. However, the greater history and intrigue of the monasteries definitely elevate it above Rio's iconic statue. Furthermore, and no doubt some would disagree with me, I'd also put it above Greece's premier attraction, the Parthenon, which survives by its epic history and reputation, but is a shadow of its former self. That's where Meteora finds itself, sneaking above the Parthenon, but below the majestic cathedrals of London and Paris, St Paul's and the Notre-Dame.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Sydney Opera House

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Nazca Lines
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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