Greece's Fingers of God

Article excerpt

While travelers flock to Athens, turning it into an anthill of tourism, and cruise ships clog its harbors, there lies nestled in the mountains of central Greece, a land that only the most intrepid travelers find, and time seems to have forgotten.

Giant fingers of granite rise up out of the Kalambaka valley like the hands of God reaching toward heaven. Perched miraculously on the tips of these fingers are five ancient monasteries and one convent, all of which are active and thriving today.

The area is called Meteoras and it literally means "up in the clouds."

In the 11th century holy monks began to occupy natural caves carved high high up in the rock face by wind and erosion. These are sandstone and conglomerate rocks, raised to their current levels by a massive earthquake now lost in the fog of time. They were a perfect refuge from the distractions of civilization and a quiet place in which to lead a life of contemplation and meditation.

These hermit caves can still be seen from the highway. Some are hundreds of feet up the sides of sheer cliffs and once inside the occupant was there to stay. Today they make for popular rest stops for the numerous rock climbers that flock here to scale these eerie looking peaks. You can also tell you are getting close when you start passing motorists driving while straining into the windshield and looking up.

The oldest monastery was begun in 1382 during an invasion and occupation by the Turks, when local monks kept climbing higher to avoid the looting and banditry infecting the area. Once atop these almost inaccessible peaks they lowered rope ladders to friends on the ground that sent up building materials and food.

A system of levered pulleys with large baskets followed, and that is how they bring up their supplies to this day. Now there are roads connecting all the buildings, but the inhabitants mostly use the old baskets and even have a hand pulled cable car system for crossing some of the deeper chasms. Creaking cables cause all eyes to look up at a basket full of monks inching along a tiny cable a thousand feet above the valley floor.

The natural rock buildings blend so evenly with the scenery, they are hard to spot at first. Only the red tile roofs give them away. Centuries of weather have caused streaking of the granite that acts as a natural camouflage. A plaque over one monastery door giving the history of the valley says the streaks are monk's tears, crying for the sins of the outside world.

Upon its completion, the monastery Megalo Meteoro or Metamorphosis, claimed the former Serbian Emperor, Symeon Uros as a monk. He gave the bulk of his wealth to his new home and had the interior frescoed with gruesome scenes of Romans persecuting Christians. A visit to the main chapel is a tour through a Bosch painting where blood and torn flesh is the order of the day.

Next in time came the Agia Triada or Holy Trinity monastery built during the 15th century. It is the most photogenic of them all and even starred in the James Bond Movie, "For Your Eyes Only." Today Agis Triada is the poster ad for all of Meteoras. Even with the modern parking lot at its base, a visitor must climb 140 steps cut into the rock wall. It sits on the steepest and most isolated of all the granite fingers.

Two monks who named it for an esthetic hermit that had originally occupied the mountaintop founded the Varlaam Monastery in 1517. It houses a valuable collection of Byzantine relics, from carved crosses and icons to intricately embroidered altar vestments. A famous muralist named Frangos Katelanos frescoes its interior.

Two brothers, building upon the old site of a former church founded the Roussanou Monastery in 1545. It is the most inaccessible having to cross a wooden bridge between two granite fingers to reach its drawgate, and is known for its icon collection.

Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas was named for a patron responsible for funding its construction in the 16th century. …