• Thursday , 23 May 2019

Kalambaka and the monasteries of Meteora

(4) View to monastery of St. Barbara from All Saints or Varlaam monastery

Kalambaka is dominated by the enormous monoliths and mountains to which cling the monasteries of Meteora. Here also are the snow-capped Pindos mountains, and Kalambaka lies on a plain beneath. These monasteries look as though they are grafted to the rock, as if they have grown at bizarre heights from the very substance of the monoliths. There is little distinction from afar of where the base of the man-made walls meet the rocks upon which they sit. I am on a bus, and as it drives away from the town and up into the mountains, the sheer scale of these monoliths is overwhelming. It is a foggy day, and when the bus stops on the road near one of the monasteries, the fog sweeps over it and obscures it from view, so that all that can be seen is the cable car that gives access to the monastery, its taut cables disappearing into the blank mist. From there, I move onwards and visit the monastery of St. Stephen, which is inhabited by nuns. There is a prime view from here of Kalambaka. It is up so high that it is a true aerial view. I see from here a green mountain, strange and beautiful in profile, standing alone. I enter the monastery via a bridge and am admitted into courtyards that nestle within the outer mass of the building. There are many minute level changes within the complex. One of the courtyards has a small garden to one side of it and looking over the edge of the rail and a shingled roof, I see Kalambaka again, spread out below. I turn away from the edge and enter into the church, the inside of which is warm and heavily decorated. It has a cruciform plan. There is a smell of incense on the air and there are ornamented timber seats and gilded walls. After leaving St. Stephen’s, I go to All Saints or Varlaam monastery, which houses monks. The entrance is through a small gate that leads to a path which winds around one rock, crosses a bridge to another and ascends this via hundreds of steps. On crossing the bridge, I see a cable car moving to another monastery off to the right and higher even than Varlaam. The smooth beige rock upon which the monastery is set is covered in green moss; that, combined with its gigantic scale and the white vapour gathered on it, makes it seem other-worldly. At the top of the steps, there is a final small bridge to the entrance, which has heavy timber doors, and then I am in the monastery. Like the last, this one has many level changes, but this time with whole rooms below the main ground level. There is a room with artefacts, vestments and old manuscripts from the monastery on display in it. From a courtyard outside, there is a view to the monastery of St. Barbara growing out of a rock below. A road winds through the valley and opposite there are caves in the face of the mountain. Kalambaka cannot be seen from here; I am far removed from it at this stage. I ascend to the winch tower, which, I am told, would have provided the original point of access to the monastery via a basket. I leave the monastery and descend the steps until I pass through the gate again and am back on the bus. I see ruined, inaccessible monasteries and more caves from the window of the bus as it nears the town of Kastraki and winds its way around the mountains back to Kalambaka.

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