a change of plan, hitching a ride

and the biggest, oldest monastery of them all

written by Krystene Vickers

Meteora's giant rock formations soar in grandeur around me, as I linger on our balcony trying to memorise this jaw-dropping view. Everything is quiet and still, except for a cat stealthily making its way along a garden wall below me. It is our last day here in Kastraki and I'm a little sad.

Today we are heading to the Monastery of St. Nikolaos Anapafsas, a mere 1km
away. A short stroll for us two-day hiking veterans of Meteora. We wander down
through the now familiar streets of Kastraki. The stone wall of a tiny chapel glows
warmly in the morning sun and the village square is effused with golden light as
the sun filters through its autumn coloured trees. All against the ever-present
backdrop of ancient cliffs silhouetted against the morning sky. A tiny part of our
minds still telling us this can't be real. There is such an otherworldly feel here,
the juxtaposition of everyday life against these dramatic landforms is quite
literally mind-boggling.

We make our way past the local school, to the sound of children playing, and
up the hill beyond. Trees casting long shadows and dappled light as the world
wakes to a fresh new day. Soon the monastery appears enticingly before us,
its stone walls like a natural extension of the cliff itself. The building dwarfed
by the massive rock range directly behind it; upon which the morning sun
casts beautiful light and shadow in the vertical and horizontal crevices.

A couple of hikers pass by going the other way. Fellow Meteora travellers,
pilgrims even. We're both feeling very fit and able after all our trekking; two
50-something’s totally sussing it. So we just have to laugh when we arrive
at the monastery a short while later; the gate securely shut with a sign saying:
closed on Fridays. Not quite so sussed after all, and now sad to have missed out
on seeing this monastery.

Pondering our next move, we sit on a bench sipping water and eating humble
pie, a couple of unsuspecting tourists pull up in their rental car beside us. 
A lady steps out and walks over. Seeing my opportunity, I point to the sign,
explain the monastery is closed today, asking where they will head next and
if they would mind giving us a lift. She checks with her son, waiting in the
driver's seat, and beckons us over.

Luxuriating in the air conditioning we are chauffeur driven up to the tiny
Roussanou Monastery we visited the day before. Across the gully, the sight of
Varlaam Monastery beckons once again. Thanking our rescuers, we set out
along yesterdays route, only this time bound for the biggest monastery of them
all: The Great Meteoron, just beyond Varlaam.

Roussanou Monastery (left) and Varlaam Monastery (right)

The view as we wander along the road is no less breathtaking than before,
although today we feel less like visitors and more a sense of belonging somehow.
There is something about this place that draws you. It is easy to understand why
holy men chose to stay here. We walk together quietly lost in our own thoughts,
breathing in each moment of our last day.

Varlaam Monastery

As we near a fork in the road, modern life brings us back to the present once

again. It is no less busy than yesterday and we realise how privileged we have
been experiencing the Holy Trinity and Roussanou monasteries from the quiet
solitude of the hiking trails. Ilias our taxi driver for the sunset last night, told
us many people only spend a few hours in Meteora before returning to Athens.
We are grateful to have had the time to immerse ourselves a little more in this
magical place: the people, history, art, architecture, and incredible landscape.
Ignoring the traffic, we walk on up the hill toward The Great Meteoron Monastery,
pausing regularly to enjoy the stunning views back to the Monastery of Varlaam.

looking back at Varlaam Monastery

Reaching our destination we carefully navigate our way past parked vehicles
and clusters of tourists; some browsing the ubiquitous tent selling tourist tat.
Yes, there were ones outside Varlaam & St Stephen monasteries too, but
thankfully none of the others. After grabbing an ice cold drink, we find a pozzie
under a tree, in a little courtyard to the left, and watch all the people ascend the
stairs zig-zagging up the cliff opposite, like a procession of colourful ants. A
myriad of languages filling the air.

I really can’t emphasize enough how unique and impressive the approach to
each of these monasteries are. Until 1929, the only way to enter or exit was on
precarious wooden ladders hung vertically down a vast rock face, or in rope
baskets hoisted up to a timber platform cantilevered out from the monastery itself.
Seriously scary stuff! These monks were brave souls. Although I cannot imagine
how they negotiated those ladders in their long robes. These and other important
questions flit through my mind. 'Perhaps they wore different clothes for that?' I
mention out loud. Rod suggests I may be over thinking this.

Some of the monasteries have lift-sized boxes suspended from cables, travelling
across from a cliff opposite. Like a rudimentary cable car. Just now, a car comes
into view, silhouetted against the vivid blue sky high above us. It is an open box;
a man standing nonchalantly within, as it slowly makes its way across the ravine
miles below. Brave souls indeed!

Safely down at ground level, seeing a strategic gap in the continuous stream
of visitors, we brave the stairs, head across a flagstone path and then up more
stairs to a solitary ancient studded timber door set into the face of the cliff.
Inside we find ourselves in a cave with a tiny little shrine niche to one side.
The base covered in little prayer papers. On through a narrow passageway hewn
in the rock, we emerge once again into the bright sunshine and begin the steady
climb, single file, up the stairs beyond. Stopping often, not because we are puffed
(honest) but to gaze at the view. The scenery alone is epic (and I don't use the
word lightly), let alone the monasteries themselves; what a feat of construction
perched atop these giant rock formations! Even amidst all the people, its
magnificent presence dominates our consciousness.

Up a final massive flight of stairs, we enter into the delightfully cool dimness
of the main entry and purchase our tickets; receiving a lovely smile and “Parakaló”
response to our “efcharistoúme”. Our pronunciation may be improving?
Beyond we find the largest complex of monastic buildings we have seen so far,
with many levels, courtyards, gardens and a wide-open terrace with stunning views
out to Varlaam, Roussanou and the village of Kastraki far below. The realisation of
how high up we are sinks in. We take time to enjoy the views from every direction,
strategically avoiding the odd person with a selfie stick (deliberate play on words),
before venturing inside.

Here we discover that with a small amount of patience and a fair amount of time
to spare, it is possible to experience this monastery without a throng a people
constantly around you. Although it lacks the quiet tranquility of the others, its
sheer size enables us to quietly explore every aspect in between the crowded
moments. Of all the monasteries, this one has the most diverse array of historical
artifacts, and a strong sense of time encapsulated through the ages. Not only
is it the largest monastery, it is also the oldest still in use today. 

There is so much to see here, in so many different spaces within the complex.
The main cathedral adorned with remarkable frescoes and exquisite furniture.
Museums with icons, ancient texts, monks robes and accessories, all in amazingly
good condition and beautifully displayed. An original kitchen, full of furniture,
devices and cooking utensils used down through the ages. Black and white
photographs, a comprehensive timeline and a huge display of building tools,
garden and farming equipment, give us a vivid insight into the former monks'
way of life.

Fortunately, there are also plenty of quiet places to sit and contemplate everything
we are seeing. Some hours later, as we traverse the dramatic stair and tunnel
down we discuss how awesome it is, despite all the turbulent times humankind
has faced in the last 800 years, these monastic communities have managed to
survive; safeguarding these precious gems and providing us with a rich and
tangible link with the past.

Hotel Pyrgos Adracht, Kastraki
Jaw-dropping view from our bedroom balcony

Meteora is a place everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
But please, not all at once. It would be a shame to overcrowd this truly unique

© All photos have been taken by, and remain the property of Krystene and Rod Vickers


a touch of vertigo, Monty Python

and another living breathing link with the past 

written by Krystene Vickers

At the base of the entry stairs from Roussanou Monastery, we step across a palpable time warp into modern day. The sound of a car, shaking us from our mystical reverie...

 Straight ahead, across a deep wide gully, the sight of Varlaam Monastery beckons.
Another hiking trail is visible down below, running roughly parallel to where
we are standing. However, no path appears to head from our direction and none
is shown on our little map. The road here sweeps around the upper edge,
an occasional vehicle glinting in the sunshine, making its way steadily upwards
to the next monastery. We decide to do the same.

Although now past midday, the September sun is pleasantly warm rather than
exhaustingly hot. We set out single file on the hard shoulder, alongside a
crenellated stone wall; the gaps conveniently providing place to step into
when larger vehicles go past. Evergreen and autumn gold foliage lining the road
providing ever-changing vistas back to Roussanou, ahead to Varlaam and down
into the valley below. From here, a birds-eye view over the enormous rock formations
that towered above us on the walking trail earlier gives a whole new perspective
on this incredible landscape. Despite the modern road beneath our feet, there
is a timeless quality here, unique and almost surreal serenity that is both calming
and exhilaratingVoices of a thousand stories whisper in the trees.

As we near our destination, modern life momentarily overtakes echoes from
the past. Here the roadside is lined with parked cars, and up ahead tour buses
are spilling out their passengers. Seeing an opportunity to delay joining the
jostle of people, we detour left to find a lookout we had seen in the distance,
clearly marked by fellow travellers in classic Instagram poses silhouetted against
the sky. On closer inspection, we discover this will involve clambering up a rocky
outcrop, with only tiny crevice footholds to climb. Rod suggests I go first 'So I can
catch you if you slip,” he says reassuringly. Determined to be brave, and seeing a
10-year-old climb easily down past me, I carefully make my way up, hugging the rock
face as I go, bottom shuffling up the last bit. (Shh, don't tell) Posing triumphantly
for our selfies firmly seated to the spot, we survey the incredible scene before
us, no arms up or star jumps needed.

It is only later while climbing the stairs to Varlaam opposite, we look back and

see the sheer drop of over 100 metres barely a metre from where we’d been sitting.
My legs go wobbly with delayed vertigo!

Miraculously unscathed, we reluctantly return to the swath of parked cars, tour
buses and people. Negotiate our way carefully down the hill to discover an
entryway ingeniously formed between two adjacent rock faces. Narrow stone
walls either side perfectly meshed into the curvature of the rock. Timber doors
sheltered by a tiny roof giving more than a passing resemblance to entryways
typical in China or Japan. The pathway beyond disappears around the rock face
giving an air of mystery and anticipation.

Deciding to wait awhile, we step into the welcome shade of a tree in a quiet and

deserted courtyard to the right, and gaze up at a portion of Varlaam's imposing
facade visible beyond the rock, as we snack on some food and cool drinks.
Gradually returning to the quiet contemplation of before.

Choosing our moment, we head through the doorway when it is relatively empty.
The pathway leads round to a narrow footbridge with well-worn timber treads,
across a deep ravine to a massive vertical rock face beyond. Here a stone walkway
and stairs zig-zag up the cliff to the monastery entry far above. The view straight
up reminiscent of a medieval castle. For one hilarious Monty Python moment Rod,
who has gone ahead, peeks his head out over the stone wall and looks down at me,
like a scene straight out of the 'Holy Grail'!

view back to Roussanou as we climb stairs to Varlaam Monastery

At the top, we disappear into a door in a gap in the rock face, our eyes taking
moment to adjust to the ensuing darkness. Beyond, we discover smaller
scale buildings arranged around courtyards and terraces on different levels,
with beautifully maintained gardens and soft terracotta-coloured stone walls.

The gardens at every one of the monasteries we've visited here have astounded us.
Located as they are at the very pinnacle of solid rock, how did they get the soil
up here? Painstakingly, basket by basket hoisted up on ropes I surmise; like all
the building materials. Absolutely incredible when you think about it. Rather
than being a windswept barren cliff top – which it would indeed have been
when the first monk arrived - everywhere here is full of life, texture and colour.
An amazing legacy to the toil and love of many hands over hundreds of years.

At the edge of the outer terrace sits the rotunda we had spied from the hiking trail
early this morning. Seeing it momentarily people-free, we seat ourselves within
and enjoy the beautifully framed view of Roussanou Monastery far in the distance.
In the opposite direction, the stone walls and terracotta roofs of the monastery buildings
glow warmly in the sunshine. We linger awhile until the sight of two cats sitting on
a wall draws us up some stairs to an upper courtyard beyond.

Here small wrought iron gates, timber doors, archways and colonnades
give tantalizing vistas to spaces beyond. The intricately detailed stonework and
timber arched windows giving it an almost 'Rivendell' feel from Lord of the Rings.
The huge timber barrel we see on display later would not be out of place in 'The Shire',
although a hobbit would have to stand on a fellow hobbit's shoulders to reach the
stopper. This one, however, was used by the monks to store rainwater, not wine.

We quietly explore each of the public spaces, conscious of not wanting to gloss over
the layers of history all around us. There is almost too much to take in and give
the care and undivided attention it deserves. Beautiful artwork, precious artefacts,
ancient texts, exquisite gowns, skillfully crafted furniture, all shine an intriguing
light into another time. Here the past is inextricably linked with the present;
this is a living breathing monastery still in use today, rather than a museum....

© All photos have been taken by and remain the property of Krystene and Rod Vickers


where kindness is in the soil

and secret trails lead to ancient wonders

written by Krystene Vickers

You know those days when everything comes together; those magic moments when you almost have to pinch yourself to make sure it is actually real. The morning we hiked to Roussanou Monastery was a day like that...

We set off from the delightful village of Kastraki in the fresh morning air,
along a hiking trail leading through a narrow pass in the giant rock formations.
Thanks to Thanasis and George at the Pyrgos Adracht hotel where we are staying,
we've been let in on this secret. Only the occasional birdsong and one inquisitive
black squirrel interrupts the quiet stillness, as we make our way up the grassed hill,
through the trees and into the rocky pass. The giant crags either side of us, casting
long dramatic shadows in the early morning light. A chink of blue sky far above,
giving promise to a gorgeous new day.

We have the trail completely to ourselves, and as we begin climbing down the
other side, Rod spots a track leading off to the right. Curious, we follow the detour,
clamber up the boulder it leads to, and discover a natural lookout with a
sublime view. Out across the valley below is the incredible sight of Varlaam
Monastery standing majestically upon its cliff-top edifice and the gorgeous little
Roussanou Monastery extending up from the very top of an impossibly tall and
narrow rock pinnacle. All this against the spectacular backdrop of enormous
cliffs nestled in a sea of green trees, glinting in the morning sun. Ancient wonders
still very much alive.

Emerging from the golden dappled light of trees, a short while later, we are
greeted with the sight of not two, but three monasteries soaring above us.
To our left is Varlaam with its wide façade and distinctive rotunda. Ahead and closer
now, Roussanou soars up through the lush green vegetation like a medieval tower.
And, as we turn to glance back, there is St Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery
linked seamlessly with a natural step in another huge cliff face, its bell
pavilion high above. We notice a honeycomb of monks caves rising vertically within
an enormous rock monolith behind us; handmade timber ladders and platforms
contrasting against their darkened interiors.

The two of us stand transfixed, drinking it all in; not another person in sight.
For a moment, we can almost feel – reach out and touch – those who have
gone before us. Monks, pilgrims, down through the centuries, seeing this same sight
for the very first time. We smile at each other knowing, without uttering a word,
we are both feeling so privileged to be here and totally understand why
this place is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Sometime later, we walk out onto a modern road and the magic begins to
fade a little. Quickly gaining our bearings, we decide to take a shortcut straight
up the hill through a glade of trees; once again leaving the 21st century behind.
Our gamble pays off. Stepping back onto the road at the top, almost directly beneath
Roussanou, we make our way to the entry finding the road momentarily empty
of tour buses, with only a few parked cars. Magic!

From here stone stairs take us up through trees to a narrow footbridge.
This leads directly to a short flight of stairs up onto a small circular stone
platform on the very top of the adjacent pinnacle. A low stone wall around
the perimeter, the only thing between us and a 100-metre sheer drop.
Two flags: Greek and Byzantine, flutter gently in the breeze on poles beside us.
The giddy height and ancient architecture, set against such an extraordinary
landscape, makes it feel very 'other worldly'. There is a tranquil, almost
mystical feel up here. A further flight of stairs, appearing to hover in mid-air,
rises up to a short narrow entry bridge, spanning a scarily vast ravine to the
ancient stone wall and copper clad solid timber door of the monastery itself.

Of all the monasteries, Roussanou is my favourite, so far. This amazing approach
made even more dramatic by the fact that the building we are entering is only
about 5 metres wide at this point; sitting on top of a vast vertical monolith.
And we've traversed two tiny footbridges, a stone landing in between barely the
size of a toddlers paddling pool, literally 100 metres up in the air, to arrive here!

In vivid contrast, the interior is warm and welcoming, homely and personal in
scale and decoration. The nuns appear very much a part of the public realm
here, chatting readily with us as we explore the public areas of the place
they call home. Unlike the two monasteries, we visited yesterday where
the monks or nuns were more hidden away, one or two seen in the distance
tending their garden.

Holy Trinity Monastery was striking in its isolation; approached by tunnel,
walkway and stairs winding up and around a cliff face. Looking down
from the escarpment there, to the town of Kalambaka way below,
exuded such a strong feeling of detachment and refuge. At St Stephens
Monastery we spent ages sitting quietly in the magnificent Agios Stefanos
church, admiring the beautiful frescoes, large intricate candelabra and
ornately carved timber monks chairs, still in use today.

Here at Roussanou, the chapel is like a miniature version, the walls and domed
ceiling still adorned with the dark blue, red and gold frescoes; the atmosphere
one of quiet reverence rather than grand magnificence.  A tiny window
frames a vista of the landscape beyond, projecting a shimmering shaft of
light into the dim yet colourful interior. There are still the characteristic timber
monks chairs, though here carved in a more minimal understated way.

I think I had subconsciously expected all these monasteries to be dour and
sparse somehow, bereft of the niceties of life, cold and damp even. I couldn't
have been more wrong. They all exude life and passion, and are a powerful
testament to the tenacity, commitment and extreme courage of the men
who built them. This one in particular has such a positive feel about it, full of
kindness, warmth and peace. I mention how much I am loving being here,
in this moment. “Where kindness is in the soil.” Rod adds teasingly.

Later, we walk out on to the balcony, replete with bell tower, a little place to sit,
and pots overflowing with colourful flowers. As we stand at the rail, looking across
to Varlaam Monastery, our minds full of history, there is a sudden perception
of movement on our periphery. For a moment, we cannot make out what it is,
and then, as it flies directly in front of us, we find ourselves face to face with
very expensive looking black drone. Both finding this ridiculously funny
in the context, we poke our tongues at it and retreat back inside
to another world...

looking back at Roussanou Monastery as we walk up the road to Varlaam Monastery
walking along the outskirts of Kalambaka, on our way to the Holy Trinity & St Stephens Monasteries
Holy Trinity Monastery from the hiking trail. On the RHS, you can see the stone wall enclosing the stairway hewn in the rock face
stairs up to Holy Trinity Monastery walkway entry hewn in rock face; Kalambaka seen in the distance below

Holy Trinity Monastery

Agios Stefano church at St Stephens Monastery
St Stephens Monastery
St Stephens Monastery

© All photos have been taken by, and remain the property of Krystene and Rod Vickers