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