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