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The awe-inspiring sandstone rock pillars of the Meteora rise abruptly, majestically out of the plains of Thessaly in central Greece. There, perched precariously on top of the sheer cliffs, is Greece’s most famous complex of Eastern Orthodox monasteries. Almost like natural extensions of the sandstone, these monasteries give rise to the name “Meteora,” meaning “suspended rocks,” or “suspended in the air.” Immortalised in the James Bond film, For Your Eyes only.

Once covered by the sea, the rocks of Meteora were formed 60 million years ago in a series of tectonic movements. Weathering by the winds, water, and extreme temperatures gave rise to their present shape. Geologists also argue that the prominent horizontal lines on the rocks were formed by the waters of this prehistoric sea.

Meteora was first inhabited by a group of ascetic monks in the 9th century. The sheer cliff walls and the high peaks made it the perfect retreat for these hermit monks, who lived in holes and fissures in the rock, and only met to worship and pray on Sunday and special days. By the 11th or early 12th century, these monks had formed a monastic state, called the Skete of Stagoi, which attracted more ascetic monks to Meteora.

In the 14th century, the monks started to build monasteries on the cliff tops. Accessible only via rope ladders or large nets and baskets attached to winches, all the monks had to do when they felt threatened was pull up the ladders. Legend has it that the ropes were replaced only “when the Lord let them break,” making the ascent an unnerving one, not for the faint hearted. Perched on the forbidding cliffs and protected from the political upheaval at the time, the community blossomed. Between the 14th and the 16th century, 26 monasteries were built.

Today, only six monasteries remain in this UNESCO World Heritage site, and all are open to tourists for a nominal fee. The others lie in ruins, barely noticeable to the visitor who is not on the lookout. The monasteries are now easily accessible, with steps chiseled into the rock face, thus circumventing the need for rope ladders and pulley systems. However, visitors should take note that women may only enter the monasteries run by nuns, and not those for monks. Visitors should also be aware that these are conservative, holy places, and appropriate clothing should be worn.

The largest of the monasteries on Meteora is Great Meteoron, where the old monastery has been converted into a museum. Other monasteries include Varlaam, St. Stephen, Holy Trinity, St. Nicholas Anapausas, and Roussanou. St. Stephen is the most accessible of the monasteries. Built on a plain rather than a cliff top, the monastery is connected to the main road via a drawbridge, compared to the countless steps that have to be scaled at the others

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Additional Photos by Kris Verhoeven (verswe) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Note Writer [C: 61 W: 3 N: 1206] (7330)
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