Meteora Stories and Tips

Varlaam Monastery - Monks, icons and a terrifying way of ascent

View from Varlaam monastery Photo, Meteora, Greece

In medieval times there was only one way of reaching Varlaam monastery - winch and net.

A visitor could be hauled up in a rope net - half an hour of giddy twirling with the only sound being the rope slipping through the capstan. What thoughts accompanied these early visitors as they ascended? How strong is the rope? What if it broke? The terrified visitor must have been sweating profusely; imagining the drop hundreds of feet to the rocks below.

Nowadays there is a rope footbridge from a cleft sticking out of the Pindos mountains. Most of the monasteries have precarious and genuinely dangerous ways of access. Varlaam was first settled by hermits in 1350 and they were shown the way to the summit by local mountaineering guides. Later the sheer rocks were scaled with scaffolding which was a set of timbers wedged into crevices. Later they used colossal ladders to ascend to the top.

Every visitor can't help but put themselves in ancient shoes and imagining themselves being winched up by creaking rope. But nowadays Varlaam is one of the easiest monasteries to visit as it and "Great Meteora" are connected to Kalambaka by bus in the summer and there is a simple rope bridge and stone steps connecting it with the outside world. Varlaam is one of the most beautiful of the monasteries. It started as a hermetic retreat for the monk Varlaam and consisted of a chapel and a few small cells. During Renaissance times patrons from the nearby cities of Ioannina and Trikala supported the church. Varlaam was rich and its fame and prominence meant it garnered many religious treasures.

A ten minute drive up from Kastraki brings you to the carpark outside Varlaam. Get there as early as possible as in summer it gets very crowded although the tour parties seemed to have worked out a ruse of getting there when it opens at 9am. But as you get close the whole thing looks like a Gothic fairytale. With its red sloping roofs, small church domes and streaked rock it did look like something out of a fantasy genre. The rope bridge over the 500ft chasm is easily traversed then it is up a set of stone stairs that wind around the rock. The views from here are unbelievable. We were on one of the furthest titanic rocks and had a whole valley tens of miles wide between Varlaam and the next set. The rocks across the valley were miles wide and thousands of feet high.

When you climb the steps and pass through the doors you will be led into the courtyard and loggia. The courtyard has a balustrade which has magnificent views of the plain of Thessaly. Around here you will also see bearded monks as this is a working monastery. Most are very young, bearded and very polite - they must be used to dealing with hundreds of tourists. Most tourists head for the chapel and this is where the crowds build up. It's very small and dark (not more than ten foot wide) but is covered from top to bottom in peeling 14th century frescoes. The frescoes showed "the judgement of sinners" with those not making the grade being devoured by a huge fish/sea dragon. The pictures were much of a same - either the damned being consumed by hellfire or medieval patriarchs glaring back at me from the walls.

This is the first time I had been in an orthodox church. Our churches are grey and stone but are spacious. The Greeks/Slavs/Russians keep theirs in semi-darkness with golden candelabras suspended from the ceiling. The treasury was next door with ceremonial robes on display, copies of the bible, and icons hundreds of years old and encrusted with precious stones. More interesting was the winch room which had a metal basket suspended above the void with metal runners allowing it to be swung into the monastery. The monks supplies are still received this way. Finally, it wasn't all doom and gloom at the monastery. Nearby was a 16th century colossal wine barrel standing 8ft high. Imagine the amount of wine that contained. I couldn't resist the joke once everyone had crowded in.

"Now I can see the point of being a monk..."

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