Meteora Stories and Tips

The convent of Ayiou Stefanou - nuns, religious icons and a drop to infinity

The monastery at its bleakest Photo, Meteora, Greece

Viewing the monasteries can be terrifying...

At one point I was perched on a rounded rock overlooking the massive valley of the Meteora. The surface was smooth and shiny and the footing was precarious. Genuinely worrying was the other twenty people on this rock all trying to negotiate the tiny space and line up their cameras. Not a place for non-grip footwear. One slip and it was a quick drop into infinity.

But the view was one of the best I have ever seen. In front of us was a plinth of grey rock standing 2,000 ft high. A sense of scale was achieved with the Roussanou monastery at its base perched on its own rock. The medieval roofs of the monastery didn't even reach a fortieth of the size of the rock. The whole vista was breathtaking. It is easy to see why the monks who built these monasteries felt aweinspired by what they saw as Gods works around them.

This viewpoint was in the central part of the Pindos mountains. Not far from Aghia Triada and on the way to the Convent of Ayiou Stefanou. This is where the roads get very twisty, almost every part is a switchback road. And it is also very hard to reach if you have not got your own transport or are not part of a tour. There is a way to hike across country from Varlaam monastery to Roussanou but Ayiou Stefanou is another half hour from there.

But Ayiou Stefanou is worth a visit. It's a royal convent and one of the most beautiful in the Meteora. It was on a ledge rather then a plug or pinnacle and overlooked the plain of Thessaly with Kalambaka far down below. It's one of the oldest founded in 1200 AD. The Byzantine Emporer Andronikos lived devoutly in the monastery during the 14th century and gave it the royal warrant. As a result it was one of the richest monasteries in the Meteora. Most of it's treasures are priceless and not found anywhere else in the world.

Of course, it differs from the other male dominated monasteries in being a convent. Nuns were there, wearing black headscarves, ready to collect your 2 euro entrance. The monasteries/convents of the Meteora are no longer self sufficient. They are kept alive by the Greek government and in return they must let in tourists for a few euros - including women. But Greece has more than one collection of monasteries, the "monks republic" at Mt Athos in Macedonia still hasn't cracked and allowed women even as visitors. Even the farm animals are male.

The convent did feel more feminised then Varlaam with a rose garden in the crevasse under the bridge and a topiary garden at the rear. The set of buildings was made out yellow stone and terracotta and the courtyard garden housed a set of cloisters. The chapel is small and covered in colourful fading frescoes. It is a small dark place with a wooden ceiling and dark marble narthex. Bright paintings of kings, shepherds, saints and the Virgin Mary cover every inch. And this being a convent there was a long line of female saints.

The treasures were impressive. They included Gold embossed iconoclasts of Christ on the Cross dating from the 16th century, hand drawn manuscript Codexs', Icons of the 'Virgin in Lamentation', the abbots gold encrusted mitres and the heads of St Athanasios. Interesting though this is, it can get very cramped in the treasury especially with the myriad of nationalities viewing for a glimpse of the treasures. The garden at the rear had a magnificent terrace and balustrade with views across the plain of Thessaly. Kalambaka was spread out in the distance and you can make out roads and buildings.

From here you get a sense of the Meteora being an otherworldly place. There is no sound up here but the wind and the burble of other tourists. What must life have been like in Kalambaka down the ages? Imagine the start of a day in the middle ages. The first morning light illuminates the folds and crevices of the mountains. The sound of matins echoes down from the monasteries and the peasants in the village get ready for a new day.

There is something timeless about the Meteora. It's a gorgeous place.

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