Greece: Seeking the holy in Meteora

First of three parts.

It’s one way up and one way down – around and around – when traveling the stone forest of Meteora, about 225 miles northwest of Athens in the Pindos Mountains of Greece.

The unearthly terrain is enough to draw a traveler’s full attention, but there is more: Eastern Orthodox monastic communities seem to perch precariously atop these steep towers of rock.

From a distance, each monastery looks impossible to reach by vehicle. Then, mile by mile, we slowly turn into believers. Some spiritual pilgrims prefer to walk or bicycle to a Meteora crest, which seems not just physically exhausting but incredible.

Why are these religious congregations here, nearly 1,000 feet above the Thessalian plains? It is to be closer to God and the heavens, we are told, and farther from the temptations and diversions of contemporary living.

People seek the holy in all kinds of places in this world, and for all kinds of reasons. Total solitude is the setting. Reflection and renewal are the goals.

It’s been this way at Meteora since at least the 11th century, when monks sought refuge, inspiration and contemplation in the caverns of these surreal pillars of limestone and other rock. Two dozen monasteries were painstakingly constructed after that, the Meteora area gained UNESCO World Heritage status 30 years ago and six of the manmade sites remain.

These monasteries – Great Meteoron, Holy Trinity, Varlaam, Rousanou, St. Nicholas Anapafsas and St. Stephen – are open to visitors, although days and hours vary.

Very few outsiders are allowed to stay overnight; those who do get simple room and board in exchange for volunteer work. It is more common to visit for an hour or two, on a self-guided tour.

Shoulders and knees must be covered before entering. Women who arrive in pants are loaned a wrap-around skirt.

Besides providing idyllic views and unusual architecture, Meteora conserves relics – religious manuscripts, artwork, embroidered vestments, silver and wood liturgical items from medieval times.

Religious icons seem to cover nearly every inch inside a church at St. Stephen, where about one dozen nuns live. We arrived with a guide from Athens, who said Greek Orthodox women bring their prayers to conceive and keep a baby. Some leave behind a piece of jewelry, in thanks or hope of a dream come true.

Harder to reach at a different stone tower is Varlaam. It’s a spiraling walk of 180 stone steps to the top, after a dizzying and upward car ride. Besides religious icons and artifacts, we see a massive oak barrel from the 16th century, used for water storage. A cordlike basket remains too, as a reminder that construction materials long ago were slowly transported one bucket at a time. Now a chute operates electronically.

A bearded monk, dressed in black, silently swept a courtyard floor during our visit. Stray dogs and cats also find their way here, looking relatively well-kept and social.

On the way back to a main highway, our guide pointed out an isolated cave covered with colorful scarves. It is dedicated to St. George Madilas, “keeper of the scarves,” and the devout donate a scarf to express a wish or reason for concern.

These fabric offerings are hung over the cave’s opening and stay on display for one year, until a new round of pleas and possibilities arrives to replace them.

For more about the area: visitgreece.gr.

The Easter season means fish on Fridays, “alleluia” church verses, egg hunts, rabbit costumes and baskets of candy in much of the United States. Greek Orthodox Christians mark the holiday one week later, on April 28, but the observance is more serious and lasts longer.

More than one of our tour guides in Greece described Easter as a more important religious holiday than Christmas. It begins with a 40-day Lenten season that involves periods of fasting and abstaining from meat, seafood, animal products (such as milk, eggs), olive oil and wine.

Tsoureki, a sweet and braided bread, represents the Holy Trinity. Eggs are boiled and dyed red, to represent the blood of Christ. Lamb roasted on a spit is the traditional Easter entrée, and the meal is a communal feast with drinking and celebrating.

People of faith visit Greece for numerous reasons. Two quick examples:

Delphi: The religious sanctuary of Apollo and Athena was a place for important questions to be addressed. Average people traveled here for advice about family matters; the powerful sought guidance on business, politics and war. The area of oracles became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Monastery of St. John the Theologian, on the island of Patmos: The Greek Orthodox monastery, established in 1088, is where St. John’s Gospel and biblical book of Revelation were written. The area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

How to get there? Various Athens-based tour companies offer daylong or overnight bus trips to Meteora and Delphi. Sail the Aegean Sea to see Patmos. For more: discovergreece.com.

The area’s shortest multi-day cruise starts at $659 per person on Celestyal Cruises. The whirlwind, three-night jaunt has five port stops (not including Athens, where the journey begins and ends) and includes Patmos. Longer sailings make Meteora accessible too. celestyalcruises.com

This trip to Greece was one part Aegean Sea cruise (compliments of Celestyal Cruises), one part anonymous touring with Gate 1 Travel and one part independent travel. celestyalcruises.com, gate1travel.com