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The Heavenly Meteora Monasteries

Beautiful sunny Greece is mostly known for its picturesque islands and classical Hellene ruins, however there is at least one other wonder which no traveler should miss. I am referring to the group of six monasteries known as ‘Meteora’, which literally means ‘suspended in the air’, and which are situated at the edge of the plain of Thessaly, in central Greece.

One of the Meteora Monasteries

Defined by UNESCO as a unique phenomenon of cultural heritage, these Eastern Orthodox havens of ancient cultural and religious artifacts and icons, perch majestically on enormous columns of rock rising precipitously from the ground. This rare geological peculiarity is truly one of a kind. As we navigated the winding roads on our rented car, I couldn’t help but wonder at the original monks who, fleeing from the encroaching Ottoman raiders at the end of the 14th century, found refuge in the isolated caves, and then later further up the rocky slopes of Meteora. Originally there were 24 monasteries atop these impossibly imposing natural formations, however unfortunately only six remain active today, as the others all fell into ruin, most notably after the depredations of the second world war, when many were bombed and their art treasures stolen. The six remaining monasteries – testaments to the piety and art of the Orthodox culture, are all situated near each other, so though I recommend renting a car or purchasing a coach ticket to arrive to Meteora itself, one can still continue walking on foot from one monastery to the other. Of course, if you plan on visiting, I would also suggest dedicating at least one full day to visit all six monasteries. There is so much to see!

We rounded a corner and suddenly there it was – a sight I will never forget. I could hardly assimilate how far up we were, not to mention take in the amazing panorama of abrupt vertical rock pinnacles topped with exquisite red-roofed buildings, without wondering how on earth anyone could have built them up there. Especially knowing that the oldest and largest monastery, that of Great Meteoron, had been erected in the 14th century, when construction materials and aides were very limited. We stopped the car to take some photos and realized that we were not the only ones there. Yes, Meteora is underrated, yet there are still many people visiting all year round – not just pilgrims and history buffs, but also rock climbers, trekkers, and simple tourists. Beware though – Meteora is not a site for those who don’t like walking, in fact one must brave a myriad of stone steps cut in the rocks themselves, sheer bridges and wooden platforms, to access the fairytale buildings. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

My silly boyfriend trying to give me a heart-attack by prancing on the edge

Unfortunately we did not have time to visit all six monasteries, seeing only four of them. The first we went to, the Monastery of Great Meteoron, is surely my favorite one of the lot. It is situated on top of the highest of the inhabited rock pinnacles, reaching more than 613 metres above sea level, and was founded by a monk who later became a Saint of the Greek Orthodox Church. Facing the rough vertiginous steps hewn into the rocks, which one must climb to reach the monastery, I admit, my fear of heights started to make itself known. Then, I was told that I was lucky to be using steps at all, since before the 1920s, the monks used to access the buildings using large baskets, pulleys and ropes! It must surely have taken years to carry construction material up the high rock formations using nothing but nets, cordage and folding ladders. Not to mention great fortitude and strength of will.

The Monastery of Great Meteoron!
I just fell in love with this beautiful courtyard

As I paid the meager €3 entrance fee, I was given a long colorful skirt to wear over my shorts. Skanty attire is in fact not permitted in the monasteries. However, I soon forgot my momentary discomfort over the ugly garment as soon as I started exploring. The medieval kitchen, the gold Byzantine paintings in the main church, the frescoes in the smaller chapels, and the ancient illuminated manuscripts in the museum, were all wonders to behold. Not to mention the ossuary in the sacristy – literally a room full of skulls belonging to the monks who had lived there! After a delightful hour clambering throughout the building, we found ourselves in a large courtyard. The pink-leaved trees framed a really magnificent landscape, as not just the other monasteries on their pinnacles, but also the tiny-looking town of Kalampaka below, the Pindus Mountains, and the Pineios River, were all spread before us. A litter of kittens frolicked amidst the serene splendor striking a cute note amidst the grandiose spectacle.

The Ossuary

A small suggestion – don’t buy any souvenirs from the pricey vending stalls outside. Each monastery has its own small shop where one can purchase the monks’ own products! I bought a small hand-painted censer and some sweet incense from Great Meteoron, and I really prize it knowing the dedication and effort it took to make it, especially since each monastery contains not more than 15 monks at one time. Much more original than any mass marketed fridge magnet, keychain or snowglobe for sure.

Next up was the Monastery of Varlaam. This is the second biggest monastery of the Meteora complex and is located directly opposite Great Meteoron. The most curious and interesting thing I saw here was in the old tower, where they still keep the original net and windlass used by the first monks for their ascent and descent from the rock pinnacle. There are also a number of graceful and colourful ancient icons which one can admire in the museum, as well as over 300 religious manuscripts on display in the sacristy.

One of the medieval religious illustrated manuscripts

The third monastery I visited was the Holy Monastery of Roussanou, which it is rumored, is built upon the foundations of a tiny chapel even older than itself. Roussanou monastery is inhabited by nuns and it was founded in the middle of the 16th century. Currently only 13 nuns live there. It is more accessible than the other monasteries, as the spire of rock it is built upon has a lower elevation. All you have to do to reach this monastery is cross a small bridge from another peak. If you suffer from vertigo however, don’t look down while you are on the bridge!

The scent of incense was amazing!

The last monastery I visited was that of Agia Triada, or the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which is the hardest one to reach. One must in fact climb 140 uneven steps cut into the rock to reach it, however once you reach the top, the captivating view of the surroundings is totally worth it. Part of this monastery was also used as the setting for the final scenes of the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to visit the Monastery of Saint Stephen and the Monastery of Nikolaos Anapafsas, as we had a long drive ahead of us, and all the Monasteries close at around 5pm.

Visiting these monasteries was truly mystical, magical, extraordinary and impressive. The immensity of nature’s beauty, coupled with the history, and architecture of Meteora, embodies man’s everlasting desire for spiritual elevation. One of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve ever been to.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

The Punkva Caves and the Macocha Abyss

The subterranean Punkva River, being almost 30 kilometers in length, is the longest underground river in the Czech Republic. It is thanks to the erosion, fluctuation and twisting flows of its many tributaries that an extensive system of underground passages, domes and abysses was formed underneath what is known as the Moravian Karst, a protected nature reserve on the eastern part of the Czech Republic.

This beautiful region is home to a number of unique geological features, not least of which are a number of cave systems underlying the lush green woodlands and forests. The most famous of these cave networks are the Punkva Caves located to the north of the city of Brno, which showcase one of the natural wonders of the Czech Republic – the Macocha Gorge.

Fortunately, we had researched our destination well before actually visiting the caves and so realized early on that they could only be accessed through a guided tour. Since tours of the caves only take place at allocated times, not to mention the fact that the place is a famous tourist attraction, it is important for anyone interested in visiting to book the tour beforehand.

We bought our tickets online, yet still had to visit the Visitor’s Center to exchange our e-mail with the actual tickets. While there, we were also told that if we wanted to take photographs in the caves, we had to purchase a colored sticker for a small fee and attach it to our clothes. This may seem strange, but it is common procedure in certain countries.

Armed with tickets, stickers, cameras and expectations, we boarded the small tram from the Visitor’s Center to the entrance of the Punkva Caves. One can, of course, opt to walk the two-kilometer woodland trail instead of using the tram. Once we arrived in front of the entrance, I abruptly realized that it would be much colder underground, and that the light clothes I was wearing, suitable for a stroll in the sun, were definitely not enough for the freezing caves.

There was only the official merchandise store nearby, so I hurried over and bought a bright red ‘Punkva Caves’ sweater for the occasion. It did keep me warm during the one-hour tour and was also a very nice souvenir. At least I had the good sense to wear comfortable sneakers.

Our group was made of around 30 people. I was glad to see that there were even small children and senior citizens – a clear indication that there were no dangerous, unsecured sheer drops or rough terrain to climb ahead. After all, one does not need to be a miner to explore the Great Underground! The caves are, in fact, very safe for visitors, being equipped with plenty of lighting and having level floors and stairs. Unfortunately, it was at this point that we realised that the tour was in Czech and that there were no tours in English available. However, I had previously found and downloaded a free mobile application with a tour book of the caves on my mobile phone and I found that very helpful.

The tour itself is actually divided in two parts. The first part is on foot, while the second consists of a very atmospheric boat-ride on the subterranean Punkva River.

Mirror Lake

As we entered the caves, a four-metre-long stalactite welcomed us in the Front Dome, a large, hall-like space filled with myriad stalactites and stalagmites. Walking on, I was literally mesmerised as I encountered the Mirror Lake, whose waters are so clear as to leave one in total awe. Two worlds seemed to meet, divided by the water’s surface, as the crystalline stalactites met their counterpart through the underground lake’s reflection.

Steep steps took us up a 10-metre shaft-like tunnel leading to what is known as the Dome of Destruction, in reference to a cave collapse which had occurred sometime after the dome’s excavation. Following a corridor of naturally shaped water-columns, we were finally behind two impressive rock formations known as ‘The Angel’ and ‘The Curtain’. Looking up at the majestic play of water on rock, one cannot help but feel a sense of greatness at the power and wonder of nature.

The ‘Angel’ and the ‘Curtain’ formations

Having covered almost 810 meters of the 1,250-meter tour, which is the longest underground trail open to the public in the Czech Republic – the best was yet to come. We proceeded in single file through a narrow tunnel passage opening up to the inspiring Macocha Gorge, also known as the Macocha Abyss.

This 138.7-metre deep sinkhole is the deepest of its kind in central Europe and can be viewed from the bottom up from the Punkva Caves. One can also take a cable car from the surface to the top to admire some unforgettable views.

The Macocha Gorge

Being in a cave while looking upwards at the sun through a gorge and seeing the green trees of the forest sparkle and being reflected in the two small lakes at the bottom of the abyss is truly a magical experience. Once our eyes adjusted to going from almost total darkness to blinding light in only a few minutes, taking selfies and almost full blown-out photoshoots was inescapable.

The lakes at the bottom of the Abyss

At this point, our tour guide bid us goodbye as she led us to the second part of the tour. A small underground dock dotted with some tiny boats awaited us. Our group split up further, since the minute boats could only accommodate eight people.

Our second tour guide, an old, crusty man steering the wooden boat with a paddle, again spoke only Czech. In halting heavily accented English, he warned us sternly that photographs were not permitted on the boat, as this could be dangerous since we would be passing through very narrow channels, and any excessive movement could cause the boat to capsize. He also warned tall people to keep their heads and hands down, since some of the tunnels were quite low and they could easily hit their head on a stalactite.

I honestly thought he was joking, but he was dead serious and with good reason. The boat buckled alarmingly as we cast off and slowly meandered through the winding river.

As we left the small dock, the walls started to close in, together with the darkness and the cold. At that point, I was grateful I did not suffer from claustrophobia. Later I learned that the water of the river has a depth of approximately 50 metres, but at the time, feeling the weight of the earth on my head, twisting this way and that trying not to get hit in the head by a stalactite, the cold dark surface of the river seemed to hide something more sinister. The old man steering the boat reminded me of Charon ferrying the souls of the newly deceased across the River Styx, surrounded by seemingly fragile dripstones and colourful rock formations hanging from the cave’s ceiling.

Floating between the darkness of the caves and the darkness of the waters below through a succession of narrow tunnels with low ceilings and small fairytale pools felt like a breathtaking dream. In the end however, we had to wake up, as the boat floated up the river to the Punkva Spring above ground. This is where the tour ended.

Taking back the tram to the Visitor’s Center once more, we were pleased to note that the smaller Katerinska Caves were only a 10-minute walk away, so we were overjoyed to visit them as well, before stopping at one of the charming restaurants nearby for lunch. An anti-climax, but a very needful one after such a memorable adventure.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta