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The four most visited monasteries and convents – Megálou Meteórou, Ayíou Nikoláou, Varlaám and Roussánou – are essentially museum-monuments. Only Ayías Triádhos and Ayíou Stefánou still function with a primarily religious purpose, though there has been a notable increase in pilgrimage by devout Romanian and Russian Orthodox. Handy service elevators have now been installed to take care of both deliveries and visiting dignitaries. However, access for most visitors is by extensive stairways carved into the rock in the early twentieth century.

Each monastery consists essentially of monks’ cells focused round a central space, with chapels and refectories added on as possible – up, down and sideways – given the physical limitations of constructing on a rock pinnacle. The central church of each monastery, the katholikón, is usually elaborately decorated with beautiful and often quirky sixteenth- and seventeenth-century frescoes.

Ayíou Nikoláou Anapafsá

The diminutive Ayíou Nikoláou Anapafsá is the closest monastery to Kastráki (20min on foot or 5min by car). The road leads to the base of the stairway-path (150 steps). This tiny, multi-levelled structure has superb frescoes from 1527 by the Cretan painter Theophanes in its katholikón (main chapel). On the east wall of the naos over the window, a shocked disciple somersaults backwards at the Transfiguration, an ingenious use of the cramped space; in the Denial of Peter on the left door-arch as you enter the naos, the protagonists warm their hands over a fire in the pre-dawn, while above the ierón window is the Sacrifice of Abraham. On the west wall of the narthex, a stylite (column-dwelling hermit) perches in a wilderness populated by wild beasts, while an acolyte prepares to hoist up a supply basket – as would have been done just outside when the fresco was new. Other Desert Fathers rush to attend the funeral of St Ephraim the Syrian: some riding beasts, others – crippled or infirm – on litters or piggyback on the strong.

Megálou Meteórou

The Megálou Meteórou (aka Great Meteoron & Metamorphosis) is the highest monastery – requiring a climb of nearly 300 steps from its entrance – built on the Platýs Líthos (“Broad Rock”) 615m above sea level. It enjoyed extensive privileges and dominated the area for centuries: in an eighteenth-century engraving (sold as a reproduction) it dwarfs its neighbours.

The monastery’s cross-in-square katholikón, dedicated to the Transfiguration, is Metéora’s most imposing; columns and beams support a lofty dome with a Pandokrátor. It was enlarged in the 1500s and 1600s, with the original chapel, constructed by the Serbian Ioasaph in 1383, now the ierón behind the intricately carved témblon. Frescoes, however, are much later (mid-sixteenth century) than at most other monasteries and artistically undistinguished; those in the narthex concentrate almost exclusively on grisly martyrdoms.

Elsewhere in this vast, arcaded cluster of buildings, the kellári (cellar) hosts an exhibit of rural impedimenta; in the domed, vaulted refectory, still set with the traditional silver/pewter table service for monastic meals, a museum features exquisite carved-wood crosses and rare icons. The ancient smoke-blackened kitchen adjacent preserves its bread oven and soup-hearth.

Varlaám (Barlaam)

Varlaám is among the oldest monasteries, replacing a hermitage established by St Varlaam shortly after Athanasios’ arrival. The present building, now home to a handful of monks and one of the most beautiful in the valley, was constructed by the Apsaras brothers from Ioánnina in 1540–44. To get up to it from the entrance point means climbing about 150 steps.

The monastery’s katholikón, dedicated to Ayíon Pándon (All Saints), is small but glorious, supported by painted beams, its walls and pillars totally covered by frescoes (painted 1544–66), dominated by the great Pandokrátor of the inner dome. Among the more unusual are a beardless Christ Emmanuel in the right transept conch, and the Parliament of Angels on the left; on one pier, the Souls of the Righteous nestle in the Bosom of Abraham, while the Good Thief is admitted to Paradise. On the inner sanctuary wall, there’s a vivid Crucifixion and a Dormition of the Virgin with, lower down, an angel severing the hands of the Impious Jew attempting to overturn her funeral bier. The treasury-museum features crucifixes and silver items; elsewhere the monks’ original water barrel is on show.

Varlaám prominently displays its old ascent tower, comprising a reception platform, well-worn windlass and original rope-basket. Until the 1930s the only way of reaching most Metéoran monasteries was by being hauled up in said rope-basket, or by equally perilous retractable ladders. A nineteenth-century abbot, asked how often the rope was changed, replied, “Only when it breaks.” Steel cables eventually replaced ropes, and then steps were cut to all monasteries by order of the Bishop of Tríkala, unnerved by the vulnerability of his authority on visits. Today rope-baskets figure only as museum exhibits, supplanted by metal cage-buckets, as well as a hidden elevator or two.

Roussánou

The convent of Roussánou, founded in 1545, has an extraordinary, much-photographed situation, its walls edging to sheer drops all around. After some 150 steps up, the final approach to the convent (today housing about a dozen nuns) is across a vertiginous bridge from an adjacent rock.

Inside, the narthex of its main chapel has particularly gruesome frescoes (1560) of martyrdom and judgement, the only respite from sundry beheadings, spearings, crushings, roastings and mutilations being the lions licking Daniel’s feet in his imprisonment (left of the window); diagonally across the room, two not-so-friendly lions proceed to devour Saint Ignatios Theoforos. On the right of the transept there’s a vivid Transfiguration and Entry to Jerusalem, while to the left are events after Christ’s Resurrection. On the east of the wall dividing naos from narthex is an exceptionally vivid Apocalypse.

Ayías Triádhos

Few tour buses stop at Ayías Triádhos (Holy Trinity) – despite it famously featuring in the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only – and life remains essentially monastic, even if there are only three brothers to maintain it. The approach from the parking area consists of some 150 steps down and then another roughly 150 back up the other side of the sheer ravine that separates its pinnacle from the road. You finally emerge into a cheerful compound with small displays of kitchen/farm implements, plus an old ascent windlass.

The seventeenth-century frescoes in the katholikón have been completely cleaned and restored, fully justifying a visit. On the west wall, the Dormition is flanked by the Judgement of Pilate and the Transaction of Judas, complete with the thirty pieces of silver and subsequent self-hanging. Like others at the Metéora, this church was built in two phases, as evidenced by two domes, each with a Pandokrátor (the one above the témblon very fine), and two complete sets of Evangelists on the squinches. In the arch right of the témblon is a rare portrait of a beardless Christ Emmanuel, borne aloft by four seraphs; on the arch supports to the left appear the Hospitality of Abraham and Christ the Righteous Judge.

Although Ayías Triádhos teeters above its deep ravine and the little garden ends in a precipitous drop, an obvious, well-signposted path leads from the bottom of the monastery’s access steps back to the upper quarter of Kalambáka. This 1km descent is a partly cobbled, all-weather surface in good shape, ending adjacent to Kalambáka’s fine, very early cathedral.

Ayíou Stefánou

Ayíou Stefánou, the last, easternmost monastery, is 1.5km along the road beyond Ayías Triádhos (no path short cuts), and it’s the only one that requires no staircase climb to get to. Note that it’s also the only one that closes during lunch. It’s occupied by nuns keen to peddle trinkets and memorabilia, but the buildings – bombed during World War II and then raided during the civil war – are disappointing: the obvious one to miss if you’re short of time. That said, the fifteenth-century refectory contains an apsidal fresco of the Virgin, beyond the museum graced by a fine Epitáfios (Good Friday bier) covering embroidered in gold thread. The trail towards Kalambáka from Ayíou Stefánou is disused and dangerous – return to Ayías Triádhos to use the descending path.

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