Guy Needham explores heavenly Greek monasteries
Vasillia gently touched my arm and leant in. "You are an Orthodox at heart," she whispered, her eyes lighting up. "Yes, yes, I can see it inside you!" For the first time in my life I had to disappoint a nun.
Upon learning of my Protestant upbringing, Vasillia feigned disappointment. "Ahh, we all have our crosses to bear!" she laughed, her round face beaming.
We were standing in the nave of the Monastery of Agios Stefanos, gazing up at a fresco of the Second Coming of Christ. Vasillia was handing out candles.
"I have been living here now for 15 years — there are 32 of us. Meteora is my home," she said proudly.
Meteora, a collection of ancient monasteries perched atop towering pinnacles of rock, is one of the holiest sites in Greece. Derived from the Greek meaning "suspended in the air" it literally lives up to its name. We were 500m up in the sky.
The history of Meteora dates back thousands of years, with Homer's Iliad talking of six men from the area who fought alongside Achilles. More "recently" in the 11th century, it became a refuge for monks fleeing inland from pirates.
The monks' need for sanctuary combined with their quest for austerity made Meteora the perfect place to escape to. Setting up solitary cells in the caves dotted across the cliff faces, they established the hermitages still visible today. There is even a "monk jail" to which those who had sinned would be banished.
By the 14th century, monks who had formed a community attempted to climb higher, using stakes and ropes to work their way up the rock pillars. When they finally made their way to the top they first built their most important structure — a pulley.
It took hundreds of years to lift up provisions and materials to create what is now an Unesco World Heritage-listed site.
Until the 1920s the only way to reach the peaks was by a network of rope ladders, hauled baskets and nets. Local legend has it that a curious visitor asked a monk how often the ropes were replaced. His reply? "When the Lord lets them break."
Once home to 24 monasteries, only six remain, including two run by nuns such as Vasillia, who was now walking me to the edge of a precarious garden.
"See there?" she nodded towards the town of Kalambaka far below. "The whole town and this monastery were destroyed by the Nazis. Greece was the first to resist. We had to rebuild our spiritual home." It was a sobering thought.
Even from above, the sheer rock formations were impressive as the winter mist rolled in. Unsurprisingly a favourite for climbers, it was easy to see how the other-worldly landscape was chosen to feature on Game of Thrones. Each pillar topped with a monastery looked like a giant finger pointing to Heaven.
We stepped back towards the katholikon, Agios Stefanos' main church, around which the convent is based. Inside, the altar faced east to meet the rising sun. Vasillia restocked the candles.
"We do what those before us have done. We get up early. We pray. We eat. We do our duties." The life of a nun has not changed much, Vasillia added warmly.
As I was leaving, she reached out. Still not discouraged by my lack of piety, she placed a small green crucifix in my palm. "You never know when your calling will be."
And for the first time in my life, a nun winked at me.
GETTING THERE: Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Athens via their hub in Dubai.
From Athens, Kalambaka is a five-hour train ride. Hot tip: Splash out the extra euros on a first-class train ticket.
DETAILS: For information on tours of the site, go to visitmeteora.com.
VISA: No visa is required for New Zealand nationals for stays up to 90 days.