Sunday, August 01, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #7: Meteora

I almost skipped Meteora. My Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guidebook, as well as Evlogeite! all bemoan the impact of modern tourism on the monasteries. All offer tips on how to avoid, as much as possible. this crush of tour-bus visitors. This put me on my guard, as my natural inclination is to seek the out-of-the-way and the little-visited. But to have by-passed Meteora would have been a sin.

Yes, the tour-buses are a factor to be dealt with. And this will be the only post in this series in which I engage in Greek-bashing. My time there was a good one, leaving me favorably impressed with the people as a whole. That said, the Greek tourists I encountered at Meteora did their country little credit. The main problem, as I see it, is that Meteora's incredible landscape makes it a destination in and of itself, regardless of the monasteries. This means that many, if not most, of these tourists are coming for the scenery, and may not be particularly interested in the monasteries at all. Meteora is a full day-trip from most places on mainland Greece--it is not on the way to anywhere. The tour-buses roll in, disgorge their passengers, and at the end of the day, rumble back to Athens, Thessaloniki or whatever city they came from. With that in mind, why do these tourists dress as if they were going to the beach? Every monastery posts signs stating what is appropriate and inappropriate dress. Explicit notices prohibit the taking of photographs within the churches. The Greek tourists act as if these warnings are everybody else, not them. It must be embarrassing for the nuns to have to shush their own supposedly Orthodox nationals, rather than the unknowing foreign tourists. No wonder they look harried at times. But even these annoyances can be overcome. The tour-buses frequent those monasteries where it is easiest to unload their passengers and turn around--Great Meteora, Valaam, and perhaps St. Barbara-Roussanou. The monasteries of St. Stephen, Holy Trinity and St. Nicholas receive far fewer visitors. But even at Great Meteora, one can stand back and wait. The tour groups are not solidly back-to-back. A guide herds them into the church, and before you know it, out they come. At that point, one can slip inside and have the church alone.

If visiting Meteora, I recommend staying in Kastraki, the small village at the base of the mountains, rather than Kalambaka, the larger and charmless town nearby. I can also recommend the well-situated and reasonably-priced Hotel Tsikelli. Maybe it has something to do with Greece's economic woes, but I have rarely been made to feel more welcome. I arrived in Katraki late afternoon, and even though I had done little more than drive all day, I was completely exhausted. After a delicious (if non-fasting) supper at a nearby cafe, I turned in and tried to sleep.

Seen from a distance, the Meteora monasteries are simply amazing. I cannot imagine how they were ever constructed atop these rock formations. And until the modern world intruded, their location certainly provided the isolation the monastics were seeking. Six main monasteries crown the peaks--Great Meteora, Varlaam, St. Nicholas, St. Barbara-Roussanou, Holy Trinity and St. Stephen. Varlaam and Holy Trinity were closed that day. I visited the other four.

The Monastery of St. Stephen was the first I visited, and my favorite. I take issue with the Rough Guide that dismissed it as "the obvious one to miss if you're short on time." I also was a bit offended by their snarky reference to nuns there who were "keen to sell trinkets." Yes, there is a shop next to the refectory where one can buy these "trinkets," otherwise known as icons. But the only thing I noticed that the nun there was "keen" to do was pray before the icons she had arrayed in front of her, or read from the Psalter she had opened. There comes a time to disregard any guidebook, and this was one of them. The Germans bombed the monastery during World War II and the Communists raided it during the Greek Civil War. So, much of what is seen is relatively new, restored, or built in the post-war years, and some of the iconography is of recent date. But if one is truly interested in the monastery as monastery and not concerned about how quaint and "Middle-Agey" it all is, then St. Stephen's will not fail to impress.

The nuns have converted the old refectory into a small museum. Here, they exhibit some of monastery's treasures--icons, Gospel books, manuscripts, vestments and liturgical instruments--most from the 1600s and 1700s. Although I did not see them, I understand that they have a portion of the skull of St. Stephen, as well as the head of St. Haralambos.

The main church is dedicated to St. Haralambos, and the iconography therein is stunning--I find it hard to describe without gushing. I will just say it is as incredibly moving as any I have seen anywhere. As one enters the nave from the narthex, I was interested to note icons not usually seen in the U.S.--an icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent on the left of the door, and an icon of Jacob's Ladder on the right. The iconography that held my attention more than any other was on the west wall of the narthex--the Last Judgement. I am simply fascinated by this. The scene is too incredible to describe, but it is all there--Christ above all, the Theotokos, St. John the Forerunner, the Apostles, the Angels, the Gospel laying on the Throne, the Cross, the scales with Angels bringing forth scrolls, the graves being opened, saints and sinners awating judgement, demons trying to tip the scales, the River of Fire with the souls of those who rejected the Love of Christ, Leviathon being ridden by a demon with Judas in his lap, the Dragon, the vision of Daniel, the saints on their knees making supplication, the Garden of Paradise with beautiful trees and peacocks whose door is being unlocked by St. Peter and with the Mother God on a throne and with the Thief carrying his cross in before, the souls in hell where there is no Light, etc. I find it simply beyond my abilities to describe this scene. I stood there in the narthex for the longest time, almost transfixed by what I was seeing.

My first awareness of this particular iconographic subject only dates back to 2007. In that year, I saw a much cruder version depicted in Yilanli Kilise (Church of the Snakes,) one of the cave churches in the Ihlara Valley of Cappadocia. Later that same summer, I came across a version in the church at Ananuri, on the road to Kazbegi in Georgia. In 2008, I saw the Last Judgement depicted at Mar Mousa (Church of St. Moses the Black) in the Syrian desert. I know this sounds for all the world like travel snob name-dropping ("when I was in..."), but my point is that in every instance, whether I was in Turkey, Georgia, Syria or now Greece, this particular iconography stopped me cold in my tracks. And it this I remember distinctly, even if the rest fades with time.

I have always believed in the Judgement. I cannot remember a time when I did not, even though in our American way of doing things ("culture" being too strong a word), we live in vitual and tacit denial of the reality. This certainly characterizes our churches as well, even including our fundamentalist and/or evangelical churches, or my old Restorationist church. Sure, lip service is given to it, but the subject is generally avoided. And while Scripture itself bears witness, I always got the idea that most people tend to put it down as something akin to rhetorical excess meant to spook us into doing right, so to speak--but that in the end, it was not something that was really ever going to happen. I know I am painting with a broad brush here, but I think there is some truth to my analysis. Like I say, I never doubted the Last Judgement, when everything is exposed to light and our real selves revealed. And I knew myself well enough to know that this play-acting we do with repentance and confession would fall away with all other pretense on That Day. In the old days, as much as I would "think about Christ's suffering on the Cross," as the matzo bread and grape juice were passed down the pew, it was never really convincing--nothing had changed, no real repentance occurred, confession went unaddressed, and the guilt continued to pile up. I am just speaking for myself--maybe it was different for the people sitting on either side of me (though I doubt it.) Repentance and confession and salvation were all just intellectual concepts, and there was no real, tangible engagement of same outside of my own mental constructs. And so, the Judgement was a fearful thing. It still is, but with a difference. Before, the Judgement was just an intellectual conception, with me standing alone, with only by "beliefs" for support. Now, I see myself in this very icon. I am among the crowd of naked souls standing before the scales, with my Savior enthroned on high. But it is to Him that I have prayed "Lord, have mercy, " and His Mother is there, interceding for me, and the Angels surround me and keep the demons at bay, and the saints and martyrs of all ages are kneeling in supplication for the sins of the world. I am now part of the story. It doesn't give me certainty, but it does give me hope. And that is what was lacking before.

Next, I drove over to the largest monastic complex on the mountain, Great Meteora. This is favorite of the tour-bus crowd, as well. If sight-seers visit one of the Meteora monasteries, it will be this one. When I arrived, 3 or 4 tour-buses were parked outside. I am afraid this level of tourism will swamp this monastery. I did not see any of the monastics--and I don't blame them for keeping out of sight. The crowds were noisy and had to be quieted by monastery workers, paid no attention to the "Do not touch" signs in the museums or the "No Photographs" signs in the church. Even so, once a group was herded out of the church like cattle, I found myself alone in the nave. The church was on the same order as St. Haralambos, though the iconography was considerably older. The narthex was devoted completely to the trials of the martyrs. Every conceivable type of torture inflicted upon the early saints was depicted. To the outsider, it must all appear to be gruesome and a bit strange. To us, it is just a reminder that to be a Christian is to be something that people kill you for (more on this thought in a post to follow.)

The monastery contained several nice museums where some of their treasures were on display. I particularly liked one 16th-century double icon--with the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste on top, and St. John of the Ladder, St. Mary of Egypt and St. George of Ioannina on the bottom. One room was devoted both to the Greek War of Independence, as well as an Introduction to the Orthodox Faith. I thought that an odd juxtaposition, but perhaps not so in Greece. The displays explaining the Faith in general, and monasticism in particular, were especially well-done. I took the time to copy several of the explanations given in the museum, as follows:

The person of Christ, divinity and humanity combined, risen in glory from the dead, is the centre of visible and invisible creation, the centre of the heavens and the earth. His person is the centre of faith, of worship, of life and of the world. Christ is the one true God. He who completes and holds together all things, comprehending history, the past, present and future of the universe. Giving meaning and purpose to the life of man. And likewise Christ must be the centre of our own soul, our intelligence and heart and being; our passion and our desire, our rest and our rejoicing.

The Holy Church is our Mother. Tender, wise and vigilant, watching over our spiritual well-being. An ever-open embrace, our refuge and comfort, our support and shelter. A healing place for sick souls, a place where strong emotions and passions can be soothed and delayed. It is only the Church which can offer remission for our sins, whatever and however many they may be. Only the Church which has the power to take the shattered fragments of a soul and compose them again into paradigms of holiness--saints, martyrs, and confessors. Our Holy Church is the Ark of our salvation.

Faith is not a matter of understanding, but of confidence. And confidence is not unreasonable, it transcends reason. It does not contradict logic and reason, but goes beyond them. In the Orthodox Church, this transcendence of reason is not its denial but its elevation to a point where it can accept the experience of divine revelation. The transcendent reason of faith is the absolute surrender of our self, our abandonment to the will and mercy of God

The Monastery of St. Barbara-Roussanou is entered from below. With my ongoing physical problems, I had to collapse about halfway up the steps and catch my breath--and then some. A kindly priest was coming down the steps and saw the humor in my situation. He smiled and addressed me in Greek, and all I could do was make light of my condition and ask for a blessing . Thus refreshed, I continued my slog up the mountain. St. Barbara's occupied a much small crag, and so the church and other buildings were smaller and more crowded. Nuns were very much in evidence here. Under the circumstances, they cannot be faulted for looking a bit harried. I can only imagine what a relief it must be to close the doors of the monastery every day. The church itself was much smaller--what one might call intimate. I lit some candles here and savored the chance to pray. As I recall, this chapel had perhaps the most intricately-carved iconostasis in Meteora.

My final stop was the small Monastery of St. Nicholas. The lack of parking and the steep climb eliminates the tour-bus crowd. This is one of the small communities in Meteora. The church itself is tiny--actually carved into the side of the mountain. I recall seeing one unusual icon in the church--Adam naming the animals. I also viewed the workshop where the monks were assembling icons--by this I mean the pasting of icon prints onto wooden backs.

By the time I made it back down to my car, I was pretty well beat for the day. My bed at the Hotel Tsikelli was a welcome sight. After resting, I walked down to a nearby cafe and ordered the stuffed pepper. Together with salad, french fries and the obligatory Amstel, this made for one of the best meals I encountered on my journey. Despite the crowds, Meteora falls in the "must-see" category when in Greece. I am glad I went there.


Steve Hayes said...

I visited Meteora 10 years ago, and stayed at Kastraki (Spanias Rooms), and it was Bright Week, so the lack of fasting food did not matter. But yes, definitely not to be missed. I felt sorry for the monks, having their peace disturbed by all the tourists. But we also found that the monastery workers could tell that we were puilgrims rather than tourists, and showed us into places that most of the tourists did not see.

margaret said...

I am glad you went too. Reading this is the nearest I likely ever get given my asthma. It is nice to know that some of the monasteries are female, I had though for some reason they were all for men.

Terry (John) said...

Margaret, if I am not mistaken, I believe 3 of the 6 are women's monasteries.

Milton T. Burton said...

Incredible geography!

elizabeth said...

Thank you for recounting the explanations on faith...

At a Greek monastery I have been at I saw a colourful print of an icon about abortion ... when one sees icons like these (judgement or on a particular sin) one does not easily forget them...

Anonymous said...

The monasteries may have been for men originally. Several monasteries in Greece have been revived in recent times after falling into disuse and changed from monks to nuns. My daughter had the opportunity to visit Meteora six years ago and at the time I was able to find pictures of some of the icons on official web sites- very impressive.

CG said...

I too am very glad you did go to Meteora. You describe so well your feelings on contemplating this and other icons of the Last Judgement. My reaction to similar versions at some of the "painted" monasteries in Moldavia recently was very much like yours; they were the first such I had seen.

Thank you too for taking the trouble to copy (and translate?) the excellent explanations of the crucial aspects of the Orthodox faith, very moving and complete despite their relative brevity.

As a solitary traveller who does not drive I shall probably never be able to visit these places so richly steeped in faith (unless you know of a non-touristy Orthodox group travel company) so I am most grateful to you for the virtual tour you are offering.

Kontiki said...

it takes me 3 days to finish reading ur post ( print it and read slow), very much new info. & very good photos . thank u :)

Ranger said...

the explanations are beautifully succinct.