We finally tore ourselves away from Ohrid and Macedonia and headed the short distance into Greece.  Over time both together and individually we have pretty well scoured Greece by sea and by land, but of the top ten sights to see we had both missed one:  the monasteries atop the pinnacles at Meteora in northern Greece. The pinnacles themselves and the caves in their sides have long been inhabited.  Earliest evidence of human habitation dates from a cave in which its opening was partially closed by a wall about 23,000 years ago during the last ice age as protection against the cold.

Just a few of the caves in the sides of the pinnacles

Just a few of the caves in the sides of the pinnacles

More recently in the 9th century hermit monks began living in the caves, and by the 11th century an ascetic community began forming and in 1344 a significant group of monks came from Mount Athos to Meteora and in 1356 to 1372 founded the great Megalou Meteorou monastery, which offered protection for the monks as Turkish invaders increasingly sought the area.

Megalou Meteorou the first and largest of the monasteries

Megalou Meteorou the first and largest of the monasteries

Note the tower used to winch up the rope from the land below

Note the tower used to hoist up men and goods from far below

By the end of the 14th century there were over 20 monasteries on the neighboring pinnacles, impregnable to threatening forces since they were only accessible by long ladders pulled up at any sign of encroaching danger.  These ladders were later replaced with long ropes attached to nets in which pilgrims and goods were winched up to the monasteries from below, in the case of Varlaam that being 1224 feet. Perhaps the best way to show you these amazing UNESCO World Heritages is by working our way down the road from Megalou at the top. There are only six remaining today, but the remains of those which have gone to ruin are sometimes visible as well.  No photographs are allowed within the monasteries which is unfortunate because they house amazing frescoes, icons and artifacts.

Look carefully for the wall still visible on the area in front of the large cave and the ruins of a hoisting tower

Look carefully for the wall still visible  in front of the large cave and the ruins of a hoisting tower to the left

Next down the road is Varlaam, built in 1517.  It is believed that it houses the finger of St. John and the shoulder blade of St. Andrew.

Varlaam, highest from the ground below and a long climb to the monastery

Varlaam, highest from the ground below and a long climb to the monastery

Also hidden away in the complex at Varlaam is a room full of hundreds of deceased monks’ skulls.

The view of the skulls through a window in the door

The view of the skulls through a window in the door

Well off to one side at the end of its own road is Agiou Stefanou, also pictured in the photo at the top of this blog.  It was abandoned after being almost destroyed by the Nazis who thought it harbored insurgents, but was rebuilt by and is now inhabited by nuns.  We loved it for its flower gardens and peaceful courtyards. Stefano 1

Close by but nearly impossible to climb to is the Agias Triados, first built in 1475 and a pinnacle in itself.

Agias Triados from the road above

Agias Triados from the road above

A closer look at Agias Triados

A closer look at Agias Triados

Down the mountain and also a nunnery is Agias Varvaras Rousanou, accessible by a beautiful staircase from below or a long wooden staircase from above. Agias Varvaras Rousanou (nunnery) Agias Varvaras Rousanou (nunnery) 1 Finally, close to the bottom is Agiou Nikolaou Anapafsa with a church decorated by the famous Cretan painter Theophanis Strelitzas in 1527. Agiou Nikolaou Anapafsa 1 Nikolaoi After a second day on the pinnacles and an exploration of the mountain beyond we packed up the tent and headed off to the Ionian Sea opposite the island of Corfu for some beach time.  We are still here, though its rained most of today–good time to catch up on the blog!  We now plan to spend some more time in several spots in Northern Greece, then probably start north into Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, but a wander is a wander, and one never quite knows ahead where it will lead!