This story appears in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The monasteries of Meteora, Greece, are marvels of engineering. Perched atop sandstone cliffs, with monastic cells hidden in crevices throughout, these Greek Orthodox sanctuaries reflect the contemplative solitude sought by the monks who built them between the 14th and 17th centuries. The most intimate, Roussanou Monastery, is now home to 16 nuns and holds relics of Saint Barbara, popular in medieval times.
How to get there
For centuries the only way to reach Roussanou and the other Meteora monasteries in central Greece was by climbing retractable ladders or being lifted up in a net basket. Restricted access kept the faithful in and the faithless out. Today new tunnels and steep roads and staircases open the churches to anyone willing to make a cliffside journey. Guided tours are recommended to better understand the sites’ rich histories.
What you’ll see
Inside: Sixteenth-century Byzantine frescoes fill Roussanou’s chapel, from the walls to the domed ceiling, with illustrations of planets, peacocks, and seraphim. Ostrich eggs are displayed as symbols of kingship, resurrection, and safekeeping.
Outside: Look down when crossing the small bridge into Roussanou to see the monastery’s private garden, says Greek travel expert George Kourelis. Look up to see eagles, falcons, and rare vultures.
Around Roussanou are 16 ancient hermetic caves (pack your climbing boots) and five other functioning clifftop monasteries (of the original 24). The Great Meteoron Monastery houses the skulls of monks who lived there, along with vibrant paintings and the church’s 14th-century bread oven. Most of the churches were damaged by waves of pillaging and war in the 20th century, but they have since been restored.
By the numbers
60: Estimated age of rock formations in millions of years
200: Steps required to reach Roussanou monastery
4: Hours from Athens by car