The last hermit of Meteora

At dinner with our group in Kalambáka, where we spent three days, I led a small lesson in the proper pronunciation of the Greek name for Corfu, where we’ll be wrapping up our trip.

“Ker-ky-rá, Ker-ky-rá, Ker-ky-rá,” we chanted. The taverna chairs were accommodating, the night air was cool, and our table was laden with salads, stuffed vegetables, baked eggplant, saganaki, meatballs, baskets of bread and two half-litres of white wine.

But with talk of Kérkyra, I am getting ahead of myself. For we spent three days in Kalambáka, the large town at the foot of Meteora, where tourists arrive to lodge, eat and drink before making their ascent to the monasteries high above. Along the back streets of Kalambáka, every front yard had a pomegranate tree, heavy with ripe red fruit at this time of year. And in the agora stood crates of large yellow quince, also in season, beside boxes of chestnuts, tomatoes and squash.

The train station at Kalambáka, with the cliffs of Meteora behind.

Tourists come to Meteora to visit the ancient complex of monasteries, nunneries and now-uninhabited caves. Perched on improbably tall and inaccessible geological formations, the monasteries were built from the 11th to the 16th centuries. As for the caves, there’s evidence Neanderthals lived in them 50,000 years ago, later replaced by ascetics and hermits, shivering in the cold northern air.

There were originally two dozen monasteries, but only six are still occupied and tourists are allowed to visit only on certain days. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse of a monk peeking out from their private residence, dodging the tourists. You have to wonder about their restricted lives: While we’re gawking at the ancient icons, are they playing koumkán or watching Squid Game on Netflix? After so many centuries, why is this life necessary: To spread the holy word, to bolster Greece’s tourist economy, to pay for the monasteries’ upkeep?

You can see why the holy people loved this place. Closer to God, of course. But also much harder for the Turks to get to and cause their usual mischief.

From the heights of Agios Stéphanos, we watched enormous buses pull up, and out spilled the eager tourists, led by guides holding aloft a pennant on a stick. Since we’re so far north, it’s not just the usual cohort of Germans, French, Italians and Americans. Buses arrive directly from Bulgaria, Albania and Romania, just next door.

As we descend the steep stairs, the new arrivals struggle to ascend. “How much further?” they pant.

“Not far,” we say, conscious of the weight of our words. “Well worth it.”

The landscape of Meteora is otherworldly. You emerge from the darkened interiors, from the incense and icons and guttering yellow candles, and it all makes sense. Anything is possible here, so close to the clouds.

Agios Stéphanos. We visited, looked around and looked out over the vast plain. But it was clear that only a small portion of the monastery is open to visitors.

Before the paths and steps were carved into the mountains, baskets and nets such as this one were the only way for the monks to get their afternoon coffee and cigarettes. There were ladders, too, which could be quickly pulled up if a Turk or a woman tried to get in.

Kyría Kéti

Many years ago, out delivering groceries for my father’s store, I rang the bell of a ground-floor duplex. These were new customers, newly arrived from Greece, a certain Kyría Kéti and her husband. The woman who answered was nut-brown, barefoot, and wearing a white bikini. Twiggy haircut, dyed blonde. Frosted pink lipstick. Extravagant mascara. And, just below the Twiggy do, dangly earrings terminating in cubes of acid green. A Go-Go girl at least fifteen years out of date, but you could easily imagine Kyría Kéti, much thinner and younger, doing the frug in a cage suspended in an Athens disco. But here, frozen in time, she regarded me and my box of groceries and took a drag on her cigarette.

“Ah, yes, Kyría Afroditi’s son. Thank you so much for bringing my things,” she said, in musical Greek. “This way into the kitchen, please.”

I followed, and on the way glanced into her living room. A chaise-long, covered with a towel, had been set up in front of an open window. She had been sunbathing, and over the course of the next few years, whenever I drove down her street on a sunny day, I would glimpse Kyría Kéti reclining in her living room and absorbing the feeble heat.

As for her husband, I remember nothing about him. Except that he was unremarkable to the degree that she was not. And there was another remarkable thing about Kyría Kéti: her brother was a monk, and soon would be visiting from Greece.

A few weeks later, my mother summoned me to the store and introduced me to Father Nektário, the famous monk. Apparently, he’d been waiting some time for me to take him to Park Ex, as he only spoke Greek and didn’t know his way around. Could I do that, on the way to school? In the presence of a stranger, it was impossible to refuse.

I glared at my mother, and then froze. Was I was expected to kiss Father Nektário’s hand, as is customary? But this is a monk, not a priest, so do the same rules apply? Sensing my confusion, Father Nektário immediately seized and shook my hand.

The monk and I rode the bus, and afterwards the subway, and we talked all the way but I don’t remember a word. He was not a learned man, or at least he wore his learning lightly. Except that he radiated both quiet confidence and innocence. There was an unmistakable sense, too, of goodness — and I hesitate to use the word because it’s so vague and old-fashioned.

Like his sister, he, too, was a visitor from another realm.

Since I had to get to class early that day, I gave him instructions for when he got off at the Jean-Talon station: take bus 179 north; when it turns right on l’Acadie, get off at the stop after Ogilvy; turn right on Saint-Roch, and Tis Theotókou will be on your left. You can’t miss it.

He made notes with a pencil stub in a small book, and as we pulled into the Jean-Talon station, he thanked me. I considered kissing his hand. But, surrounded by strangers, I faltered and then my chance evaporated.  He stood on the platform, a diminishing figure in black, and waved until he was out of sight. I never saw him again, for soon after he returned to Greece.

* * *

There was a museum of geology in Kastráki, which I didn’t visit. I miss out on a lot of things. With no real knowledge to speak of, I will say that these giant formations are not granite or some other stone, but a kind of aggregate, like concrete: small rocks of varying size suspended in some prehistoric mud that has petrified over millions of years. Is that clear?

* * *

We emerge from the steep and rocky paths, between giant stone thumbs poking into the sky. Several rock climbers, bright dots on the dark-grey surface, are ascending one of the thumbs. After many hours of climbing to monasteries and caves, and then making a slow and uncertain descent, we’re now just above the clay-tiled roofs of the village of Kastráki, with the monasteries well behind us. Almost home.

We pause to admire a large handsome structure, cunningly built so it seems to emerge from Meteora’s strange geological formations. Workmen are completing the stone entrance, as a security officer smokes a cigarette and looks on. This might be a boutique hotel or a shipping magnate’s mountain retreat, we’re not sure. At that moment a crowd of people appears on the rocky path, led by a tour guide. We ask the guide about the structure but, surrounded by chattering people, and with the sound of hammering and power tools roaring in the background, I can’t hear a word.  

Once we’re away from the crowds and noise, I ask one of my hiking companions to repeat what the guide said. “No one is allowed inside,” she explains. “This is where the last hermit of Meteora lives.”

A view of Agía Triáda (Holy Trinity), a small church at the top of Kalambáka that is 300 years older than the earliest monastery in Meteora. I will have a little more to say about this stunning church next time.

6 thoughts on “The last hermit of Meteora”

  1. Yiasou Spyro .
    Sounds like an absolutely fabulous trip so far …… and more to come !
    The monasteries, church , Kakambaka , the food, the views ….. life is good .
    Constantinos stayed in Kalambaka as well when he went to Meteora with two friends this past summer.
    By the way two days ago I went to watch him defend his thesis and at the end of it the jury deliberated and came back to award him his doctorate. We’re all super pleased for him . The presentation was done at the new campus of UofM in Outremont, at the other side of Park X . A very pleasing area and buildings and of course brand new . The buildings really look as if they blend into the sky . Very attractive.
    Awaiting news of your next experience.

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. I loved Kalambaka when I visited many years ago. I love your picture of the fuse box installed without much ceremony in the icon of a saint. What power flows from her! You wonder why such a life of solitude is necessary today. I suppose it is only necessary for the person living it. Your memory of Kyria Keti and her brother reminds me of conversations I had long ago. Even though the language was common, the experiences were so disparate that communication was very singular. I mean that in a positive way. Today the common experiences we all have promote a “sameness” in the way we talk to each other. Our information, entertainment, concensus of all sorts of ideas come from mostly common sources. How then, can we have unique ideas springing forth? Thanks for this post.

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    1. Thank you, Isobel, for your thoughtful comments. The photo of the icon and power box is indeed provocative, suggestive and funny. You’re right, too, about global culture and its levelling effects. We once yearned for a lingua franca and ways to bridge differences and thereby quell warlike behaviour. But, as with so much else, this was a foolish hope. Again, thanks for reading and especially for seeing and thinking.

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  3. So interesting! With each new post I realize how little I know of, or understand, Greece.
    Do Greek tourists also visit Meteora?
    About that rock, I know exactly what you mean. Sounds just like rock I saw in Spain which fascinated me, to the extent that I brought a piece home.
    Your photos are wonderful. The one with the net is especially captivating.

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    1. Greece is a very small country, compared to most European nations, but with big regional differences. I’m sure the same can be said of most countries. Yes, lots of Greek tourists visit Meteora. It is a sort of shrine, as you can imagine, and not just religious, but also historic and cultural. Having said that, you also find lots of visitors from adjacent northern countries, such as Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, etc. For them, it’s a short trip by bus. So glad you like the photos.

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