Suspended in mid-air

A long day trip out of Athens involved a 4-hr train ride each direction but was well worth it. It was a visit to Meteora, north of Athens in the center of the country. Meteora, a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning “suspended in mid-air”. Game of Thrones did some filming here, which has contributed to the area’s popularity.

At its peak (excuse the pun), there were 24 Byzantine monasteries, each built at the top (or on precarious outcroppings) of dramatic rock formations. The sedimentary nature of the rock formations struck me as somewhat similar to the tufas we saw in Cappadocia, Turkey, but with a different shape. Today, 6 monasteries remain, with very few inhabitants. In fact, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity has only one monk living there. So many have left for Mt. Athos recently that they finally allowed nuns to convert 2 of these to nunneries.

So why the recent exodus? You would think the answer would be the incredible hardship of living in these remote locations, in what must be incredibly freezing winter temperatures, with challenging wi-fi access. 😉

Actually, it’s due to the double-edged sword of tourism. The Church doesn’t support the monasteries, so they charge a €3 admission fee, which provides most of the funds needed for (what must be) incredibly expensive maintenance, operating costs, food, etc. So we were here in late February, and I’d estimate maybe 200 people a day??? (The coronavirus has started to impact travel, so perhaps January might have had slightly more visitors?) But the point is that, in the summer high season, they get up to 10,000 visitors A DAY. Great revenue, and great work for the nearby village of Kalabaka, full of tour guides and drivers. But not a great environment for quiet meditation and being ”one“ with your God.

We’re dealing with the growing tourism numbers in Hawaii; discussing carrying capacity, impacts on residents’ quality of life, etc. And, of course, it’s a topic all over the world, as global tourism explodes. But who would have thought it would impact monks in monasteries perched at the top of rock formations in central Greece?


P.S. One of the monasteries had more than 120 steps up to its entrance. Thank you, Dr. Cass Nakasone, for new knees that could do this.

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