MYSTICAL mountains, divine views - Meteor's hilltop monasteries are just so pure, heavenly.

The poet and painter Edward Lear once remarked that 'no pen or pencil' could do justice to the mountain monasteries in Meteora, and I'm happy to prove him right.

Actually, I was meant to be sailing with my eccentric Aunt Marigold and her husband Winslow. But adverse weather had kept us in Thessaloniki - and so, to avoid cabin fever, we set for Meteora.

The three-hour is, drive into the heart of central central Greece ended in our first glimpse of these rock pillars, which rear up inexplicably from the plain.

What forced them? To geological jury is out. Point is, they're there, and they were there millennium ago, when hermits first began climbing the rock-faces in search of solitude.

This was phase one. Phase two was when group of monks, fleeing Ottoman persecution, wondered  west from the Mount Athos in search of somewhat safer.

The pioneer was St Athanasius, who was also known as Athanasius the Meteorite, though not because of any special powers of levitation.

That said, some believed that, in order to have found Great Meteoran, the largest monastery, he must have been carried up there by some enormous bird.

More likely, he commissioned one of those agile hermits to scale the peak known as the Broad Rock , and set up a winch and windlass, which were then used to lift the necessary building materials.

For centuries the only way up for  non-climbers was via network of rickety ladders tied to the rock-face.

Failing that, you fired a gun. At this signal, if you were lucky, the monks might let down a net. You then clambered into it, and got hoisted hundreds of feet into the air while the bearded brothers sweated at the windlass.

Sadly, when I visited, this option was no-longer available. Instead, Marigold, Winslow and I ascended via the staircases that were carved into the rock in early 20th century. Then we paid a few euros to enter.

Marigold, being a woman, was required to don a skirt to cover her legs. We don't want those monks to get frisky.

All the monasteries are worth visiting, but perhaps the grandest, after Great Meteoron, is Varlaam. As you step into the narthex, or entrance-chamber, of its main-church, you're assailed by a fantastically gruesome fresco of The Second Coming.

From under the throne of a placid-looking Christ there flows a great river of blood,  dotted with the bodies of the sinners, who are either being forked by grinning demons or else gorged upon by a variety of voracious monsters.

The traveler Robert Curzon, who visited in 1834, noted that the monks had a singular love for  'everything horrible and hideous'. But it's not all gore at Meteora.

There's beauty, too, in abundance, y, in the crucifixion fresco in varlaam's nave, which is gazed down upon by the oddly smiling faces of the  sun and moon.

Many monasteries also bear witness to amazing craftsmanship, from the ornate  doors of the church  to Varlaam, to the rich epitaphios [a cloth representing the body of Christ] at Great Meteron.

And of course whenever you step outside, there are spectacular views of of the other monasteries as the plains beyond.

To live like an eagle in the clear bright air, with nothing to distract you from the books and meditations - it must have been extraordinary life, and be so now for the occupants of the six monasteries that   still operate.

As a tourist you get only a glimpse. But it's the one you won't forget. [Courtesy Daily Mail]


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