Meteora is a place that you simply have to explore on foot. The valley is connected by a network of 35 kilometres of paths and trails, and there are surprises at every turn ranging from hermit caves and monastic ruins, to strange rock formations and giant rock boulders frequented by rock climbers.
For me, getting to hike in this landscape turned out to be one of the highlights of my visit to Meteora, not only because I got to see out-of-the-way monasteries that I would have otherwise missed, but also because I got to hear the local folklore that brought this destination to life.
I went on 2 different hikes while in Meteora: one was a hiking tour through the Rock Forest that finished with a visit to the Grand Meteoro, and the other was a hiking tour of Holy Spirit. While the two hiking routes had their differences, what did not change was our guides’ unwavering passion for Meteora and the storytelling that allowed us travellers to connect with the places we visited.
The following is a collection of stories that I heard hiking in Meteora; they are stories of miracles, stories of theft, and some are stories that made me scratch my head and wonder, “Could that have really happened or did this just get embellished over centuries of storytelling?” Either way, this is the narrative that’s alive and well in Meteora:
The girl who was kidnapped by monks
It’s hard to see at first glance, but if you look closely at the photo above you’ll notice the ruins of the Pantokrator Monastery. How this monastery came to be nothing more than a pile of rubble, is a fascinating story.
Apparently there was once a very beautiful girl who lived in the local village, and she was such a sight to behold that even a group of monks who had recently arrived in the area took notice. One day the girl mysteriously disappeared from her home, and despite searching high and low around the town, neither her family nor the villagers couldn’t find her.
It wasn’t until a few days later when a local shepherd was walking around the base of the monastery that he saw a shoe fly down from the sky. It was the shoe of the beautiful girl who had been missing! The shepherd rushed back to the village waving the shoe in hand to confirm his findings, and sure enough, everyone agreed that shoe belonged to the girl.
Angered to have had one of their women stolen from them, the men of the village rallied together and went to the foot of the monastery where they demanded the release of the girl. The monks played dumb and insisted they were not keeping a woman prisoner, but the villagers weren’t buying the story and they warned the monks that they’d have trouble to pay…
One version of the story says the girl was then released, while another suggests that the villagers returned with canons and started shelling the monastery and that’s why today it sits in ruins. As for the girl, she was reunited with her family.
The family who stole the monks’ monastery
Unlike the previous story, it appears that while some monks were causing trouble around town, others were being victimized.
The next story I heard was that of the Ypapanti Monastery. The story starts out with the local monks of the monastery going out for the day – they may have gone out to visit monks at another monastery, or they may just have been out running errands…no one really knows – but what we do know is that when the monks finally returned to their home at the end of the day, they found that it had been taken over by a family of squatters! Yes, an entire family had moved in and taken over their home while they were out for the day.
It appears that this family had some very strong and fierce young men, which left the monks with very few options. The monks did not have the force to challenge the squatters, and so they were forced to retreat while the new guests presumably settled in, started rearranging furniture, and made themselves cozy.
The crazy part is that the Ypapanti Monastery would remain in the hands of the squatters for the next 89 years, and that’s written in the local records.
The monks who were thrown in jail
Then for another surprise, we visited a jail for monks, but this wasn’t any ordinary jail. As you can see in the photo above, this particular jail was built into a cave on the rock and it was meant to hold “the naughty monks”.
I tried pressing my guide with questions as to what kind of crimes these monks had actually committed, but I couldn’t get a straight answer, though judging from the previous stories we heard on the hike, kidnapping sounded like one likely offence. Our guide also told us that disobedience was one way to end up in this monk jail, as any form of undermining authority by the younger monks could’ve upset the whole balance of the leadership.
I didn’t get to hear any stories of individual monks here, but I did learn that this cave could hold a maximum of 14 monks, with each jail cell built on to a wooden ledge. One thing’s for sure – the view from the jail cell was not half bad!
Bright scarves for St. George
And lastly, a story that has not only infused local tradition but that can still be seen alive to this day.
The story goes that a newlywed Turkish couple was living in the village, when one day the woman’s husband was chopping down a tree and it fell on him injuring him so severely, that it appeared he was at the gates of death. Seeing the distress of the woman, the local villagers urged her to pray to St. George for a miracle (it was after all St. George’s Day), and so, desperate to save her beloved husband, the woman removed her head scarf and offered it to St. George in prayer.
Soon after, the husband made a recovery, everyone rejoiced over the miracle, and a new tradition was born.
That is why every year on St. George’s Day, the young men from the local village climb to the cave of Agios Georgios Mandilas to collect the scarves that were brought up as offerings the previous year and replace them with new ones. To an outsider it would appear that this event is all about bravado, but the tradition stems back many centuries ago.
And that’s just a little snippet of some of the places we visited and the stories we heard on our hike through Meteora.
As it happens when stories are passed down orally generation after generation, at this point it’s hard to say what’s truth, what’s myth, and what’s been embellished over the years. However, I can tell you that hearing these stories brought the whole landscape to life and it helped me appreciate the destination in a different way.
I would’ve never heard these local stories had I just been zipping around from monastery to monastery in a car – at least not the stories about the kidnapping monks or the naughty monks thrown in jail! – so if you want to hear all the juicy gossip from centuries past, consider a hiking in Meteora with a local guide. That’s the best way to do it!
Have you ever been hiking in Meteora?