Meteora

Meteora is located in an area of unusually shaped and enormously huge columns of rock in Thessaly (part of Northern Greece). A Google Earth bird view shows the whole area (pic 1). According to radiocarbon analysis paleolithic humans were using some of the natural caves in the area 50000 years ago. Traces of Christian monks living in caves around Meteora from 800 CE onwards have been found by archeologists. Starting from around 1300 CE orthodox Greek monks built their housing on top of the rock formations, where they could live, work and pray in seclusion. The fortifications were necessary because of the frequent Ottoman invasions of Thessaly. Access to the monasteries was only possible via ropes or ladders, which could be pulled up in case of unwelcome visitors. In the subsequent centuries 24 separate monasteries were established, hundreds of monks lived there, and by and by impressive interior decorations were added (pics 11 - 16).
Nowadays only six are still inhabited (pic 2 shows from left to right Rousanou, Nicholas Anapausas, the highest and biggest Great Meteoron, and Varlaam; pic 3 shows Varlaam; pics 4 and 5 show Rousanou; pics 6,7 and 8 show St Stephen; pic 9 the Monastery of the Holy Trinity; pic 11 Nicholas Anapausas). Two of them (Rousanou, St Stephen) have been taken over by nuns. Since 1988 the area is recognized as UNESCO world heritage, which of course meant that the monasteries had to open for the public. The visiting hours are limited for each place, but little is left of the original solitude for the monks and nuns. They are busy with organizing the steady flow of visitors and maintaining the buildings, museums and the interior decorations. But at least at St Stephen (pics 6, 7 and 8) the nuns are still practicing hesychasm, the traditional way of Greek orthodox mysticism.