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Floating monasteries

Metéora is one of those places that cannot fail to stop you in your tracks. I've only been there once, but it's one of those experiences that is burnt into my memory. The physical beauty of the landscape – spectacular sandstone pillars jutting out of the Plain of Thessaly in Greece – is unlike anything I have seen since. Then there is the utterly compelling fact that monks have chosen to live on top of the pillars in monasteries for centuries – and continue to do so.

I was about 14 years old when we went to Metéora (Greek for 'suspended rocks'), and I remember our family driving for many miles through the Greek mainland to get there. Of course it was hot, and I was a teenager, so I was little blasé. Then these magical pillars appeared out of absolutely nowhere. From the second I saw them, I couldn't keep my eyes off them. I remember driving away and trying to hold them in my mind. They've stayed.

Maybe there's a certain piety in living in utterly inhospitable places. Or perhaps the beauty of the environment makes the monks feel closer to God? Whatever the case, they have been hoisting themselves up the sides of the pillars in baskets since the 14th century, when the first monasteries were built. Stairs have since been cut in some of the pillars, making it slightly easier for tourists – like us – to visit.

Six of the original 24 monasteries are still in use today – the others are deserted. Occasionally, a film crew shows up and shoots an action film there, like the 1981 Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Bond, in the form of Roger Moore, is hoisted up in a basket to attack the villain's lair on top of a Metéroan pillar. It's a far cry from the monastic tranquility of Metéora, but a chance to see what I'm talking about, if you can't get there just yet. RM

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