One afternoon, while walking near the great rock Doupiani on the western side of Kastraki, we came across a drone. It was something we heard long before we saw it, humming away like an edge trimmer some distance away in the sky. The drone was piloted by a young German holding a phone-sized remote-control. He was listening to directions from an older Greek man wearing dark sunglasses and the look of someone associated with business. I’d presumed he’d hired the drone-pilot to take some aerial footage for his tourism business.
There is something predatory about drones. Not just the sound they make, but the way they can hover almost perfectly still as if assessing their next move, or their ability to translate in any direction with alarming precision. As well, their presence always seems to puncture the serenity of a natural setting; they pull you out of your immersion in nature, the same way a noisy jet ski does at the beach.
The young German man explained that he uses drones for photography, mostly landscape and sporting shots. From what I could gather, it was his job. That’s something I find a little disconcerting about drones. Despite their predatory nature and association with military operations, they also have huge potential in photography, construction, courier services and a capability to assess environments unsuitable for humans.
The drone landed a few meters from my feet. It was basically a small grey box with four arms, each containing a high speed rotor. Folded, it would easily fit into a shoe box. The camera was barely visible but the pilot could see everything the drone ‘sees’ from his phone.
Before we left, the Greek man offered us a recommendation for an interesting walk in the area. We left them to their drone photography and embarked on a trail that skirted the edge of Meteora, through an extensive forest of skinny-trunked oak trees. Eventually we encountered what the Greek man had described as a “secret monastery”. It was built into adjoining caves, 70 metres up on a vertical cliff face but it wasn’t really secret. The small monastery of Ipapantis is open every day to visitors from 9am to 2pm. It doesn’t attract the big tourist crowds though because it’s not on the main tour bus route, nor is it included as one of the six known monasteries, and it’s not permanently inhabited.
The present-day monastery of Ipapantis was completed in 2000 at the site of a previous monastery that had existed since the 14th century. The original chapel still exists, carefully incorporated into the more recent structure that surrounds it. The walls of the chapel are ornately decorated with the icons of Saints using ancient pigments that can no longer be reproduced with accuracy. For their age though the paintings are in very good condition as the cave environment naturally provides an appropriate level of humidity.
Besides a chapel, the monastery includes a modern dining area and sleeping quarters that are occasionally used by monks from other monasteries who may be in need of some respite. Its main purpose though is not for permanent habitation but more as a discreet showpiece of monastic retreat.
During our visit we talked with the caretaker about how monks used to access these high places and how they obtained food and water and other basic necessities. The caretaker, a young man clearly well informed about monasticism, explained that the monks did not have an easy or comfortable life. They would access the caves and other high points initially using long ladders and later with simple lifts or nets that could be winched up from the ground. They would gather rainwater from runoff from the cliffs and cut channels into the rock to direct it where they needed to. Food could be grown in special plots of land nearby and brought to the monasteries or hermitages as required.
In all, we visited three monasteries at Meteora, and Ipapantis was the most interesting. Being quiet and off the beaten track, it provided what I thought could be the closest insight into a monastic existence.