In the last edition of Lara’s Travels, I wrote about the island of Jan Mayen in the Arctic Ocean, one of the real-life locations featured in Tomb Raider: Underworld. This time, however, we’ll be going back in time to where it all began and look at one of the places Lara visits in the original Tomb Raider (and Anniversary): St. Francis’ Folly.
Of course, there is no real-life St. Francis’ Folly (try not to be too disappointed), though this hasn’t deterred fans from spending considerable time and energy trying to pinpoint its exact location. To be perfectly honest, I’m not going to argue whether it may have been in Italy or Cyprus or even Turkey as, despite any historical inaccuracies, the game developers clearly intended it to be located in Greece. And you need only take one look at the mountain-top monasteries of Meteora in central Greece to agree that these must have inspired the design and setting of the fictional ruined monastery.
Meteora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site perched above the city of Kalambaka in Thessaly and is home to one of Greece’s most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries. Its name, which means “suspended in the air”, refers to the medieval monasteries that were built atop the region’s towering sandstone pillars. These were once only accessible via removable rope ladders and hoist nets, which were allegedly only replaced when they broke (there’s a comforting thought). Only 6 of the site’s 24 monasteries have survived to this day and only a couple of these still house religious communities. Luckily for modern-day tourists, the monasteries are now accessible by stairs and bridges so they need not place their faith in decaying rope ladders. But why and when did monks decide to settle in this isolated and seemingly inhospitable area?
Archaeological evidence suggests that small communities of hermits have lived in the area since the 10th century and their caves, which offered them the perfect refuge from the temptations and chaos of the secular world, can still be seen tucked away in the hollows and fissures of Meteora’s sandstone cliffs. However, it wasn’t until the arrival of Athanasios Koinovitis, a monk from Mount Athos, and his group of followers that Eastern Orthodox monks took a real interest in the area. Athanasios, who came to be known as St. Athanasios Meteorites, founded the Great Meteoron Monastery (also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ) in the mid-14th century and local legend claims that he was carried to the top of Platys Lithos (“Broad Rock”) on the back of an eagle.
The Great Meteoron is the oldest and largest of Meteora’s monasteries and it has plenty to offer tourists. Visitors can admire the main church’s beautiful frescoes, explore the monastery’s wine cellars, marvel at the rare religious icons and manuscripts on display in its museum or visit the sacristy, where they can see the bones and skulls of the monastery’s former residents stacked on its wooden shelves. Perhaps not something for the faint-hearted…
The collapse of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century sparked the migration of monks, nuns and pilgrims to this remote part of the Plain of Thessaly, many of whom were seeking refuge from the invading Ottoman Turks, and a total of 24 monasteries were established within the space of a century. Some of these can still be seen today, though not all of them are open to the public or even accessible. The ruins of Ypselotera, a small monastery that was founded in 1390 but abandoned in the 17th century, can be seen from the south-east corner of the Great Meteoron.
One of the monasteries that *can* be visited by tourists is St. Nikolaos Anapafsas, which was, according to Wikipedia, the inspiration for St. Francis’ Folly. I haven’t been able to verify this claim but there could be an element of truth in it. St. Nikolaos Anapafsas was built on a particularly narrow rock so the ever-resourceful monks decided to build vertically rather than outwards. It is one of the few multi-storey monasteries in Meteora and offers stunning views of the village of Kastraki, the majestic Pindus mountains, and the Great Meteoron. There’s no evidence of a Roman colosseum or a palace of King Midas at St. Nikolaos Anapafsas (or, indeed, at any of the other monasteries) but there are quite a few cisterns dotted around this sacred landscape. These naturally-formed cisterns once supplied the monasteries with fresh water, though luckily for the monks, the chances of stumbling upon a crocodile or an Atlantean burial chamber were exceedingly slim.
By the end of the 19th century, frequent raids by bandits and Ottoman soldiers had prompted most of the monks and nuns to abandon Meteora and many of the monasteries’ treasures were seized by Ali Pasha’s troops. The monasteries fell into a state of disrepair and it wasn’t until the 1920s that pilgrims began to return to the area. This peace was interrupted by the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War and the subsequent Greek Civil War of the late 1940s, during which time the monasteries were used as shelters and suffered some structural damage. Restoration and renovation works began in the 1960s and the reopened monasteries came to rely on tourism and the entertainment industry to make ends meet. Some scenes from the 1981 James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” were shot at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, or Agia Triada, and Meteora’s enchanting scenery can also be admired in the 1961 film “Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece”.
Today, Meteora is one of Greece’s most popular tourist destinations and it has become a mecca for climbers, who have over 600 climbing routes and 100 rock towers to choose from. Anyone can visit the monasteries of Meteora but all visitors must abide by a strict dress code. Women must cover their shoulders and wear long skirts so, needless to say, Lara would have a tough time getting in through the front door in her trademark shorts and tight tank top. But then again, Lara always preferred taking the road less travelled…
Sources & Further Reading:
- Great Meteoron Monastery, Meteora (Sacred Destinations)
- Meteora (UNESCO)
- Meteora (Wikipedia)
- Meteora: Greece’s Spiritual Pinnacles (Travel With a Challenge)
- Meteora Monasteries (Harry’s Greece Travel Guide)
- Meteora: The Rocks & Monasteries (Greek Voyager)
- Visit Meteora (Visit Meteora Travel)