The Meteora: Varlaam Monastery
Varlaam Monastery (also known as Barlaam Monastery) takes its name from an ascetic monk named Varlaam who climbed the rock In 1350 and settled on the top. He built a cell for himself and a water tank, then three churches, but no one chose to join him, so after his death the site soon fell into disrepair. The buildings became ruinous and lay in that state for almost 200 years until 1517 when two rich priest-monks, Theophanes and Nektarios Apsarades from Ioanina, ascended the rock and founded a monastery on the original site. According to legend, they had to drive away the monster who lived in a cave on the summit before they could move in.
The brothers renovated Varlaam's church of the Three Hierarchs, erected the tower, and built a katholikon (1541-42) dedicated to All Saints. Using ropes, pulleys and baskets, it took 22 years to hoist all the building materials to the top of the rock. Once everything was in place, it took less than three weeks to complete the complex.
Varlaam Monastery was continuously occupied by monks (about 35 at a time) throughout the 16th century and into the early 17th century, after which it fell into decline. Ladders, ropes, baskets and a pulley system remained the only means of reaching the monastery until in the early 19th century when steps were first carved into the rock and this stairway has been altered and improved several times over the years.
Nowadays, seven monks are in permanent residence at Varlaam and its spectacular location, pleasant garden and relatively easy access via a narrow bridge makes it one of the most popular of the Meteora monasteries with visitors.
When I visited last time work was underway to replace the roof tiles on the church. The road leading to Agia Triada and Agios Stefanos monasteries can be seen leading off to the right in the background. The frescoes in the main church at Varlaam were painted by the celebrated iconographer Frangos Katelanos of Thebes in 1548 (the date is inscribed on the south wall). with further frescoes added by the brothers George and Frangos Kondares of Thebes twenty years later.
Various artifacts can be found within the complex including the old windlass and rope basket (1536), which was used to transport monks and supplies between the monastery and ground level. When asked how often the rope was replaced, a 19th-century abbot famously replied, "Only when it breaks." It was used as recently as 1961-63 when the refectory was converted into a small religious museum which displays a collection of relics, carved wooden crosses, icons, and many other ecclesiastical treasures. Varlaam also possesses over 300 religious manuscripts copied by monks, some of which are displayed in the sacristy.
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The monastic kitchen is an elegant vaulted structure with an octagonal dome leading to a chimney. The original water barrel (above left), which can hold 12 tons of rainwater, is on display in a storeroom. The original rope windlass-type hoist and a newer electrically-operated steel cable winch are pictured below.