Superlatives can be trotted out to describe Megalo Meteoro—the loftiest, richest, biggest, and most popular of the monasteries. Founded by St. Athanasios, the monk from Athos, it was built of massive stones 1,361 feet above the valley floor and is reached by a stiff climb of more than 400 steps. As you walk toward the entrance, you see the chapel containing the cell where St. Athanasios once lived. This monastery, known as the Grand Meteoron, gained imperial prestige because it counted among Athanasius's disciples the Hermit-King Ioasaph of Serbia and John Cantacuzene, expelled by his joint emperor from the Byzantine throne. Dating from 1387–1388, the sanctuary of the present church was the chapel first built by St. Athanasios, later added to by St. Ioasaph. The rest of the church was erected in 1552 with an unusual transept built on a cross-in-square plan with lateral apses topped by lofty domes, as in the Mt. Athos monasteries. To the right of the narthex are the tombs of Ioasaph
and Athanasios; a fresco shows the austere saints holding a monastery in their hands. Also of interest are the gilded iconostasis, with plant and animal motifs of exceptional workmanship; the bishop's throne (1617), inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory; and the beautiful 15th-century icons in the sanctuary. In the narthex are frescoes of the Martyrdom of the Saints, gruesome scenes of persecution under the Romans. Note the kitchen, blackened by centuries of cooking, and the wine cellar, filled with massive wine barrels. The gift shop is noted for its icons and incense. From November to March the monastery may close early.