Combining adventure, ancient architecture and worship, these remote religious sites might be a challenge to get to - but if you want pure escapism and deliverance from the trappings of modernity, they won’t be beaten.
Is your village church not doing it for you? This wonderful world is full of incredible places of worship that’ll restore your faith and leave you awestruck. Timid pilgrims beware: these are no ordinary religious sites. And though they come in a range of faithful flavours they share one thing in common, they’re all a monumental faff to get to. That spells blissful escapism and deliverance from the trappings of modernity. Combining adventure and worship, these off-the-beaten-track locations are for tourists who relish a challenging trek. Grab your hiking boots and let’s go.
1. Meteora, Greece
Meteora is an Eastern Orthodox Church situated on top of a lofty sandstone pillar of 400m and named after the Greek word ‘meteor’. Translating to ‘middle of the sky’, its aerial location was chosen as a means of protection from attackers during the 14th century. Legend has it that the church’s founder – St. Athanasius – was carried to the top of the pillar via eagle, which isn’t a bad way to get to work! Sadly the eagle taxi mysteriously disappeared and up until the 1920s visitors had to brave a terrifying system of ropes and pulleys to reach the entrance of the church. These days carved steps lead the way to the monastery, allowing you to enjoy breathtaking views of the surroundings with far less risk.
2. Buddhist Monastery of Ki, India
Up in the Himalayas the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery of Ki stands in a haphazard stack atop a hill that boasts a backdrop of snow-capped peaks and icy glaciers. At an altitude of 4,166 metres above sea level this religious training centre has withstood multiple Mongol attacks, fires and earthquakes during its 1,000 year history. The interior of the complex contains many incredible holy artefacts, including 14th century murals and images of Buddha. The best time to visit is between May and October, as in the intervening months heavy snowfall makes the Rohtang Pass ironically - impassable. Brrrrr!
3. Popa Taungkalat Monastery, Myanmar
You might think building your monastery on top of a 737 metre rocky pillar was risky enough. But the monks at Popa Taungkalat Monastery don’t just have heights to deal with. Their home is situated within the crater of a long dormant volcano. It may not have erupted since the 5th century BC, but the thought of a reawakening volcano must surely enter the monk’s minds from time to time! Getting there isn’t easy. Wide and inviting steps at the bottom draw visitors in before becoming progressively narrower and more challenging as you ascend. Once at the top the next challenge is to avoid the 37 spirits of the dead who are said to live here, as well as countless macaques, famed for their habit of pinching tourists’ sandwiches!
4. Church of Saint Maximus the Confessor, Georgia
Atop a limestone monolith rising 40 metres above ground lays one of Georgia’s most fascinating sights. Over a thousand years ago the Katskhi Pillar was used by Christian Stylites, who would live atop pillars in order to avoid earthly temptations and be closer to God. They built a church here, but after the Ottoman invasion it was abandoned and from the early Middle Ages until 1944 villagers could only look up and wonder what secrets were hidden at the top. Fifty years after its rediscovery, a former-criminal-turned-monk decided to rebuild the church and make the pillar his home. 20 years on the monk still lives here in isolation, making the 20 minute climb down a rusty ladder to the base only twice a week to pray with his followers.
5. Kozheozersky Monastery, Russia
North-western Russia is one of the world’s most remote regions; the lands spreading north and west from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Arctic Circle have always been sparsely populated due to the relentless cold. Amongst this lies Lake Kozhozero, a remote lake some 200km from the nearest major city, Arkhangelsk. On an island in the middle of the lake lays one of the world’s most inconveniently situated monasteries. To get there, first you’ll have to catch a train to Nimenga Station. Then you’ll have to stick out your thumb and attempt to hitch a ride up a forest track with a lumber truck. After that you’re on your own. You’ll need to hike 32km to get to the lake, and once there, you’ll have to light a fire at the shore that will signal a boat from the island that’ll ferry you across. Godspeed.
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