If you like the history, art, and architecture of the Middle Ages (Medieval times), from 500 to 1500 AD, you’re going to love visiting monasteries in Europe.
Oxford Dictionary defines monastery as “the residence of a religious community, especially of monks living in seclusion.” According to an essay published by The Met, Monasticism in Western Medieval Europe,
The concept of withdrawal from society is essential to the Christian tradition of monasticism, a term that derives from the Greek word monachos, which means a solitary person.
Since the beginning, monasteries were built on top of unreachable places like the Meteora in Greece or in remote areas in Germany, Serbia, Bulgaria and hundreds of different locations throughout Europe – all fortified and away from the masses. Besides religious activities, monks were engaged in arts, music, writing, farming and helping the needy.
Today, some of these monasteries are still functioning. And if you’re wondering which are the best to visit in Europe, here are seven we recommend:
1. Visoki Decani Monastery in Kosovo
Sitting at the foot of the Prokletije Mountains in western Kosovo is Monastery Visoki Decani, a Serbian Orthodox monastery. This monastery is heavily guarded by KFOR, a NATO-led Kosovo Force, and all guests have to submit their passports before entering the fortified compound.
Visoki Decani Monastery was founded by King Stefan Uros III, and construction started in 1327. Its been a functioning cenobitic male monastery since the 14th century. These days there are 25 monks and apprentices in the monastery. In addition to spiritual roles, these monks and apprentices are engaged in farming, wine-making, publishing, cooking, beekeeping, icon painting, wood carving and more.
The monastery also functions as the king’s mausoleum, the King’s coffin is placed at the head of the altar as he is still deemed as a saint to the Serbian Orthodox.
2. Studenica Monastery in Serbia
Located by Studenica River in central Serbia is Serbia’s most well-preserved and largest Serbian Orthodox Church monastery – Studenica Monastery. Even with modernization like highways, this monastery is still very isolated. It’s surrounded by mountains and has a fortified circular wall and two gates.
Established in 1196, Studenica has two churches, Church of the Virgin and King’s Church. These churches have frescoes that date back to the 13th and 14th centuries.
3. Maulbronn Monastery, Germany
Founded in 1147, Maulbronn Monastery is one of the best-preserved monastery complexes in Europe. It was an important political, economic and social center in the region. It’s a great example of early Gothic architecture. It’s best to see the place with a guide. The cloister, refectory, chapel, the courtyard with its surrounding towers, monks’ residential houses, and museum are worth visiting. You’ll learn about the life of the monks from the 12th to the 16th century.
Located in Maulbronn, a small town surrounded by rolling hills about an hour’s drive from Stuttgart. Fans of monasteries may want to combine Maulbronn Monastery visit with Hirsau and Alpirsbach monasteries – part of the monastery route.
4. Meteora Monasteries, Greece
There are only six clifftop monasteries left in Meteora and just less than a hundred monks and nuns live there. During the 14th century, 24 monasteries were built on the gigantic rocks, high enough to provide solitude and protection from invaders.
- Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron
- Holy Monastery of Varlaam
- Holy Monastery of Rousanou
- Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapafsas
- Holy Monastery of St. Stephen
- Holy Monastery of Holy Trinity
5. Monastery of Alcobaca, Portugal
Founded by King Alfonso I in the 12th century, Portugal’s Alcobaça Monastery is one of the best Cistercian Gothic masterpieces ever built. A visit there will lead you to Portugal’s Romeo and Juliet – Pedro and Ines, the ill-fated lovers carved stone coffins are in the nave.
Check out the stone shelves, cloisters, Gothic fountain, sculptures, inscriptions and more.
6. Voronet Monastery, Romania
Known as the Sistine Chapel of the East, Voroneţ Monastery in Bucovina Romania was built in 1488 in less than four months. You’ll find 15th and 16th centuries frescoes in the exterior and interior walls. The monastery’s Voronet Blue is the most unique blue you’ll ever see.
7. Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Founded in the 10th century by St John of Rila (the patron saint of Bulgaria), Rila Monastery is Bulgaria’s most visited site. It’s a perfect example of the Eastern Orthodox of medieval times. Most of the original buildings were destroyed in the 18th century.
Check out the Church of the Virgin Birth with the 12th-century icon of the Virgin (not displayed year round), Tower of Hreylo (the only original part of the monastery) and the unique Rafail Cross.