The 10 most spectacular mountain monasteries

These remote monasteries are in stunning surroundings and perched conveniently close to the heavens.


Monks always had an eye for remote places and fabulous scenery, and this ninth-century monastery is the perfect example, lodged on a basalt shelf above a gorge in southeast Armenia with views to snowy mountains. The cable-car ride is magnificent. For centuries, it was an important religious, political and trading centre, and in the Middle Ages housed a university. It's now history and earthquake ravaged, but still impressive. See


This Tibetan Buddhist monastery rises from a rock in the Spiti Valley at over 4000 metres in the Himalayas, above the tightly clustered village of Kibar. It's part monastery, part fortress, with the current labyrinth of tiny prayer rooms and staircases dating from the 14th century. Lovely Buddhist murals line the walls. Some 350 very welcoming monks live, chant and often play pipe music here. See


The country's most important Orthodox destination inhabits two big caves with an exterior facade that clings to a cliff face some 900 metres above the Zeta Valley. It's a hugely popular pilgrim destination that houses the bones of St Basil of Ostrog. The view is superb. In the valley below, a lower monastic complex has colourful frescoes and accommodation for pilgrims, plus a purportedly cure-all natural spring. See


Lodged on a cliff side in the Paro Valley, the Paro Taktsang complex is an important sacred site devoted to Padmasambhava, who is said to have meditated in a cave here and introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century. Getting to the huddle of temples, icon-crammed chambers and rock crevices involves a two-hour climb up some thousand-odd steps and across a bridge at a waterfall. Breathtaking, literally. See

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This hilltop extravaganza south of Rome is a pilgrim destination, since it houses the relics of sixth-century St Benedict, the founder of Christian monasticism. He perhaps never envisaged vast buildings embellished with mosaics, paintings and stucco. Views get ever better as you ascend the switchback road to the summit. The well-defended outcrop is also notable as the site of a key World War II battle in 1944; the abbey was rebuilt after bombing. See


No prizes for the architecture here, the main drawcard being the 12th-century Black Madonna, patron saint of Catalonia, enthroned above the altar, plus top artworks in the monastery's museum. The location, 48 kilometres west of Barcelona and accessible by rack railway, is also magnificent, since the monastery is wedged 300 metres below the summit of Montserrat, with plunging views extending to the coast. See


Dodge aggressive monkeys and clamber up 777 poop-slick steps and your reward is a petite, golden-spired monastery where marble Buddhas smile and strange, mischievous spirits called nats are appeased by locals with offerings of fruit. Mt Popa sits atop an astonishing basalt outcrop some 50 kilometres southeast of Bagan with views over lush fields and distant mountain ridges. Seen from a distance, it looks like an improbable, golden sci-fi fantasy. See


This fabulous medieval concoction isn't exactly a mountain, more a huge rock sitting on a bay in Normandy. Watch out on the sands, as tides are notoriously tricky. The conical outcrop rises like an illumination from a book of prayers, with a great Gothic abbey topping a village of houses and churches. Visit the abbey's interior – where steps are worn by centuries of shuffling monks and tourists – to admire stupendous foundations and sea-gazing outlooks. See



Emperors once favoured the Heng Mountains of Shanxi Province for Daoist retreats. The Hanging Temple is lodged halfway up a cliff above a frothing river, with wooden facades fronting scooped-out caves linked by rickety wooden walkways. It looks like the set of a kung-fu fantasy movie. The temple unites Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian elements and has been clinging on here, in one form or another, since the fifth century. See


The improbably located, gravity-defying World Heritage monasteries in northern Greece sit atop grey rock pinnacles, some soaring 300 metres above the Pinos Valley, and surrounded by sometimes snow-capped mountains. Orthodox monks have lived here since the 11th century and were once hauled up in baskets. Six monasteries are open to visitors. The oldest and most elaborate is Grand Meteora, featuring a 12-domed church hung with icons and adjacent monastic complex. See

Brian Johnston travelled both as a guest of tourism offices and at his own expense.

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