Monasteries dating back as far as 1356 sit perched on rocky monoliths that tower high above the haze in the valley below. Ancient cave dwellings, continuously inhabited for over 50,000 years, remain carved in to vertical cliff-sides as if in testament to the endurance of man. It’s no wonder that monastics seeking spiritual enlightenment and those searching for untouched isolation in this breathtaking setting have done so for millennia. It has a serene, otherworldly atmosphere that can make one forget that they are in fact in Central Greece. This is Meteora; a site of religious reflection for the Christian Orthodox and an unearthly and inspirational landscape that must be seen to be believed.
Best known for its monasteries which ‘float in the air’ (that, apparently is the translation of Meteora), the famous Greek UNESCO World Heritage Site is comprised of numerous religious complexes built on spectacular rocky outcrops; some of which are over 300 meters high. The rock-strewn landscape emerged approximately 25 million years ago as a result of tectonic movement. Subsequent weathering created cave-like openings in the rock-face, which became a shelter for hermits seeking spiritual isolation. Most amazing is that the early hermits who made dwellings in the cliff-face, and then subsequently the monks and nuns who founded monasteries on the rocky pillars, accessed the remote and isolated spaces by means of perilously dangerous systems of ropes and ladders.
While Meteora’s monasteries can be traced to the early 14th century, the monastic importance of the site can be traced further back to the 11th century when monks first settled there. In the 16th century, the height of Monastic activity in Meteora, there were 24 monasteries elevated high amongst the rock formations; established to serve both monks and nuns following the Eastern Orthodox Church. But this expansion did not last, and by the mid-17th century the monastic community sheltered in Meteora’s monasteries slowly began to decline. Over the course of the subsequent two centuries the majority of the Monasteries and hermitages fell into ruin; largely a result of their abandonment by the monastic community but also, in part, a result of Ottoman destruction.
In the 20th century, arriving monks began to repopulate those few remaining monasteries and Meteora has now been reestablished as the most important grouping of Monasteries after Mount Athos. Aside from the active six monasteries, a number of smaller, long-abandoned, monasteries and hermitages have also been restored but remain uninhabited – In fairness, living amongst a plethora of tour buses isn’t exactly going to be the first choice of your average monastic hermit!
Regardless of religion, Meteora and its monasteries are a spectacular place to visit and somewhere that shouldn’t be missed if you’re planning to visit Greece.
Meteora is located in Central Greece and the closest town is Kalampaka which sits at the foot of the imposing rock formations. If you’re planning to spend a few days exploring the Monasteries and ruins then this is definitely the place to base yourself. There are an abundance of places to stay and decent restaurants. In fact Kalampaka in and of itself is worth exploring; particularly the Old Town.
Kalampaka is 350 km away from Athens, 238 km away from Thessaloniki and 146 km from Volos and has its own train station. If you’re planning to get there by public transport then train is definitely the way to go. Even though the train journey from Athens takes about 5 hours it’s still MUCH easier than trying to navigate the Greek public bus system. If you’re looking for more detailed advice on how to get to Meteora by train from various Greek locations then my advice is to check out the Visit Meteora website.
It’s definitely possible to visit Meteroa as a day trip from Athens (in fact, here is a trip that does just that). But it’s probably not all that enjoyable as you’ll feel rushed, stressed, and miss out on everything the area has to offer! My advice would be to spend at least one night in Kalampaka before heading on elsewhere.
In terms of accessibility the monasteries are, in the main, perched precariously high on the cliffs and were traditionally accessed by either dangerous ladders or via a cable winch system. The good news for us tourists is that they have now been made accessible by staircases and pathways cut into the rock formations – I don’t think you’d have much liked visiting by jumping in an old basket and being winched up.
On our visit we focused on the Monastery of Great Meteoron and the Monastery of St. Stephen. The Monastery of Great Meteoron was the first of the 24 monasteries to be built (although it’s obviously had some significant face lifts since the 14th Century). It’s also the biggest of the bunch despite only currently having three active monks. St. Stephens is much smaller and was bombed by the Nazis in World War II. Today it is a nunnery which, from a clothing perspective, also means that gents must wear trousers whereas they can get away with shorts in some of the other monasteries inhabited by monks. I found this out at my own peril and was forced to change cloths with my wife. I thus visited St. Stephens in a very attractive pair of skin-tight women’s jeans; much to the amusement of other visitors (a couple of whom decided it was a good photo opportunity). The other active Monasteries are Rousanou/St. Barbara; Varlaam; St. Nicholas Anapausas and The Monastery of the Holy Trinity.
If the six active monasteries don’t quench your thirst and you’re looking for even more to do then you might want to start by exploring some of the other ruins or restoration projects in the area such as the Hermit Caves of Badovas, Ypapanti Monastery, the Rock of Aghio Pnevma or St. George Madilas. If you’re looking for a more active adventure then you should check out the Trekking Hellas website. They offer rappelling, rock climbing, rafting and hiking tours.