Closer to God – who thought of it first I wonder – who looked up at the caves and cracks in those colossal pillars and resolved to pull away from the world below and pursue his quest for salvation up nearer the sky….
The first hermits – some time around the 9th century – would have climbed the almost inaccessible sandstone peaks with their bare hands and feet. Gradually, as more and more of them arrived, the solitary cells gave way to communal life and monastic settlements. What a marvel of human creativity and perseverance! Imagine the difficulty of construction – hauling building materials up by rope and net.
In the 14th century, Saint Athanasius established the largest of the monasteries on a rock he named Meteoro, meaning Suspended in the Air. At its peak, in the 16th century, an incredible twenty-four monasteries were in existence in Meteora. Their very isolation is what allowed them to flourish – with no steps, access was only via retractable ladders and carrier baskets or nets, thus providing safety from raiders and invaders.
Having disavowed all worldly goods, the monks, from the beginning, would have relied heavily on the support of their more worldly neighbours!. The locals would have been happy to donate food, water, clothing and fuel to these holy men. Eventually, the monastic communities would grow their own crops and tend their own flocks and herds.
By the 17th century, the raiders and invaders were getting the upper hand and many monasteries were abandoned.
The unusual landscape is not easily explained geologically but it’s believed that the enormous columns of rock, composed of sandstone and conglomerate, date back some 60million years. One theory is that the area was once covered by sea. A series of earth movements pushed the seabed upwards and caused vertical fault lines in the sandstone. Those vertical faults were exposed to weathering by water, wind and extremes of temperature, eventually leading to the shaping of the pillars. But its even harder to explain why these formations are so particular to this area within the surrounding mountain ranges.
Most of the monasteries have long fallen fallen to ruin.
Six of the twenty-four monasteries remain, inhabited by some 60 monks and nuns. All six are open to the public and the exertion to the top is rewarded with glimpses of monastic life as well as beautiful chapels, frescos and icons. Oh – and the views aren’t half bad!!!
Close up, the fortress like buildings are surprising large and complex….
…. with wonderful architectural structure and detail.
There’s even enough room for peaceful outdoor spaces…..
….and maybe even a glimpse of a resident at work.
The interiors are beautifully preserved….
….and there are plenty of reminders of what the monks of yore had to contend with!
They truly were closer to God up here!
Visiting the Monasteries
What would they think, those monks of yore, of the hordes of visitors, tour guides and hawkers that invade their sacred space!
Rented Car – 250km (3 hours) from Thessaloniki Airport and 376km (4.5 hrs) from Athens Airport.
Bus – There is no direct bus service from the major cites but rather through Trikala, some 30 minutes ride from Kalambaka.
Organised Tour – It is possible to join a guided tour in Athens, Thessaloniki and other major cities. Day tours start early – reaching the first monastery around 9.30am / 10.00am
Meteora is not huge – essentially a 5km stretch of road with the 6 monasteries along the way.
The road is paved and there are parking facilities at each monastery.
Once you’ve arrived in Kalampaka, you can book a local tour, travel by public bus (summer) or taxi, rent a bike or walk.
Planning your Visit
It’s too late!! The secret is out and this is now one of the most visited sites on mainland Greece (up there with the Acropolis and Delphi!)
It’s impossible to avoid the bus groups! They arrive around opening time and come and go all day.
We visited at the end of June (2022). Yes there were buses – but not too many. Temperatures were bearable, we’d no problem parking at all 6 locations and had no waiting in line (except once when we arrived before opening time).
I dread to think what high season must be like! Parking has to be a problem and time must be lost just sitting in traffic! And imagine the heat!
If you cannot avoid peak season, then try to get to your first monastery early in the day- before the crowds arrive. Despite the heat, hiking or electric bike might be the preferred option rather than contending with parking.
How much Time?
It IS possible to visit all six on one day but it would have to be at the weekend when it is particularly busy.
Each monastery is closed on one day per week (2 of them are closed on Fridays). So if visiting midweek, you’d need 2 days to see all six.
Opening hours also vary.
You probably won’t spend a long time at each site – most visitors are happy with a quick look around, seek out anything of note and admire the view – then move on. 60-90 minutes average would be plenty for transfer, parking, climb and visit (some taking a bit longer than others of course).
The admission fee is €3 (cash) per monastery.
Well, you’ll be glad to know that scaling the rockface is no longer necessary!
While the monks can come and go in style….
….us mere mortals have to hoof it!
Apart from St. Stephen’s – which is accessed by bridge – its steps! steps! steps! Five monasteries have stairs (varying from 140 – 300+ steps) carved into the rock. It doesn’t sound a lot, and you’ll be bounding up the first flight no doubt – full of the joys of actually being here – but it catches up as the day wears on! Most are very close to the road so at least there’s no long approach (apart from one of the six) to be added to the climb.
I made such an effort – I didn’t have a long dress or skirt with me but I made sure to cover my shoulders and most of my legs …. No good! – trousers DON’T count! Five out of the six monasteries made me cover up!
Men are expected to wear long trousers but seemed to get away with shorts in some places – better not to risk it though….
There are no restrooms in the carparks. You will find them inside the monasteries -after your climb!! Vaarlaam has the best facility, with modern toilets – otherwise it’s squats!!
There are a few snack vans in the carparks of the bigger monasteries but that’s it – plan accordingly! There are plenty of restaurants in nearby Kalambaka and Kastraki but you might prefer to bring a packed lunch with you
While you’re Here….
As you can imagine, there are multiple hiking trails offering up the most incredible scenery, for anyone with a day or two to spare.
If hiking seems a bit on the strenuous side, you can drive to several lookout spots which offer great views of the monasteries and out over the valley.
One of the things to do in Meteora is to catch a sunset. We were exhausted on our first evening after a long day and didn’t bother. Carpe diem – we should know better!!! We headed up to a viewpoint on our second evening but knew we’d have no luck…
Ah well! It was still lovely…..
Where we Stayed
Both nearby Kalambaka and the smaller Kastraki are heavily dependent on the tourist trade but they aren’t bad and have lots of accommodation and dining options.
We spent two nights in the Grand Meteora Hotel outside Kastraki (total €176, inc breakfast).
There’s a lovely pool area – with wonderful views – perfect for relaxation after all the steps! They serve a good breakfast. My only reservation was that it was a little bit out of Kastraki and the road would be dark if walking in to town for dinner.
Meteora as part of a Road Trip (what WE did)
We spent 2 nights in the area….
Morning – Drive from Olympia (Peloponnese) to Delphi (240km / 3.5 hours)
Lunch – Delphi
Afternoon – Visit Delphi Archaeological site.
Drive to Kastraki (235km/ 3.5 hours )
YES – a VERY long day and a lot of driving!!!
Dinner – Hotel
Morning – Visit 4 monasteries
Lunch – Kalambaka
Afternoon – Leisure time at hotel pool
Evening – Back up to lookout points for (nonexistent!) sunset
Dinner – Kalambaka
Morning – Visit remaining 2 monasteries
Drive on to Thessaloniki (225kms / 3 hours)
This was part of a 17 night trip to mainland Greece which included:
Pub Quiz Trivia!
This is the second most important monastic community in Greece, after Mount Athos.
Surprisingly, no one has ever come across a reference to Meteora and its fabulous landscape in Greek Mythology or ancient Greek Literature.
In 1921, Romania’s Queen Marie visited Meteora, becoming the first woman ever to enter the Great Meteoron monastery.
The site was heavily bombed and looted during World War II.
The Holy Trinity monastery featured in the 1981 James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only
Meteora is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.
Linkin Park‘s 2003 album Meteora was named after.…well….!
For Game of Throne fans – The Eyrie, in the Vale of Arryn, was inspired by Meteora.