Meteora, Greece: Of course, you go to see the magnificent monasteries built on the tops of stone pillars. A sight you’ll never forget. And after–or in between–those tours? There’s still plenty to do in this area that the Eastern Orthodox religion considers a sacred place.
You’ll be surprised, and definitely glad, that Kalabaka (the name of the town) isn’t All-Meteora-All-The-Time. The area is worth an extra day of your Greek itinerary. Here are 5 things to do in Meteora, Greece, after you’ve seen the monasteries.
1. The Hellenic Culture Museum
It took me a couple of tries to locate the Hellenic Culture Museum, which seems silly–the city center isn’t big. That’s because the streets in Kalabaka aren’t exactly laid out in a precise grid and the museum is on a little off-shoot. I should expect that of a place that’s a few thousand years old.
When I did find it, let’s just say the exterior is underwhelming. Easily mistaken for a small business or a dentist’s office. But…step inside!
A better and more accurate name for this amazing place would be “The history of Greek education, Greek books and printing, and the contributions of Greece to the world…plus local geology and monastery facts” museum. Yep, it’s that comprehensive.
The museum is the private collection of Pavlos Balogiannis, a lawyer who has set out to find and preserve Greek school materials, as well as honor the impact of Greeks on education, going all the way back to Aristotle.
Mr. Balogiannis began his collection as a law student almost 40 years ago. He gathered textbooks and workbooks from every grade level, adding school uniforms, classroom desks and fixtures. Aesop, who died about 560 BC, gets his own display, with books from around the world that still tell his fables.
Along the way, Mr. Balogiannis added first editions and books printed hundreds of years ago. He found an old printing press that was used until 1915. There’s also a video area to learn about the geology of Meteora and to watch a 1960s film of a monk being hauled up to a monastery in a basket.
About five years ago, he founded the Hellenic Culture Museum, generously sharing his collection with visitors. He’ll gladly show you and explain, though a translator, how to operate one of many tops or other games (Homer mentions “knucklebones“) attributed to the ancient Greeks.
It’s easy to spend a few hours in the museum. Admission is about 5 Euros. Friendly English-speaking staff will guide you or answer your questions. The Hellenic Culture Museum is Mr. Balogiannis’ pure labor of love–and you’ll be grateful.
2. Natural History Museum of Meteora
If you’re “of a certain age,” you’ll remember visiting museums where taxidermy allowed us to view animals up close, posed in settings with other creatures who shared the same locale. True, they were dead and stuffed, but how else would we have seen them?
My own “mounted specimen” experience came at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I recall miles of cases that revealed the history of humans and animals with absolute accuracy, at least to my 10-year-old self. Those dioramas aren’t the main any longer, but I retain a fondness for them. (Especially the Hall of Birds.)
I was happy to see a full floor of glass cases at the Natural History Museum of Meteora. Well-organized, with good signage, I learned a few things as I looked at the displays. Sticking with birds, there are 475 species in Europe, and 436 of them either live in Greece or enjoy stopping for a visit during migrations. There was also a case with models of extinct birds.
I also enjoyed watching another species: high school students on a field trip. Greek teens are like any other: bored, distracted, whispering, looking at their phones. Glad to be out of school, but clearly wishing to be elsewhere. It made me smile.
It’s not a big museum, which suits me fine. Small museums don’t get enough attention. I had trudged through the giant all-stars in Athens, sometimes feeling guilty because it became impossible to look at one more artifact. Even if it was 10,000 years old. And the only one of its kind.
Admission is 5 Euros and includes the Mushroom Museum.
3. The Mushroom Museum
The only mushroom museum in Greece! It’s definitely one of the things to do in Meteora. Since the only mushrooms I’m familiar with come from the grocery store, this was an enlightening experience.
The Mushroom Museum is located in the same building as the Natural History Museum. Just walk upstairs. Displays are similar to those downstairs, but without the glass. And there are cases jam-packed with handmade models of every mushroom found in Greece, along with an icon to let you know just how deadly they are.
It’s really interesting to see the types of mushrooms. I was surprised to see that Disney-style red ones with white dots are real. And poisonous. Not being brave when it comes to just eating something in the wild, I would not survive long if I went by how a mushroom looks. I’d go for the cute ones, which is like buying wine because of its label. Not a good idea.
NOTE: The museum hosts an annual Mushroom Festival, “to promote to the general public the nutritional and medicinal value of mushrooms and their health benefits…” Chefs from around the country arrive to share techniques, samples, and recipes. There are seminars, truffle hunts, and other mycology-themed activities. About 20,000 people come for the free event. Hopefully, the festival will return in post-pandemic times.
4. The Church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary
There are other things to do in Meteora, Greece: The Holy Temple of Dormition of the Virgin Mary is worthwhile. Standing at the foot of the stone pillars, it’s an active Byzantine church built over a Temple of Apollo; a section of the marble floor is exposed to show Roman mosaics.
The basilica is a treasure. Frescoes date back to the end of the 11th century, then moving through to the 16th century. Some of the frescoes are unique, showing images of torture and Hell. The most valuable icon in the church, The Dormition of the Mother of God, was stolen twice before being secured in the nearby Varlaam Monastery.
No photos are allowed inside the church, so relax, step in and take in the peaceful feeling of this place of worship. Turn in every direction to see the frescoes. Walk around slowly–there’s so much to observe. Notice the free-standing pulpit in the center of the sanctuary; this is the only Eastern Orthodox Church in the world to have one.
The church is a handy landmark if you want to hike to Holy Trinity Monastery. Since it’s a steep walk to reach the church, you’ll be well on your way!
5. Wander…and eat…and notice…
Everything I listed is interesting and worthwhile. Now, give yourself plenty of time to just walk. Kalabaka is small and easy to navigate. After all, you have those giant stones to keep your bearings!
Maybe the most special part of travel is the wandering and the people watching. Seeing how people go through their daily lives gives my own perspective.
One of my favorite things about Greece? The tavernas. I could go into any one and feel welcomed. The meals are delicious and homemade. Comfort food. I could stay as long as I wanted…and sometimes, I did.
Back on the street, I’m fortunate to see two men unload an enormous part of an animal from a truck. They set up a line from the truck that goes straight into a butcher shop. With the carcass hooked up, all they have to do is guide it to its destination. Butcher shops don’t have little cuts of meat in saran-wrapped trays, like I’m familiar with. Women tell the butcher what they want, and it’s cut while they watch. Very graphic, no?
When it’s time for a break, I scoot into a coffee shop/bar for a Greek frappé. Inexpensive–about 2 Euros–the cold drink is what the country adores. What I adore is that you always get a treat with it. A cookie, maybe two. Greeks wouldn’t think of handing you just a coffee.
After I poked around the city center, I set off to explore some neighborhoods. It’s important to get away from the tourist shops, to get a feel for local life. I like to walk past parks, up little streets…and in this case, up a steep hill. On my way to the church, I had a chance to look down at an old area of the town:
My trip to Meteora was two (and a smidge more) days and two nights. Two half-day tours left plenty of time to see the town. If I’d had another half day, I would have done the hike to Holy Trinity Monastery, or taken a hiking tour. But I’m satisfied with the trip…and would gladly return!