Meteora, Greece: As soon as I learned about it, I had to go. Monasteries built on the tops of stone peaks? The tallest at 2,011 feet (613 meters)? Over 700 years ago? After spending three weeks in Athens and the Pelopponese, this place–mentioned by Homer (as Aeolia) in Odyssey–seemed like the perfect way to end my Greek travels.
Meteora comes from from the Greek meteōros (μετέωρο) meaning “high in the air.” Although it’s now used to refer to the general destination, meteora is a plural word, describing the enormous rock formations that seem to rise up from the earth. The towns that sit at the base of the meteora are Kalabaka and Kastraki. I chose Kalabaka for my two-night stay. (Funny aside: Greeks are inconsistent in their spelling of words; depending on the person/book/map, I found Kalabaka to also be spelled Kalambaka or Kalampaka. It comes from the Turkish word meaning “beautiful fortress.”
Getting to Meteora: All Aboard!
I like things to be easy when I’m traveling, especially when I don’t speak the language. After a couple of weeks in Greece, I was familiar with the alphabet and could decipher words. But speak the language? Beyond the standard and necessary phrases, I was happy to accept assistance with this leg of the journey.
VisitMeteora to the rescue. Honestly, they might be the best-run travel company I’ve ever used. The website’s a breeze: Enter where you’re coming from, if you want to upgrade to first class on the train, how many nights you plan to stay, if you prefer a 3-star or 4-star hotel, and which half-day tours you want. Slam dunk! Transfers and shuttles included. Gratuities aren’t, but that’s always true. And the 3 Euro entry fee for each monastery is yours, too.
For 225 Euros in May 2019, VisitMeteora delivered me to and from Athens by first class rail, transferred me to and from the Kalabaka rail station to a 4-star hotel that offered a fantastic breakfast, did pickup and return for two guided tours, provided meal vouchers for two dinners…all I had to do was show up.
I confess: at the end of a long trip, I’m more than happy to hand arrangements over to a tour company that reliable and well-reviewed. Those of us who travel solo don’t get to rely on anyone, so I heaved a huge sigh of relief and happily let them choose my train compartment seat (a window!) and my hotel (film-themed rooms!). I happily settled in and prepared for my adventures.
Sunset Tour Menu: Scenery, with a side of monasteries
Right on time, a van pulled up to my hotel and Jim (“My Greek name is too hard to say.”) the guide welcomed me to join the group of seven other guests.
We made several stops on our way up, up, up to the monasteries. Jim took us to see caves like the first hermits used, with wooden platforms made of iron oak.
As we ascended, Jim explained that before a road was built in 1989, the monasteries were inaccessible to all but the hardiest pilgrims. Now, it’s even possible to hike between the monasteries, thanks to a series of connecting paths. I’m told that if you start very early, you can get to most of them. Me, I’m taking the easy way up.
Getting up to the structures required being raised in basket by monks who could (hopefully) muster the strength to hoist you up. Jim then told us a corny story that’s probably repeated on every tour: Back in the days when these baskets were the only way to get to the monasteries, a nervous pilgrim asked his monk host if they ever replace the rope. “Of course we do” he replied.”Whenever it breaks.” You have to admit, it’s funny.
Finally, we reached the peaks where we would watch the sunset. Clouds had started to build, so it wouldn’t be a brilliant spectacle, but standing at the edge of a high rock was thrilling enough.
Like many countries, Greece doesn’t embrace every safety feature–or the concept of handicapped accessibility–so careful footing is required to climb up the stony slope. This is no place for flip-flops or strappy heels.
Day 2: Meteora Monasteries!
The Sunset Tour was the perfect introduction to Meteora and its sweeping landscapes. It would be easy to spend another day just driving around and stopping every minute to take it all in.
But it was time for the main attraction: the magical, mystical monastery tour.
Today’s guide didn’t try to “Anglify” his name. “I’m Vassilis,” he told me as I hopped into the minivan. Kostas, the driver, said “Kalimera!” (Καλημέρα) which I actually understood. “Good morning!” I replied.
We ascended again, this time to enter three monasteries. First was St. Stephan, a monastery-turned-convent in 1961. It’s the easiest to access–you just cross a small bridge and enter the 12th century structure. Currently there are 26 busy nuns who do everything: take admission fees, work the gift shop, and maintain the gardens. Their specialty is tending the rose plants.
St. Stephen’s was abandoned in the 15th century, but the locals maintained it. During the 1946-1949 Greek Civil War, it was bombed and the oldest church in the monastery became unstable. It’s still closed, even to the nuns.
Next, we stopped to view Holy Trinity Monastery, built on a single stone column. Vassilis told us it’s the most Googled monastery, because it was used in the 1980 James Bond film, “For Your Eyes Only,” starring Roger Moore. Somehow, this makes it more glamorous than the other monasteries, although it’s also pretty darn photogenic. (Note: the filmmakers did not have an official license–they lied to the monks. I’m certain that some type of heavenly retribution will take place…)
Holy Trinity is close to St. Stephen’s, but harder to reach; there’s a stone path to the base, then 110 long steps carved into rock. Maybe that’s why there is only one monk left. It was bombed in 1943 by the Nazis when they discovered that the Resistance was hiding out there.
The oldest and largest is the Great Meteoron Holy Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior. “Mega Metereo” for short. It’s been precariously balancing on a rock since 1314, when Saint Athanasios the Meteorite arrived and began to organize monasticism for the region.
To be honest, I could’ve used more time here. When I return, I’ll make arrangements with a driver to deliver me when the monastery opens and pick me up when it closes.
During the visits, you can wander freely; private areas are clearly marked. The chapels hold beautiful paintings and frescoes that date back five hundred years. Stop and light a candle to remember loved ones. You’ll wish you could stay longer.
For more information on Meteora Monasteries:
- VisitMeteora: Meteora Monasteries: A Holy Place for Greece
- Matt Barrett’s Greece Guide: Monasteries of Meteora
- Le Monde en Video: The Meteora Monasteries (in French, but subtitled)
What to know about visiting Meteora monasteries
- Proper attire is absolutely necessary. No exceptions. Before Covid-19, monasteries provided wrap-around skirts for any visitor who did not dress appropriately. With health precautions, the monasteries will no longer supply garments, so come prepared. Face coverings, too, as of this writing. You will not be allowed to enter if you don’t comply. Period. (For more about etiquette when visiting religious sites, read this post.)
Women must cover their shoulders and wear skirts (Repeat: SKIRTS) that are below the knee; a long pashima or shawl can be used as a skirt. Men must wear shirts with sleeves; if men wear shorts, they must be below the knees.
2. Entry fee is 3 Euros for each monastery. Exact change is always appreciated.
3. Check daily hours and entry times. Monasteries can close for meals and prayer times. Some close during the week.
4. Consider leaving a donation, lighting a candle, or making a purchase. The nuns and monks are kind enough to let us get a glimpse of their lives. Even a few Euros helps them maintain their homes.