Call me travel-spoilt, but I did not know what to make of Meteora. It was undoubtedly beautiful and filled with rich history, but I somehow missed the magic which most people associate with the site. I found the landscape of smooth jagged pinnacles of sandstone rocks to be comfortingly familiar and all the other visited destinations with similar beauty came to my mind. Its old cliff-top monasteries too reminded me of many such other constructions and I came back from Meteora, feeling quite disappointed.
Table of Contents
Roadblocks and Athens to Meteora drive
This disappointment came to me as a mild shock, since I had very eagerly looked forward to Meteora. It was one of the places that were on my bucket list for a long time and I had battled fatigue, nausea, and tiring Greek roadblocks to reach there. The drive from Delphi to Meteora was a long and torturous one and it was riddled with roadblocks that delayed us by hours. Thus we reached the jumping-off base of Kalambaka, very late in the night and had to wait until morning to catch a glimpse of the much-talked-about natural beauty of Meteora.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Touted as one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful places in Greece, Meteora is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its massive rocks loom at a height of 1200 feet above the town of Kalambaka and they create a forest of grey stony cones and softly rounded cliffs. These unusual natural phenomena are the results of remnants of river sediment that once flowed into a prehistoric sea that covered the plain of Thessaly. That was around 25 million years ago and throughout the ages, these sediments have got moulded into bizarre shapes due to the combined effect of fissuring from tectonic plates and River Pinios erosion.
Clifftop monasteries of Meteora
Some of the crests of these rocky pinnacles are topped with ancient monasteries and though there were initially 24 of them, only 6 buildings have made it through the centuries. These extraordinary constructions have been built on seemingly inaccessible places and Meteora literally means “suspended in mid-air”. Meteora monasteries date back to the 14th and 16th centuries and they were started by a great monk named Athanasios Koinovitis. Sometime during the 14th century, Athanasios came to Meteora in search of local hermits who were very popular regionally. He brought with him a band of followers and they were all taken aback by the astounding free-climbing skills of the hermits. The ascetics who lived in caves in Meteora were great climbers and Athanasios immediately foresaw an opportunity to collaborate with them to build a monastery that would be seemingly inaccessible. It would be perched atop a rocky crest and he would be able to meditate there in peace with his followers.
A hard-to-access hideout
So he employed the hermits as climbing guides and with their help the visitors set about conquering the surrounding heights and building their safe haven of worship. Thus, between 1356 to 1372, the Great Meteoron Monastery was born. Its inaccessibility proved to be its strongest virtue and years later, the advancing Turkish army made more monks flee and take shelter there. Eventually, over the period of time, 24 monasteries were functioning at Meteora and their steep vertical perch provided protection from any kind of attacks. A whole complicated operation of ropes, pulleys, baskets, and folding ladders was used to lift worshippers and supplies to the monastery and access could be denied whenever a threat was detected.
A very popular tourist spot
This method worked successfully for many years and the Meteora school of Orthodox monks survived centuries of battles and persecution. Today, the 6 remaining monasteries are segregated between male monks and female nuns and every year tourism brings hordes of awe-struck visitors to their doorstep. I was one of the travellers who visited Meteora last year in spring and the short duration of my stay afforded me fleeting stops at various monasteries. Most had beautiful old frescoes decorating their inner sanctums and the views from the tops were mind-blowing. My Meteora impressions, unfortunately, stop there and I found the site a bit too crowded and way too commercialized. These made Meteora lose much of its sheen in my eyes and I had longed for the still quiet sanctity of Delphi.
Meteora Travel Tip
Meteora is a beautiful Greek destination and a pilgrimage site. Encased in a surreal of strange rock formations, the holy site contains 6 old monasteries which are of high religious importance to many Christians around the world. It is a survival and preservation symbol of the 2000-year-old Christian Orthodox creed and an appropriate dress code suitable for a holy place is advisable when visiting Meteora. The entrance fee for all monasteries is 3 Euro per person.
Where is Meteora
It is located near the town of Kalabaka in mainland Greece. Meteora is approximately 230 KM or a 3-hour drive away from Thessaloniki, or around 350 KM or a 4-hour drive away from Athens.
Best Time to Visit
Meteora is a 365 days destination. However, it is important to remember that the monasteries have different opening hours depending on the time of the year. April to May and September to October are the best times to visit Meteora. The weather is warmer and not hot and the crowd is less.
How to Reach
The quickest and easiest way to reach Meteora is by car. The route is photogenic and the brand-new freeway is very convenient. One will pass the stunning mount Olympus en route. The drive takes around 2.5 hours and one should be prepared to pay at the toll gates. The payment can be made by card or cash.
Although there are multiple daily bus services from Thessaloniki and Athens to Meteora, these are not direct. All the buses stop at Trikala from where one has to get another connection to Kalambaka. However, there are buses from Trikala to Kalambaka nearly every hour. From the jumping-off village of Kalambaka, one has to take a taxi to the Meteora monasteries. Buses on this route work only in summer. The bus from Athens to Trikala departs from Liossion KTEL Bus Station. The easiest way to reach the Liossion KTEL Bus Station is to hop on the metro to Attiki Station and then take a taxi to the bus station. One can also walk from Attiki to KTEL Liossion in 30 minutes. The bus from Athens takes 5 hours to reach Trikala lasts for 5 hours and from there to Kalambaka is just a 30-minute ride. Buses to Trikala are also available from Thessaloniki, Volos, and other Greek towns on the mainland. to Trikala.
By Organized Tour
There are countless Meteora day trip and overnight trip options from Thessaloniki and Athens. Transportation and accommodation are usually included in these trips.
Getting Around Meteora
In summer there is a bus that goes from the city center in Kalambaka and drops off passengers in front of the Grand Meteoron. From here one has to explore the nearby monasteries like Vaarlam on foot. Since Meteora is not very big, exploring the monasteries on foot is a pretty doable thing. One just has to get an orientation of the clusters on monasteries in each direction. Moreover, there is a nice paved road that connects all the monasteries. It takes around an hour or so to walk this 5-kilometer stretch. The monasteries are all easily accessible and most require climbing a few stairs. It is also possible to explore Meteora on a bike. In Kalambaka, there are many bike rental shops that rent out regular and electric bikes. The ride from Kalambaka to Meteora is uphill and it makes sense to rent an e-bike.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of accommodations available in both Kalambaka and Trikala. Most people prefer to stay at Kalambaka to explore the historical area of Meteora. Trikala, however, is the prettier of the two towns.
What to See
There are six monasteries in Meteora that are open to the public. These are also residential areas for monks and nuns.
- Varlaam – This is the second-largest monastery in Meteora. It was built in 1518 for a hermit who had lived on the rock for many years. Initially, Varlaam was not accessible to women and it is the only monastery that has two domes. Remnants of the original climbing equipment, which consisted of rope and net, can still be seen.
- Holy Trinity – Famous for its spectacular location and the beautiful Agía Triáda church, the Holy Trinity monastery is unmissable. It was built in the middle of the 15th century and was accessible only via winches and rope ladders. A staircase was constructed here in 1925. Its Agía Triáda church has magnificent centuries-old frescoes and a silver-wrapped gospel from 1539.
- Great Meteoron – This is the largest monastery in Meteora. Spanning over an area of 60,000 square meters, Metamórphosis as Grand Meteoron is also known is quite impressive. It was built in 1334 and until 1923 was only accessible via rope ladders or a net that could be pulled up. Nowadays, a stone staircase with 143 steps leads into the interior of the monastery. The hermit cave of the monastery founder Athanasius can still be seen at the monastery entrance and there are beautiful frescoes from 1552 inside the church.
- Rousanou – This monastery is dedicated to the nuns. It was renovated in the 1950s and has beautiful wall paintings. Because of its location, Rousanou provides a spectacular photo opportunity.
- St Stephen’s – This is also a nunnery. It was founded around 1400 on the site where a hermit allegedly lived as early as 1192. Agios Stéphanos has been a women’s monastery since 1961. It can be reached by car and is worth seeing because of its mother-of-pearl decorated church lecterns.
- Agios Nickolas – This is perhaps the most interesting monastery in Meteora. It merges directly into the rock and forms a part of the landscape. Agios Nickolas can be reached from the nearby village of Kastraki. It has a crypt where the skulls of former monks are kept. The frescoes and paintings are also worth seeing.
- Others – The remaining monasteries have fallen into ruins. There is also a famous rock cave called Filakaé Monakón. It is believed to be a sort of exile where monks who did not obey the monastery rules were sent. Ascent to the uninhabited monastery ruins is prohibited due to the risk of collapse.
Things to Remember before visiting the Meteora monasteries
- The monasteries are holy sites and a dress code must be followed in order to enter them. Women must wear dresses and cover their shoulders. Men are advised to wear trousers.
- Each monastery entrance ticket costs 3 Euros. Payment is cash only. Each ticket is valid for 24 hours so if you wish to return the next day, you have to buy another 3 Euro ticket.
- The monasteries can change their visiting hours without any notice. Moreover, they may be closed for renovation or maintenance. Here are the opening hours for each monastery. credit – Johnny Africa
|MONASTERY||OPENING HOURS||CLOSED ON|
|Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron||09:00 to 15:00||Tuesdays|
|Holy Monastery of Varlaam||09:00 to 16:00||Fridays|
|Holy Monastery of Rousanou||09:00 to 17:00||Wednesdays|
|Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas||08:00 to 16:00||Fridays|
|Holy Monastery of St. Stephen||09:00 to 13:30||15:30 to 17:30||Mondays|
|Holy Monastery of Holy Trinity||09:00 to 17:00||Thursdays|
The hours are slightly modified during the winter months (November 1 to March 31)
|MONASTERY||OPENING HOURS||CLOSED ON|
|Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron||09:00 to 14:00||Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays|
|Holy Monastery of Varlaam||09:00 to 15:00||Thursdays, Fridays|
|Holy Monastery of Rousanou||09:00 to 14:00||Wednesdays|
|Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas||09:00 to 16:00||Fridays|
|Holy Monastery of St. Stephen||09:30 to 13:30||15:00 to 17:00||Mondays|
|Holy Monastery of Holy Trinity||09:00 to 16:00||Thursdays|