There are times during your travels when you come across a place where your heart makes an excited leap. I can easily count the times that that has happened to me because it has really only happened twice. The first time when I was driving through the Highlands in Scotland and the second time when I arrived at Meteora. Meteora means “suspended in the air” and it’s easy to see why. Rocky pinnacles are reaching out of the earth like fingers pointing to the sky and monasteries have been built on top of the finger tips. The landscape is unreal!
Nowadays there are only six active monasteries left, but there used to be monasteries on all 24 pinnacles. The ruins of some of the monasteries still remain which make the landscape even more mysterious. I’m jumping ahead of myself a bit, but on the tour the tour guide would stop at a look out point. We would jump out of the bus and “ooohh” and “aaaahhh” at the easily visible active monastery, but he would tell us to look closely to spot the three other monasteries. Most of them had to be pointed out to us because they have been completely reclaimed by nature. The landscape contains hidden structures everywhere; not only monasteries but also caves inside the outcrops where hermit monks used to live which pre-date the monasteries.
The first picture below is of an active monastery. A few centimetres on the right, however, there’s a stone structure which used to be a monastery.
This is the reason I chose to do two tours instead of exploring the region by myself. A lot of people take a local bus from Kalambaka or Kastraki to explore the monasteries on foot, which is easily doable, but I didn’t want to miss out on the hidden treasures. I booked a half-day tour and a sunset tour through the Visit Meteora website. This website is very handy if you need any information on the region or if you’d like to book tours.
Meteora Half-Day Tour
The half-day tour started bright and early-ish. I was picked up from my hotel Alexiou in Kalambaka at 9am by George the Visit Meteora tour guide. Luckily, the tour group was really small (only three people in total) so it was easy to listen to George’s informative stories while walking around to explore and take pictures at the same time.
As I said in my introduction, the first monks that arrived in the region were hermits. They built their homes and places of worship in caves. In the below picture you can see such a cave. You might have to squint a bit, because the cave is the thin slit on the right side of the picture – I didn’t bring my zoom camera to this day tour. If you squint even more, you might be able to see the clothes in this cave. That’s because the locals of Kastraki rock climb up every year – like the monks used to do – to hang scarves inside the cave.
What’s great about this tour was that we didn’t just visit the monasteries, we made many stops along the way to look at beautiful views. The monasteries are nice, but at the end of the day you visit Meteora for the bizarre landscape and this tour really takes that into account. The weather wasn’t ideal for taking photos – rainy and misty – but I do think the below photos convey the beauty of the region.
The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron
The first monastery we visited is the largest one in Meteora. Entry to all the monasteries is 3 euro and if you’re wearing tight trousers or shorts you’ll be given a skirt upon entry to cover up.
Don’t worry that you have to climb up these monasteries like the monks, cliffhanger style. The monks’ main source of income nowadays is tourism, so they have built sturdy stairs up to the monasteries.
The inside of the monastery is as you would expect. There are some statues scattered around and some Byzantine signs.
Two things excited me about this place. First the church with the gruesome paintings, I wish I could show you guys but you know the drill: no pictures inside… And the room filled with skulls. I’ve seen two skull rooms before (one in St. Catherine Monastery in Egypt and one in The Killing Fields in Cambodia) but it never ceases to amaze me.
Holy Monastery of Varlaam
This is the second and last monastery we visited on the half-day tour. It’s the second biggest monastery of Meteora after Great Meteoron. What’s interesting in this monastery is the huge barrel, which was used for water, and the fact that you can still use the old pulley that was used to take produce up and down the cliff.
Theopetra’s Prehistoric Cave
I started the description of the tour about hermit monks, however, they weren’t the first people who inhabited caves in Meteora. Caves have actually been inhabited for around 50,000 years. The last stop of the half-day tour was Theopetra’s Prehistoric Cave.
This is quite an interesting cave because it’s so old; it goes back to the Neanderthals! Therefore, all the different levels in the cave carry historic significance. I’m not one to really get excited staring at areas where there used to be a fire, or a supposed living room… However, the footsteps in the rock and the human remains (completely intact) that were buried in the cave are quite special.
At the moment it’s mostly empty spaces; but a museum will open up soon which will contain all the items which were found of the prehistoric cave.
This tour finished at 1:30pm.
At 3:30pm I was picked up for the sunset tour by George’s brother Evangelis. This tour was much busier, probably because the “sunset” aspect speaks to a lot of people. Evangelis told us that a sunset is hardly ever visible due to low-hanging fog. So in general don’t expect a sunset at the sunset tour. However, on the day I visited it was downright pouring rain. Granted, it gave the area more mystery, but I felt bad for the people who only had time for this tour. They would miss out on the true beauty of the region because we couldn’t see anything in front of us.
This is where the tour guide did well: he raced us to St. Stephen’s Monastery, the Byzantine Church (which I described in my post about Kalambaka), so that when the fog cleared he could show us some of the views. I liked his ingenuity and the fact he didn’t just stick to the plan.
St. Stephen’s Monastery
This monastery is one of the two in Meteora which only houses women. On the sunset tour this monastery get insanely busy because all tours go here. This is the only place that’s open in the evening.
The tour guide told us the gardens are beautiful because the nuns like gardening, so I decided to stick to the gardens where it wasn’t too busy.
St. Nicholas (Badovas)
The last stop on the sunset tour was a cave monastery.
I’m so incredibly excited about Meteora that I found it hard to write this article. What’s even harder is to write a conclusion. My previous conclusion was 500 words long. Almost the same length as the article and it contained excited talk about the landscape and the monasteries (you guys should know by now how much I love Byzantine churches and monasteries). I have deleted that conclusion though, because the only words that are required to describe everything are:
Visit Meteora and see for yourself!