The extraordinary rocks of Meteora tower above a flock of goats. Barney Jeffries
Heading north from Trikala, we first see the rocks from a distance, looming out of the flat landscape. I can’t take my eyes off them. Gloriously incongruous at noon, silhouetted against the setting sun, or eerie and huge in the floodlights at night, they’re an awesome sight. The rocks themselves are so overwhelming that it takes a while to notice the monasteries. When you do, you will think your eyes deceive. Is that a bell tower on a vertical pinnacle hundreds of feet high or a conical dome of a Byzantine church profiled against the sky?
The first hermits came to seek solitude in Meteora’s caves a thousand years ago. In following centuries, as the Byzantine Empire crumbled at the end of the 14th century and Greece fell to the Ottoman Turks, many more monks found refuge atop the rocks. Their climbing skills must have been admirable, with the earliest monasteries reached only by climbing articulated removable ladders. With patience and probably numerous casualties, they managed to build complex monasteries on such unlikely foundations that divine intervention seems the only explanation.
Monastery of Agia Triada. Hellenic Adventures, Inc.
There were once some two dozen monasteries here. Six remain active, while ruins of others are abandoned and inaccessible. Until the 1920s, provisions and indeed the monks themselves were hauled up in nets on a windlass. This required quite a leap of faith — the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only “when the Lord let them break.” Today, visitors reach the monasteries via bridges and steps hewn out of the rock.
The monks may now be safe from the threat of the Turks, but the world encroaches ever closer. With a million visitors to the area each year, opportunities for solitary contemplation must be limited. Guided tours and sales of souvenir postcards and icons are now part of their daily lives.
Cut into a pinnacle, the dramatically situated monastery of Roussanou, with the town of Kalambaka below. Barney Jeffries
If you visit on weekends, you’re more than likely to find yourself mixing with a Greek bus tour or two. Participants barge their way around buildings, laughing and chatting loudly to each other and into their mobile phones, yet stopping every so often to cross themselves and to line up and kiss the feet of favorite saints. Do they come as tourists or pilgrims?
While coach tours whisk visitors from one monastery to another along a paved road, an increasing number choose a slower pace, the better to take in the extraordinary, ever-changing views, whether sweeping panoramas or sudden close-ups. Visiting in November, the trees – oak, beech, plane, chestnut – are ablaze with autumn colors that would do New England proud. On the far horizon, mountains are capped with snow.
A colorful courtyard at the Monastery of Varlaam. Hellenic Adventures, Inc.
Unless you’re a scholar of monastic culture or medieval icon painting, it’s easy to become monasteried-out while trying to visit them all, especially if you make it your goal to do them in one day. The two most rewarding to the general public are probably Moni Megalou Meteorou, also known as Metamorphosis (Transfiguration), and Moni Agia Triada (Holy Trinity).
The monastery of Varlaam, with Metamorphosis in the distance behind. Barney Jeffries
The remote monastery of Agia Triada. Barney Jeffries
Metamorphosis, the largest, loftiest and grandest of the monasteries, looks down on the lowlier world from a height of 2,000 feet. Its splendid church has a striking series of frescoes depicting the ingeniously-horrible deaths of various martyrs. Further morbid fascination awaits in the sacristy, where quantities of skulls and bones are laid out on shelves. You can also look around the old kitchens and cellars, and marvel at just how much bread and beer they used to get through in a monastery this size.
Agia Triada is in stark contrast. Only two monks live here now, and relatively few tourists have the stamina to climb the steep and narrow steps. The abbot shows us briskly round: ‘Ecclesia, looking please’, taking us into the church; ‘Panorama, looking please’, leading us out to the bell tower, from where there are indeed stupendous panoramic views; ‘Bonbons, please’, as he treats us to Turkish delight – or Greek delight, as it’s known in these parts.
Meteora is a surreal place. I may be unmoved by kissing the feet of icons, and disturbed by the pathological attention to gory detail in some of the frescoes, but I’m not blind to marvels, both natural and human. To celebrate a creation that stretches the imagination and confounds explanation, plan on a pilgrimage to Meteora.
Vibrant autumn colors on Meteora’s wooded hillsides. Barney Jeffries
Getting There: Meteora is located in Thessaly, a region in central Greece. The region’s transport hub is Trikala (about five hours by bus from Athens), from which there are frequent buses to Meteora, half an hour away. There is plenty of accommodation to suit all budgets in the atmospheric town of Kalambaka or in the village of Kastriki, both within walking distance of the monasteries and with stunning views of the floodlit rocks at night.
Entry Tips: Opening times vary for each monastery. They all close around lunchtime and for at least one day during the week. Each charges a small entry fee, and both sexes should be modestly dressed. Women are expected to wear skirts, but you can borrow one from the glamorous selection at the entrance to pull on over your hiking clothes if needed.
Left: Convent of Agios Stephanos. Hellenic Adventures, Inc.
Meteora gets crowded in the summer, especially at weekends. In the winter, it can be freezing cold, though mist and snow may add to the magic. As with most of Greece, spring and autumn are probably the best times to visit.
Resources: Check out the Meteora page of the www.in2greece.com website. Lonely Planet’s two guidebooks, Greece and Greek Islands, are essential portable references for travelers to all areas of that country.
U.S.-based Hellenic Adventures offers excellent in-depth, educational tours of Greece and the Greek Islands, some of which may include Meteora. This is a tour operator who specializes in presenting both past and contemporary aspects of Greek history and culture, along with character accommodations and authentic Greek cuisine. As an example, see a series of feature articles in this web magazine’s collection, documenting a memorable exploration of the Greek Islands.
Barney Jeffries is a freelance journalist, playwright and novelist. He was born in Australia, grew up in small-town England, and recently moved to Preveza, Greece from Nuremberg, Germany. He is clearly a traveler’s tale in himself!