“Suspended in the air”. That’s the meaning of Meteora. These monasteries of northern Greece live up to this translation, perching on rock massifs hundreds of metres above the valley floor, seemingly defying the forces of gravity.
The history of the monasteries
At the height of construction in the 14th & 15th centuries, some 24 monasteries inhabited the peaks.
Their whole ethos was one of remoteness and inaccessibility. The political instability of the era – rather than an overwhelming desire for the solitude of spiritual contemplation – made isolation a necessity at the time.
The monasteries of Meteora today
Today, only six monasteries – four for men, two for women – remain in working condition. Tourism rather than faith is their economic mainstay.
Each monastery maintains at least a small chapel, adorned with intricate Byzantine paintings. Photography inside the quiet hush of the chapels is forbidden, but a replica painting gives a taste of the level of the dark detail inside their spherical candle-lit domes.
The larger monasteries, such as Melago Meteora (Great Meteora), also house mini museums; with battles and agriculture of eras gone by being the primary themes.
All are incredibly photogenic; the views to neighbouring monasteries or the plains below being the mainstay of many a snapshot.
Getting around the monasteries of Meteora
Tour buses plod the winding roads around Meteora, but going under your own steam means you can find some of the peace and solitude that was the essence of early monastic life here.
I explored independently and on foot, taking two days to visit five of the six monasteries from my base in the nearby village of Kastraki.
The roads between the monasteries aren’t crazy distances, and there are also some (unsigned) footpaths if you keep your eyes peeled. I met one other person in two days on these footpaths, so they’re a great way to experience the majesty of Meteora’s isolated setting.
The most memorable things about Meteora for me: The majestic setting, the wide vistas, the photo opportunities.
However, I felt as though the spiritual essence of this place – its original reason for being – had been lost.
The displays told me nothing of how the monks and nuns – around 10 per monastery – lead their modern-day lives on these sheer cliff faces.
What does a day as a Greek Orthodox nun or monk look like? What do they do? How often do they pray? Do they still sustain themselves through agriculture? Or are their lives nowadays devoted to the tourists whose income maintains their home? These were questions that remain unanswered.
Should you visit Meteora? Definitely.
But leave any expectations of new-found knowledge of the modern-day monastery inhabitants at home.
This is a place where your photographs will be your memories.
Practicalities on visiting the monasteries of Meteora
Entrance fees are €3 per monastery. Expect a lot of rock-hewn steps. In days gone by – according to UNESCO’s website – pilgrims were hoisted vertically up the sheer cliff faces.
Rock climbing is popular here, if you fancy emulating James Bond in the 1981 film, “For Your Eyes Only.”
Leave the shorts and sleeveless tops at your accommodation and dress conservatively. Ladies will need to cover up their legs (below the knee) with one of the long skirts provided at the entrance to each monastery (or wear your own).
The nearest major town to Meteora is Kalambaka, around 5-6 hours north of Athens by bus or train. Buses are more frequent than trains, with a one-way ticket in October 2014 costing €29 via Trikala (where you may need to change).
The pretty village of Kastraki is 2km west of Kalambaka and is the nearest base to the Meteora. There are plenty of B&Bs, hotels and restaurants in both Kastraki and Kalambaka, and English is widely spoken. I stayed at Tsikeli B&B in Kastraki.