The Meteora is a series of monasteries in central Greece, spectacularly located on sandstone mountain tops. The word Meteora means “suspended in the air”, a fitting name for this sight. The monasteries that are still inhabited are open for visitors and are one of the most popular tourist destinations in mainland Greece.
No one can say for sure how the idea has arisen of building these monasteries, but the first known person who came here for the solitude was the hermit Barnabas in 985 AD. In the 14th century, Neilos, who was the prior of Stagal, built a small church in Meteora, at the bottom of the rocks. Then the first monastery, Megalo Meteoro, was founded in 1382 by Athanasios, who legend says was carried by an eagle to the top.
24 monasteries were built in total, but only six of them are still in use. The earliest way to get up was by using removable ladders. Later visitors would be lifted in nets that were winched up and down using ropes. The latter method could be very nerve-racking, especially since it was said that the monks only replaced the rope when God deemed it fit, i.e. when the rope broke. In the 1920s steps were cut into the rock to make it easier to visit.
There’s a small entrance fee to each monastery, usually 2 euros. And visitors are expected to dress respectfully, that is to say, no bare shoulders, and women should wear long skirts (below the knee) instead of pants, while men should wear pants and not shorts.
Also known as The Great Meteoron, this is the largest, highest, and the first monastery to be founded, back in 1382 by the monk Athanasios, who came from Mount Athos. He is buried in the church, and by the entrance, you can see the cave where he supposedly lived. More monks followed later and built most of the monastery in the 16th century.
Its katholikon (church) is magnificent, in the form of a Greek cross, with a 12-sided central dome. There are frescoes inside, depicting Christ on the dome, with the apostles and prophets below, and the liturgical year along the walls of the nave. There’s also a small museum, with religious texts and icons. Perhaps a bit surprising to some, there’s also a wine cellar in this monastery.
Ayios Nikolaos Anapaphsas
This monastery is known for the wonderful frescoes in its katholikon, painted by the Cretan monk Theophanes Strelizas. Two of the most beautiful are one showing the death of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with scenes from his life, and The Naming of Animals by Adam in Paradise, with an abundance of animals and plants.
This 13th-century monastery is perhaps the one with the most spectacular location, on the tip of a narrow rock. There’s a church of the Metamorfosis (1545) which is illuminated by the beautiful colored glass. Inside there are stunning frescoes of the Resurrection and Transfiguration. The current residents are not monks, but nuns.
The monastery is named after the first hermit who lived and built a tiny chapel on the mountain top in 1350. The chapel is currently an annex of the main church. Inside there’s a nice garden, a small icon museum, and a katholikon, a church adorned with frescoes by the iconographer Fragkos Katelanos, including one of the two founding brothers, Theofanis and Nektarios, who had to kill a monster that lived on the summit, according to legend. There’s also a nice mural of The Blessed Sisois at the Tomb of Alexander the Great, which shows the famous general as a skeleton.
This monastery was featured in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”. It’s 140 steep steps to the top, but in return, you’ll reach an otherworldly place. It has a spectacular view of its surrounding area, and a small, but beautiful katholikon.
During World war II this monastery and its frescoes were badly damaged, but its most famous relic survived, namely the head of St. Charalambos, said to ward off illness. There’s also a small museum, with religious robes and items. The nuns here also sell souvenirs to visitors.
This is the town where most tourists going to the Meteora will arrive and/or spend the night. Most buses stop on Plateia Dimarhiou, the main square. The sights for Kalambaka itself include the vertical rocks at the northern edge of the town. Apart from that, there’s the 12th-century Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin, which has a series of frescoes from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
Meteora has been a popular destination for rock climbers for a while. There are hundreds of routes for climbers of all skills, covering more than 100 peaks. It’s mainly traditional face climbing, with a 5-rating on the UIAA international scale. A climb will take around 3 hours and will cost around 50 euro per person, depending on difficulty and route.
How to get there?
Even if you are in the Greek capital, is a very good idea to have a day trip from Athens to Meteora. There are bus connections several times a day. The trip takes about 4 hours. All the monasteries are within a radius of 15 kilometers from Kalambaka.