As I stood on top of one of the sandstone mountains looking out over a few towering monasteries, I knew I had made the right choice. That day I should have been on a flight to Crete, but instead of in the Mediterranean I was 5 hours north of Athens in the middle of the country.
I had seen photos of Meteora, but I didn’t know much else. All it took was word that a group of people I had met at the conference were going, and the next thing I knew I was on a train with my bag of beach clothes heading towards the closest town of Kalambaka.
Arriving to Meteora is like arriving on a different planet. The high sandstone mountains that make the backdrop for Kalambaka town are not only impressive, but unlike any place I’d ever seen.
It’s other worldly
It is suggested that these pinnacles were formed 60 million years ago. Today, hikers and researchers come across shells and fossils which suggest that Meteora was at one time under the ocean. As the seabed withdrew, earthquakes, weather changes and waves all worked together to shape the sandstone mountains which we see today.
Whether viewing the rock formations from town, or the red-roofed town from a monastery, the whole area is full of beautiful views. As we hiked some trails, we could even see the Pindos mountains in the distance, all of which were already blanketed in a late-October snow.
The misty, cloudy days made the atmosphere even more mysterious and enchanting. Of course I would have loved to see some sun (or even a sunset) for photogenic purposes, but the scenery was outstanding regardless.
The presence of inhabitants in the area began an entire 23,000 years ago. Interestingly, just 3.1 miles (5km) away from Meteora lies a cave dweling which is said to be the oldest known man-made structure on earth.
It wasn’t until the 9th century that groups of hermit monks moved up into the mountains for protection. Their first establishments were cliff-side cave dwellings up to 1800 feet (550m) in height. The monks would climb up using long ladders and then once inside, retract the ladders making outside contact nearly impossible.
The monasteries are incomprehensible
Towards the end of the 11th century and into the 12th, a more official ascetic community of monks was being formed. Their desire for a place to gather on Sundays created the need for larger establishments. Smaller churches, many of which are now in ruins, were built in response.
It wasn’t until the mid-14th century that the actual monasteries we see today were constructed. With the fall of the Byzantine rule in the area and the oncoming threat of Turkish occupation, the monks began to construct the monasteries on the top of the narrow pinnacles as refuge. The inaccessible locations were perfect for keeping their community and religious practices safe.
To build the monasteries they used long ladders and large nets which hauled up materials– and people. They put a lot of faith in the materials used and often times they would wear out and break, “when the Lord let them.”
Six are still in use
More than 20 monasteries were built during this time, but only six are in use and open for visitors today. Luckily these days you don’t have to be hoisted up in a tattered net to visit. In the 1920s staircases were cut into the rocks up to the monasteries and in the 1960s a road was built linking them together.
To visit the monasteries today, you can either drive or hike your way to the top of the pinnacles. Inside are beautiful courtyards and churches covered in old, cracking frescoes.
It’s not (yet) flooded with tourists
Maybe due to the location, or the fact it’s only been the backdrop of one major film (the Bond film, For Your Eyes Only), but many people today don’t know that Meteora exists. Sadly, this lack of tourism has made things especially hard for Kalambaka during the economic crisis. Still, there is a silver-lining which us travelers can benefit from. If you visit soon, the hiking trails won’t be completely flooded with tour groups, the monasteries will be peaceful and you won’t have people standing around in your scenic panoramas.
Although there were a few large tour buses cruising the roads in between the mountains, it was nothing compared to the likes of other impressive tourist sites I’ve been to. Also, most restaurants are full of Greek families and students, rather than large groups of tourists. The locals were friendly and happy to have us there and prices were still pretty affordable.
Basically, it’s travel bliss.
So take my word for it and bump Meteora to the top of your bucket list and enjoy this enchanting place before everyone else catches on. You’ll thank me that you did.
How to get there: You can take a train from Athens for about €40 round-trip which will arrive in Kalambaka in about 5 hours. There are also many buses which go to Trikala, a nearby hub. The town itself doesn’t have many hostel options, but a slew of moderately priced guesthouses. While I was there in the shoulder season, I can imagine that the town gets much more crowded in the summer, when many Greek adventurists come to the region to rock climb.
A big thanks to Visit Meteora for showing me this stunning region. Of course, all opinions in this article are my own.