Hiking to Greece’s Majestic Meteora Monasteries

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It is a perfect marriage of nature and of manmade beauty. Crowning the tops of otherworldly rock formations are Eastern Orthodox monasteries, some constructed more than 700 years ago. Built by monks who were trying to escape persecution, there were once more than 20 monasteries. Over the centuries, however, weather and neglect took their toll, leaving today’s six active monasteries, several that are closed to the public, and others in ruins.

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The Great Meteoron Monastery.

In an age of sophisticated construction equipment, it’s easy to take the building of the Meteora monasteries for granted. Yet, imagine how difficult it was to carry the building materials to the peak of the mountaintops centuries ago, which are on average 300 meters (or 1,000 feet) high. And, consider the challenges monks faced in getting themselves up there. With no staircases as there are today, they rode up in nets, surely relying on their faith to banish any terrifying thoughts that the rope on which their life depended might break.

When approaching these magnificent structures for the first time, Shawn and I decided to take the traditional approach – on foot. Starting on our journey, we met a few creatures along the way – most notably a tortoise and viper snake – and were eventually rewarded with glimpses of several monasteries high above us. Yet, with the evening hours quickly approaching, and being uncertain which path to take, we decided to turn back.

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Stunning mountain scenery and patchwork quilt-like tracts of land.

The next day, our energetic tour guide, George, from Visit Meteora led the way and literally took us off the beaten path as only a local can do. During an overcast morning, we passed a kaleidoscope of wooden beehives, a shepherd and his flock, and a small prayer shrine.

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A kaleidoscope of wooden beehives.

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A mushroom emerges from a bed of last year’s leaves.

Soon, the clouds burned off, exposing aquamarine skies, patchwork quilt-like tracts of land, and snow-capped mountains. We wandered off a bit away from the rock formations, into a lush forest filled with a plethora of wildflowers, areas carpeted by  shag-like moss, and mushrooms. Tank-like beetles, mammoth-sized wasps, alien-faced grasshoppers, geckos and industrious ants also made their presence known.

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Shag-like moss.

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As we wound through an oak tree’s branches, we spotted a monastery that most visitors to Meteora never see – the Ypapanti Monastery. It doesn’t sit atop rock formations, rather it appears to be clinging to the side of one. George explained that the Ypapanti Monastery is one of several monasteries that is no longer active, and presently closed to the public.

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The Ypapanti Monastery.

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Hiking a bit farther, we approached an odd landscape, realizing that we were actually now walking atop some of the rock formations. Sections of the mountain were smooth, whereas others had straw-colored grass. George stopped to add a rock to a makeshift tower, a custom that we’d later see practiced on hiking trails elsewhere in the country.

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Shawn and George walking atop one of the rock formations.

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One of many makeshift rock towers created by hikers.

One of many makeshift rock towers created by hikers.

Like children playing the ‘cloud game’ (seeking to find familiar forms in the clouds), we tried to make out faces and shapes in the rugged rocks. Then we just took in the serenity of the spot. We were the only people in sight. Birds soared overhead, showing off their ability to flit from one precarious boulder top to another. There were no other people in sight.

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As we continued our trek, we caught glimpses of three additional monasteries. Having been surrounded by nature for the past hours, it was jarring to see tour buses whizzing by, and visitors being hurried from monastery to monastery.

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The Holy Monastery of Varlaam.

The Holy Monastery of Varlaam.

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On the stairway leading down toward the Great Meteoron Monastery, we glimpsed thousands of caterpillars rappelling down from the trees, building chrysalises. It seemed fitting that the insects swung on silk cords in the foreground of the spot where monks once rode up to the monastery in a rope basket.

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Caterpillars’ silken cords swaying in the breeze. In past centuries, monks rode up in a rope basket from this tower-like structure. Today, the lift is only used for the delivery of food and supplies.

Several caterpillars tried to stow away with us during the hike down to the village of Kastraki. On the way, we also spied ruins of monasteries that once graced the boulders’ tops, as well as just two of the many adventure seekers who regularly climb these rugged rocks. George had given us the option of touring some of the monasteries’ interiors, but we decided to save the interiors for the next day. We wove down a well-shaded trail back to our home away from home, on paths covered by twisted roots, and an occasional glimpse of the majestic monasteries now overhead.

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A monastery’s ruins. Centuries ago, there were more than 20 monasteries built upon Meteora’s unusual formations.

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A pair of rock climbers cling to one of the supposedly more-accessible formations.

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Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • It can be easy to get lost when hiking in the more remote wooded areas around the Meteora Monasteries. Be sure you have a good map, or consider hiring a guide to find those less-trodden paths, which are well worth exploring.
  • The weather was sizzling during our springtime visit, and we were happy to have packed ample water and snacks. It’s possible to purchase refreshments near some of the more popular monasteries, but because the hike can be long, I recommend bringing your own for the ascent.
  • Be sure to check the opening hours for the monasteries that you’re hoping to visit on a particular day. A different monastery is closed each day to allow the monks a workday without visitors. Visit Meteora is a useful planning resource, and we also enjoyed stopping by the agency’s office in Kalambaka. With a helpful team of staff members on hand, free Wifi, great reading material about the local attractions, and cozy chairs available to the public, it’s a one-stop shop.
  • Finally, if you’re looking for a cozy place to stay (one at which our hostess surprised us with Greek culinary treats), do consider the Guesthouse Patavalis in Kastraki.

Thanks & Disclosure: 
 

ευχαριστώ πολύ/ A big thank you to Visit Meteora for hosting us for this tremendous hiking adventure. We loved getting off-the-beaten path with you, hearing your insights about these magnificent monasteries and learning more about Greek culture.

These words, experiences, images, and opinions are entirely my own. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.

Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell . All Rights Reserved.

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29 Comments on “Hiking to Greece’s Majestic Meteora Monasteries

  1. This is another great travel story Tricia. We have not been to mainland Greece, unless you count Lefkas, which is joined to the mainland. It was on Lefkas many years ago that we also witnessed the springtime mass caterpillar abseil. What puzzled us was that once they hit the ground beneath the cliff, they seemed to make for the sea.

    • Glad you enjoyed it David, thank you. It sounds like many travelers to Greece head straight for the islands, missing the mainland. It’s a shame because Meteora’s monasteries and the region are beautiful – mountains, rolling hills, and wonderful wildlife.

      What an interesting caterpillar observation! I wonder if it was an illusion, or if they were somehow drawn to the water?

  2. Fantastic experience, Tricia! About all I have in common with this is that when we’re out walking we always put another pebble on top if we see one of these little cairns. I don’t know where the practise originated. Loved the post. :)

    • Thanks for giving a name to the rocky mounds, Jo. Come to think of it, I’ve also seen cairns elsewhere, just cannot recall where. Wikipedia has more on the practice here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairn

      On a side note, we resumed our morning walks today. We’re trying to get fit to climb one of the local peaks here in Oberammergau. I hope my fear of heights won’t get the best of me!

      Are you in a spot that allows you to hike out to nature often?

      • The Yorkshire Moors are 40mins away, but I was out walking the local denes this morning. Not so dramatic but still pretty scenery, and the coast always there. :)

      • Sounds quite serene, Jo. A branch of my mother’s family originated from Yorkshire, and so I’ve long wanted to visit that part of England. I wonder if you’re familiar with some of the place names. I’ll have to dig them up…

  3. Really interesting Tricia – never heard of these. So cool the way the tuck into the rocks and imagining how they were built is mind-boggling. Thanks for sharing

    • A former colleague told me about Meteora many years ago, and ever since I’ve been intrigued to visit this part of Greece. Meteora wasn’t the easiest to get to from our starting point in Macedonia, so we debated diverting there, but I’m so glad we made the trip. Spending the week there has been one of my travel highlights!

    • We were lucky to stay near Meteora for about a week, Phil, and never really lost that sense of wonder for the monasteries or the dramatic rocks. Our little guesthouse had a terrace that overlooked them and each day, we’d watch storms rolling in, new rock climbers attempting a climb, or brilliant sunsets. It’s a special place.

  4. I am in awe of how people even considered building anything on these virtually inaccessible rock formations. I can conceive of a small cabin, but a huge monastery?! I wonder how many people worked on any given monastery and how long it took them to complete such a structure… some people may have worked on these for an entire lifetime?
    Thanks for your enjoyable write-up.

    • We had the same questions; I can only imagine how much more dramatic that area looked when there were more than 20 monasteries!

      In several of the monastery chapels, frescoes depict the torture that some believers encountered, illustrating why the monks decided to build in such unreachable locations. It’s hard to believe that monks regularly rode up in nets until the early 20th century, when stairs were carved out of the rock.

    • I agree. I’d love to find a documentary that illustrates how the building materials were carried up, hundreds of years ago, Marilyn. We also found it interesting just imagining the logistics of getting food/supplies brought there before the staircases were built in more recent times.

    • Thank you so much, Carol. I couldn’t either! During one of our hikes, we watched as a washing machine, or some large appliance, was being delivered via pulley. Hard to imagine them constructing these hundreds of years ago, with less primitive equipment than we have today…

  5. Beautiful post, Tricia. You also end it with valuable suggestions about planning such a trek. These monasteries are incredible and your photos illustrate that. I would much rather have a guide than be on that tour bus. :)

    • Lynne, now on the day that the viper snake crossed just in front of me on the hiking path, perhaps I would’ve preferred to have been on a bus. :) Our guide was surprised that we saw it during our solo hike, as he’d never encountered one before.

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  8. Wonderful travelogue! !! Planning to visit Meteora this May. Do you have the contact details of the guide you hired?
    Thank you
    Apu

    • Glad you enjoyed the travelogue, Apu. We had an incredible time exploring Meteora, and we hope your trip will be just as memorable. We also went in May, and the weather was beautiful – the flowers were coming alive, the berry trees were producing fruit, and it wasn’t yet too hot.

      We partnered with the travel agency, Visit Meteora, for this post. Co-owners George and Angelina were our guides. You can find more details about their offerings here: http://www.visitmeteora.travel/ and their email address is: info@visitmeteora.travel

      Safe travels, and please tell them Tricia & Shawn said hello! :)

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