“We’re going up to the air,” he said in broken English. I looked at him perplexed. “You know, to monasteries… in the air!” he said louder this time, as he waved his hand above his head. I still wasn’t sure what he meant. Greek was his first language; his English was very limited, and he didn’t care if he spoke it well or not. Sometimes it was difficult to understand him, but… did he say “monasteries in the air?” I looked at my husband for confirmation. He shrugged. So I shrugged, and despite feeling exhausted from almost two long days of train, sea, and bus travel from Italy to Greece, we agreed to go.
There’s this Greek old man I used to know. Let’s call him Thassos. We lost touch or had a falling out of some sort. That’s ancient history now, but what’s important is that he showed me parts of Greece that I wouldn’t have seen on my own. One of those places was Meteora (Μετεωρα) – which refers to amazing monasteries built on top of pre-historic sandstone peaks. In the 11th century, Byzantine hermits would clamber up the rocks to be alone with God. They desired to reach enlightenment through solitude and meditation. This place is incredible – and if you can spare an extra day during a trip to Greece, it should not be missed.
Visiting monasteries perched on impossibly steep rocks had not been part of my itinerary, but I’m thrilled I got to experience this place. We were in Greece to help Thassos, the Greek old man, sail his boat to the Sporades Islands (Skiathos, Alonissos, Skopelos, and Skyros). But we still had a few days of provisioning and of doing last minute checks on his sailboat before taking off on our 2-week adventure. So, we had a bit of extra time to wander about.
The next morning after our arrival into Volos (a coastal city situated midway on the Greek mainland, north of Athens), Thassos and his brother packed us into their little car and off we went to climb up to Meteora.
After about 3 hours we reached our destination. We parked the car on top of the hill, on the side of the road. At first, I saw nothing that would justify calling these monasteries as being suspended in the air. I was beginning to wonder why I hadn’t slept in that morning, as I’d really wanted to do. I still felt jet lagged and cranky from lack of rest.
We were high up, that was for sure. Meteora rises from the plains of Thessaly, a few miles northwest of Kalambaka – and the views are staggering. But it was only after I got closer and started walking around the monasteries, crossing bridges, and taking rock-cut steps that I realized the amazing building feat by these monks.
In their desire to be closer to God, they had built their secluded, sacred buildings atop rocky pinnacles that looked absolutely inaccessible, unless you climbed the steep and slippery walls. The first monks had used pulleys, nets, and their bare hands to transport the materials for building.
My jet lag and crankiness? That was quickly forgotten. We spent the better part of the day exploring the monasteries, taking in the views of the town below, and appreciating how nature melded harmoniously with these magnificent buildings.
Not only are the monasteries a sight to behold, the surroundings and the sandstone rocks themselves are impressive – the formations go back to about 60 million years ago.
As I understand it, a series of plate movements raised the seabed, creating a high plateau with many fault lines. The rocks were then formed by water and wind erosion.
The present monasteries, as you see in the pictures, were built in the 14th and 15th centuries during a time of instability and revival of the hermit ideal; the first was Great Meteoron (c.1340) and there were 24 monasteries by 1500. They flourished until the 17th century but only six survive today; four of these still host monastic communities.
When you visit, there will be hoards of tourists – almost guaranteed. They come in bus loads, actually, but it you can ignore them, this is a place that is truly inspiring – a testament to the human spirit.
Good to know: There’s a strict dress code is enforced – All shoulders must be covered, men must wear long trousers and women must wear skirts (no pants) that cover the knees. I always travel with a scarf that doubles up as a wrap, so I used that to cover my bare shoulders.
The nearest major town, Kalambaka (from the Turkish word for “pinnacle”), is below Meteora. There are plenty of restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels – a good base for overnight visitors.
If you don’t have a car, the easiest way to reach Meteora is by metro. You can also reach it by bus. Check out this link: “Visit Meteora,” which provides excellent directions and offers lots of other useful information in preparation for your visit.