I arrived in Kalambaka just as the church bells chimed 12 times. Ding, ding. It was midnight. The bus dropped me off in the middle of the town center dazed and confused. The town was alive with late night diners at open-air restaurants. The air was cool and the night was clear. I began walking towards the sandstone cliffs towering over the town. A kind waiter saw the exhaustion and confusion in my eyes and ran to the sidewalk to direct me to Also’s House, my home for the next two nights. I was out the second my head hit the pillow dreaming of incredible monasteries in the clouds that I would hike to bright and early the next morning with Visit Meteora.
The next morning I was up by 7:30am to eat a quick breakfast before my tour guide picked me up at my hotel at 8:30am for my hiking tour of Meteroa. My tour consisted of four Greeks from Thessaloniki, a German couple, a Swiss lawyer, myself, and our local tour guide. We began our hike at the foot of the Doupiani rock, right beneath the old ruins of the Pantokrator monastery. The walk was a short and gradual climb up to the top. The Doupiani rock looked like something you would see on the moon. It was certainly nothing I have seen before in my travels. The view from the top of the rock was just as incredible with the sandstone cliffs to my left and the village of Kastraki below surrounded by the Pindos Mountains in the background. For a moment I thought I stepped back in time and I would see dinosaurs pop their heads out from behind the greenery.
Our hike continued upwards past the massive rocks and through the lightly wooded forest towards the hidden monasteries of Ypapanti and the old ruins of St. Dimitrios. St. Dimitrios sits high above the monastery of Ypapanti on the rocks and was used in the early 19th century as a fort during an uprising against the Ottoman Turks. The Ypapanti Monastery is fully constructed inside a large cave midway up a sandstone pillar. The monastery was founded in 1367 AD by monks Nilos and Cyprianus. Ypapanti was heavily damaged in 1809 when local rebel Papathymios Vlahavas was arrested by the Turkish army. The monastery has recently been restored and is open a few days of the week to visitors. Unfortunately it was closed during our hiking tour, but we were able to climb up the many stairs to the main doors.
We continued our hike through the forest trail. Our guide pointed out native flowers and mushrooms of the region. I can’t recall any of their names, but I don’t recommend eating any of the mushrooms that you might find as you’ll most likely not be going home alive. The narrow trail finally started to pitch up and we began our climb up towards the Great Meteoron Monastery. The crest of the hill was covered in tall grass and low shrubbery. Eventually we rounded a bend in the trail and got our first views of the monasteries. My heart skipped a beat as I my eyes laid sight on these majestic stone monasteries built many centuries ago. The monasteries of Meteora are truly breathtaking. I still can’t get over the fact monks built these huge structures in the 14th century when the only way up to these monasteries was via rope and free climbing.
The Great Meteoron Monastery is the largest and most popular monastery to visit in Meteora. It is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm except on Tuesdays. Today you can access the monastery via the hiking trails or by car up the main road, but centuries ago you had to tempt fate by taking the “rope elevator” up. The first monk would climb up the rock face to the top. He would then drop a net down which the other monks would then sit in while the monk at the top would pull them up using a pulley system. While the “rope elevator” sounds like an adventurous method up to the monastery, you can take the stairs to the top that were built in the recent decades for tourists.
The Great Meteoron Monastery was founded by Saint Athanasios the Meteorite around 1340. Legend has it that Saint Athanasios was carried up to the top of the highest rock pillar, that he later called Megalo Meteoro (“Great Place Suspended in the Air”), by an eagle where he built a small church and lodging for monks. When Saint Athanasios died, Saint Iosaph became the head monk. Saint Iosaph was a Serbian king who was known as John Uros who left his royal power to become a monk in 1373. Over his 40 years in charge, the monasteries continued to expand with new churches, a hospital, and other buildings. The monastery reached its peak in the 16th century when it received major donations by royal families. With those donations the monks built much of the present day monastery that you can see today.
The Great Meteoron Monastery is large and you’re allowed to explore most of the buildings, however some areas are roped off from tourists so please respect the barriers. We were given over an hour and a half to explore the monastery, which was plenty of time. The courtyards contain colorful and fragrant flowers while the stone walls contain 16th century frescoes of religious scenes. At the southeast corner of the monastery you have wonderful 360 degree panoramic views of the other monasteries and sandstone pillars. While the monasteries are the main attraction of the region, the rock pillars are stunning in their own right. The landscape of Meteora is just incredible and makes me bow down to Mother Nature. Seriously, this place can be described with just about every cliché you can think of in your head!
The Church of the Transfiguration is the main church in the monastery complex and was built by Saint Iosaph in 1388. The nave and narthex were added later in the 16th century. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside any of the churches and chapels out of respect plus the monks want to preserve the original frescos throughout the church. Most of the frescos date back to the late 1400s and are painted in the Macedonian style from floor to ceiling.
There is a small history museum located on the first floor of the monastery that contains artifacts on the Greek Civil War and World War II. Prior to World War II there were 24 monasteries built in the region, but many were heavily damaged during WWII or the Civil War that occurred after. Today only 6 of the original monasteries are still active and open for tourists. There is also a smaller library museum in one of the outbuildings that contains many great works of literature from the early centuries. Unfortunately most of the tags were in Greek so I really had no understanding what anything was in either of the museum. The wine cellar and original kitchen can also be viewed. Too bad there wasn’t any wine though… One of the most interesting sights of the monastery is the sacristy, where skulls and bones of the previous residents are stacked on shelves.
After spending time explore every inch of the monastery, our group was off again this time down the hiking trails back to Kalambaka. We took the most direct trails down into town. It was a joyful walk down a well-worn trail with butterflies surrounding the entire trail. Just as we were hitting the main road back to town our tour guide pointed up to the rock cliffs again where a cave with vibrant and colorful scarves were hanging in the wind. The cave is known as St. George Madilas (Saint George with the scarves) and it has its own local legend. Our tour guide told us that during the 17th century a local Muslim landowner was cutting down some trees in the sacred forest that was dedicated to Saint George. The landowner lost the use of his hands, but regained use of his hands when he offered the saint his wife’s veil. In the Muslim culture, an offering of a veil is a very valuable gift. Once a year rock climbers carry up hundreds of scarves from the locals and tie them high above on a rope in the cave to honor Saint George.
The tour ended about 1:00pm in the town square of Kastraki. The tour van picked us up and dropped us off again at our hotels in Kalambaka. Overall I really enjoyed the tour. After being on a yacht for 7 days I really needed to get out and exercise. The hiking trails were easy and well-worn, but make sure you wear sneakers. The tour lasts between 4-5 hours depending on the size of the group. Bring plenty of water because it gets hot fast! If you’re in Meteora I would recommend taking this tour. It’s well organized and having a local tour guide share their knowledge and passion for the region is worth the tour price in my opinion. A hiking tour of Meteora is a great way to get a different perspective on the land!
- Cost: €35
- Frequency: Daily
- Start Time: 8:30am (Tour bus can pick you up at your hotel or meet at the tourism office)
- Duration: 4-5 hours
- Exclusions: The €3 fee to the Great Meteoran Monastery
- Book: Online at Visit Meteora or stop by their offices at P. Dimitriou 2 in Kalambaka (near town center)
Have you been to Meteora? Do you want to go now?
Thank you to Visit Meteora for hosting me during my 36 hours in Meteora, Greece. Meteora is absolutely amazing and I will be back again soon to explore more. Despite who foots the bill, my opinions are 100% my own.