You know when you’re a kid and you see something – a person, an image, an arena – that seems too amazing, too big, too beautiful to be true? That’s how I felt about Meteora and its famous complex of monasteries.
I first laid eyes on Meteora in a James Bond movie. The Monastery of the Holy Trinity was used as a backdrop in For Your Eyes Only, the 12th in the series and the 5th with Roger Moore starring as 007 (my father’s a huge fan of the James Bond films). Although it appears the original intention was to film inside the building, the monks living there weren’t too appreciative of this idea. After all, the cliffs and pillars of Meteora were first used as a place of refuge by a group of ascetic monks in search of quiet and solitude. They literally lived in the rocks, about 300 years before the first monastery was built.
Once upon a time there were 24 monasteries up on the cliffs, but today only 6 remain above the town of Kalabaka and the village of Kastraki, more tourist sites than working monasteries although all still have residents.
The weather for my visit was mostly cold and grey, although there were a few moments of sunshine to be had here and there, mostly in the afternoon. Only warm clothing and an incredible amount of patience and luck led to a few photos with blue skies.
I stayed in the village of Kastraki at a lovely little hotel called Pyrgos Adrachti. It sat right below the cliffs and, following the suggestions I’d read, I requested a balcony room that allowed me to sit and marvel at the sandstone pillars whenever I wanted. There was a little pathway that led down from the cliffs – every so often, I’d hear a rustle and would wait for my eyes to catch the movement of a couple of adventurous trekkers making their way through the trees, surprised at finding themselves basically on the back lawn of this hotel.
The owners gave me a map to follow, but the monasteries were pretty easy to find: make sure you’re going uphill (there’s only really one main road in Kastraki) and follow the tour buses. The map was far handier for what the proprietors added – opening hours. The best days to visit are Sunday and Monday because only one of the monasteries is closed during that two-day period; all other days of the week contain a motley mix of open monasteries and visiting hours. To avoid the crush of tourists, go early and try to hit the two largest first: Megalou Meterou Monastery (also known as Great Meteoron) and Varlaam Monastery. While both offer visitors with the most amount of wandering territory (i.e. not as much of the monastery is private), they are also relatively accessible with ample parking space for tourist buses, hence the larger numbers. By comparison, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity involves a long walk down followed by more than 100 steps up; and, of course, the reverse when you leave.
The outskirts of the Varlaam Monastery can just be seen in the top right corner of the cliffs,while Agiou Nikolaou Monastery (St. Nickolas Anapausas) can be seen in the middle, just to the left of the large wall of sandstone cliffs…
The dual nature of tourism, though, made this a bittersweet moment for me. As a very popular landmark, visiting the monasteries is very simple and straightforward: a 3 euro entry fee and a wrap around skirt (provided by the monasteries) for females is all that is required. By comparison, visiting the larger Eastern Orthodox complex of monasteries at Mount Athos requires that 1) you be a male; and 2) that you obtain a special entrance permit (signed by 4 of the secretaries of leading monasteries) valid only for a limited stay.
The downside is that little to none of the meditative character remains: tour groups file through while their guides loudly provide running commentary and multilingual yells and shouts punctuate the air interrupted intermittently by the roar of bus engines. Additionally, as all 6 still have monks and nuns in residence, the 4 smaller monasteries offer very little in the way of viewing for architectural or historical context: you can walk through some in as little as 5 minutes.
Having said all this, the views alone from the area and from each of the monasteries I visited (I didn’t make it to Agious Nikolaou Monastery) made it a very worthwhile visit. Photos will never do justice to this amazing place: there is no way to capture the scale, textures, and colours of the natural beauty of the cliffs and pinnacles, nor the dramatic vision of the monasteries perched upon them. I hope, though, that these images ignite your imagination – as one once did mine – and create in you the desire to travel to Meteora and see these sites for yourself.
P.S. If you are planning a visit, stop by the Restaurant Boufidis along the main road to Meteora, at the edge of town – best pork souvlaki of my entire stay in Greece. You can’t miss it – the chef (and co-owner?) mans the charcoal grill outside by the side of the road.