Monasteries of Meteora

Monastery of St. Nicholas, Meteora, Greece.

Meteora – Nearly out of this World

Roussanou Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

Monastery of Roussanou (aka Ayia Barabara–a Nunnery) in Meteora.

One of the great sights in the world, let alone Greece, is Meteora. The combination of stunning natural scenery—huge sandstone rock pinnacles–with medieval 14th century monasteries sitting on top of them is a sight I will not forget. About 5 hours by car northwest of Athens, Meteora (which is close to the fairly large town of Kalambaka) is well worth the drive, which we did by way of Delphi (about 3.5 hours from Delphi to Meteora). The word Meteora comes from a Greek word which means “to hang in midair” and after seeing this area, it’s easy to see how the word aptly describes the monasteries built on the tops and down the sides of the rocks.

Holy Monastery of Varlaam, Meteora, Greece.

Holy Monastery of Varlaam (top-center).

Although the drive from Delphi to Meteora is initially through steep valleys and mountain passes, the mountains give way to a wide fertile valley (the Thessalian plain), which made me wonder what the setting would really be like. As we got close to Kalambaka, the rock pinnacles suddenly appeared in front of us as the gateway to Meteora and the mountains in the area.

Meteora Map, Greece.

Meteora is about 5 hours northwest of Athens and about 3 hours north of Delphi.

We visited in early June 2011 and the green vegetation of the valley floor and hills is a picturesque contrast with the dark sandstone rock pinnacles. The monasteries of Meteora blend with the surroundings and give the setting a surreal feeling.

Varlaam Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

Holy Monastery of Varlaam (looks like it could slide right off the rock!).

Monastery of St. Nicholas, Meteora, Greece.

Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapafsas, the smallest monastery at Meteora,chapel built in 1388, 16th century frescoes

The rock pinnacles served as a retreat for religious orders during the Byzantine–Turkish wars of the 14thcentury. Within 200 years, 13 monasteries were established. Ruins of monasteries no longer standing can still be seen on some rock cliffs. The first monastery, Great Meteoron, was founded by St. Athanasios in the mid 1300’s; he also gave the name to the area, Meteora. Many of the monasteries have highly decorated chapels with frescoes of various biblical scenes. The taking of pictures is not officially allowed in the chapels, but I did take some non-flash video inside several of the chapels.

Great Meteron Monastery Interior, Meteora, Greece.

Frescoes in Great Meteron Monastery chapel.

Great Meteron Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

View of the stairway and windlass tower of Great Meteron.

Kitchen, Great Meteron, Meteora, Greece.

The kitchen at Great Meteron (dated around 1557).

Great Meteron Ossuary, Meteora, Greece.

The Ossuary at Great Meteron.

Great Meteron Monastery Courtyard, Meteora, Greece.

Neatly manicured courtyard at Grand Meteron Monastery.

Storage room, Great Meteron Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

Tools storage room at Great Meteron Monastery.

Other features vary depending on the monastery—some have beautiful gardens and views. The largest, Great Meteoron, is almost a museum–with an old (dates from 1557) kitchen, Ossuary, and equipment storage rooms on display. The monasteries are in close proximity, but since some walking or hiking is required, at least 60-90 minutes per monastery is a good estimate.

Practical Information:

All monasteries can be visited in one full day, especially if you are staying in Kastraki or Kalambaka. We recommend Kastraki as a base, since it is so close to Meteora. A car is the easiest way to visit the monasteries, and allows you the freedom to arrive and leave at your leisure. There are also footpaths among the ravines, connecting the towns with the monasteries and if you have the time, they would be a lovely way to see the area.

Holy Monastery of St. Stephen, Meteora, Greece.

Holy Monastery of St. Stephen is the most easily accessible.

Each monastery has a €2 entry fee per person.  Be prepared for stairs, and lots of them. One of the monasteries, St. Stephen’s, (actually a convent) is easily accessible from the car park and does not require stair climbing. Others require a hike down and up steep stairways. In the old days windlasses with nets or baskets were the only way up into the monasteries–ensuring safety during times of war.

St. Stephens Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

Small chapel at St. Stephen’s.

The busiest monasteries are Great Meteron (aka Moni Megalo Meteoro or Monastery of the Transfiguration), St. Stephen’s, and to a lesser extent Varlaam. Be prepared for tour buses at Great Meteron.  We had the Holy Trinity and St. Anapafsas monasteries to ourselves.

Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

Holy Trinity Monastery of James Bond fame (see separate post).

As usual, getting to the monasteries earlier (or later) in the day will help in avoiding the crowds.  Check opening days and hours carefully. We visited on a Saturday and all of them were open, but some are closed other days of the week.  Most open at 9 am. There are small parking lots at each of the stairway trails to the monasteries.

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Sign warning of dress standards at St. Stephen’s monastery.

The monasteries are picky about dress.  They require women to wear dresses or skirts, although they have free wrap-around skirts available at the entrances. For men, shorts are not officially allowed, but we did see men in shorts at several of the monasteries. To avoid any hassle, men should wear long pants. Also, men, don’t try to wear the skirt wraps—the monks don’t appreciate this!

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Wearing skirts at St. Stephen’s.

We stayed in Kastraki, a small village just a couple of kilometers up the road from Kalambaka, it’s nestled among the rock pinnacles, with a great view. Our hotel, Doupiani House, was in a perfect location with many rooms having a balcony view of the rocks of Meteora.

Doupiani House hotel, Kastraki, Meteora, Greece.

View of Meteora from Doupiani House hotel, Kastraki.

References: Frommer’s Guide to Greece, Lonely Planet Greece Guidebook and information sign posts at Meteora.

Overview of Greece

Greece Trip

Our Primary Destinations in Greece (over two weeks).

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Greece twice—in the mid 1980’s and very recently (May-June 2011).  The country has changed a lot over the past 25 years. I recall when I visited the first time that the country felt quite poor, and for a visitor, it was inexpensive. Now that Greece is on the Euro, prices are much higher, and there is more evidence of prosperity—many nice homes and BMW’s speeding past us on smooth highways.

 

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Syntagma Square, Athens – Government Austerity Demonstrations.

The current government debt problems are definitely a concern, and during our stay in Athens we ended up in the middle of a huge protest on Syntagma Square (an almost daily occurrence we understand). The protests are not violent and almost have a festive atmosphere.

Here is some information that I hope will be helpful in planning a visit to Greece.

Places to Visit

Greece is a large country, including about 2,000 islands. When planning to visit, one must decide how much of the country to cover, which will depend on time and budget. The mainland can be divided into roughly two parts–north of the Corinth Canal and south–the Peloponnese peninsula. The islands are quite varied in landscape and features, and very dispersed over the Aegean Sea. Since my first visit was focused on some sights of the Peloponnese peninsula and Thessalonki, we decided this time to visit 3 islands and a few other sites on the northern mainland. We chose the islands of Rhodes, Santorini and Naxos. These islands provided a great variety of natural and historic sights, and were relatively easy to get to. In future posts, I will review each of these islands. On the mainland, we rented a car and drove up to Delphi and then on to Meteora, which is about 5-6 hours by car from Athens. Delphi is an ancient Greek and Roman site, and Meteora has the famous monasteries dating from the 1300’s perched on rock pinnacles. Both sites were outstanding, and I will share more information on each in separate posts.  Our final day was spent in Athens.

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Naxos Island – West Coast.

Our itinerary provided a good mix of beautiful beaches, ancient Greek and Roman sites, medieval sites, natural scenery, and quaint towns.

Another option is to take a cruise through the islands and to some mainland ports. If you don’t mind large crowds, having just one day in a port, and missing the quiet evenings on shore, a cruise could be a good option, and saves the hassle of the transportation logistics between islands.

Food

Suffice it to say that we loved the Greek food. It is outstanding, especially if you like meat and seafood.  Most restaurants and tavernas offered a variety of Greek dishes and some Italian fare (pasta and pizzas).  It was hard to go wrong with a restaurant choice.  We loved the grilled meats (slouvaki), meatballs, moussaka and gyro sandwiches.

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Enjoying our Greek salads!

We also couldn’t resist ordering Greek salads (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives with a slab of feta cheese and a dash of olive oil) at every meal. We found great gelato most places too!

Language

As might be expected, in all the main tourist areas, English was widely spoken. What surprised us was that even in non-tourist locations like Lamia (3 hours north of Athens), we found storekeepers who were thrilled to see a tourist and spoke English quite well. We did learn a few Greek phrases which is always considerate and fun.

Driving

In spite of what many guide books and websites say, driving in Greece was no problem.  On the highways, just stay to the right and let those that want to drive 150 km/hour pass you. Even in Athens the traffic was quite orderly. We found most road signs in Greek and English, sometimes the English sign would be separately posted (Greek sign first, then 50 yards later an English sign). Some signs for small towns and other locations were only in Greek. Driving on the islands was very easy; there is little traffic outside the main towns. Gasoline was extremely expensive, almost $8 US per gallon. Around Athens there are tolls on the highways (most are 2 Euros or more), so be prepared for them.

Getting Around the Islands

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Aegean Airlines plane on Rhodes.

We flew to Rhodes from Athens, and then to Santorini (via Athens). Flights on Aegean or Olympic Airlines are not cheap (between $90-200 per person per destination). We took the ferry from Santorini to Naxos.  Ferries are cheaper, but take longer and may be held up by weather.

Places to Stay

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Our hotel (Doupiani House) in Meteora.

Except for Athens, we stayed in small hotels, and found the recommendations in the Lonely Planet guidebook and online at Booking.com to be very good. The hotel staffs were very helpful and friendly.   The only thing we didn’t like about most rooms was the hard beds! They seem to be standard in Greece.  Most of the little hotels also included free wireless internet access, and breakfast was included in a few.  Room rates varied from €34 per night (2 people) on Naxos to €100 per night on Santorini (for a hotel that was right on the edge of the caldera—worth it!).

Information on Greece

I used three guidebooks: Eyewitness Travel for the Greek Islands, Lonely Planet and Frommer’s.  Each guidebook provides a unique perspective and was helpful. Matt Barrett’s website on Greece also has a lot of information.