Meteora and Its Cliff Hanging Monasteries
October 28th marks a national holiday in Greece, called Oxi Day (pronounced “O-hee”), which commemorates the rejection by the Greeks of the ultimatum made by Italy and its dictator, Benito Mussolini. On this, day, October 28th, 1940, Mussolini demanded that they and other Axis powers to be allowed on Greek territory for strategic purposes. Greece’s Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, responded with one word, “Oxi”, or “No!” Every year, this day is celebrated as a national holiday in Greece.
Since Chika had a few days off for this holiday, we took advantage and made a trip to Meteora, one of Greece’s most incredible sites. However, its location makes it much less visited than Athens and some of the islands.
Starting in the 11th century, monasteries were built along the breathtaking sandstone cliffs of Meteora. During the instable times of war in the 14th century, several more monasteries were built and, by the end of the 15th century, 24 were built and active. Now, because of time and erosion, only seven remain. All seven of the monasteries are incredible sites from both the inside and the outside.
One must wonder how much longer these remaining monasteries will last. The monasteries are built so close to the edge of the sandstone cliff that they could be called flush with the wall. It seems that one small break of the rock could send a large portion of the building falling a thousand feet to the ground below. Until the early 1900s, none of these monasteries were accessible by stairs, as they are now. Instead, monks and materials would be hoisted up with a net pulley system. A net attached to a large rope would be lowered to the ground, where a monk would get, and would then be lifted slowly up to the entrance of the monastery, 500 to 1,000 feet up. Built up on such a high, inaccessible cliff meant that this was the only way reach the top. Monks were often asked if they ever replace the ropes used to hoist people and materials, and they simply responded, “Of course, when the rope breaks.” If the rope breaks while pulling someone up, it was an act of God.
Meteora is located fairly close to Thessaloniki, making it an easy weekend trip. From the Thessaloniki KTEL bus station, we took a 3 hour bus ride to Trikala, where we switched buses and made the last 40 minutes of the journey to Kalabaka. Kalabaka is a town just below the sand cliffs of Meteora. We stayed in a local guesthouse called Alsos Guesthouse, costing 20 euros per person per night. It was a great guest house in a nice location, very close to the hiking trails and in a quiet neighborhood.
We had arrived early afternoon in Kalabaka, so we decided to take a short hike to the closest monastery, the Agias Triada (Holy Trinity), literally overlooking the town of Kalabaka on a huge cliff. Hiking at a relaxed paced and taking plenty of photos, it took about an hour to arrive to the entrance of the monastery, where we paid 3 euros to enter. Each monastery in Meteora costs 3 euros to enter. Inside, we had sweeping views of the monasteries and cliffs across the valley and also views of Kalabaka. It was an impressive site, even with the overcast weather with unexpected cold winds making it a chilly place to be.
We then walked around the bend of the curvy road just behind the Holy Trinity Monastery to get a glimpse of the second monastery called the Agios Stephanos, or Saint Steven’s Monastery. Being built so close to the edge of the cliff made this a fantastic view, especially with the mountains in the background.
Our second day in Meteora was also our only full day there, so we took advantage by hiking up into Meteora and explore the monasteries. Our hike took us upwards towards the Holy Trinity Monastery, but we stayed left at a “Y” in the trail and hiked through more forest. Late October was early fall for this part of Greece, so many of the leaves were already changing colors. As we made our way up out of the valley and towards a viewpoint, we jumped up on a rock to take in the view of the valley we had just crossed. With no one in sight, we were able to enjoy the view for about an hour, taking in the serenity of the nature while also enjoying the great views of several monasteries to the north.
Afterwards, we continued on up to arrive at a road that wraps from one monastery to the next. Being a Monday in early fall, there was not too much traffic nor tourists, at least relative to summer. Just off the road were a few lookout points with some of the best views in Europe. The combination of the forest in the valley below, the monasteries hanging onto their cliffs to the right and left, the town of Kalabaka in the distance, and the snowcapped mountains in the far distance, it was a sight to see.
The second and final monastery we entered was the Varlaam Monastery. Founded in 1517, it is known for its collection of relics and intricately carved wooden crosses. It also holds a fresco showing Alexander the Great’s bones in a coffin. We finished our great day of hiking by getting to the last and biggest monastery, the Megalo Meteora Monastery. This one was started in 1382 upon the highest rock in Meteora. It was also the richest and most powerful monastery in its time. Although we didn’t go inside, it was impressive to see from the outside.
We then began our walk back to our guesthouse. We took a different way out, which took us right by the Roussanou Monastery and down into the town of Kastraki. After getting back to our guesthouse, we got ready and went out to eat at a quaint taverna in Kalabaka, where we had Greek salad, fried zucchini, pastitsio, and a half-liter of house wine. Needless to say, we needed the refueling and crashed soon afterwards.
Our final morning, we relaxed on our balcony with great views of the cliffs. It was drizzly, so we didn’t feel like hiking again. We did, however, catch the end of the parade for Oxi Day. To finish up our trip, we had a coffee in the center of town and then caught our bus back to Thessaloniki.
I was happily surprised by Meteora. Before coming here, I had never heard of the place, although it is ranked in the Lonely Planet Southeast Europe guidebook as one of the top 5 places to visit. I get the feeling that this place is underappreciated by tourists who only see Greece as being Athens and islands. I would definitely recommend a few days in Meteora if you’re planning a trip to Greece. The incredible views of the unique monasteries is something you will never forget!
There were too many pictures that I wanted to show on this post, so see below for more pictures of our trip.