Reaching for the Heavens: Meteora

It’s not an alien world, even with a name like that, but it’s so far removed from anything else that Earth has to offer that Meteora could almost be on another planet.

Meteora is a collection of six ‘hanging’ monasteries, called so because they appear to fall off the edge of sheer rock faces. It’s in a remote part of Greece that tourists wouldn’t otherwise go to, but because of this tiny (yet astounding) community, they flock here in their droves.

The monks moved into the Meteora valley floor in – you guessed it – the Byzantine era. But the constant threat of raids by the Ottomans drew the monks further and further up the hills, so eventually, they were almost completely inaccessible at the top of these rock pillars.

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The monastery of Varlaam was my particular favourite.

There used to be 24 of these monasteries, but they’ve been in decline for a long time, and now only 6 still operate. If you’re lucky, you can get a glimpse of the ruins of the abandoned monastic communities, which are not at all accessible – but breathtaking all the same.

You’ll probably want to drive here and stay overnight. I’m in the Pyrgos Andrachti hotel, a brilliant family run hotel which sits at the foot of some steep rock cliffs. They took the Greek concept of ‘Filoxenia’ (love to guests/strangers/foreigners) and ran with it, so they are happy to accommodate guests’ every need, including making them coffee or giving them a free beer on the sly. It’s also astonishingly beautiful. This was my view at breakfast this morning:

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Pretty good view to eat cornflakes to.

I thought Meteora was a place where you had to hike between each monastery, but it turns out you can drive to all six of them on a newly built road. For some reason, this was a little disappointing – I’d expected a much more mystifying and remote place. When you get to the entrances, though, you’ll often have to trek up and down hundreds of steps to get to each one – so it’s not for the faint of heart. But as someone who makes a habit of climbing ludicrous numbers of steps – in both Greece and Thailand – I’m not afraid of a challenge.

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I also scaled up to a viewpoint still dressed in beachwear, because I forgot to change out of it. There was a couple doing their wedding photos here – hope I didn’t photobomb.

If you’re planning to visit, I’d recommend doing them in a particular order, to save fuel/energy/will to live in this hot and sweaty place. Some helpful Australians at breakfast gave me a good starting point. Begin with Great Meteoron, the biggest monastery in the area, and at one end of the route. You’ll have to get here fairly early, though – we got there at 10AM and there was barely any parking near the monastery itself.

If you hate coach trips, never come here. We tripped over a bunch from China, Croatia, Russia and beyond. They also have an irritating habit of congregating in small spaces:

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The monasteries also have a rather archaic dress code you need to prepare for. Men are not allowed to wear shorts above the knee. Women are not allowed to wear shorts, trousers (even ‘pantaloons’, whatever they are), vests, or indeed anything practical. I packed a lightweight maxi skirt, which I slipped on over my shorts. T-shirts were fine. If you forget, don’t worry – they have some sarongs and wraps you can borrow, but there’s a chance they will run out if it’s a busy day.

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Reluctantly obeying the dress code.

Grand Meteoron might be the biggest monastery, but still only about 3 monks live here full time. Inside, you’ll find a beautiful courtyard, ornate chapel, and a museum – just as in every other monastery. What you won’t find elsewhere, though, is the ossiary (a room where they keep a load of skulls, probably monks who lived and died here).

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Not quite the Paris Catacombs, but still very creepy.

They also had a fully equipped kitchen. The monks get supplies from elsewhere, and winch them up to the monastery by a clever contraption. After all, you don’t want to be carrying baskets of olives and flour up these hills.

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Every monastery has one, and if you stick around long enough you can see them in action.

The result was a kitchen, stocked up with everything a hermit monk could ever need.

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Including grapes, because monks still love wine. Jesus said it was cool, right?

Once we’d finished in Great Meteoron, we walked a little way down the hill to Varlaam, which was easily the most photogenic monastery. It gets a little quieter as you move through the day, so Varlaam was a little more bearable. It’s 3 Euros to enter each monastery, so make sure to bring enough change with you.

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The complex is filled with lovely courtyards and balconies, which can be seen from miles around.

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They’ve also got a beautiful pavilion that looks over the cliff – don’t look down!

Unfortunately, it was in Varlaam that I had the sudden urge to use the bathroom. Now, a word on toilets, because this is some pretty important information for my hiking buddies with small bladders. Each monastery has them, but unless you’ve travelled in Asia or rural Europe (looking particularly at France here), you won’t have come across one of these bad boys before.

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Years of Slav Squat training prepared me for this moment.

This glorified hole in the ground is made even more awkward when you realise that in Greece, you can’t throw toilet roll into the bowl, because their draining system is unable to handle it. There’s no lota or anything you can use to clean yourself up. There’s loo roll, but after you’ve done your business you have to carry your loo roll out of the cubicle and throw it into the bin by the sinks. Basically, a thoroughly gross experience – you’ll be needing all the hand sanitiser you can get.

After my traumatic experience in the loo, we drove to Aghia Triada (Holy Trinity) monastery, which was definitely the least accessible of the lot. You have to trek downhill before climbing all the way back up again, through man made caves and grooves in the rock face.

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When we got there, we found it was starting to look the same as all the other monasteries – a little dark, with lots of icons of Jesus, and a nice courtyard. However, the views over the valley from the courtyard are amazing, and worth the workout to get to the place.

You could visit Aghios Stefanos next, at the opposite end of the drive from Great Meteoron, but it was closed that day. Every monastery has a different closing day, so you’ll need to check when the ones you want to visit are open. If you miss out on your favourite one, don’t worry – you may have the time to visit it at 9AM the following day, as that’s when they open.

Instead, we drove down to Rossianou, which is a functioning nunnery. Though it was one of the easiest climbs – maybe 100 steps or so, in the shade – it also had the least to see inside. There was little more than a small museum and courtyard, so if you’re short on time and need to skip a place, this might be the one.

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They did have this cool cat statue, however.

It was fascinating to see the nuns at work – unlike the monasteries, there are more than ten nuns who live and work in Rossianou. They wear dark habits and headscarves, and take their vows very seriously indeed.

There’s also a spectacular viewpoint directly above Rossianou, which you can use to catch the sunset from, or simply take risky Instagram photos.

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Wannabe Lara Croft.

By now extremely hot and three bottles of water down (and having eaten nothing except salted peanuts, because I’m an idiot), it was looking like time to slow down my adventure, so I made a beeline for the last monastery for the day. Nikolaos Anapafsas is the lowest down in the valley, but don’t think that makes getting to it any easier – with a combination of slopes and uneven steps, it was one of the hardest to reach.

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It was beautiful, though.

The ticket office bloke was particularly friendly here – he made this little Russian kid a necklace, and tried to speak to him in Greek. Neither could understand each other, but it was a lovely gesture all the same. At this monastery, you could also see what a typical monk’s bedroom looked like – basic, yet comfortable – and with a naked Eve on the left hand wall.

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Naked lady is on the left.

Nikolaos Anapafsas also, like the others, had a spectacular view – but this time, it was of something a bit different. Though only 6 of the original 24 monastic retreats remain, you can see some ruins of the abandoned ones, if you look closely enough. A good camera zoom is a really helpful tool to distinguish monastery ruin from oddly shaped rock.

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This one even had a pot, in perfect condition, lying about.

By now, it was time to go home and eat something – salty peanuts could only get me so far. I’d done 5/6 of the monasteries open to the public in Meteora, and watched the sun set over the dramatic rocks. Even though I’m not religious, I can see the strength and power this place gives people – it really is quite incredible. The stars glitter at night, and the way the monasteries seem to defy gravity is a true marvel of nature.

It’s testament to human strength, too, that people have managed to thrive (even in this hostile environment) for hundreds of years. Largely untouched by hyper-modern technology, Meteora is a beautiful and peaceful place to visit. You can admire the beautiful natural surroundings and reflect on life, the universe, and everything, if you so wish.

Or, you can go down into the village and get yourself into the Taverna Gardenia, where you can eat delicious local food and chat with the friendly waiters all night. I was a bit done with self-reflection for the day, so I chose the latter.

The next morning, weirdly, was windy and cold – but keen to complete our tour of all six monasteries, we headed uphill for Aghios Stefanos, the one which was closed on the Monday. Like Rossianou, it’s a working nunnery, and the nuns who run it are very friendly. I also saw them doing a spot of gardening, which was lovely to see – this convent certainly has one of the prettiest gardens in all Meteora.

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The complex was heavily bombed and defaced during the Greek civil war, so much of it has been restored. This is most evident in the chapel – the paintings and frescoes seem much brighter and clearer to see than in any of the other monastic churches in Meteora. There was a hell of a queue to get into the chapel, but I decided to wait in it anyway, as this may be the only time in my life I ever come to this magical place.

I even relented and bought a fridge magnet in the gift shop, even though I dislike financially (or otherwise) supporting patriarchal religious institutions, and am also a devout atheist. But they were nice, and I wanted a bit of tourist tat for my collection, so bye bye principles.

After a windswept and chilly morning at the top of this particular rock, it was time to hit the road to Athens, a journey of some 350 kilometres. Join me again soon, when I’ve fallen in love with the city all over again. Remind me again why I have to leave Greece?


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