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The Essential Guide to Visiting Meteora Greece

by Roberto
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Since the first time I saw Meteora it has been near the top of my bucket list. I found it hard to fathom such a stunning place was in fact real. The opportunity came last September to finally prove it with a short trip to Northern Greece. My plan was visiting on a self guided tour and these are the best travel tips from my Meteora itinerary. They enabled me to see all six monasteries.

Why Visiting Meteora is Incredible

Meteora is a series of monasteries built atop large rocks. The monasteries are an operose creation of monks, and their internal beauty belies their location. It’s rocks were formed some 60 million years ago, when a series of movements pushed the seabed upwards. This created a high plateau with a series of fault lines. The rocks are a mixture of sandstone and conglomerate.

The area was first settled by monks around the 11th century looking for solitude and with time the concept of the monasteries grew. With the threat of the Ottomans the monks retreated higher and higher in defence and eventually the first monastery Great Meteoron was constructed. At one time 24 monasteries stood atop the rocks in its golden era. If you are wondering is visiting Meteora worth it, let me now assure you it is

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Visiting Meteora

Meteora Monasteries opening schedules

My research suggested there was some difficulty in seeing all the monasteries, due to the fact that at least one of them is closed every day of the week. Some careful planning later and I worked out a schedule to see all six. Or at least give it a shot. If you pay particular attention to the opening times of the various Meteora monasteries, then it’s easy to work around. One monastery is always closed on alternating days so it’s not possible to do all in one day. Opening times very between high and low season, and makes it much more difficult to achieve come winter. The best time to visit Meteora then is from April to May, or September to October, when temperatures are bearable.

  • St Stephens Nunnery
    • Opening Hours: 9:00 to 13:30 and 15:30 to 17:30.
    • The monastery is closed on Mondays.
  • Grand Meteoron Monastery
    • Opening Hours: 09:00 to 15:00.
    • The monastery is closed on Tuesdays.
  • Roussanou Monastery
    • Opening Hours: 09:00 to 17:00 (09:30 – 17:00 on Sundays).
    • The monastery is closed on Wednesdays.
  • Varlaam Monastery
    • Opening Hours: 09:00 to 16:00.
    • The monastery is closed on Fridays.
  • Holy Trinity Monastery
    • Opening Hours: 09:00 to 17:00.
    • The monastery is closed on Thursdays.
  • St Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery
    • Opening Hours: 08:00 to 16:00.
    • The monastery is closed on Fridays.

The winter opening hours can be found on Meteoras own website.


How to get to Meteora

Meteora and Kalambaka is easily reached by train from Athens. The Athens to Meteora train runs from Syntagma station, taking around 4 hours, but also sometimes requiring a change at Paleofarsalos. Driving the 350 km from Athens takes in the region of 4 hours as well.

Public transport to Kalambaka from Thessaloniki is serviced by rail. Trains run from the New Railway Station and can take anywhere from 3 to 4 hours and often involving a change at Paleofarsalos. .

I in fact spent three nights in Meteora, using it as a base to explore the surrounding area. My international flight brought me to Thessaloniki and after picking up my rental car a 3 hour and 238 km trek across the country saw me arrive in Kalabaka just after 6 pm on a Monday.

You can also visit Meteora Monasteries by full day private tour from Athens or by train tour.


Sunset Rock

I figured I immediately had no time to waste in my Meteora sightseeing and so set out for the landmark known as sunset rock. As you may have guessed it’s a good place to watch a sunset. Sunset was at 715 but with the mountains surrounding it was closer to 7. I arrived just on time to the rock. Sunset rock is a huge outcrop that can be walked out along, with dramatic drops on three sides. It is not for those with limited mobility, and unquestionably not for those with vertigo either. I felt nervous just standing there and watching people moving it’s edges.

And it’s here you want to be to see the famous Meteora sunset. I’ll be honest it’s a challenging shoot as the sun is still high in the sky as it sets behind the mountains to the west. To get in the sky, sun, mountains and the temples and valley below, involves a lot of trial and error. But it’s a stunning sight and wonderful introduction to Meteora.

Sunset Rock Meteora
Sunset Rock Meteora
The views from Sunset Rock

Kalabaka

As a base for Meteora, the many hotel options in Kalabaka are the perfect solution. Most staff here are English speaking. It’s also a great location to find Meteora tours. The town is more than just a base though. Not to be missed are;

  • Hellenic Culture Museum; which contains the collection of Mr. Pavlos Balogiannis and dedicated to the history of Greek education and learning;
  • Natural History Museum: a dead zoo collection of local wildlife and a unique mushroom museum;
  • The Digital Projection Centre; a 3-D guide through the mythology and monasteries of Meteora
  • Private Tour offering a full day trip to see the monasteries if you don’t have your own transport. You can also book a sunset tour

I took time over the days I spent in Kalabaka, to explore the town too. But its too much story for this blog. You’ll find all that over on my Kalambaka blog.


My Visiting Meteora story continues

I descended to the town of Kalabaka (otherwise known as Kalambaka) and checked into my comfortable budget accommodation at Mythos Guesthouse, before enjoying a Moussaka and beer at the aptly named Restaurant Meteora. Greek cuisine is a personal favourite of mine. I fell asleep listening to the sound of a singing local family, who were apparently preparing for a wedding that week.

 

At breakfast the next morning I met my host Spiros, a cheerful guy indeed. On the subject of the monasteries he said realistically I could probably only do three in a day. Very few people it seems try to see all six. Challenge accepted!

I was provided with a nice illustrated map that my hotel provided for visiting Meteora, and I set out to prove Spiros wrong that day and do five. With breakfast served at 8, I was on my way to the first of my monasteries before 9. First up was a hiking tour from Kalambaka to Meteora and the trail that led up to Holy Trinity Monastery.

Map of Meteora
A neat little hand drawn map with suggestions to visit Meteora

What is the Dress Code to Visit Meteora

Pay heed to the warnings about what attire to wear when visiting the monasteries. Gents a t-shirt and long pants is required. Ladies a long skirt or trousers is needed. Basically shoulders and knees can’t be seen, these amount to temptation apparently. If you wish to enter but don’t meet the dress requirements then you will be issued with something to wear. I for one would not want to have to wear that skirt, so I dressed for the occasion.


Holy Trinity Monastery

I elected to take the hike rather than drive from Kalabaka up to the first monastery. The path is accessible behind the Holy Temple of the Dormiton of the Virgin Mary. I couldn’t resist the urge to visit some churches along the way though. The first was a more modern Byzantine church called St Vissarion’s Church and bearing in mind that no photography is allowed in any of the monastery churches, this is therefore the perfect place to capture some of that art.

With my distractions out of the way I now joined the rock path up to the Holy Trinity Monastery. This monastery is famed in particular for its appearance in the James Bond 1981 movie For Your Eyes Only. The path from hotel to monastery was tough enough and has without a doubt quite a few hundred steps. Add that to the 150 steps into the monastery and it is indeed an arduous 3km. Entrance here is €3 as it is for all monasteries.

Holy Trinity Monastery
The monastery with the pulley system to the left

Inside the Holy Trinity

The monastery has 2 small chapels with murals. The one at the rear, though small has fine 18th century paintings. Looking back this was probably my least favourite of all the monasteries and the one which I would least recommend. It was an introduction to the pulley system through which all of the monasteries were previously accessed. The drop over the edge was dizzying. I would not be doing that ride. It was a wise idea to add all those steps in the 1920’s.

Holy Trinity Monastery Meteora
The net from the pulley used to carry people and things up
Holy Trinity monastery
I was really hoping I didn’t drop my phone

To the rear though is a yard and path that extends to the edge of the rock. It’s worth a clamber over the rocks to the cross and the scary as hell drop down to Kalabaka.

Leaving the monastery you can subsequently continue on to the circular Meteora road and a hike to the different monasteries, starting with the nearby Monastery of St Stephen. I however had left my car at the hotel, so back down that 3km I went. The hike was quite steep, which I noticed more on the way back down, and a well shaped stick now became my trusted best friend. Landing on your butt or back is a sure fire way to ruin a holiday (It happened on my last day in Thessaloniki, so I consider myself an expert on this). Bring hiking poles if you can.

Visit Meteora
My best friend for 20 minutes of my life

St Nicholas Anapafsas Monastery

If you plan to take the road from Kalabaka, the quickest route heading North-West through Kastraki village sees you first and foremost arrive at the monastery of St Nicholas Anapafsas. Parking outside, the monastery is 80 metres above on the rocks. Yes it means more steps. Along with the 150 that lead inside. This monastery was founded in the 14th century, and in particular features frescoes by the painter Theofanis the Monk from 1527.

The monastery is built on a small rock so has the unique structure of being built up. It’s a three storey monastery, with a small chapel on the bottom floor, followed by a communal seating area. I was intrigued to find some monks here deep in discussion about theology. Or perhaps football, I couldn’t understand. Access to the church with the fantastic murals was also here, and to the rear a patio area with beautiful views.

St Nicholas Monastery Meteora
Meteora landscape from St Nicholas Monastery

But perhaps my greatest fascination with this monastery is with the fact it was built by two monks in the 16th century, and is now inhabited by just one. One man alone in this place is indeed interesting enough. But he works the cash desk and is even kind enough to give a postcard with his photo on it. Legend.

St Nicholas Monastery Meteora
The sole monk who now lives here,and works the cash desk.

Following your visit, do walk up along the road if driving as the views back to the monastery are worthwhile.

St Nicholas Monastery Meteora
The best view of St Nicholas Monastery

Roussanou Monastery

With the steady increase in elevation, not only do the views get more spectacular but so too do the monasteries. Roussanou was founded in 1545 by two brothers, but has since been converted into a nunnery in 1988. It is the largest of any of the monasteries I had yet encountered. If travelling by foot a path leads from sunset rock direct to here and is also a handy shortcut if you need it.

Roussanou is impressive. It stands right on the roadside, as a massive hunk of rock descends upwards, to where it is perched. Nevertheless it looks like it could roll over at any minute.


Ascending the prerequisite 150 steps you arrive to the top of a rock, but not the one where the monastery sits. That is reached by a bridge. Below a colourful garden of flowers and crops grows. It’s something that in particular impressed me in this stark countryside, how the monks and nuns had cultivated the harsh land here to be fertile.

Roussanou Monastery
a bridge lets you enter the monastery

Views to die for

The nuns are strict within, and are quick to remind anyone raising a camera that this is indeed a holy place and photos are prohibited. That is, with the exception of the open outdoor area, where the views are impressive as anywhere when visiting Meteora.

Roussanou Monastery
one of the best panoramas in the hills

The Byzantine church was the first to really impress me too. With two rooms the art was exemplary, and would set the standard for the three monasteries that would follow. The art follows the same ideology in all, with Jesus at the top of the cupola surrounded by the apostles, prophets and angels. But it’s the other room that caught my eye, the walls here were a series bible scenes of depictions of executions, decapitations, amputations and bodily disfigurations that I don’t know the word too. It’s all rather dark, morbid and completely fascinating. My favourite is the to me unknown monster who seems to be eating souls. Fascinating.

Roussanou Monastery
A postcard of the inside of the church
Roussanou Monastery
Another showing the many scenes of death on the church walls

It was only just past noon, and I’d covered three monasteries and walked 10km. It was looking good for my ambition. After a refueling stop at a taberna in Kastraki, I was powered on by a delicious Greek Salad.


Varlaam Monastery

Varlaam would prove to be my favourite. First of all there’s the location, at the highest point of the road circling the Meteora. From a distance it is the most aesthetic and characteristic of all them. The views from the car park ranked best of all on my scorecards too. And that’s before I even stepped inside.

Varlaam Monastery Meteora
Varlaam from the distance across an expanse
Visit Meteora
Views from Varlaam
Varlaam Monastery Meteora
Views from Varlaam

Varlaam was formed in 1542 by two brothers from the town of Ioannina. The church, a collection of three rooms, features reliefs from Frago Catelano, and are as sumptuously decorated as any in all the monasteries. Interestingly the net is still preserved that carried the monks up the cliff face. It was this net and rope that was referred to, in which the monks claimed they would use it until it was god’s will to have it replaced. Needless to say that means what you think it means. If your time is up, it’s up. The net carried everything up a staggering 373 metres. I guess this is where those vertical drop amusement rides got their inspiration.

Features of Varlaam

Varlaam was easily the biggest of the monasteries that I had thus far seen. Besides the aforementioned church there are a large number of visitable rooms, from the kitchen to the hospital, and the old refectory has been converted to a museum. And quite the museum too, featuring vestments and religious relics from over the centuries. But it’s greatest horde are it’s bibles and bible covers. All are elegantly decorated and a great exhibit of engraving and calligraphy.

The monastery also has in its possession a 16th century wooden barrel, still preserved and a great indication of the craftsmanship of the monks. It is said it was used to contain water. Personally I thought it would be fantastic for wine.

Varlaam Monastery Meteora
Elegantly decorated exonarthex off the churches
Varlaam Monastery Meteora
The 16th century barrel

To the rear of the monastery is a spectacular balcony, decorated in flowers and centred on a pagoda. It’s the most elegant of all the monasteries to view on from here too. Basically, if you only plan to see one monastery at Meteora then I implore you to make it Varlaam. But why come all this way for just one.

Varlaam Monastery Meteora
Varlaam from the courtyard
Varlaam Monastery Meteora
The colourful courtyard and pagoda of Varlaam

Agios Stefanos Monastery

And so I had clocked up four and yet it was only approaching 3pm. I applauded myself on my planning and set off for the final monastery open on the day, Agios Stefanos or St Stephans Monastery. It was only opening at 3 anyway so my plan was to perfection. I stopped on a few hard shoulders along the way to admire the view, before finally arriving. A large crowd had amassed here so perhaps this wasn’t the ideal time to visit. One plus side was an English tour I found on site, and I inadvertently learned a little bit from them.

The monastery is not accessed by steps like the others but by a bridge, making it the only monastery suitable for wheelchairs and those with impaired movement. It was founded in 1545 by Hosios Antonios and Hosios Philotheos. In 1961 the monastery became a convent as nuns moved in. The convent has in fact two cathedrals owing to the older one being damaged by wars of the 20th Century. Bullet holes still grace it’s walls. Interestingly the artwork of the church is still being painstakingly restored, and it was an eye opener to see how the artists were working in tight cramped spaces.

From the back of the monastery there is again an exhilarating drop and this time the view is of the town of Kalambaka, stretching to the mountains beyond.

Agios Stefanos Monastery
Agios Stefanos Monastery
Kalambaka below

Sunsets while Visiting Meteora: Part 2

With time on my hands I did some more exploring of the area searching from the remnants of the some 24 monasteries that once stood in this area. The sun would set around 7pm again that evening so I set off again subsequently to catch that magical sunset. This time I choose the unnamed rock not far from sunset rock. It’s about 5 minutes walk in the direction of Great Meteoron. I also came armed with a more diverse range of techniques. I think the results turned out better. Do not miss the sunset in this location.

Sunsets at Meteora
Success- my favourite
Sunsets at Meteora
What a place!

Great Meteoron

Even though it would have been possible to see Great Meteoron on the Wednesday and depart the area with all 6 monasteries seen, I was instead sidetracked by a trip to the excellent Vikos Gorge. So on the Thursday morning, I awoke with the plan of completing the set.

The first and largest of the monasteries, Great Meteoron. Meteoron of course means floating in the sky, and this monastery that give the area its name. The monastery was built in 1372 by a monk called Athanasios Koinovitis and his followers, who had left Mount Athos. Its church was added in the 15th century, when its decoration was completed too. The monastery looks huge too from ground level, and to make up for the lack of steps at St Stephan’s monastery, there are 250 here.

Much like Varlaam, here there is a number of museums, one of the religious relics, another dedicated to the period in Greece at the start of the 20th centuries, an the hardship and bravery during that period of war. A display on the skills of the monasteries coopers is excellent, and its kitchen also very beautiful. Its church is also quite stunning with the wonderful art you have come to expect by now.

Great Meteoron
Meteoron and the zigzag steps that reach there
Great Meteoron, Meteora
The beautiful preserved kitchen
Great Meteoron, Meteora
Art to the rear of the church of the Transfiguration of Jesus
Great Meteoron, Meteora
The stonework of the buildings is a gorgeous colour

Perhaps I was all monaster-ied out, but as yet I preferred Varlaam. The most stunning sight of Great Meteoron, is that from its steps, looking out to Varlaam. My final view of Meteora before I departed the area, was this. It is “the” definitive sight of visiting Meteora, and the one that perhaps will last longest in my memory.

Great Meteoron, Meteora

Conclusion on visiting Meteora and all six monasteries

If you have two days on your hands then visiting all six is very much a possibility on a Meteora self guide tour. Just time a visit well and choose your monasteries wisely. Then strap on comfortable shoes, long pants, and witness this wonder of nature and man.

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Visiting Meteora
Visiting Meteora
Visiting Meteora
Visiting Meteora
Visiting Meteora

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