In the mountainous region of Thessaly, Greece are the famous monasteries of Meteora, perched upon massive clifftops at a dizzying height above the neo-modern city of Kalambaka. Meteora (“suspended in the air” or “the one that doesn’t have support”) is a stunning sandstone rock formation and is home to one of the largest monastic communities in all of Greece. The largest community is Mount Athos in Northeastern Greece, the Holy Mountain where more than 2000 monks reside and where women are forbidden to enter. That’s the main reason why my bucket list item “visit the holiest place in Greece” directed me to Meteora for the first time in September 2017. I’m a woman.
My first trip to Meteora lasted less than 24 hours, which provided me with just enough time to gaze at the landscape, and develop a yearning for a return for a longer stay. During that short visit, I took a guided bus tour of the monasteries. Each monastery has its own operating hours, and some are closed to visitors altogether. The bus conveniently picked me up from my hotel in Kastraki (a name meaning “small castle”), a little village adjacent to Kalambaka at the foot of the cliffs. Our experienced tour guide led us to picturesque photo-ops near the cliffs edges and told story after story about the rich history of Meteora, and also the town of Kalambaka which was burned to the ground except for one building during WWII, explaining the uniformity of the town today.
Despite the fires below, the historic monasteries high above did not suffer the same fate. Though it’s believed that the cliffs of Meteora had been occupied by Orthodox hermits as early as the 11th century, it wasn’t until the 14th century that an organized monastic community was established. In 1344, an Orthodox monk named Saint Athanasios left Mount Athos with a handful of his devout followers in search of a place to worship in peace. Combining with others who had previously lived in the caves as hermits, the monks began their search, ultimately building their safe haven at Meteora.
Over time twenty-four monasteries were built. A system of baskets, ropes, and pulleys delivered building materials up the cliff; ceaseless prayer helped make sense of it all. The rocks and cliffs formed a natural fortress providing terrific protection against enemies, being particularly effective at keeping marauders at bay during the attacks on Greece during the Turkish occupation. Today, only six monasteries remain. The Holy Trinity, Roussaunou, St. Nikolaos Anapafsas, Varlaam, St. Stephen’s and the Great Meteoran are all still inhibited by monks and nuns.
The largest and oldest of them all the monasteries is The Great Meteoran, built on the largest of the rocks and founded by Saint Athanasios himself. One could easily spend hours touring this single monastery, marveling at everything it contains. The Great Meteoran includes three chapels and a museum, filled with religious icons and containing manuscripts on display. One of the most fascinating things to see is the Sacristy, a room where the skulls of the past monks who lived in the monastery are kept on shelves.
Before leaving the Great Meteoran, be sure to stroll through the main courtyard and note the details of all the Byzantine art and expert craftsmanship. The views are pretty nice, too! One thing is certain: My next visit to Meteora will not be a rush. There is just too much to see, too much to take in, and I plan on doing it right next time.