By: Jim Bamboulis
Santorini and the Grand Canyon. Those are the two places in the world that, at first glance, made me completely speechless. Recently, I added a third place to that magical list.
Meteora, in central Greece.
I’ll tell you this – Meteora is so jaw dropping that no matter how many photos or videos you’ve seen of it, nothing can prepare you for experiencing this incredible natural rock forest in person. Absolutely nothing!
First thing’s first – What’s Meteora?
Meteora is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and consists of the formation of monolithic pillars that look like giant boulders. It’s also one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece. There are six monasteries in total and they’re built on pillars. According to a local I spoke with, Meteora – oddly enough – has never been mentioned in any Greek myth. There’s virtually little to no mention of the sight in any ancient text. Perhaps the Historians – or maybe even the Gods themselves – wanted the knowledge of its existence kept only to themselves.
By the 1970s the inevitable happened. The tourists started coming, making Meteora a destination. Since then, the site has seen millions come and go, leaving each mesmerized – myself included.
So what’s the best way to enjoy the beauty of this part of Greece? I’ve come up with a list of 8 activities in and around Meteora that will leave you in total awe. Tweet that!
If you’re willing and able, hiking Meteora is an incredible experience. Organized hiking tours are available and they’re great if you’re in a time crunch. But if you’ve got time, love independent adventure and discovering gems on your own, then this is the place for you.
There are dozens of kilometres of trails available – some more challenging and rocky than others. I suggest picking up a map at the tourist office in central Kalabaka (the town right next to Meteora) and take to the footpaths. It’s tough to get lost because every path leads to either a monastery or to the main road. The rewards are awesome. You get up close and personal with the rocks and vantage points that are out of this world. Just make sure you’ve got decent gear to embark on your hiking adventure and bring plenty of liquids.
You brought a bike to central Greece? I salute you for having the strength and patience to do that. Not the easiest thing to do. Now I salute you for having the determination to get on that bike and ride these trails. If you don’t have a bike and still want to enjoy Meteora with one, then you can always sign up for a guided mountain bike tour. Visit Meteora has three different levels of difficulty ranging from beginners to advanced. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.
I’m always amazed to see people climbing a sheer cliff – for fun. I get it, it’s exhilarating and it’s a must experience but wow that’s courageous to me. Meteora has plenty of cliffs that allow for amazing rock climbing. In fact, it’s arguably one of the most popular spots in Greece to do it. To get an idea of what to expect, here’s a drone vid from Seagull Aerial that captures it perfectly.
Don’t have any rock climbing experience? Cool. Rock climbing guided adventures are available. Just bring your stamina and sign up early because spots fill up fast.
Visit the 6 Monasteries
People have used all sorts of words to describe the monasteries. For me, just the sight of them and how they sit on top of the rocks made me just stand in total awe, speechless. Besides the physical beauty of the monasteries and natural beauty they rest on, the six in total are incredibly unique, richly historic, beautiful, serene and together make Meteora one of the holiest Christian Orthodox sites on Earth!
Great Meteoron – The largest and oldest, it dates back to the 14th century.
Varlaam – The 2nd largest, it’s named for the monk who first built a tiny chapel on this giant rock in the 14th century.
Holy Trinity Monastery – Featured in the ’81 Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.
Roussanou Monastery – Decorated in 1560, it’s an active nunnery.
St. Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery – Built in the 16th century.
St. Stephen’s Monastery – Built in the 16th century, it was shelled by the Nazis who believed it was harbouring insurgents and was abandoned. A nunnery since 1961.
Theopetra Prehistoric Cave
From a distance, it looks like another impressive rocky mountain. But only a few kilometres south of Meteora, you find a cave that’s been continuously inhabited for 130,000 years! This cave indicates the incredible transition from Neanderthals to Homo sapiens – and then the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers!
The stone wall is believed not only to be 23,000 years old but one of the oldest man-made structures on the planet!
See abandoned monasteries + go mini caving
At one point in the 16th century, there were a total of 24 active monasteries in Meteora. Over time, the number declined but work was done to restore as much of the past as possible. This gigantic rock in the photo below is called the rock of the Holy Spirit. A chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit was built here; the tiny monastery was the oldest dating back to the 10th century. There are long shaped mini caves believed to have been prisons for expelled monks.
According to legend, in the 17th century, during the Turkish Occupation in Greece, a local Muslim landowner cut trees from the sacred forest dedicated to St. George. As a result, the Saint caused the man to have paralysis of that hand. He was cured after offering his wife’s veil. To symbolize the offering, believers hang scarves once a year on a rope supported by trees, near the cave’s entrance.
If this fascinates you, get in touch with VisitMeteora.travel, organize a hike and learn more about Meteora’s abandoned monasteries and caves.
Take a sunset bus tour
Easily one of the most incredible experiences is a sunset bus tour of Meteora. Visit Meteora provides a four-hour tour with a very knowledgable guide. You visit monasteries, venture down off-the-beaten paths that only locals know and learn 27 centuries of history all while you enjoy a legendary sunset from panoramic, cliff-side vantage points. For more info, visit their site.
Walk the perimeter road
For those who prefer to walk on smooth surfaces, Meteora has a beautiful perimeter road that encompasses the entire valley. It’s about 11km but you may not notice the distance considering the incredible distractions in front of you. It’s curvy so if you value your life and general well-being, then stay as close to the side of the road as possible, enjoy the open air and be prepared to stop every few seconds to take a photo. If you’re doing this in peak season, make sure to wear appropriate gear and drink plenty of water. It can get super hot. (Scroll down for the map).
This road is naturally a bit hilly at spots but it’s smooth. It goes through Kalabaka, connects you to all monasteries and swings through the neighbouring village of Kastraki and back to Kalabaka.
Where I stayed
Kalabaka has plenty of pensions and rooms to rent. I stayed at Alsos House and it was incredible! Located only about 50 meters from one of the main footpaths leading into the valley of the rocks, it was perfect. John and his nephew Tolis illustrate what Greek hospitality is all about all while you gaze onto one of the most beautiful and enigmatic spots on the planet.
I know I mention them a lot in this article but they truly have you covered if you decide to visit. Those guys will set you up with everything you need including information on what to see, the best way to see it, where to stay and even where to eat. For the latest hotspots and where to get the most authentic Greek fare, drop by their office while in Kalabaka.
So where is this place + how do I get there?
Whether it’s by bus or train – from Thessaloniki or Athens – everything you need to know about how to get to Meteora is listed conveniently right here.