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Meteora Monasteries

“Humble men lived suspended for centuries between the heavens and earth, perched on the edge of sharp cliffs, glorifying God for He made the earth and heavens by His power. They achieved the impossible of building Meteora monasteries.”

From “Visit Meteora” website

Meteora, The Monasteries in The Clouds

It was the images that drew us to visit Meteora, simple as that. Over the years, we have seen many photos of the Meteora monasteries in Greece. It only made sense to us that they had to have been heavily edited, taken at angles that made them look larger than in-person, or maybe they block out a part that made it not such a special feat to build. In a recent photo we posted from our trip, a commenter wrote “Fake.” We can assure you after our visit, none of this is fake. As a matter of fact, the pictures do not even begin to do it justice, no matter how hard we tried.

Meteora Monasteries

Fairytale Come True

Most everyone likes a good fairytale, and searching for them is both fun and exciting. Located in the center of the mainland of Greece is the mystical place known as Meteora, and it truly is one of those fairytales. With monasteries sitting on what appears to be alien rock formations high in the air, floating in the clouds.

Above the towns of Kastraki Trikala and Kalabaka, the geologically unexplained rock formations sit numerous monasteries that seem to have been raised from the ground and rested where they are today. It is difficult to wrap your head around the fact that people built these over 700 years ago with no modern technology. The origin of these monasteries began when monks fled persecution. They came upon this unique setting and felt safe hiding in the natural caves within these grand pillars. The villagers below providing support and food to the monks. They knew that this was a holy place God had brought them to. The monks began imagining building places of worship on top of the massive stone pillars. They wanted protection from threats, but their strongest draw was that they felt closer to God.

It is not just about religion

Cross at Meteora Monasteries

Even if you are not religious, you can feel a presence of energy as you climb the steep steps to these beautiful and masterful structures and walk the holy grounds. Looking off into the rock formations from hundreds of feet up with the town below, you feel like you are in a different world that is hard to describe and can only truly be experienced in person. It is difficult to imagine a faith so strong, a commitment so great, and sacrifice so altruistic in today’s world.

The story is fascinating, and it is a true testament to the human race’s imagination and grit. With determination and working together, we are capable of incredible and remarkable achievements that know no bounds. Visiting Meteora on its own restores faith in what we all have inside of us if we think beyond ourselves. Let us take a journey to another time, another world, and way of life as we wander through Meteora, the Monasteries in the Clouds. 

First Look as We Approached

First impressions of this wondrous place start miles away as you begin to get your first glimpses of that unique rocky skyline. The sight only continues to amaze with every mile closer you get. The anticipation will be greater than you have prepared yourself for, as it was for us. Excitement grows until you finally arrive in the town that sits below these magnificent rock formations, and the true magic starts to reveal itself. The light shining on the rocky structures with a slight haze in the air gives it a painted canvas backdrop appearance.

Rock formations at Meteora Monasteries

As you make your way through the streets of the towns below, it never truly looks real. It feels alien and magical, with every angle more photogenic than the next. The scale and beauty are only matched by the sheer awe and wonder it creates. That is when the realization comes that there are many steep hills to drive and trails to climb if you are up to the challenge.

Get to your hotel and settle in a bit because you will have a long day ahead of you if you want to see every monastery in a day. Do not worry; this is a place you will want to spend at least two full days in, so don’t rush. The sunrise and sunsets are more than worth it. If you do arrive after they close for the day, take a drive up and survey the location of each monastery or just take in the sunset.

The History of the Meteora Monasteries

Meteora Monasteries

The history of Meteora goes much farther back than these man-made structures. Caves in the vicinity of Meteora reveal they have been inhabited continuously between 50,000 and 5,000 years ago. The first and oldest known structure is a stone wall that blocked two-thirds of the entrance to the Theopetra cave. This construction dates to 23,000 years ago, yet Meteora has never been mentioned in Ancient Greek myths or literature.

After the Neolithic Era, an ascetic group of hermit monks is the first documented occupants of this area. They moved up to these ancient rock peaks in the ninth century AD living in hollows and fissures in the rock, some reaching as high as 1800 ft. above the plains below. They reached their caves with rope ladders. As a result, the hermits led a life of solitude and isolation, meeting only on Sundays and special days. In those early days, they would come down and gather in a chapel built at the foot of a rock known as Dhoupiani for worship.

But threats required change

This all started around the eleventh century; however, the building of the Meteora monasteries did not commence until the fourteenth century. This was due to the increasing number of Turkish attacks on Greece. As a result, the monks began to seek places to hide from the Turkish forces. At that time, access to the top of the Monasteries was only through removable ladders, ropes, and hand wenches.

Valley below Meteora Monasteries

Today you will find getting up those rock faces is still challenging but doable with the addition of beautiful stone steps being carved into the rock during the 1920s. That is what makes them even more mind-boggling. They built these magnificent architectural sites and lived in them for 600 years before steps were built. We climbed some of those steps; it was exhausting and hard. It makes their achievement truly monumental in scope.

At Meteora’s peak in the sixteenth century, there were as many as 40 monasteries. Unfortunately, only six of these grand structures remain and are still fully functioning. Four of them are occupied by monks, and two of them by nuns, with each housing usually no more than ten individuals. Remains of many of the other long ruined Monasteries are visible on the surrounding rock pillars if you look for them. This helps give you a small glimpse of how much more glorious the sight of this area would have been centuries ago, with all those beautiful buildings covering almost every peak.

The Building of the Monasteries

Rock with caves near Meteora Monasteries

Unfortunately, no one knows the exact date of the establishment of the monasteries. Still, we know the creation of these holy structures was to serve monks and nuns following the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As a result, the rudimentary monastic state formed around the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries called the Skete of Stagoi; further, this state was centered around the church of Theotokos (Mother of God), which is still standing today. An ascetic community had started to flock to Meteora by the end of the twelfth century, and the area began to grow.

In 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos came to Meteora and brought with him a group of followers. Between 1356 and 1372, he founded the Great Meteoron monastery on the Broad Rock. The monks stayed safe from political upheaval and controlled the entry to the monastery. But at the end of the fourteenth century, the threat from Turkish raiders over the Byzantine Empire’s reign of northern Greece grew. They wanted control over the fertile plain of Thessaly, and this threatened the hermit monks that were seeking a retreat from the Turkish occupation. The monks found the rough, inaccessible rock pillars ideal for refuge.

Two centuries later

Meteora Monasteries

Then in 1517, Theophanes built the monastery of Varlaam. This monastery was reputed to house the finger of St. John and the shoulder blade of St. Andrew. Access to the monasteries was deliberately complicated, requiring long ladders latched together or large nets to haul up both goods and people. They say that the ropes were replaced only “when the Lord let them break.”

Until the seventeenth century, the primary means of conveying goods and people was by baskets and ropes. In the 1920s, there was an improvement in the arrangements. Steps were cut into the rock, therefore making the complex accessible via a bridge from the nearby plateau.

Tragically, during World War II, Meteora and the monasteries were bombed, and many of the site’s art treasures were stolen.

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The Monasteries



The Great Holy Meteoron Monastery

The Great Holy Meteoron Monastery
The Great Holy Meteoron Monastery

The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron is the oldest and largest of all the monasteries. Within its name, Meteoro stands for “suspended in the air” due to the cliff formation of a massive pillar of rock it was built on. The Great Meteoron Monastery was founded in the 14th century by Saint Athanasios, the Meteorite. He was also attributed to forming structured monasticism for the whole region, thus making this monastery the foundation of organized monasticism in Meteora.

The monks that built this monastery did so at great sacrifice and suffering. The first monks took 25-30 years of hard labor to assemble the materials needed on the top of the huge pillar of stone. It took another 20-25 years to build and complete the structure we see today. These monks were isolated during this whole time. Most who constructed this magnificent structure, especially the 14 monks who followed Athanasios, never lived to see it completed. Their faith was so strong that they persevered to complete this herculean effort though they never could see it themselves.

The main church of the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron was built in the 16th century. It is decorated with spectacular frescos from the same century. These are some of the best examples of post-Byzantine Greek art.

There is a wonderful museum to visit with highly regarded religious icons. The view alone makes this monastery a must-do.

Entry and difficulty

As in all cases, you must wear appropriate clothing because this is a holy place. See below for specifics. The cost for entry is 3 euros.

This is the most difficult of the monasteries to reach. There are over 300 steps to climb to get to the entry. Pack water and some snacks, especially in the warmer months. There is most often a roadside canteen for before and after your climb of the 300 steps.

Notes

Sadly, we could not visit this monastery as it is not open the day we were visiting (a good reason to plan at least 2 full days in the area). We spent quite a bit of time photographing it and visiting the various terraces near it. It truly was spectacular.


The Holy Monastery of Varlaam

Varlaam Meteora Monasteries
The Holy Monastery of Varlaam

The Monastery of Varlaam is the second biggest of Meteora and is near the Great Meteoron. It was founded and built in the mid-14th century by a monk named Varlaam. When Varlaam died decades later, the monastery was abandoned by the remaining monks, and in subsequent years the structure almost turned into ruins.

In the early 16th century, two brothers, who both were monks, brought Meteora’s abandoned monastery back to life. They spent many years building a beautiful new chapel dedicated to “All Saints.” The beautiful frescos in the monastery’s chapel of All Saints belong to the famous 16th-century hagiographer Franco Catalano.

You will see a large 16th-century oak barrel used for water storage over the previous centuries during your visit. The monastery has also preserved the tower with the old pully system where you can see the net, used by the first monks to bring up people and provisions. The day we were there, they were using a similar system to bring up supplies.

There is a museum with many lovely religious icons and paintings, most of them from the Renaissance.

Entry and difficulty

As in all cases, you must wear appropriate clothing because this is a holy place. See below for specifics. The cost for entry is 3 euros.

There are over 140 steps to reach the entry. It required work but was not as steep of a climb as some others. Pack water and some snacks, especially in the warmer months.

Notes

It was the third monastery on our schedule and by far the most beautiful. There is almost perfection in the setting and design. The massive outdoor patio with a tiled gazebo was stunning with views to write home about. The inside is mostly modern and elegant. The artwork throughout was amazing. The monks that live up here obviously have a place that must give them such peace and solace in even the darkest days.


Monastery of Roussanou or St. Barbara

Monastery of Roussanou
Monastery of Roussanou

The Holy Monastery of Roussanou was first established in the 14th century and is likely named for the first hermit-monk who settled there. The main cathedral was built in the 16th century and subsequently was decorated thirty years later by a monk who lived at the monastery.

This monastery has a lower elevation thus is smaller than most others. It sadly suffered severe damage during the World War II bombings. Though built by monks, it became a convent in 1988 and now has about a dozen sister nuns living in the monastery.

The beautiful wall paintings of the Catholicon were from the 15th century when the priest-monk Arsenios was the Abbot of the monastery. The hagiographer is unknown but clearly was a talented artist.

What makes Roussanou special is an incredible view of the surrounding cliffs and the nearby Meteora Monasteries. There are two ways to enter, and if you enter from the upper main road, the reward will be a stunning panoramic view! Therefore, this is the perfect spot for pictures and to watch the sunset.  

Entry and difficulty

As in all cases, you must wear appropriate clothing because this is a holy place. See below for specifics. The cost for entry is 3 euros.

There are over 140 steps to reach the entry. Therefore it is not as difficult as some of the others. The stairs and foliage along the path are beautiful. Pack water and some snacks, especially in the warmer months.

Notes

The monastery is smaller and quick to get through. The nuns are the current keepers, and you will find them often in prayer. It is a beautiful vantage point to photograph the area.


The Monastery of Agios Stefanos

St Stephan Monastery

Monastic life on the rock of Agios Stephanos dates to early in the 12th century. St. Stephen’s Monastery includes two cathedrals; the old 16th-century chapel, which sustained severe damage during WWII, and the 18th-century main cathedral that includes the holy relics of Saint Charalambos.

This monastery is now a convent. It offers spectacular views towards the vast valley of Thessaly, the river Pinios and the Pindos Mountain range across the plains.

Entry and difficulty

As in all cases, you must wear appropriate clothing because this is a holy place. See below for specifics. The cost for entry is 3 euros.

The monastery of Agios Stefanos the most easily accessible monastery, where you can cross a small bridge to reach the entrance. Therefore it is best for visitors with mobility issues who cannot use the steps yet wish to experience a Meteora monastery.

Notes

We came upon nuns praying in the chapel, but they do so quite hidden, and they can scare you as you study the artwork. There was a lovely gift shop that had many items that the nuns produce themselves.


The Monastery of Agios St Nikolaos Anapafsas

Monastery of Agios St Nikolaos
Monastery of Agios St Nikolaos

The Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of Anapafsas or Agios Nikolaos. Founded at the end of the 14th century. It is the closest one to town; therefore is the first active Monastery you will encounter on your way up to the monasteries.

Anapafsis, translated in Greek, means resting. Historians believe this name may have had to do with the monastery’s position being the first on the path and probably served to the pilgrims as a resting place before traveling farther.

The surface of the rock pillar is much smaller than the other monasteries. Due to this, it forced the builders of the monastery to build it vertically on floors, one level on top of the other. On the walls, paintings from the 14th Century visible.

The Catholicon, honoring St. Nicholas, is on the second floor. The Holy Table rests on the third floor, decorated with murals. Space is quite restricting, and there is no courtyard as the other monasteries have; the monks could only gather in the narthex. There is beautiful artwork throughout. You will see the monks who reside here often. With smaller quarters here, one room we visited a monk was ironing clothes.

Entry and difficulty

As in all cases, you must wear appropriate clothing because this is a holy place. See below for specifics. The cost for entry is 3 euros.

This about around 140 steep steps and seemed the one that was most fatiguing of a climb. Absolutely though worth every effort. Pack water and some snacks, especially in the warmer months.

Notes

This was a lovely smaller monastery that was much more intimate and humble than other grander ones. With the monks very present, it truly captured their life here. There are lovely views of the valley and vineyards.


The Monastery of Holy Trinity

The Monastery of Holy Trinity
The Monastery of Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity Monastery (Agia Triada) at Meteora is one of the most photographed monuments. This is because it sits perched on what appears to be a leaning rock pillar, and it is the most difficult to reach. It was founded in the 14th century.

The monastery’s main cathedral was built in the 15th century, and the frescoes were painted by hagiographers Antonios, the priest, and his brother Nicolaos. The chapel of Timios Prodromos (St John the Forerunner), a small circular church with a cupola, has lovely wall paintings that are very impressive. The architecture seemed unique to the other monasteries.

The Monastery was in the setting for the final scenes of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

Entry and difficulty

As in all cases, you must wear appropriate clothing because this is a holy place. See below for specifics. The cost for entry is 3 euros.

This is the most difficult of monasteries to reach. There are over 140 steep steps to reach the entry, but that is after a hike to reach the base of the rock pillar. Pack water and some snacks, especially in the warmer months.

Notes

This monastery was under construction (May 2021); therefore, it was shut down, with no reopening date noted. It was obvious work was actively going on from our vantage point. The ascent looked pretty rough and likely for the more adventurous souls. Those who will attempt to reach it will have the pleasure of the panoramic view of the surroundings, which is simply captivating!

Map of the Monstaries

The Monastery of Agios St Nikolaos Anapafsas

What you must know before visiting the Meteora Monasteries

These are all Holy Sites. All Monasteries have a dress code in force.

The Monastery of Agios St Nikolaos Anapafsas

Meteora is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an archaeological site. Greece officially recognizes Meteora as a Holy Place. These monasteries are religious sites of great importance, so show the appropriate respect during your visit.

To enter all monasteries of Meteora, all men are to wear long pants and sleeved t-shirts. Sleeveless shirts are strictly forbidden. For ladies, they must wear long skirts: no pants, shorts, or capris. Shoulders must always have a covering.

All Meteora monasteries at the entrances do provide skirts and scarves for ladies to cover themselves. They do not provide any clothing for men, and they will deny you entry. We did see one man in shorts covered by a skirt, but it was an incredibly quiet day with few visitors. It might be best on a hot day to carry a pair of long pants in your pack. Children up to 12 years old do not have to follow the dress code.

Be mindful

The Monastery of Agios St Nikolaos Anapafsas

Flying drones without written permission by the authorities is strictly forbidden by law anywhere on the site. Subsequently, being archeological, the Meteora site of Greece has a flight restriction zone of up to 4.000 ft.!

Please do not take pictures or videos of the monks or nuns unless permitted to do so. You may offend them if you attempt this because you make them feel like a tourist attraction.

Be very respectful of their way of life and the fact that they allow you to enter their home! 

Getting Around Meteora Monasteries

Traveling to Meteora

Meteora is an area of few square miles and is best described as a rock forest with over 100 massive rock pillars of various sizes and shapes, some 1200 feet above the ground. The monasteries are built on top of those pillars like a natural extension. Though the area is not exceptionally large we strongly recommend giving Meteora a two-night stay at least. If we would do it again, we would give it three days. Especially since some of the monasteries are open on different days.

When we visited it was just after Greece reopened after the pandemic. We had many of these places to ourselves. We were able to get four in one day and parking was a breeze. That will not be the case in peak season. The monastaries as a whole are not that large and don’t require long visits but if you have a large group of people visiting it will be slower to get around.

Our trip there came after a few days stay in Athens. We rented a car in Athens and headed north with a stop along the way in Delphi, which was fantastic. The drive nonstop from Athens to Meteora would be about 4.5 hours. The road were good and easy to navigate. There are some cute towns along the way and some castles to stop at. We did the drive in just over 8 hours that included four stops.

This could vary based on the time of year you are there. If it is during the off-season, a car would be ideal. On that note, through peak season, parking can be horrendous. There is only a handful of parking spots at each location.

A public bus can take you up several times a day to the Great Meteoron Monastery but cannot move you between the monasteries, which are a significant distance from each other. Hiking or walking is an option, and we saw many doing it.

We saw bicycles, some electric, though the road in spots lacks a good shoulder and has sharp turns. There are many tours available to take you up to each monastery.

The Local Area

Now, after a long day of walking up hills, steps, and maybe even a trail or two, you can wind down your day by exploring a little of the nearby towns. Kastraki Trikala is the smaller Northernmost village, a perfect place to find small hotels to stay in, local places to eat, fun tavernas, and start your drive around the monasteries.

On the other hand, Kalabaka is much bigger and has more of a city feel to it. You will enjoy a wide array of great places to dine here, along with stores and souvenir shops. There are some lovely churches to visit and an old town area. We enjoyed them both.

Where to stay

There are many options in the Meteora area. We stayed at the Tsikeli Hotel Meteora in Kastraki Tirkala. It is right next to the road that takes you to the Monasteries. The village is quaint and quiet, with many restaurants and tavernas to chose from.

Hotel near Meteora Monasteries


Our hotel was charming, with a breakfast served in front of the hotel on the lawn, looking out toward Meteora’s rock forest.

The rooms can be simple to fancy. We reserved the two-bedroom, which was a bit basic but still clean and comfortable. The breakfast was fantastic and plentiful. They have electric bikes available at the hotel for rental. The staff was kind and engaging, and it lives up to the reviews.


There are many places to stay in the area; look closely at the reviews and make sure they are recent.

Where to eat

In our short time there we only ate at one restaurant worth writing about, but what a fantastic one! The Meteoron Panorama in Kalabaka is at the base of the Meteora pillars on a hill. At night the rock pillars are beautifully lit, which gives them a mystical feel. If that wasn’t enough, you are above the town and valley; therefore, the views are stupendous on all sides. The restaurant is lovely with extensive patios to enjoy your meal on.

The staff was friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive. The menu features delicacies of the region. This region of Greece is known for its beef, and there are some exceptional choices on the menu. The wine list was quite extensive. It was the ideal setting for our first evening in Meteora.

Other activites available in Meteora

If you are lucky enough to stay a few days in the area, there is much more to do than visit the Monasteries. Popular activities include:

  • Scramble hiking tour of Great Saint: While tethered hike narrow ledges of cliffs, not for the faint of heart.
  • Biking: You will see lots of biking in the area. Many places rent pedal bikes and e-bikes. Guided mountain bike tours are available. Sunset bike tours are popular.
  • Rock climbing: That should be no surprise for those that are so brave.
  • Hiking: Lots of open lands near the rock forest to explore. On our hiking trip, we found an abandoned Monastery built into a rock wall. (see pic below)
  • Hermit cave hiking: Visit the caves that the monks lived in isolation for centuries.
  • River rafting: Rafting day trips available.
  • Truffle hunting: Tours have private truffle hunting with lunch included.
  • Taverna hopping: There are many charming and fun Tavernas in the area to have some local brews in and meet some of your fellow travelers.

Final Thoughts

Meteora is more than just a destination. It is a fascinating, awe-inspiring journey. One in which you will learn about and explore unique natural wonders and a way of life that is simple and humble. It is enriched by a true, deep faith that will inspire any visitor. Each location shines a world of beauty that towers gracefully over the majestic landscape that allows you to take a step back from reality and take in a new perspective of nature, architecture, faith, and life.

Every step you climb brings you more excitement, another stunning view, and genuine enjoyment of what surrounds you. Walk out on a rock outcrop at the top of the hills and gaze at some of the most beautiful sunsets you will ever find. With the monasteries glowing gold as the sun begins to hit the horizon, all you can think about how this can be real and that you don’t want it to end. This trip is more than worth it, and it will stay with you forever.

Meteora Monastery

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