What comes to mind when I say Greece? Is it the turquoise-blue sea, sandy beaches or ancient ruins like Acropolis or Delphi? Maybe it’s sunsets in Santorini or those white churches with blue domes that you think of. Whatever it may be, I’m going to share my time visiting Meteora and its monasteries as I take you on a journey to another side of Greece.
Meaning ‘floating’ or ‘suspended’, Meteora is an amazing formation of rocks located in the town of Kalabaka in Thessaly, Greece. When there’s low cloud or mist, the rocks look as though they’re suspended in the sky.
The area was named Meteoron by Athanasios Koimovitis – the first monk to climb Broad Rock, where the Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron now sits. Ever since, Meteora has mostly been associated with the beautiful Eastern Orthodox monasteries that grace the towering formations.
Between the 14th and 16th centuries 24 monasteries were built. After the 16th century, there was a fall in the monastic community because of the Ottoman Empire which ruled for 400 years.
Many of the monasteries were abandoned and destroyed during this time, so now only six remain today – all of which are still active. Four of the monasteries are home to monks while the other two are nunneries.
Millions of years before it’s formation, Meteora was hidden under water. The boulders and rocks formed over time and began to push the seabed up. The area of water found its way to meet with the Aegean Sea and as it did so, the seabed rose from 60 meters below sea level to over 300 meters high. Slowly the rock formations emerged.
Due to earthquakes and the effects of weathering, the rocks were shaped over time into the usual looking vertical boulders. At 431 meters, Agia cliff is the highest peak of Meteora.
City of rocks
When Meteora formed there were just over 120 rocks. Now there’s around 180. Many of them have different names. While you’re visiting Meteora, you may find out some of the common ones you’ll hear include Broad Rock, Battalogiannis, the Holy Grail, the Talking Rocks and Agia.
Depending on which rock you’re looking at, you’ll find that they’re one of three colours; brown – which is mostly found in the caves created by hermits; black – which is the hardest of the rocks and usually where water flows down the rocks, or grey. But no matter the colour they’re all made up of sandstone and conglomerate.
A monastic community
Meteora became home to many monks and nuns following its appearance. They created a large monastic community, who for many centuries chose to live in seclusion and peace. They’d practise the virtues of monastic life including endurance and discipline.
The monks and nuns have the same daily routine. They wake to up around 3.30am and spend two hours in their private quarters in isolation. They each have their own rooms called cells. After their own private prayers, a couple of hours later a rhythmic sound travels through the monastery. This tells them they must gather and pray altogether in the church for a few more hours. Once prayer is over they share the workload around the monastery.
At the time the monasteries were built, it would have taken about two decades to move and carve out the rocks to make each one. With six remaining, entrance fees paid by visitors helps to maintain each one.
The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron
The largest of the monasteries and the first to be built was the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron on Broad Rock. The rock is largest in Meteora.
The first settler, St Athanasios of Meteora, founded this monastery. Fourteen monks later joined Athanasios and he created the first Monastic community.
Together they built Theomitoros (God’s Mother) church, followed by a second one dedicated to Transfiguration of Jesus Christ.
As one of the most visited of all the monasteries, the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron is also a museum.
The Monastery of Varlaam
The second largest Monastery in Meteora is the Monastery of Varlaam. It’s located opposite the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron and was named after the first inhabitant of the rocks where it sits – Hosios Varlaam, a hermit.
Inside the Monastery there’s a museum which used to be the refectory. The church inside Varlaam is All Saints which was completed in 1544.
The Monastery is still home to a commune of monks.
The Monastery of Rousanou
Rousanou is a small nunnery with access to the church, beautiful balcony and shop.
The garden in the monastery is beautifully looked after and there’s even in a bunch of colourful flowers that’s been made to look like a cross in the middle of the display.
16 nuns currently reside in the Monastery of Rousanou and they all sleep downstairs.
St. Stephen’s Monastery
Another nunnery just like Rousanou, St Stephen’s is home to a handful of nuns. The monastery was founded between the 14th and 15th centuries by Antonio’s Kantakouzenos.
It was damaged during World War II and the the Greek Civil War that followed, and in the early 60’s it was restored by nuns and became a convent.
St Stephen’s Monastery is the furthest away and is just over 520 metres high.
Monastery of the Holy Trinity
Next to St Stephen’s Monastery is The Monastery of the Holy Trinity. This monastery was thought to have been founded in the 15th century.
Right at the back of the monastery you’ll have a brilliant view of the area of Thessaly.
Along the path that leads up to the monastery you’ll find a little sign that says Kalabaka. It’s from here that you can make the walk down into the town. It’ll take about 30-40 minutes depending on your speed. I’ve heard some have done it in less time.
Although not as famous for having as many tourists visit it as the Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron has, it’s famous in its own right as our tour guide told us that this monastery was in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.
St. Nicholas Anapafsas Monastery
St Nicholas Anapafsas Monastery sits on one of the narrower rocks. The monastery was built on the side of the cliffs.
It’s one of the smallest monasteries out of the six and there’s only two monks that live in this monastery currently. It certainly felt the steepest to walk up as it was right above your head almost.
Seriously an out of this world geological wonder, Meteora is not only a national park but a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well. It’s the second largest monastic location in Greece after Mount Athos.
Tips for visiting Meteora and the monasteries
- Thinking of visiting Meteora the summer months? It will be the busiest but also the hottest times to go. With limited shade, you may want to go earlier on or later in the year.
- You’ll need to dress appropriately to visit all of the monasteries. It’s easier to wear trousers and long sleeves, but if you’re going in summer it’ll be too hot for that. Each monastery provides wraps and shawls if you have shorts, sleeveless or low-cut tops.
- Men must wear long shorts or trousers. If men are not suitably dressed they’ll have to wait outside as wraps are not provided.
- Wear a good pair of trainers or walking shoes. If you plan on sandals, it’s best they have a strap to secure your foot. Some of the steps up to the monasteries and paths if you’re hiking can be slippery.
- Take a bottle of water with you. There’s only a few places to get a drink or snack. If you’re going to do one of the tours or hiking, take a small snack aa well.
- Its not prohibited to use cameras in the churches. You can use them in other areas of the monasteries.
- If you’re thinking of visiting Meteora, you can easily walk between Great Meteoron, Varlaam and Rousanou monasteries. Best to start at the top with Great. Find out where else I had planned to go during my trip to Greece.
Hope I’ve inspired you to visit this part of Greece! If you want to find out more about visiting Meteora, I’ll be writing about the best way to get around the city of rocks to visit the monasteries.