Somewhere between heaven and earth.
The pillars of rock known as Meteora, sculpted by prehistoric rivers and crowned by otherworldly monasteries, are monuments to the power of nature and faith
Meteora means ‘suspended in space’. Your first, second and third sight of these impossibly tall, vertical rocks will have you gasping in disbelief. But it’s not just the incredible geology that stretches your imagination. It’s the monasteries balanced on these pinnacles.
How did they get there? Well, unbelievably, the monks who built them were the original rock climbers, lifting the materials up with pulleys, nets and their bare hands. Today’s rock climbers come to the site from the world over to pit themselves against these gigantic rocks.
Unesco has declared Meteora a much-cherished World Heritage Site and the Greek state calls it a sacred spot, inviolate and immutable. But you’ll no doubt come up with your own adjectives.
A forest of mind-bending stone monoliths rises perpendicular to the flat valley north of Kalambaka, south of Greece’s Pindus Mountains. Monasticism here began in the 11th century with the first hermits arriving in Thessaly from Mount Athos to retreat to niches in these heavenly pillars.
In the 14th century, the Blessed Athanasios of Meteora founded the first monastic community here in the monastery of the Great Meteoron. Other monks followed from other corners of Greece, creating a total of 20 monasteries.
At present, there are six active a monasteries and convents, which welcome each visitor to their lofty realms. These are Agios Nikolaos Anapafsa, Metamorphosis tou Sotiros or Megalou Meteorou, Varlaam, Roussanos, Agia Triada and Agios Stephanos. All the others, whether restored or abandoned, are empty.
In the early days of the monasteries, rock climbing was a necessity, not a sport. There was no other way to get to the top except by using ropes, nets, bare hands or long rickety ladders. Nowadays, the challenges of these divine columns attract international climbing enthusiasts. All the routes have been cut in the traditional way from down up. To the eyes of the uninitiated, they look impossible, some going virtually up to a height of 500m.
The town of Kalambaka opens the door to Meteora. The commercial and tourist hub of the region has lots of hotels, rooms to let and good restaurants. Take a stroll in the old part of town, called Spotos, which has been given a tasteful facelift. Don’t miss Greece’s only woodworking school and a traditional foundry, where you’ll find rare hand-crafted bronzeware.
There’s no better way to explore these miracles of nature and human endeavour than hiking between the monasteries of Meteora? You can join a group through one of the many adventure companies in the area. Mountain biking is another enticing option.
By far the prettiest village in this beautiful area of Greece, Kastraki fits snugly at the base of the giant rocks and welcomes climbers, who can take their pick of cozy hotels, rooms in private houses and camping sites, tavernas and shops. Palio (Old) Kastraki has been declared a protected traditional settlement.
Heading from Kalambaka towards Trikala, you’ll come to the historic hamlet of Sarakina 8km outside town. It’s worth the trip to see the largest stone bridge in Trikala prefecture, a famous six-arched edifice, built in the 16th century. It is one of the most interesting attractions in the area.
Just 4km outside Kalambaka, another surprising sight awaits you in the shape of an enormous cave, whose main chamber measures about 500 sq m. Scientists calculate that the formation of the limestone Theopetra (or god-rock) Cave occurred during the late Cretaceous period, 137 million to 60 million years ago. It was inhabited as early as 50,000 years ago.
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