The huge rock pinnacles of Meteora barely look real when you first see them, as if they were painted as the backdrop for a fantasy-genre film set.
Towering above the quiet village of Kastraki and the nearby town of Kalambaka, the cluster of huge rocks gradually change colour with the light throughout the day. At times they almost seem separate from their surroundings and at other times completely integrated. There is something magical about their uniqueness. Looking up at them, I could appreciate why they became the place, many years ago, that a small group of monks retreated to for an enduring sense of solitude.
The largest centre of monasticism in Greece is at Mount Athos. It is the name of both a mountain and a peninsula, in the easternmost ‘finger’ of the larger Chalkidiki peninsula, south-east of Thessaloniki. The secluded Mount Athos region, in which only men are allowed to enter, contains even to this day twenty working monasteries in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It has been an active place of monastic life ever since the 4th century.
Five hundred years later, a group of hermit monks first moved to Meteora to live in caves high up on the rock faces. In the 14th century, a monk from Mount Athos called Athanasios travelled to Meteora and set up the first monastery on top of one of the rock pinnacles. Access to the monastery was only possible via a long ladder which could be drawn up to keep intruders out. Many other monasteries were built there over the centuries and Meteora became a place of hermits and monks, living lives of solitude and meditation. It is now the second largest region of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece.
In Meteora today, there are six working monasteries, four of which are inhabited by monks and the other two by nuns. However, due to the existence of the exclusively male Mt Athos, the number of nuns at Meteora far exceeds the number of monks. Ruins can still be found on cliffs in Meteora for around 14 other monasteries and hermitages that have been abandoned or destroyed over the intervening years.
Each day, purpose-built roads deliver scores of tourist buses, full of mainly Eastern Orthodox devotees from Russia and Eastern Europe, to each of the six monasteries. Despite the heavy influx of tourists, most of them were barely noticeable to us except when we visited some of the monasteries. From what we could gather, the tour-bus tourists mainly stay in big accommodation complexes on the edges of the towns. The roads that connect this accommodation with the monasteries are quite discreet in that they tend to circle around the edges of the towns and Meteora itself rather than pass through it.
One of the most thought-provoking things about visiting Meteora is how these high places and the dwellings they contain were first established. They are positioned in some of the most inaccessible locations, usually high above the ground, sitting precariously on top of a pinnacle or at the edge of a cave puncturing the vertical face of a tower of rock. To get to most of these places now would be unimaginable without special climbing equipment and considerable skill.
When we first arrived in Kastraki on a Saturday afternoon, we checked out a campsite on the edge of the village. It was full to the brim with campers, which we later discovered were mostly climbers. They’d converged on Meteora for a weekend festival called the Meteora Crack Challenge. We decided to avoid the packed campsite and found accommodation in a reasonably priced and relatively quiet guest house, located much closer to the rocks themselves. Over the following week though I would see pairs of climbers high up on sheer rock faces, inching their way towards the top. If I happened to glimpse them on a walk I would stand and watch them, somewhat transfixed, by the scale of their undertaking. With nearly 800 climbs in what is a unique and easily accessible environment, Meteora has become a mecca for climbers the world over, particularly during the autumn months.
For us, our visit to Meteora was less about visiting monasteries or scaling cliff faces, and more about hiking through the myriad of trails in the area. Many of the trails lead to monasteries, both current and ruined and also to various climbing routes, but it wasn’t so much the destination as the sheer joy of walking in such a spectacular natural setting. I particularly liked the sense of adventure. The trails were not well marked and were barely indicated on any maps. Some trails lead to vertigo-inducing heights atop rocky outcrops or to caves or ancient ruins, and all passed through tranquil forests of oak and plane trees where you would hardly see another person.