The Myth of Méteora
Before I start, this post is about my experience and takeaway from my visit to Méteora in early January. If you’re looking for a quick guide, scroll all the way down and enjoy a few photos along the way!
Words cannot begin to describe the majesty I witnessed that is Méteora. Granted Jared and I did not get to see much due to a heavy snow storm (yes, in Greece), we are still so glad we endured the long trip out of Athens. Méteora is one of those places that you just can’t imagine until you pay a visit in person. Any description, however poetically worded will not do this place justice. But with my poor blogger’s grammar and arsenal of adjectives, I’ll give it a shot.
A 5 hour train ride outside of Athens takes you to the town of Kalampaka. Located in Thessaly, Kalampaka holds significant historic importance. Remember Homer’s Odyssey? That really big book we all had to read as part of our school’s curriculum (at some point in our lives)? The hero, Odysseus, paid a visit to the kingdom of Aeolus - also known as the plain of Thessaly.
To get to Méteora, you first have to get off at the Kalampaka station. Méteora is a UNESCO World Heritage site. If that alone doesn’t make you interested in visiting, imagine this - monasteries hanging off the side of a cliff 1300 feet above ground. Interested yet?
Built between the 14th and 16th century, getting to the monasteries was not for the faint of heart. Back before it was opened to crowds, the only way to visit the monasteries was by ladders tied together (you can’t even get me to the top of a single ladder without freaking out), or the classic rope and basket method. Not only do you have to worry about the possibility of the rope snapping while carrying you and your belongings up, the high winds smacking you against the side of the cliff is also quite problematic. Needless to say, many lives were lost by those brave and devout enough to attempt making the journey.
Though the journey up proved arduous and treacherous, the pure silence and isolation of being suspended on a cliff was beneficial for the monks, defending them from invasion (see high school history notes for Byzantine-Ottoman wars). It also allowed the monks ultimate serenity for reflection and contemplation.
Although visiting the monasteries today doesn’t involved gambling with your life, it is still a difficult journey up. This is why I highly recommend travelling with a tour guide. It is entirely safe and possible to visit Méteora without a guide during the warmer months, but your guides offer so much more than just your safety. The stories and history they know about Méteora goes way beyond any guide book or blog post, this one included.
Jared and I travelled to Greece in the off season. There are great perks and benefits to off season travelling, but there are also some cons. Visiting Méteora in the winter was definitely one of those cons. It was snowing heavily and the roads were icy. The drive up to the monasteries was terrifying! The roads were covered with thick snow and ice. You don’t really want to be driving up a cliff under those conditions. Luckily, our skilled driver got us up and down safely. We did see a small sedan almost slip off the side of the cliff on their way down. Our guides were quick to hop out of our van to help push their car out of harms way. Another downer was that we only got to visit one of the 6 monasteries - the St. Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery.
It’s not all bad though! The good is a little harder to look for, but I’ll get into that later. Here’s how our trip went -
We caught an 8am train from Athens to Kalampaka. It was easy, straight forward, and no transfers! It is a 5 hour (maybe more depending on delays) train ride each way. We got to enjoy the views of many small Greek towns along the way all covered in snow. After arriving in Kalampaka, we met our tour guides and driver from Visit Méteora. There were about 8 of us total on the tour so it was a cosy ride and the van was equipped with WiFi. The drive up to Méteora from Kalampaka took about 15 minutes at the most I think… I’m a little hazy on the details because we were listening to all the stories our tour guide was sharing.
The steps leading up to the St Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery are steep and narrow. Carved out of the rock that forms the cliff, the steps are uneven and do not lead all the way up to the monastery. The climb up consists of stairs and a smooth pavement in the less steep areas. It wouldn’t be a hard climb up had we not been attempting to climb it in the middle of a snowstorm.
The cliffs that the monasteries are perched on are formed by a mixture sandstone and conglomerate. We took a good 40 minutes to reach the monastery on foot because the path was just too icy. People visiting the monastery that day were slipping and falling every few seconds. It was both scary and hilarious at the same time.
You have to dress conservatively while visiting Méteora. Ladies, this means no shorts, skirts and pants! But don’t worry, the monks provide you with wraps that you can use while visiting the site. The entrance fee for each monastery is 3 Euros per person, kids under 12 get in for free.
The location is so unique and stunning that Game of Thrones tried to gain access to film some scenes in Méteora. The monks declined because they didn’t want their place of worship to be associated with a show filled with violence and sex. They did allow the rock formations as well as the view from Méteora to serve as the backdrop for The Eyrie. Of course the buildings and some of the rock formations were digitally enhanced in production.
Due to the snow and fog, we could not enjoy the great views that Méteora offered. Our tour guide would jokingly tell us to that behind the fog was the Great Pyramids of Giza, and on the left, the Eiffel Tower. Did we get to experience Méteora in all of its picturesque glory? No. But what we did experience was a different side of Méteora. The snow covered, harsh winds, thick fog and cold air that only the monks living in the monasteries know well. Most of the travellers in our group were incredibly disappointed because of the weather conditions. But that’s the thing about travelling… if you travel with an expectation to experience what you’ve seen on Google or social media, you limit yourself to what you’ll enjoy.
I really enjoyed my trip to Méteora. There’s a certain kind of magic and mysticism that a snow covered Méteora made me feel. After a 5 hour train ride and another 5 hours back, I considered myself so lucky to have experienced Méteora under these conditions. Would I have loved to visit all the monasteries and see the geographic uniqueness of the place? Absolutely. But I left feeling mystified and curious about what views lay beyond the blizzard.
When all is said and done, would I recommend visiting Méteora in the winter? It’s not for everyone. If you’re worried about snow and would be disappointed if you didn’t catch those views, don’t do it. But I always encourage everyone to travel with an open heart and mind. You’ll never know what kind of experience you’ll have! And if you choose to do so, be safe and do it with a tour group.
A QUICK GUIDE TO VISITING METEORA FROM ATHENS
We booked our tour with Visit Méteora through Get Your Guide for 90.16 EUR each. This includes your train tickets from Athens to Méteora and back, your tour and guide, and lunch.
Your train stops are from ATHENS station to KALAMPAKA
Please allow at least 14 hours for the entire trip.
The train ride is long but there are restrooms on the train. Bring something to entertain yourself and some tissues, wipes, hand sanitizer as the restrooms are not always in the best condition.
Entrance to the Monasteries are not included in your booking with Visit Méteora. You have to pay 3 EUR per person to enter each monastery. Children under 12 enter for free.
Women - dress conservatively (no shorts, short skirts, pants) however, wraps are available at the entrance of the monastery if you aren’t prepared.
Wear comfortable shoes! The climb up was harder in the snow but I’d imagine you’ll be on your feet a lot.
Keep in mind that this FULL DAY TOUR only allows you to visit a few of the monasteries (even on a good day) just because of the time.
If you intend on visiting all the monasteries, you can book a longer tour that allows you to take several days in Kalampaka.
Till next time!