Monasteries – Meteora

Monasteries of Meteora

The monasteries of Meteora are crowned by the 400 meter high peaks in the Thessaly Mountains (Pindus massif) . They resemble giant eagles’ nests on high sandstone cliffs, hewn and polished by erosion. Religious life in this place began in the X or XI century: the anachorets (hermits) took up residence in the caves at the foot of the rocks. These monks escaped the oppression of the Albanians, the Turks and robbers and found refuge in these mountains.

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Highlights

The name “Meteora” comes from the word meteorizo, which means “floating in the air.” This is the most accurate description of the appearance of the monasteries. When clubs of mist envelop the mountain slopes in the early morning, the buildings towering above them seem to hover above the clouds. The heyday of Meteora’s monasteries is in the late Middle Ages – at that time there were 24 monasteries and hermitages. Nowadays only 6 monasteries remain inhabited. Four of them are monastic: the Great Meteora or Megalo Meteora (Transfiguration Monastery), Saint Barlaam, Saint Nicholas Anapavasas and the Holy Trinity Monastery. Two of the monasteries are women’s monasteries: St. Stephen and the monastery of Rusanu (or the monastery of St. Barbara) . Although the other 18 monasteries are in ruins, in some places they are still inhabited by hermits who wish to preserve the cultural and spiritual heritage of Byzantium.

A View of the Thessaly Plain

The very first hermitages in the mountains appeared in the 11th century. The hermits fled from worldly affairs in order to continue their service to the Lord without hindrance and settled in simple mountain caves. As their numbers grew, the monks banded together in a monastic community similar to the spiritual republic on Mount Athos.

Only a few hermits founded the very first hermitage, Dupiani, now razed to the ground. Only a small 13th-century chapel stands as a witness to their ascetic life.

In 1334 the monk Athanasius arrived in the monasteries of Meteora. With his arrival the monastic life really began to flourish in the area. In 1370 he and 14 other monks climbed the highest rock and founded the monastery of Great Meteora, also known as Metamorphosis (i.e. Transfiguration) . Covering an area of about 60,000 square meters, Meteora is one of the largest monastic complexes. According to legend, an eagle, or even an angel, lifted Athanasius up to the mountain peak. This monk first laid down the rules of conduct that the others had to follow in observing the laws of monastic life at Meteora. In time he and his followers founded several more monasteries around.

Today only 6 of the 24 monasteries are inhabited. In the monastery of St. Nicholas of Anapavasas, in the chapel of John the Baptist, laid out on shelves in even rows, are the skulls of all the monks who ever lived in this monastery. The walls of the cathedral are decorated with frescoes by Theophanes Strelidzas (ca. 1500-1559), an outstanding iconographer of the Cretan school, a group of artists in which the famous El Greco was a member. The monastery of St. Rusanou (or St. Barbara) was founded in 1388. Reconsecrated in 1950, it was more frequently plundered and desecrated than other monasteries. Its 16th-century frescoes are incomparable masterpieces. The monastery of St. Barlaam was built from 1518 to 1535 and is mentioned in the travel diary of 1779 as a convent.

Monastery of St. Nicholas of Anapavasas Ascent to the Great Meteora Monastery

The Great Meteora, the largest complex, was named so by its founder Athanasius in honor of the massive, as if hanging in the air, stone pillars called Meteora. Until 1923, when roads were paved to the monasteries and 143 stone steps were made for ascent, monks and visitors could get to the monasteries only by hanging stairs or with the help of monks who lifted them in special grids. In the same way all the building materials for the construction of the monastic structures, as well as food and other necessities for monastic life, were lifted to the top of the rocks.

With the exception of Agios Stephanos (Saint Stephanos), which is quite easily accessible, the monasteries are reached by climbing steep stone stairs, sometimes numbering over a hundred steps. The monks are accustomed to visitors, but in order to preserve the sacred character of these places, they require a proper appearance. Men, women and children must have their hands covered, at least to the elbows; pants are obligatory for men and long skirts for women.

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Kalambaka

At the foot of the very rocks where the monasteries of Meteora are built, the tallest of which reaches 300 meters, is the town of Kalambaka. After World War II, it underwent extensive reconstruction. It is worth visiting the city cathedral, the construction of which was partly based on materials from ancient buildings. You can see frescoes from the 16th century and an amazing marble pulpit – in fact, it is a pulpit dating back, like the canopy, to the early Christian era.

Ascent to Great Meteora Monastery View of Kalambaka City Streets

Two kilometers from the town the village of Kastraki, surrounded by vineyards, is also worth your attention.

The monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas

Beyond Kastraki, on the left side of the road, is one of the smallest monasteries of Meteora. The same tiny church is adorned with delightful frescoes of the early 16th century by Theophrastus of Crete, who also worked on Mount Athos. The Last Judgment, painted on the partition between the narthex and the choir, makes an indelible impression. From here you can walk to the monastery of Barlaam in about an hour and a half.

Roofs of houses in Kalambak Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas View of the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas

Roussanou (Saint Barbara) Monastery

Also very small, this monastery (16th century) rests on a narrow rock, which can be reached by a suspension bridge. The monastery’s location is its highlight: an incredible ensemble of cliffs carved by water, winds and temperature variations acts as a backdrop. It is invariably popular with fans of mountain climbing.

A room inside the monastery Rusanu Monastery (St. Barbara) Rusanu Monastery with the cliffs in the background

Varlaam Monastery

A little beforehand the road branches off. The left leads to the 16th century Barlaam Monastery built on a narrow platform on the top of a rock. After climbing all 130 steps and stepping over the threshold, you will find yourself in a sun-drenched church courtyard. Inside, be sure to look at the painting depicting a saint grieving over the vanity of this world in front of the skeleton of Alexander the Great. The amazing fresco of the Last Judgment on the wall opposite the choir deserves special attention. Visitors can also see the basement and the press room, as well as a glimpse of the workings of the elevator.

The Great Meteora Monastery

At the same height as Barlaam is the Great Meteora, also called the Monastery of the Transfiguration, founded the very first in the middle of the XIV century on the highest rock. To get to it, you have to descend 106 steps, then climb 192. Despite frequent destruction, the Great Meteora has preserved priceless evidence of Byzantine art, particularly the embroidered robes of the priests and the stern frescoes. The Church of Transfiguration is famous for its wooden iconostasis. Nearby you can see the old dining room, kitchen, many rooms where various classes were held, and an ossuary with the skulls of dead monks. From the balcony there is a delightful view of the Barlaam complex.

Territory of the monastery Great Meteora Monastery In the courtyard of the monastery

The monastery of Agia Triada (Holy Trinity)

One of the most rarely visited and most secluded monasteries, Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) is built on top of a huge rock, which from afar seems to float in the air. Although part of it was built in the fifteenth century, it lacks unity because of the attached modern buildings.

The ossuary with the skulls of the dead monks The monastery of Agia Triada The cabina that runs between the monasteries

The Monastery of Agios Stephanos (Saint Stephanos)

The last monastery to be discovered is also the most easily accessible, thanks to the pedestrian bridge that connects it to the road. This place is famous for its view of Kalambakou and the Thessaly plain. The former dining hall has been turned into a museum, the most complete in Meteora, where icons, cult objects, painted manuscripts and embroideries are on display. The only church was not built until the 18th century.

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Agios Stephanos Monastery Inside the Church Inside the Monastery of Agios Stephanos

Climbing monks

No one knows exactly how the first monks managed to climb the cliffs of Meteora. Incredible fairy tales make the imagination conjure up huge paper kites, ropes tied to hawk’s feet, scaffolding construction, giant trees – anything that could have been used to make the climb. It is possible that once upon a time, shepherds and hunters suggested to the monks ways known to them alone. They soon began to use a rope ladder, which was later replaced by a net or some kind of basket tied with a rope and lifted with a winch. It took about half an hour to reach the highest cliffs. If we believe the records of travelers of former times, the rope was changed only after the old one was broken! You can still see these structures, now powered by an electric hoist. Today they are intended for cargo and visitors prefer to climb on foot.

Monasteries of Meteora

There are some places in the world where you want to linger and admire the skillful combination of nature and man-made things, and think about the eternal confrontation between people and the world around.

The Meteora rock monastery complex in Greece was one of those places for me.

Where Meteora is located and how to get there

Getting to Meteora is not easy, as the monasteries have climbed to the tops of sheer cliffs in the heart of mainland Greece.

At the foot of the cliffs stretches the town of Kalambaka, whose red roofs look so beautiful from above, from the observation decks of the monastery of St. Stephen, and the small town of Kastraki. It is in these towns that tourists who have gone to Meteora without a tour can stay overnight. To get to Kalambaki by public transportation is:

  • from Athens:
    • By train, travel time about 5 hours, ticket price per person from 20 €,
    • by bus – it’s a little faster, the trip takes about 4 hours, but the price is higher – 30 €;

    Below is a map of Kalambaka.

    Next, the self-guided tourist will have to take a bus or cab to climb up the cliffs to the monasteries themselves. Buses leave from Dimoula Square (red marker on the city map) twice a day so you can choose to visit Meteora in the first or second half of the day. The fare is only 1.5 €. Cab drivers are waiting here and offer rides to any of the six monasteries or to the nearest observation point at the top for only 5-7 €, so for a large company this mode of transport is more advantageous.

    If you want, you can go up on your own, but keep in mind that the way winds through the mountains and the nearest monastery you walk about four kilometers. Many resorts near Thessaloniki offer bus tours to Meteora, which can also be a great solution to the transport problem. The price for a tour from Thessaloniki in a large group from the tour desk on average is 60 € per person, an individual guide with a car for 2-4 people will cost 250-350 €.

    We preferred to see the whole complex on our own, so we rented a car and drove to Meteora from the resort town of Katerini. The way took about two hours, during this time we had several payment points – we were charged from 1,20 to 2,40 €, the total for the way back and forth cost about 12 €.

    What are the Meteora Mountains

    During the trip to Meteora the scenery behind the window was very monotonous: fields, somewhere on the horizon Mount Olympus with its split top drowning in the clouds and the far away rocks that didn’t get closer or farther during the whole trip. We had already grown rather bored with these views, and the view of the cliffs of Meteora, which opened to us on the approach to Kalambaka, was all the more unexpected. Before us stood the majestic gray rocks, as if separated from the whole ridge and wishing to flaunt their individual protrusions-fangs, here and there sticking out of the ground. Driving around the town on the winding mountain road, we admired these gray-black giants and looked for a place to stop to take a few photos.

    But the first observation point we met was at a fork in the road: on the left are the female monastery of St. Stephen and the male monastery of the Holy Trinity (Agia Triada), on the right is the female monastery of St. Barbara – Rusanu, the monasteries of St. Barbara, St. Nicholas and the Great Meteora – the Monastery of the Transfiguration, the largest of all. The view from the observation deck was really impressive: individual rocks, sharply going into deep ancient crevices, already completely overgrown with bushes and trees, and on top of them small, but proudly towering above the abyss monasteries. Involuntarily we remember that the name Meteora is translated as “soaring on the rocks” – how true it is! It is also surprising how harmoniously these monasteries look, partly carved, partly built on the rocks. Light stone, small windows, light red tiled roofs – from a distance they are lost against the background of massive rocks. In the old days it was an excellent defense against enemies: it is difficult to attack those fortresses that you can’t see from a distance.

    The first buildings appeared here as early as the 11th century, but those monasteries that can be seen today were built in the 14th-16th centuries. Monks and hermits sought not only solitude, but also salvation from religious and political persecution. Climbing higher and higher up the impregnable cliffs, they were better and better hidden from worldly turmoil and political unrest. Today the complex includes six large monasteries – two for women and four for men, open to tourists.

    Visiting the monasteries

    Entrance to each monastery costs 3€. However, the monasteries are open to visitors from 9:00 to 17:00, each of them has one day off a week when it is not possible to visit them:

    • St. Stephen’s Monastery is closed on Mondays,
    • on Tuesdays the Transfiguration Monastery is closed,
    • on Wednesdays the Rusanu Monastery is closed,
    • On Thursday you can’t go to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity,
    • and on Fridays, St. Nicholas Monastery.

    At the entrance to each monastery sits an attendant who sells admission tickets and shows you where you can borrow long clothes if you need them. Women will have to wear floor-length skirts to visit, and men will be asked to wear shirts with sleeves to avoid exposing their shoulders to the nuns. It is not forbidden to take pictures on the grounds, but there are signs at the entrances to all the churches that prohibit photography and videotaping inside.

    Each monastery has a small church where daily services are held for the monks and nuns, and tourists can admire the ancient and restored frescoes and beautiful wooden carvings decorating the altar, icon frames and chairs. The interior decoration of the cathedrals is dominated by bright colors: blue, white, red, yellow and gold. The walls are completely covered with paintings, which reminded me of our usual Russian Orthodox churches, while for European Catholics such a thing looks unfamiliar exotic. Also, in each church you can walk through several halls or open galleries and admire the views from the observation decks.

    St. Stephen’s Monastery

    We began our tour of the complex with the monastery of St. Stephen, one of the most conveniently located. You can get there by two small bridges and there are no steep staircases to climb up the mountains, which is a real plus in the heat of +34°C (we were there in the middle of July).

    St. Stephen Monastery seemed to us the most uninteresting of all: its observation deck overlooks the panorama of Kalambaka and the distant mountains, Meteora itself is behind and impossible to see from here. But from the side, the view is spectacular: the walls transform into sheer cliffs, which form a grim stone city wall. Inside the monastery you can see a small garden with lavender and medicinal herbs planted by the nuns and a museum with samples of the clergy vestments and various items used for services, as well as books and charters kept in the libraries of the Meteora monasteries since the 15th century.

    The Monastery of the Holy Trinity

    From east to west we continued to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, one of the most picturesque in the complex. It takes about half an hour to get here from the nearest viewing point: first, visitors have to go down a smooth serpentine road, and then to climb 140 steep steps. I found the height of the stairs unaccustomedly high, so it wasn’t easy to climb, but each turn of the stairs offered a new, spectacular view, and that made the journey much easier.

    It was amusing to see that the monks themselves do not use ladders, but travel in small cable car-like cabins. All the hard-to-reach monasteries have such mechanisms, making it much easier to get up and down. After watching this system work for a couple of minutes, we came to the conclusion that in the old days, monks had a much harder life: they were constantly climbing up the mountain, and water and food were lifted on themselves. Thinking about this, I became even more aware of what a miracle of faith and human labor it was to build such monasteries in such an inaccessible place. At the monastery of the Holy Trinity, in addition to the church, you can see the ancient rails, wagon and hook used to transport goods centuries ago, as well as admire the beautiful panorama of Meteora. Curiously enough, the observation deck here is actually on the roof of the monastery, but instead of shingles here are the rocks themselves, in which some of the rooms have been cut out. At the top stands a massive white cross, visible from afar.

    The Monastery of St. Barlaam

    This monastery bears the name of the first monk, who is said to have settled here back in the 11th century and built a small chapel on the rock. The later building reminds me a lot of a castle: massive walls with turrets, a bridge at the entrance and a small round observation deck in front of the monastery where flags are waving and you can look in all directions and see all six monasteries of Meteora.

    The grounds of this monastery are distinguished from the others by a rather large garden, where we were able to sit down for a while on a wooden bench to rest in the shade and have a conversation with one of the seven monks who live there.

    St. Nicholas Monastery

    Although this monastery sits lower than the others, it has a special grace: the area of the rock is not large, so the structure encircles it. The monastery has several levels, and once up here we enjoyed wandering through the galleries and viewing platforms inside.

    It is also worth going up for the frescoes by the famous Greek artist Theophanes of Crete. But I was especially interested in the church on the lower level: its area is so small that only one priest can be seated at the altar. Here I was able to understand particularly well how the first few monks lived in these monasteries: it was difficult to develop large spaces, so everything was built small and simple, satisfying the most basic needs.

    Rusanu Monastery

    Rusanu, or the monastery of St. Barbara, is the most remote monastery of Meteora, and therefore if you want to visit it, it is better to go here at the beginning or leave at least an hour at the end of your walk. You can reach it either by a staircase descending to the road to Kastraki or by a suspension bridge.

    You can visit the monastery for its spectacular views: around the sharp rock that encircles the monastery itself, there are other individual cliff teeth, rising menacingly from a deep crevice. There is not much to see on the territory of the monastery itself today: all valuables and relics are kept in the museum of the Great Meteora, so we simply refused to visit this monastery – we just walked around it as much as possible and admired its surroundings.

    Monastery of the Transfiguration

    The Great Meteora is the largest monastery of the complex and from the outside looks more like a small medieval fortress town than a religious building. You have to climb a steep staircase, partially cut through the rock itself, but it’s worth the trip: you’ll find yourself in the largest, oldest and tallest monastery of the complex. It’s not by chance that it is called the Great Meteor.

    On the territory of the monastery of the Transfiguration you can see rich frescos and icons, as well as holy relics that were brought here from other monasteries of the complex. The temple of the Transfiguration is painted by the hand of a disciple of the great Theophanes of Crete, and near the church is a holy spring.

    Probably one shouldn’t leave it for last, as we did, though. If you’re going to see the rooms of Great Meteora that are open to visitors, start there: you have to walk a lot, and climbing the rocks all day to overcome the stairs and thoughtfully examine the frescoes was very difficult for us.

    Viewpoints of Meteora

    But when you come to Meteora, you might not want to visit all the monasteries, but choose the most interesting one for yourself. In my opinion, it is best to visit one of the freestanding ones, where you will have a stunning view of the surroundings, as well as one of the larger ones, where you can see the rich paintings in the church and a collection of relics and manuscripts.

    But it is even more interesting to admire the monasteries from the outside. There are several viewpoints along the road from the monastery to the monastery, and although it seems like you’ve only driven half a kilometer, the view from each is strikingly different. Try to linger on at least one of them, climb the cliffs that protrude over the cliff and admire the panorama. How did a few dozen people without special equipment and training manage to build such a miracle hundreds of years ago!

    Food and souvenirs in Meteora

    Coming here for the whole day take care about snacks beforehand: there are no tents with food or water near the monasteries themselves, so it’s better to bring them with you. The nearest restaurants can be found either in Kalambaka and Kastraki at the foot of the cliffs (it takes 10-15 minutes descending by car), or 5 km from the monasteries, following the sign “Restaurant”. Choosing the second option, as we did, you will make a rather steep serpentine path, but you can eat at an excellent panoramic restaurant with national cuisine. On clear weather, it is definitely better to choose the latter: you can admire several monasteries, and the mountains surrounding the cliffs – Meteora.

    Prices in the restaurant are usual for Greece: hot meat dishes cost about 5-8 €, one souvlaki kebab costs 1,5 €, soft drinks from 2 to 5 €, bottled beer from 3,5 €. Lunch for three people cost about 40 €.

    If you want to buy souvenirs from Meteora, visit the stalls with products in the parking lots near the monastery of St. Stephen and the Great Meteora, as well as the church stalls of the monasteries. Here they sell icons, numerous statuettes with images of saints, as well as the usual handicrafts with views of the monasteries: plates, shot glasses, ashtrays, etc. The average price for a souvenir is 3 €. Personally, I was interested in postcards with the views of Meteora, but in the tents they were sold only in sets, and in the shop at the museum in the monastery of St. Stephen one such card was 1-1,5 €.

    Finally

    The trip to Meteora is one of the most vivid memories after our vacation in Greece. What we saw was impressive and makes you think about many things: the power of faith, the greatness of man and his ability to master the wilderness, the incredible places in the world.

    Walking from one observation deck to the next, I kept dreaming of sitting somewhere in the shade on a rock ledge and just admiring the views, without rushing anywhere. Such places are definitely worth visiting, and ideally without a camera or camcorder to think not about a good shot, but about how beautiful everything around is!

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