Sunday, 28 April 2013

Meteora (Day 1): The Greek Adventure Part III

While few people seem to recognize the name ‘Meteora’, and I admit that I’d never heard of it before planning a trip to Greece, it probably deserves to be listed amongst the great tourist sites in the world. In broadest terms, Meteora is an area of rocky grey pinnacles, about five kilometres wide and five kilometres deep.  In between the rocks, the ground is mostly covered by a dense concentration of short trees. 

In the early medieval period, the place became a haven for hermits, who took up residence amongst the numerous caves sunk into the sides of the rocks. Later, in the thirteen hundreds, monks began building monasteries on the tops of the nearly inaccessible pinnacles, hundreds of feet above the ground.  Although some of the monasteries grew as large as castles, the only way to reach them was to be winched up in a rope net. Today, most of these monasteries lie in ruins, but six remain, functioning as either monasteries or nunneries. In each of these cases, long stairways have now been carved in the rocks to reach them, and all six are, at least partially, open to the public.

As Steph and I woke up on our first day in Kalambaka, the town at the foot of the rocks of Meteora, we had a plan for a long walk and some serious site-seeing.  It was a cool and slightly damp morning. The skies were overcast and grey, and the great rocks sunk slightly into the background of the sky.  Undeterred, we grabbed our backpacks and set off. We walked down from our guest house to the western edge of Kalambaka, and from there set off on a windy, empty road, up towards the rocks.  Armed with a slightly sketchy tourist map, the best we could find, we planned to see a few churches and a cool rock, before we got to the main event of the monasteries. That was the plan, anyway.

As we rounded a corner, only ten minutes or so out of town, we looked up to the rocks, and saw several, long-abandoned hermitages.  These were just stone walls, built over the front of cave mouths, but were so old and cool, I had to take a closer look. To reach them required scrambling up fifteen or twenty feet of slightly wet rock, but it was no great effort. There were about four different caves, each with a stone-walled front, a wooden door, and a couple even had a window. Inside, the caves were dry and smelled of straw. None looked like dwellings in any modern sense, as all had sloping floors, and only a little room to stand or manoeuvre. A couple of the caves stretched away back into darkness, and one even seemed to have a second floor. At the time, I was thrilled to find such a cool little place, but it would soon be so overshadowed as to be almost forgotten.

We continued up the road for another couple of minutes, then turned onto a steep, wooded path that headed into the heart of Meteora. Walking another ten minutes or so, we suddenly stepped out from the cover of the trees, to a sight that took my breath away. For a moment, I truly believed that we had stepped between the vale of worlds into some enchanted valley, where goblins and men struggled side-by-side.  The first sight that caught my eye was the high, wooden platforms.  Hundreds of years old, and at least a hundred feet off the ground, this series of decaying wooden structures projected out  of the caves in the cliff side, somewhat connected by crumbling wooden ladders. It looked liked nothing so much as Goblin Town, depicted by Peter Jackson in his filming of The Hobbit. My mind couldn’t then, and really still can’t today, understand how people once stood upon those precarious wooden platforms. More, that they lived there, in a life of prayer that must have been tinged with vertigo.

But this was just the first of the sites of that marvellous valley, for just a bit along, in the same cliff face, was a monastery or church built right into the side of the cliff.  Perhaps it covered some vast cave, or maybe it just clung to the side, it was impossible to say.  If that wasn’t enough, when we turned around to look the other way, there was an even more impressive church, the church of St. Nicholas, built even farther up in the opposite cliff wall.  I cannot even estimate how high off the ground this church was, but to the naked eye, it was small and remote. 

As we wandered around the wooded floor of the valley, around yet another small church that stood upon the ground, I had to keep reminding myself that it was all real. It seemed more likely that some fantasy novel had come to life around us. I saw armoured knights on the high porches of the great churches, and the glowing yellow eyes of goblins in the caves behind the wooden platforms. Real crows swirled around the dizzying heights, adding more to the fantasy than the reality.

Just to make it all the more wonderful, bar one German family that quickly moved on, Steph and I were alone in this enchanted place, and it was quiet. No cars, no people, not even much wind. Just the occasional noise of the circling birds, and the (perhaps imagined) creaks of the ancient wooden platforms...

Eventually we left, too soon perhaps, or maybe just soon enough, so that it still lives in my memory, unspoilt.

Our path out of the valley took us down into the outskirts of Kastraki, another little town that borders the rocks. Our next goal was a lone pinnacle which rose above all the others, surrounded by a circle of cliffs. Our little tourist map made this seem like quick side trip, but it was anything but.  Although we didn’t cover that much distance along the ground, the gain in height was a challenge.  Up we went, past a worn looking church, and further up, past an abandoned church, through the heavy woods. Carved stairs gave way to wooden steps and then to bare rocks. Little bugs danced around in the cool, but humid air. Finally, we reached the base of the great stone.

In a land covered by monasteries and churches, this stone seemed to me a last great statement of pagan defiance. It felt a place of ritual, a gathering point, secluded, dangerous, high above the fields where people lived. Paths ran off in several directions, but all of them seemed to lead to precipitous drops, and my enthusiasm for further exploration quickly waned.  

Once again, Steph and I were alone in this strange and fantastical place. I suppose with the great monasteries so close, and the path so steep, this stone didn’t feature on many tourist itineraries, but I’m glad that it made it onto ours. That said, the place left me uneasy, mostly because of my fear of heights, but also because of a sense of strange ‘otherness’, that I can’t quite explain. Up in these high rocks, the wind blew harder and colder, and perhaps the chill got to me.

The descent proved much quicker than the climb, and we soon found ourselves back on the edge of Kastraki. Although it was past noon by this point, it was a Sunday, and the town seemed asleep. We did, however, find a little grocery store that was open, from which we bought the makings of a somewhat pathetic lunch.

Tired, but still in high spirits, we picked up our packs and started off on another, long, uphill walk. As we walked along the quiet road out of Kastraki, I noticed a man cooking long spits of meat on a large open grill outside of a taverna. Too early for the Greeks to eat lunch, and too early in the year for many tourists, it seemed a move predicated more on hope than reason. Still, I noted it down for the future.

The roads around Meteora are obviously new, or at least newly paved. They are some of the best roads we saw in all of Greece. However, there were few cars this Sunday, and we had a long and peaceful walk to the nearest (and smallest) of the great monasteries of Meteora, the Monastery of St. Nicholas.

Sitting alone on its little pinnacle of rock, with its little bell tower above it, it is a building that seems designed to be photographed. With our aching legs, it was a serious chore to haul our bodies up the long, winding path, and then onto the great staircase that led up to the monastery. We bought tickets, from a man who was obviously not a monk, and Steph wrapped a skirt over her trousers, for such is required in all the monasteries, and then we were let inside. The main attractions of this monastery (and many of the others) are the amazing medieval frescoes that covered the walls of their little church. Although the paint work was old and faded, and the lighting was by candle only, it was a glorious little place, with depictions of saints and beasts all around. It was quiet. A quiet rarely found in our world. Not even the hum of electricity or distant traffic.

 Beyond the church, there was little to see in the monastery, until you reached the roof. Here, where building met rock, you could walk up to the little bell tower, and take in the views all around. They were spectacular. In every direction, great rocks rose from the greenery below. On many of them could be seen the ruins and foundations of other monasteries, built and abandoned long ago. I imagined the incredible task it would be for some archaeologist to come and explore those remains.  In one shattered ruin, we could see a large clay pot, old, but still complete. I wondered how long it had sat there collecting rain.

Time moved on. The day grew colder. Although it was still only mid afternoon, most of the monasteries closed at 4PM, and it was a long road yet to any of them. We knew that our day of exploring was done. We had originally set out thinking we would see 3 or 4 monasteries, but had only made it to one. We had only originally planned to spend two days in Meteora, but thankfully we had left a hole in our schedule, just in case...

Slowly we made our way down from the monastery and then down the road back to Kastraki. As we walked, the rain started to fall, just lightly, but almost as if to state that, yes, our day was done. On the outskirts of town, we again saw the man cooking meat on the open grill, and I proposed that we perhaps get a bit ‘to go’. The man stood up as we approached, and offered his chair to Steph. His daughter was sitting behind him and she offered her chair to me, but I declined.  As we made our order, and waited while he finished cooking us a long spit of pork, the skies opened up, and the rain came pelting down. We huddled under the cooking tent. Steph chatted with the man, about the food and tourists, while I listened to the falling rain and the sizzling meat. As the rain showed no sign of letting up, we decided that we would go inside to eat.

If memory serves, the restaurant was called ‘Boufidis’, and it had a huge, high-ceilinged dining room. It was completely empty, except for a young woman that we took to be another of the man’s daughters. We took a seat by the crackling wood-fire and were content. The young woman brought us a huge salad of tomato and cucumber drenched in more olive oil than I’ve ever seen used on anything. This, along with roast chunks of pork and crusty bread composed our meal.  Halfway through, the young woman also brought us two small glasses of wine, one red, one white. ‘These are from me’, she said, and did her best to explain that they came from ‘here’, though whether she meant that particular taverna, Kastraki, or just the region, I’m not sure. Despite the simple fare, the emptiness of the room (eventually a French family also came into eat), and our slightly damp clothes, it proved one of the most enjoyable meals we had in Greece.  I have no doubt that in the height of tourist season it is a fun and rocking place, and I recommend anyone going at that time to give it a try, but on that day, we were happy for the quiet end to a wonderful and fantastic day.


  1. Fantastic photos, it must of been awesome to see them with your own eyes. I always find caves that have been modified this way fascinating. I went on holiday to France as a kid and there where similar caves in hillside that had this apperance though time has made me forget the name of the town where they where.

  2. Wow, wish I'd known about this when I was in Greece! Perhaps someday we can visit. Ian would be in raptures.

  3. I'm already in raptures. MONKS!

  4. Great photos! Thanks for the blog post about our home town!
    Cheers from!