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Travel

My Great Greek Adventure – Meteora, the Holy Mountains

In central Greece between mountain ranges and far from the sea are the monasteries of Meteora and the town Kalabaka. Trailing along the Pindus mountain range in Thessalia, the unique mountains and rock formations of Meteora have puzzled geologists and amazed visitors for centuries. Believed to have formed around sixty million years ago during the Paleogene Period, there have been many theories as to how these mountains came to look this way. Resembling tall towers, the scattered mountains reach heights of 313 meters and are comprised of sandstone and conglomerate rock. One theory for how these rock formations came to be is that this area was once underwater, and over millions of years of water-flow and wind these plateaus were smoothed over and eventually dried out. They become even more special when you realize that they are few and solitary, far from any other mountains in the area.

Although not exclusively mentioned in myths of ancient Greek writing, Meteora’s history can be traced back much further. Less than eight kilometers from the distinct mountains of Meteora is the Theopetra cave. Studies of the soil from inside the cave suggest that humans have inhabited this place as far back as 135,000 BC. Scientists have found human bone fragments and coal particles, which they were able to radiocarbon date to determine the cave was used until 4000 BC. It is also the sight of the oldest discovered structure built by a human, in the form of a protective stone wall. This cave provided refuge during times of extreme changes on Earth, like ice ages and the stages of the evolution of the human species. The conveniently close proximity to fresh water from the Litheos river made it an appealing dwelling for ancient humans. The cave is not currently open to visitors due to safety concerns.

Today, the Meteora region is more known for the handful of monasteries that grace the peaks of these one-of-a-kind mountains. It was around the 9th century AD that people began to occupy these mountain tops. At first it was a small group of monks who sought to live in peace in the caves on these steep and difficult to reach peaks, but later entire communities and monasteries were developed, sometime around the 14th century. These mountain tops proved to be a safe place when they provided security from Ottoman attacks, especially since the peaks were only reachable by ladders that were then removed.

Meteora is one of the holiest places in Greece, following in significance only Mount Athos, the easternmost peninsula of Halkidiki in Northern Greece. It has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is also registered as a protected holy place by law. At one point Meteora had twenty-four monasteries operating in its vicinity, but today only six remain in operation, with few occupants in each. While some still house monks and others house nuns, other factors have caused them to change with the times. Still visible today are the original forms of transportation and entry to some of the monasteries. From the high balconies within the buildings you will see long ropes with a sack tied on the end, hanging way down below into the valley. The visitors or residents of the monastery would tie themselves into the sack and be lifted almost four-hundred meters up onto the balcony – a truly adrenaline-inducing entrance that we no longer have to use thanks to thousands of more modern steps being carved into the rockface of the mountains.

Each monastery has its own towering views, architecture, cultural and historical artifacts, and churches. The six main monasteries operating today are Great Meteoron, Varlaam, Rousanou, St. Nicholas Anapausas, St. Stephen, and the Holy Trinity. The largest of these is the Great Meteoron Monastery, which has its own museum and welcomes visitors from all over the Orthodox world and beyond.

A tour through Great Meteoron Monastery includes many elements, from natural beauty to culture. An intriguing room in the monastery known as the sacristy contains skeletal remains, the skulls of the monks who lived and died there. Their remains are preserved here as a tribute to their lives and service.

Each of these monasteries is within a five-minute drive of each other and therefore it is easy to visit all within a day. Some people even walk and create a scenic hike out of it. There are, after all, plenty of great lookout spots atop these steep mountains, with views as far as the eye can see and a cozy town at the foot of the cliffs. Kalabaka is a small town but offers amenities you would find elsewhere, like restaurants, shops, and public transportation. A smaller village called Kastraki is located just next door on the other side of the cliffs and offers plenty of options for accommodation. The culture here is influenced by the monasteries above, and life seems to move more calmly and consciously.

This central part of Greece is very mountainous and towns are spread out wide across the open peaks and valleys. The closest city to Meteora is Trikala, small in relation to other cities in Greece but still having much to offer. A twenty-minute drive from the mountains, Trikala transforms into a winter wonderland during the holidays and is a nice option for a weekend getaway in the summer. This part of the country is a nature-lover’s dream, with lush forests, seemingly endless mountain ranges, rivers, and lakes. Meteora has a designated camping site in the village of Kastraki at the foot of the mountains which is frequented by people seeking to hike these unique cliffs – although climbing the hundreds of stairs to reach some of monasteries can be an extreme workout in itself.

Meteora is one of the places I visited with my family during my first trip to Greece when I was a kid. It is a landscape like no other in Greece, and far from the norm as depicted in photos or travel ads about the country. Memories of Meteora remain fresh in your mind, as it is hard to forget these grand and holy spaces set dizzily along the cliffs. Some legends say the taller the mountain, the closer you are to heaven.

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