Above the town of Kalambaka, on the north-western edge of Greece’s Plain of Thessaly, giant rock formations reach nearly 400m into the sky, like something out of a science fiction movie. Balanced across 24 pillars are monasteries, visible through the clouds. The giant rock pedestals were created an estimated 60 million years ago. Today, the enormous fingers pointing to the heavens are a protected Unesco World Heritage Site and go by the name Meteora – which literally means “suspended in the air”. Meteora is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece. The first people to inhabit Meteora was ascetic group of hermit monks who arrived in the 9th Century.
In a bid to escape everyday life, they braved fierce storms and climbed up the cliffs with their bare hands. Grabbing at trees as they went, they eventually settled in small caves and crevices and embarked on a life of solitude, meeting occasionally to worship and pray. For hundreds of years the only way to bring anything up or down the rocks was with nets or baskets attached to rope. As time progressed the cave dwellers grew into a small community focused around the growing number of monasteries, which by the 14th Century served as shelter from Turkish invaders.
Painting icons is a skill that many of the monks and nuns continue to practice and you will probably see them perfecting their latest piece of art. It is a painstakingly slow process, with an icon taking many months to complete. The old katholikon (chapel) at St Stephanos, which was rebuilt in 1545, is still standing, but was heavily damaged during WWII and the civil war throughout the 1940s, so many of the icons contain bullet holes.
The following monasteries can be visited and are located nearby the road circuiting Meteora. Clockwise you’ll find:
- Agiou Nikolaou monastery (St. Nickolas Anapausas)
The Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas, built in the 16th century AD, is a small church. It was decorated by the Cretan painter Theophanis Strelitzas, in 1527. The Holy Monastery of St Nicholas houses a single-nave church with a small dome, decorated by the 16th-century Cretan painter, Theophanes the Monk. Each monastery houses an impressive collection of Byzantine art – some of the most beautiful in all of Greece.
- Agias Varvaras Rousanou monastery (St. Barbara)
- The Holy Monastery of Rousanou/St. Barbara was founded in the middle of 16th century AD and decorated in 1560.
- Megalo Meteoro monastery (Great Meteoron)
The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron – This is the largest of the monasteries located at Metéora. It was erected in the mid-14th century AD and was the subject of restoration and embellishment projects in 1483 and 1552. The building serves as the main museum for tourists. The Katholikon (main church), consecrated in honour of the Transfiguration of Jesus was erected in the middle of 14th c. and 1387/88 and decorated in 1483 and 1552..
- Agias Triados monastery (Holy Trinity)
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity is on top of the cliffs. It was built in 1475 and was remodeled many times in 1684, 1689, 1692, 1741. The Monastery of the Holy Trinity is accessible by climbing 140 steep steps, making it one of the least visited. It was used in the final scenes of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.
- Agiou Stefanou monastery (St. Stephen, the only monastery for women)
The Holy Monastery of St. Stephen is a small church built in the 16th century and decorated in 1545. This monastery rests on the plain rather than on a cliff. It was damaged by the Nazis during World War IIwho believed it was harboring insurgents and was abandoned. Nuns took it over and reconstructed it. The Holy Monastery of St Stephanos was founded around 1400 and is now a convent with wonderful views of the Pinios River. If you ask them, the nuns will take the time to tell you about their daily routine and the history of their home.
- Varlaam monastery:
The Holy Monastery of Varlaam – The Holy Monastery of Varlaam is the second largest monastery in the Metéora complex. It was built in 1541 and embellished in 1548. A church, dedicated to All Saints, is in the Athonite type (cross-in-square with dome and choirs), with spacious exonarthex (lite) is surrounded by a dome. It was built in 1541/42 and decorated in 1548, while the exonarthex was decorated in 1566. The old refectory is used as a museum while north of the church is the parekklesion of the Three Bishops, built in 1627 and decorated in 1637.
The monasteries were not originally built for tourism. Tourism, essential to the monasteries survival, has also destroyed their character. They are no longer contemplative.
Women are required to wear skirts covering the knees and have their shoulders covered, too. Most of the monastaries do provide wraps for women who come unprepared, but if you bring your own, especially one with bright colors, you’ll get a smile from the monk or nun at the entrance.
Along the same line, men are required to wear trousers covering the knees. This too can be borrowed from the stock at the entrance but that clothing isn’t washed after every user so it may cause a bad feeling to you wearing these skirts.
An entrance fee is expected by some monasteries which might be about € 2. Inexpensive, mass produced icons may be purchased in the monasteries for as little as € 1. They do not have the variety of the factories, however.