The Meteora Monasteries, Greece – A Life Between Heaven And Earth
Greece is mostly famous among travellers for its ancient ruins and pristine beaches. However, a different place on its territory, which I can only describe as mind-blowing, deserves a top spot on your travel list.
Imagine monolith rock formations, rising up hundreds of metres from the ground, withstanding Nature’s forces for millions of years. Then picture Christian Orthodox monasteries, balanced on top of the rocks, defying all laws of gravity.
This mystical, surreal place is known as Meteora, which roughly translates to “levitating between Heaven and Earth”.
The monastery complex is the second largest in Greece, being inferior only to the legendary Mount Athos on the Chalkidiki Peninsula.
The six functioning Meteora Monasteries are a UNESCO World Heritage site and are open to visitors. In addition, ruins of the other 18 deserted monasteries and remains of the monks’ rock-hewn dwellings can be observed on several cliffs.
Are your curiosity and imagination awake and excited?
Let me help you complete the picture by telling you every tiny, peculiar detail about Meteora, Greece and how to best enjoy the mystical, hanging Meteora Monasteries!
Jump directly to:
- Meteora Rock Formations: The Majestic Stone Forest Of Greece
- The History Of The Meteora Monasteries: A Tale Of Faith And Courage
- The Great Meteoron Monastery: The Commander Watching Over His Troops
- The Varlaam Monastery: A Great Insight Into The Life Of The Monks
- The Rousanou Nunnery: The Most Gorgeous But Rarely Visited Monastery
- The Monastery Of The Holy Trinity: The Most Captivating View Over Kalambaka
- The St. Stephen Monastery: The Most Accessible And Most Populated Monastery
- The St. Nicholas Anapausas Monastery: The Tiniest And Cosiest Of Them All
- Meteora, Greece: A Sublime Creation Of Man And Nature
Meteora Rock Formations: The Majestic Stone Forest Of Greece
Millions of years ago, the Thessaly Plain was the bottom of a sea. Series of Earth movements caused the vertical fault lines of sandstone to rise. Afterwards, the weather gave the huge pillars their contemporary, breathtaking shapes.
Nearing the area, you’ll see the huge rounded boulders from afar. But even after you’ve reached the town of Kalambaka, Greece (alternatively spelt Kalampaka or Kalabaka) at the feet of Meteora, you can’t fully grasp the majestic sight.
On an area of roughly 7 km2, the Meteora Rocks stand in groups of smaller and larger pillars, resembling a stone forest. Some are as tall as a house, while others rise hundreds of metres above the ground and make skyscrapers look like dwarfs.
Thick, lush forests grow between the rocks, hiding their bases, making them look suspended – even levitating – into the air.
Take your time to travel the 10-kilometre-long, winding, scenic road and fully admire this magnificent creation of nature!
The History Of The Meteora Monasteries: A Tale Of Faith And Courage
The first people to inhabit Meteora, Greece, were hermit monks. In the 11th century, they came from Mount Athos to seek peace and solitude. At first, they lived in caverns and rock-hewn dwellings in the cliffs.
The earliest monasteries were built in the 14th century. Monks and nuns congregated to study the dogmatics of the East Orthodox Christianity.
Meanwhile, the invasions of the Ottomans brought the end of the Byzantine Empire’s reign over the fertile Thessaly Plain. During this time, over 20 monasteries were established.
The hermits felt safe in the Meteora Monasteries. The access to the monasteries, perched on top of the high monoliths, was restricted to removable ladders, ropes, and winches. Whenever the monks and nuns felt threatened, they would remove the ladders and deny access to the outside world.
The ropes would be changed when God decided it was time to replace them. Meaning, whenever they would tear.
By the end of the 16th century, the number of the Meteora Monasteries increased to 24. Today, only six of them remain inhabited, while you can still see the ruins of several others on the adjacent cliffs.
Heavily bombarded and partially destroyed during WWII, the Meteora Monasteries survived even the modern warfare. They were rebuilt and some even expanded.
Nuns inhabit two of the functioning monasteries: St. Stephen and St. Barbara (aka Rousanou). The other four – The Great Meteoron, Varlaam, The Monastery of the Holy Trinity, and St. Nicholas Anapausas – are home to monks.
The total monastic population currently counts 56, comprising of 15 monks and 41 nuns.
Nowadays, all six active Meteora Monasteries are open to visitors. Don’t worry, the access is no longer via ladders and half-rotten ropes!
In the 1920s, the government constructed and carved staircases, bridges, paved paths, and tunnels, making the access to the remaining monasteries much easier.
The Great Meteoron Monastery: The Commander Watching Over His Troops
St. Athanasios the Meteorite founded The Great Meteoron Monastery, also known as the Metamorfossis Sotiros Monastery (Transfiguration of Christ Monastery) in the 14th century.
It is the oldest and largest of the Meteora Monasteries. Its construction gave the start to organised monastery life in Meteora.
Despite its imposing size, only three monks currently reside in the monastery.
Perched on the top of one of the grandest rocks in the area, the Broad Rock, the Great Meteoron Monastery stands higher than the rest of the monasteries, like a commander watching over his troops.
What can you see once you’ve climbed the steep, winding 270 steps to the top of the plateau, you might wonder? Was the effort worth it?
In the central courtyard, you’ll find the main cathedral. Every inch of the walls displays fascinating East Orthodox frescos from the 16th century. You’ll need a long time and many head-turns to marvel at every detail of the depictions of biblical scenes and saints’ lives on the walls.
A cellar with tools and pots for producing and storage of wine will give you an insight into the work and life of the monks outside of the church. Opposite of it, the history museum boasts historical codices, religious icons, and military uniforms.
In a tiny corner behind a wooden door with a small window, a spooky display shows the skulls and bones of monks, who have inhabited the Great Meteoron Monastery since its inception in the 14th century.
The former nursing home and hospital building currently hosts an exhibition of priceless manuscripts and lithographies. And in the monastery’s old kitchen, you can observe the original oven, fireplace, sink, pots, and cutlery.
But even after witnessing all these treasures, the most rewarding sight reveals from the summit of the cliff.
From the backyard of the Great Meteoron, the panorama staggers even the most experienced globetrotters.
It features the Varlaam Monastery, Rousanou Nunnery, and St. Nicholas Anapausas Monastery, as well as the surrounding Meteora monoliths and Kalambaka in the distance. Somewhere even further away, you might recognise the contours of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity.
The Varlaam Monastery: A Great Insight Into The Life Of The Monks
Within walking distance from the Great Meteoron Monastery, on top of a neighbouring rock pillar, stands the Holy Varlaam Monastery.
A little less treacherous to visit than its neighbour, with “only” 150 steps to climb, the second largest of the Meteora Monasteries offers another jaw-dropping view of Meteora and an invaluable insight into the life of the monks.
Currently, it is the most populated of the male monasteries with seven monk residents.
The monastery is named after the first monk who lived on this cliff in the 14th century, Varlaam. The actual monastery was erected two centuries later.
The stunningly beautiful courtyard reveals another magnificent panorama over Meteora, Greece.
Except for St. Stephen, all other functioning monasteries are in sight. If you inspect the surrounding cliffs carefully, you can spot the remains of several of the ruined monasteries as well.
The church features fascinating frescos from the 16th century, drawn by famous hagiographers. It is smaller than the large cathedral of the Great Meteoron but just as skillfully painted to the last millimetre.
A real highlight is the tower with the preserved old net, which the monks used to ascend and descend the cliff. It must have been a real adventure to come up and down from the high pillar: this side of the rock is 125 m tall, while the opposite one rises a whole lot more – up to 373 m!
An impressive 12,000-litre oak barrel from the 16th century, used for – surprise – not wine but water storage, occupies a whole room of the monastery.
The Varlaam Monastery’s refectory has been turned into a museum. Inside, you can admire artistically ornamented icons and priest vestments. Historical photographs further reveal the perils of a life between Heaven and Earth.
The Rousanou Nunnery: The Most Gorgeous But Rarely Visited Monastery
The Rousanou Nunnery, also known as the St. Barbara Monastery, probably bears its name after the first monk who resided here. Nowadays, 13 nuns live in one of the lesser visited monasteries.
Roughly 200 steps will take you to the entrance of the nunnery. Large groups skip this monastery, as its smaller size can’t accommodate them. Mostly independent travellers are lucky to experience the most gorgeous of the Meteora Monasteries.
On your way up, before reaching the entrance, you can throw a glance at the lovely garden. Unfortunately, the small courtyard is closed for visitors.
Once inside the monastery, explore the main church. It was built in the 16th century, over a century after the monastery was constructed.
After you exit the nunnery, take the stairs to the right, then follow the trail for a few metres. You’ll find a narrow path to the right, which will lead you to a large rock.
Carefully place your heinie on the boulder and admire the fabulous panorama of the Rousanou Monastery and the adjacent cliffs, which very few other tourists have observed!
The Monastery Of The Holy Trinity: The Most Captivating View Over Kalambaka
A long, winding, paved path takes you the bottom of the cliff, on top of which the Monastery of the Holy Trinity was established. A sheer, narrow stairway, cut into the same cliff, leads the way to the monastery’s gates.
Despite the long walk, the 140 steps are not the steepest you’ll encounter in the area of Meteora, Greece. The combination surely doesn’t make the Monastery of the Holy Trinity what multiple sources claim: the hardest to reach.
It is, in fact, less tiring than climbing to the Great Meteoron or even Varlaam Monasteries.
So no matter what you’ve read or heard, don’t miss the chance to visit this spectacular monastery with the best view over Kalambaka.
Agia Triada, as the Greek name of the monastery is, has a charming courtyard and a small, but beautifully painted church with frescoes from the 15th century. A look from the monastery’s tower into the oblivion reveals how skilful the builders must have been to construct the monastery on such a high, vertical rock.
The interesting architecture and the panorama of the surroundings – the cliffs, Kalambaka, and the Meteora Monasteries in the distance – make a visit to the Holy Trinity Monastery entrancing and unforgettable.
The St. Stephen Monastery: The Most Accessible And Most Populated Monastery
The St. Stephen Monastery (Agios Stefanos in Greek) is by far the most accessible one. It is also the most populated of the Meteora Monasteries with 28 nuns as residents.
There are no steps to climb. All it takes to enter this impressive nunnery is crossing a bridge.
Hidden a little further away from the rest, it’s hardly visible from the other Meteora Monasteries, but you can see it from the town centre of Kalambaka.
The first monastery on this rock was erected in the 14th century. Four centuries later, a new church was completed and the monastery was further expanded.
The fantastic scent from the flower and herbal gardens on each side of the large courtyard fill the air. On the contrary, the air in the monastery buildings is sticky and stuffy. It’s obvious, that the presence of so many tourists spoils the tranquillity of the place.
However, the nuns do not seem to mind the company and chat with a few of the visitors.
A young girl starts sweeping the main cathedral’s floor. A tourist asking about the frescos interrupts her work. The nun explains politely – in perfect English with a cute accent – the depictions of the sufferings of martyrs and saints in the wall paintings.
Across the cathedral is located the museum. Inside, elaborate religious objects and artefacts will take your breath away. It might be the lack of oxygen in the room that leaves you breathless, though ;)
The St. Nicholas Anapausas Monastery: The Tiniest And Cosiest Of Them All
Several sources claim that the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Greece is the most difficult to visit. However, my travel companions and I found the St. Nicholas Anapausas Monastery to be the hardest to reach.
An extremely steep path, alternating with even steeper stairs, leads to the smallest and least visited but unique and surprisingly welcoming of the Meteora Monasteries.
It is the closest one to the town of Kalambaka and even closer to the neighbouring Kastraki village. Often overlooked on the way to its bigger neighbours, it’s a true place of solitude and tranquillity.
The top of the rock, where the monastery was constructed in the 15th century, has a significantly small area. This forced the builders to erect the structure over several floors.
A winding wooden staircase connects the monk cells, the tiny church, and the cosy inner spaces with the small backyard.
The view from the tower reveals a different sight of the Meteora Rocks. The monolith pillars seem even closer than you’ve seen them before. You can also spot the rock-hewn monk dwelling and the ruins of another monastery.
From the backyard, you will notice the ruins of other two abandoned monasteries. Perfectly maintained vineyards and the charming houses of Kastraki and Kalambaka in the distance complete the fantastic panorama.
The highlight of the visit is at the beginning of the monastery tour: an authentic monk’s cell, complete with furniture, clothes, and various belongings.
Nowadays, only one monk resides in the St. Nicholas Anapausas Monastery.
Meteora, Greece: A Sublime Creation Of Man And Nature
Even in your wildest fantasies, you won’t be able to imagine the grandeur of the mystical suspended Meteora Monasteries.
Even after visiting Meteora, Greece, I find it difficult to comprehend the experience.
- How did the rocks rise and how did they withstand the natural forces and the recent warfare?
- How did the religious Greeks erect such transcendent structures in this impressive height without the help of modern tools?
- And how do the monks and the nuns manage to lead their modest life of solitude despite the countless visitors they greet each year?
I don’t think I’ve found the answers. There’s only one thing I know for sure: I don’t need to understand everything around me in order to be able to appreciate and admire it.
Oh, and that I’ll be coming back to marvel at these sublime creations of man and nature again!
How about you – are you looking forward to visiting Meteora, Greece?