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Where the Earth Touches Heaven
Greece’s Meteora monasteries rest on giant gray stalagmites, rising hundreds of feet above the plain, seemingly gifts from heaven for those seeking solitude in order to devote their lives to worship. For the rest of us, these heavenly hermitages make for one of the most breathtaking sites on earth.
Meteora's History
Located in the northwest corner of the region known as Thessaly (central Greece), the area was originally settled during the 11th Century by Greek Orthodox monks who believed the spectacular rocks, sculpted by wind and water over thousands of years, to be holy. These first monks resided in caves within the rocks. Over the centuries, however, and especially during the reign of the Turks, the monks climbed higher and higher to stay out of harm’s way. Finally, they were living on the inaccessible peaks. They built the monasteries over the span of decades, hauling building materials, provisions, and people up by ladders and baskets, which were, of course, withdrawn in times of threat. The ropes and baskets are visible at some sites even today. In fact, some are still in use. The monks enjoyed a thousand years of security and solitude—the roads, pathways, and steps to the top used by modern tourists were not built until the 1920s.

The monasteries of Meteora—which translates as “suspended in air”—protected more than just religious freedom. Their serenity and seclusion attracted not only the pious but also Greece’s philosophers, scholars, poets, and artists. The monasteries became repositories for the Hellenic culture and traditions. It’s believed, in fact, that if not for the monasteries, Hellenic culture and history would not have survived and that modern Greece would more likely be a reflection of the Turks’ Ottoman Empire.

Visiting Meteora
Of the 24 original monasteries, only six are still in operation. Each of these is open to the public. The monasteries are connected by a smooth paved road, and it’s possible to see all of them in one day if you start early enough and have a lot of energy for climbing steps.

The largest and best-known monastery is the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron. Built on the highest rock beginning in the 1300s, it became the richest and most powerful of the monasteries because the Serbian emperor Symeon Uros, who became a monk, donated all of his wealth. Here, after climbing 115 steep steps, you’ll see a museum collection of manuscripts and artifacts and some of the most beautiful post-Byzantine murals in Greece, as well as an intricate 12-sided dome.

The Holy Monastery of St. Stephen is the only Meteora convent. This is a wonderful place from which to view the lovely plains that stretch toward the town of Kalambaka.

The Holy Monastery of Rousannou was founded in 1545 by two brothers who built it on the ruins of an even older church. Here you’ll find stunning wall paintings and religious icons. The monastery is accessed via a bridge from another peak.

The Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas, built in the 16th Century, is decorated with the wall paintings of the renowned Greek artist Theophanis Bathas-Strelitzas.

The Monastery of Holy Trinity is famous for...playing a major role in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”! Founded by the monk Dometius in the 15th Century, you access the monastery via 140 steps cut into the rock.

The Holy Monastery of Varlaam was founded in 1517 and houses frescoes and numerous ecclesiastical treasures, such as intricately carved crosses. (195 steps!)

Each monastery charges a modest entry fee—about $1—and a dress code is strictly enforced. Women cannot wear pants or shorts and skirts must fall below the knee. Men are required to wear long pants and long sleeves.

Tourists usually stay in the nearby towns of Kalambaka and Kastraki. Kastraki, the smaller of the two, is within walking distance of Meteora, and is a particular favorite of rock climbers, the daring souls who see Meteora the hard way...just as the first monks did!

How to get there? You can take a bus to Kalambaka from Ioannina, Trikala, Thessalonika, and Athens. You can take a train from Thessalonika or Athens with a switch at Larissa. If you rent a car, you’ll drive about 218 miles northwest from Athens to Kalambaka, and then another 13 miles north to Meteora.

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Story by Jacqueline Shannon
Photography by Michael Blassis


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