Athens to Meteora: A Once in a Lifetime Day Trip

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Visiting Greece is one of those trips of a lifetime that many people have on their bucket list.  The history contained within this locale is staggering and of course most tourists will make their way to the capitol of Athens.  With a genuinely charming mix of ancient history and modern life, the atmosphere in Athens can be overwhelming at first but there is simply so much to see and do that you will never run out of options day by day and unless you move there, odds are you will never be able to visit it all.

Even with the countless busy tourist locations in Athens, consider taking a small side trip out into the countryside to visit the Meteora.  Traveling from Athens to Meteora will truly be a once in a lifetime day trip that you won’t want to miss.  Out and away from the commotion of the capitol, a quieter, profound journey awaits you at Meteora.

Meteora is quite a distance from Athens, but well worth the day trip.  The 225 mile trip is a solid four hour ride each way but in that distance, you will view some of the rustic countryside Greece is know for and personally take in the beauty of the Greek countryside.  Many visitors find the trip worthy of staying an extra day to witness the spectacular sunset among these pillars unto heaven, and explore more of the area the following day.  Nestled in the southern central region of the Grecian peninsula, The Meteora are at the western border of Thessaly and constitute a natural boundary with the neighboring Epirus region.

Visiting the Meteora will be a rewarding experience regardless if you are coming for spiritual enlightenment, photo opportunities, or simply for the beauty of the landscape.  The columns themselves are collectively called the Meteora, meaning “suspended in air” or “lofty” and elevated they sure are.  Stretching over 1800’ in height, these natural towers are a classical draw for a tourist even without the astounding addition of the magnificent achievement of building massive monasteries on top!  The nearby village of Kalambaka and surrounding countryside of the Plain of Thessaly are a warm and inviting environment full of farmers and shepherds that will welcome you to their rural way of life while you take in the massive rock formations.

These pillars are unusual because of their composition and their off formation seems to be independent of the nearby Pindus Mountains.  Geologists have surmised that the hard sandstone was created sixty million years ago with eons of river delta sediment deposits, and then the Earth was disrupted and caused the area to be raised above the water level.  Millennium upon millennium of erosion and weather has carved out and washed away the surrounding soft earth leaving only these magnificent pillars towering into the sky, standing proud and alone in the valley.

Getting there can be half the fun as they say.  The four hour trip can be rewarding in its own right.  A relaxing drive through the Greek countryside, seeing the mountains, valleys, farms and other rural aspects you won’t see in the large tourist-populated city of Athens.  The drive can be relaxing and calming, but you have other options available to you as well.  Local tour groups have buses that bring you to and from the site so you won’t have to worry about renting a vehicle or getting lost on the back country roads.  Sit back and relax on the bus and save your strength for all the hiking and walking you plan to take in while visiting the Meteora.

There is also a daily train that will take you to the Meteora and if you’re looking to fulfill a one in a lifetime fantasy of visiting the best Greece has to show you, how could you possibly go wrong with a romantic train ride through the virgin countryside to begin and end your sojourn to the monasteries of the Meteora?  Currently there is only a single train in and out daily, so make your reservations early and make sure you pay heed to the train schedule.  Departing at 7am and beginning the return trip around at 5pm, you’ll have just over five hours to explore the wondrous towers of the Meteora.

You’ve come to the Meteora for the monasteries.  The picturesque valley with the monk’s towers has other fare to provide, but if you’re taking the day trip from Athens, the single must-see attraction, the main reason for the journey has to be the awesome structures built upon the towering rocks called the Meteora.

Though the caves in the area contain evidence of human habitation dating back more than 50,000 years, the Meteora were not occupied until a little over a thousand years back in the 800’s CE when hermit monks searching for an escape from routine bodily pleasures and needs took to the cliffs to isolate themselves from temptation and corruption.  They believed this Ascetic life would bring them contentment and enlightenment.  Isolating themselves from society in the caves, cliffs and crags of the Meteora was their attempt to live their virtuous life away from the pleasures of the flesh and allowed them to fill their days with fasting and prayer.

Centuries later, in the 1300’s, the band of isolationist monks had been continually caught up in the political upheaval, invasions, and wars between the Greek state and the neighboring Turkish raiders.  They began to build monasteries on top of their towering sanctuaries with limited access to the now fortified structures.  Original construction was completed by way of hauling up all building materials up the sheer cliff face with ropes and nets.  Impossibly long ladders were constructed to allow for visitation with the monks but these ladders could be retracted and removed to make access nearly impossible when times of trouble arose.

The rope and net method of access to the top of the Meteora was the primary way to reach the top up into the modern age with steps being carved into the towers and bridges being build less than 100 years ago in the 1920’s.  For more than 600 years, if you wanted to visit with the monks at the Meteora, you free-climbed the cliff like the original hermits, braved a series of aging wooden ladders over 1200’ into the sky, or you trusted the old ropes and baskets to carry you up to the top like each and every brick, stone, and timber used to build these impressive monuments to dedication of isolationism.

Of the original 24 monasteries, only six remain serviceable today.  The remaining eighteen have been rendered to ruins by lack of occupancy, minimal maintenance, and the ravages of weather.  The six active buildings house fewer than 56 occupants by the last census, fifteen of these 56 are monks split up over four monasteries and the other 41 are nuns who have turned the final two usable buildings into nunneries.  This means that on your visit, when you enter the remaining monasteries, you will encounter surprisingly few monks for such a spectacular landscape known for its monasteries.  Perhaps this is in keeping with the ninth century monk’s ideal of escaping society and isolating oneself from the herd.

Once you arrive at the Meteora, you must keep in mind that you are a guest, and while this amazing site is a regularly visited tourist attraction, these venerated buildings are still active places of worship and must be treated with respect and consideration.  You are after all stepping into their world, you must remain a polite guest while you visit.  Though there are few monks in residence, this is their home and we would do well to bear this in mind while we are treated to the interior of these monasteries.  Case in point, improper dress attire will result in being denied access to the monasteries, so dress accordingly; modest and less “tourist”.

The nunneries are of particular interest as two of these ancient monasteries have been occupied by more nuns than monks.  The Monastery of St. Barbara of Roussanou and the Monastery of St. Stephen have been converted to nunneries.  St. Barbara of Roussanou has a large population of domesticated cats wandering the grounds that the nuns feed and care for.  The impeccable gardens will charm you and the ornate decorations in the chapel will hearken back to a time when churches were revered for their plain yet impressive displays of adornment.

The Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen is likely the most accessible for those visitors unable to mount the long rock staircases required to visit some of the Meteora.  Crossing a small bridge into the monastery is easy for the handicapped or wheelchair-bound and a relief to see once you contemplate the long climb once required for access.  St. Stephens had dual cathedrals, rebuilt and renovated multiple times throughout the ages.  Both will bring you a keener understanding of the ancient monk’s struggles while providing astonishing vistas of the surrounding valley.

The Monastery of Varlaam has the highest population with seven monks (all residency numbers reference the latest data from 2015, monks may have come or gone since then…)  The original monk Varlaam created this sanctuary around 1350 but after his death the grounds fell to ruin until it was re-purposed and rebuilt in the early 1500’s.  Much of the original construction was preserved and even the large 3200 gallon water tank built by Varlaam in anticipation of other monks following him up the cliff, which didn’t happen until nearly 200 years later.

Maybe the loneliest of the monasteries, The Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapafsas currently houses a single resident, abbot archimandrite Polykarpos Venetis.  Those unfamiliar with church titles, abbot archimandrite is equivalent to being the “lead” abbot if the monastery were full of other abbots.  From all the movies and television we watch, we know the term “Mother Superior” but the corresponding “Abbot Archimandrite” is all but unknown to western culture.  Abbot Venetis lives in this three story monastery caring for the ancient frescoes that adorn these delicate walls perched atop the cliff.

With its Chapel of St. John partially carved into the face of the mountain itself, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity is a contender for one of the more picturesque of the Meteora monasteries.  Perched atop the pillar sits the small unassuming building constructed in cross-form and houses five monks who toil daily to preserve the elaborate frescoes and tend the small grounds and garden.  So picturesque is this beautiful monastery that it was cast as a prime location for the climax of the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”.  In it, the villain uses the monastery as a hideout for the same reason the original hermits and monks did; inaccessibility.  Of course, in the film, the hero James Bond scales the cliffs an thwarts the villain’s evil intentions, but that is much harder to do when facing the actual cliff itself without stuntmen and camera trickery…

Largest of the six active monasteries is The Monastery of Great Meteoron.  Largest in complexity and in notoriety.  This structure was built small and humble originally and then grew over the years eventually being renovated into the impressive monastery you see before you today.  Endowed by donations from the empire and royal classes, the monastery built formal greeting rooms for respected guests that came to visit the cathedral upon the cliff.  Modern day tourists have an entire building that has been renovated into a museum of the monastery’s history and attractions.  Other buildings showcase the simple kitchen the monk’s cook their meals, the original carved hermitage, the impressive vaulted refectory, and if you are feeling particularly historical and slightly macabre, the sacristy houses the previous tenant’s remains, their polished skulls on display to contemplate our mortality.

Perhaps you aren’t looking to immerse yourself in the fantastic monasteries while in Meteora.  If you or a member of your party has had their fill of the countless chapels and churches while visiting Greece, fear not, for Meteora offers plenty of alternative options for those looking to explore beyond the famed monasteries.

The influx of visitors to the area has generated a cottage industry of vendors and entrepreneurs that are willing to accommodate the weary traveler looking to see more than “another dusty old church”.  Private tours are available with native local guides who know the region intimately and are excited to show your the country of their birth.  Native tour guides will often provide details and insights not available on the larger corporate tours.

The beauty of the area can be taken in by yourself by simply going for a walk on any of the monk trails weaving and winding through the landscape.  Picking up a trail guide map would be advisable as some of these trails can offer a moderate hike up into the higher elevations.  Plenty of flatland walking available but for these inclined hikes, the extra effort will reward you with scenery that will inspire anyone willing to make the trek.  For those unable or unwilling to embrace the inclines, bicycle and motorbike rentals are also available in the area.

Sheer cliffs, steep climbs, and majestic views are available for the experienced and beginner rock climber alike.  Climb up into the clouds among Meteora’s famed pillars, much like the original hermits must have climbed, only you’ll have modern technology and safety gear available to you.  The small village in the valley is built between the large cliff faces of phenomenal geologic formations.  Each cliff has a story with it, most of them involve the hermit monks climbing the sheer walls with minimal equipment to reach the summit where they’d build a chapel on the plateau.  If you climb these amazing towers, you won’t be climbing into any of the occupied monasteries as their locations have been off limits as part of an age-old gentleman’s agreement.  If you do happen to find yourself climbing around some of the old ruins and abandoned sites, be sure to keep your distance from the centuries old wooden scaffolding that is still in place at the mouth of several of these caves in the cliff face.  They are obviously unsound from a structural point of view, but more importantly, they are delicate and worth preserving from a cultural point of view.

If the constancy of the hushed tones and somber reverence of the area’s churches, monasteries and generally isolated atmosphere is what’s getting to you, take a trip down the Ionas River for a mild rafting experience that is sure to invigorate and refresh you.  The rafting trip takes place on a gorgeous six mile stretch of river that has plenty of excitement with small rapids that won’t threaten your adventure while still providing you with a thrilling view of the surrounding monasteries towering over you while you cruise down the river in the shadows of the towering giants.

Recently off limits for the casual traveler is the amazing Cave of Theopetra.  This important scientific discovery demonstrates human activity back to more than 50,000 years ago, possibly as far back as 130,000 years, and is a key piece of documentation of people’s presence during Europe’s latest ice age.  The wide cave mouth lets in plenty of light and the nearby river offers fresh clean water making this cave one of the original pieces of prime real estate.  The cave’s continual occupation is partially attributed to these amenities and this unbroken line of residency is helping modern scientists piece together important details about Greco-Mediterranean pre-history.  The archaeological dig is discovering evidence of Homo-Sapiens driving out the Neanderthals, and still later, leaving behind our hunter-gatherer culture with our development of agriculture.  The cave’s opening was partially closed off by a wall 23,000 years ago during the last ice age, possibly to minimize the cold and block the winds.  This man-made structure is a contender for the oldest existing human construction in the world.

The archaeological dig itself may be closed to the public but its importance has spawned plenty of local shops and museums.  The Hellenic Culture Museum is filled with aged books dedicated to the venerable Greek philosophers and storytellers such as Homer, Aesop, and Aristotle.  Ancient mythology and more modern antiques from last century’s classroom await to give breath to the stories of Greek’s past.

Whether you are searching for spiritual enlightenment from the majestic monasteries at Meteora, or just looking for a day excursion out and away from the beautiful but bustling Athens, a day-trip to Meteora will give you more than you are looking for.  Spectacular views, stunning revelations, and plenty of enjoyable moments in the countryside, the Meteora will prove to be that once in a lifetime day trip that you will hold dear in your heart and cherish the memories you create there.  Monasteries, convents, sheer cliffs, and amazing views in all directions are guaranteed to grab a hold of your heart and return you to this fantastic excursion over and over again making this once in a lifetime day trip provide you with warm recollections for an entire lifetime.

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