Meteora, Greece, is stunning and otherworldly — and James Bond was here. Need I say more?
The landscape is as dramatic as the climbing scene in For Your Eyes Only. Bond (Roger Moore) scales a 1,300-foot rock cliff to recover a British encryption device from the villain’s hideout. Sandstone pillars jut out of the Pineios Valley to heights of 2,000 feet above sea level. Greek Orthodox monasteries sit atop six of these columns that seemingly reach halfway to heaven.
Centrally located in mainland Greece, Meteora is 3 hours from Thessaloniki and 4 hours from Athens. The town of Kalambaka (population 12,000) on the valley floor is about 2 miles from the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas — the first you reach by car. The village of Kastraki (population 1,500) abuts Meteora’s rocky outcrops and is less than a mile from the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas.
In the late 10th century, hermit monks took to caves eroded into the sheer pillar walls for a life of prayer and solitude, gathering occasionally to worship in small groups. As the Ottomans invaded, the monks continued up the columns, eventually reaching the top. There they built 24 monasteries in the 14th and 15th centuries. Religious continue to live peacefully and prayerfully in six of them.
The Six Monasteries
Today, all six functioning monasteries are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Monks live in four of them: the Holy Monasteries of Great Meteoron, Varlaam, the Holy Trinity, and Saint Nicholas. The Holy Trinity Monastery is the hardest to get to, with 140 steps up to the entrance — or you can climb from the valley floor, as Moore did after he had a few drinks to calm his nerves. He apparently was terribly afraid of heights. Luckily for Moore, the director didn’t choose the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron — the oldest and highest monastery at about 2,000 feet above the valley floor.
Nuns live in the Holy Monasteries of Saint Stephen and Rousanou. Both were ransacked during the Nazi occupation but have since been restored.
Construction occurred against all odds. Monks carried all the materials to the top or hoisted supplies up in buckets on a pulley system. Moving building materials for the Holy Monastery of Varlaam took 22 years. The actual construction took only 20 days.
To get from one monastery to the next or into the village, monks scaled the pillars, used temporary scaffolding, climbed on rope ladders, or were pulled up in a rope net. Difficulty climbing to the tops of the pillars kept not only invaders but casual visitors away. Our guide told us that when a monk was asked when the rope ladders needed to be replaced, he said, “When the Lord lets them break.”
Some monasteries used gondolas to move people and supplies; many are still in use today. In the 1920s, monks carved steps into the sandstone, and visitors began tackling the climb.
Pro Tip: The Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen is the only wheelchair-accessible monastery. All the others have stairs — in some cases, many of them. Restrooms are located inside the monasteries, and you will need to climb stairs to get to them as well.
Your tour of the monastery includes a look at a day in the life of a monk or nun. Monks and nuns rise at 3:30 a.m. for private prayer until 5 a.m. Their workdays revolve around greeting visitors, cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the monastery. They meet for prayer in the monastery’s church throughout the day (some monasteries are closed during this time). Prayer accompanies all work.
Monastery life is communal. No one has money or much in the way of possessions. In the Bible, Jesus tells his followers that they must leave everything in order to follow him, and that is exactly what the monks and nuns have done.
Pro Tip: Since you’re visiting places of worship, modesty is key. Women must wear dresses or skirts that extend below their knees. Men must wear long pants. And neither women nor men can have bare shoulders. Note that the monasteries no longer supply sarongs for women and long pants for men to wear during the visit.
Art, Relics, And Treasures
The churches within the monasteries are covered with frescoes. There’s a dramatic depiction of the Apocalypse in the Holy Monastery of Varlaam. In the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas, the murals of Adam naming the animals and the whale upchucking Jonah are more upbeat. Beautiful iconography on the screen between the high altar and the nave is a central feature in each church.
Several of the monasteries have relics on display. Most notable is the ossuary in the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, which features the skulls of former residents lined up in neat rows. Within this monastery’s museum, priceless religious manuscripts are on display. The Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen has a museum with finely embroidered vestments and tapestries. Nuns still embroider and sell their work at this monastery.
Pro Tip: Amateurs can photograph the landscape and the monastery’s exterior. Photography isn’t allowed within the churches and museums. If you’re interested in photographing the monks or nuns, you’ll need to ask for their permission first. If you intend to sell the photographs you take, you have to apply for permission with the Ministry of Culture. The same goes for using a drone.
Planning Your Trip
Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Summer sees hot days (up to 90 degrees) and many pilgrims descending on the monasteries from tour buses. And winter is rainy, with January and February temperatures dipping to freezing at night.
Companies offer group and private tours to Meteora from Athens, Thessaloniki, and Kalambaka. Another option is to rent a car in Athens, Thessaloniki, or Kalambaka. Driving in Greece is manageable, although the road is winding. The monasteries have free parking.
Alternatively, tour companies offer guided half-day hikes with the best of all worlds — a little exercise, great views, and no chance of getting lost.
For a short, self-guided hike to the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen and an easy drive to all of the monasteries, stay at Hotel Pyrgos Adrachti in Kastraki.
Pro Tips: Check the schedule for the days and times the monasteries are open. With the exception of the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas, which is open daily, each monastery is closed one or two days a week. The entrance fee is 3 euros at each monastery.