As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to visit Metora, in Northern Greece. The name means ‘suspended in air’, and you can probably see why.
I mean, look at it:
In the past few years it’s become easy fodder for the fantasy travel bucket lists that float around on Pinterest collected by wide-eyed teenage girls, and for whatever reason, I didn’t really ever expect to get the chance to go there. Particularly because whenever I visited Greece I was in Athens… and it just seemed so far away.
I was talking to Al about this before we left for this trip, and he caught me off guard somewhat by saying something like: if any time was the right time to go, it was now. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that we could actually just… go. It had become so much of an expectation that it would always just be somewhere amazing that was out of reach.
So, we booked somewhere to stay, got on the train, and took the five hour journey up from Athens last week to the town of Kalambaka.
What strikes you from the moment you step off the train is the scenery. The rocks are unmissable, as they loom up behind the buildings.
We had been told that the best way to get to our AirBnB was to get a taxi from the station. It didn’t seem like that far a walk on the map though, so we wandered down the road, stopping every few minutes to take pictures of the increasingly amazing scenery.
The air was clean… and it felt like we were out in the country. All around was the tinge of that that pleasant burning fireplace smell that I associate so readily with the Highlands. Infact, if it had just been a little cloudier, it could just as easily have felt like somewhere in Scotland. That might seem trite to say, but that’s how it felt.
The shapes in some of the rocks were fascinating.
Apparently these holes were used by hermits for centuries, who would live in the caves… supported by the local people bringing them food, water, and supplies through a simple pulley-rope system.
We were staying in a wee village round from the main town of Kalambaka, called Kastraki. The view from there was even more amazing; the rocks becoming more jagged and charismatic.
We were at the very very end of the tourist season, and so the place was almost literally dead. As in, not a soul around. It was quite nice, especially compared to how busy Santorini had been just a couple of weeks prior.
That said, the place clearly filled up in the high season. I’m glad we saw it when we did.
Despite being somewhere that would attract large numbers of tourists, almost everybody we met was incredibly friendly. They took the time to ask about where you were from, and always seemed to genuinely be interested. You weren’t treated as just some annoyance that had to be tolerated for economic reasons.
The first night in particular was one of the best. We found a place online called Skaros that came highly recommended as an authentic place to eat, and so headed down after exploring throughout the day. It was slightly out of the centre, which meant not quite on the radar of those just looking around the main street. The menus were all in Greek (always a good sign!) and the staff were unbelievably friendly.
I started off by speaking a little Greek, and instead of acting surprised, or then being patronising when I didn’t quite understand something, the owner patiently took the time to speak slower, and more clearly till I worked it out – even asking how long we had lived in Greece (which I was quite pleased with). This came after an amusing incident where he had evidently said to let him know when we wanted to order, and I hadn’t quite caught this. We sat for about 40 minutes wondering why they were ignoring us before realising what he had said. Woops.
The food was amazing though – including the best tzatziki I’ve ever tasted. He took great pride in telling us that it was all made fresh, and not just bought in for tourists from the supermarket. We sat for hours drinking wine and enjoying the atmosphere, surrounded by Greek families. It was nice.
The plan was to use our one proper full day in Meteora to visit some of the monasteries that sit atop the cliffs which the area is famous for.
You can either drive, walk, or go on a private tour. The most sensible option for us was to pay for a tour given the time constraints, which was cheaper than renting a car as well.
We were all booked up, and then disaster struck. We awoke to the sound of rain. Not just a drizzle, but the skies completely pishing it down. The spectacular scenery was rendered completely invisible through fog, and the forecast said that it would stay that way until the next day – when we were meant to leave.
None the less, we were still determined to go… but we had no appropriate clothes. Rain jacket? Greece? Don’t be silly! I don’t even own a raincoat in Scotland. So we were woefully underprepared. The hotel gave us two umbrellas, but they turned out to be tiny and broken. Cue a comedic scene of us (clearly foreign) wandering around the desolate streets in the pouring rain trying to find replacements. We finally found one, but it seemed like it was the only umbrella in Greece. It was also terrible.
There wasn’t much we could do with the weather battering down as it was, so retired to the hotel to hide and wait it out. I was unbelievably disappointed at this point. We had travelled all this way to see this amazing place and… the rain was going to foil the trip. We said we would walk up the next day ourselves and see what we could before having to get the train, but it seemed like a bit of a lost cause.
However, the tour folk got in touch to save the day – saying that they could reschedule for the next morning if we wanted. Yes! Thank you!
The next day, this was the first stop:
The tour guides were also really nice, and it was definitely the right choice to go with them. I usually hear ‘tours’ and shudder, but it was just a small group of us in a people carrier van, and turned out perfectly.
The views up there are pretty amazing, to make a massive understatement.
Some of these monasteries apparently took 22 years to get the material to the top of the cliffs, and then just 20 days to build. They were used as a shelter away from society – to live a monastic life – but also to escape the maurauding attackers who would target these places for their wealth and supplies. Couldn’t help but feel the parallels with Iona, given that we were there only a few months ago.
There is a dress code for entering many of these places. Legs must be covered, and no sleeveless tops. That means that women have to wear a long skirt (even over jeans!). These are provided at the entrance for people who come un-prepared.
Women were not admitted for centuries, until a fire threatened the destruction of one of the monasteries. The monks put out a call for help, and the first people to arrive from the neighbouring towns were female. They were faced with the dilemma: Let the sacred places burn down, or break with the traditions. They chose the latter, and women have been allowed in ever since.
This little box thing used to be the sort of system that the monks would use to get out to the monasteries – long before there was any sort of steps or roads carved into the cliffs. They still use it to this day for supplies.
They apparently used to joke with any visitors who would have to use the pulley system that they only changed the rope when it broke – and that if it did so, it was just the will of God; encouraging people to pray that it wasn’t their time to go.
You’ve no idea how high this thing was above the ground. Grace’s fear of heights went into overdrive when I said that was how we had to get across.
And of course, like everywhere else in Greece, cats seem to be omnipresent.
The biggest monastery (Megalo) was pretty amazing. It wasn’t too busy, and we got to look around the chapels in the silence for a bit. It had a calming feel, with beautifully ornate iconography on the walls and ceiling – a smell of incense wafting through the air.
The view alone was enough to make anybody feel spiritual.
We stopped off at a particularly picturesque point to get pictures.
People were literally right at the edge of the rocks, and the wind was blowing pretty hard.
This monastery was apparently used in a James Bond film, which I’m not sure I wanted to know.
The last place we visited was a convent, on the opposite side of the formations. It was much smaller than the monastery we had gone to, and I kind of wish we hadn’t gone.
A cruise ship had come in somewhere, and there was a whole host of tour busses filled with French tourists that had pulled up at the same time we did. They swarmed into the place, pushed past the nuns at the entrance without paying, and didn’t bother putting on the skirts that they were asked to. They crowded into the tiny chapel with casual disregard, and were unbelievably ignorant and obnoxious – with the nuns visibly distressed. It made me really angry.
It should have been a holy place. It didn’t feel very holy on that day.
The convents and monasteries are only sustainable today through the money that they receive from visitors, and it would be naive to suggest that they simply shut that off – especially as I myself was just a visitor.
What infuriated me was the sheer volume of people who clearly had little real interest in being there, except to check it off as something on a list – treating it like an attraction that only existed as an interesting stop-off on their cruise. The complete lack of respect for the place and people there almost spoiled my feelings about the whole thing.
But then I was reminded of where we were.
Despite one blip, it was an incredible place to visit.
Meteora is probably one of the most amazing places on Earth.