Monasteries of Meteora
The monasteries of Meteora are crowned by the 400 meter high peaks in the Thessaly Mountains (Pindus massif) . They resemble giant eagles’ nests on high sandstone cliffs, hewn and polished by erosion. Religious life in this place began in the X or XI century: the anachorets (hermits) took up residence in caves at the foot of the rocks. These monks escaped the oppression of the Albanians, the Turks and robbers and found refuge in these mountains.
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The name “Meteora” comes from the word meteorizo, which means “floating in the air.” This is the most accurate description of the appearance of the monasteries. When clubs of mist envelop the mountain slopes in the early morning, the buildings towering above them seem to hover above the clouds. The heyday of Meteora’s monasteries is in the late Middle Ages – at that time there were 24 monasteries and hermitages. Nowadays only 6 monasteries remain inhabited. Four of them are monastic: the Great Meteora or Megalo Meteora (Transfiguration Monastery), Saint Barlaam, Saint Nicholas Anapavasas and the Holy Trinity Monastery. Two of the monasteries are women’s monasteries: St. Stephen and the monastery of Rusanu (or St. Barbara Monastery) . Although the other 18 monasteries are in ruins, in some places they are still inhabited by hermits who wish to preserve the cultural and spiritual heritage of Byzantium.
A View of the Thessaly Plain
The very first hermitages in the mountains appeared in the 11th century. The hermits fled from worldly affairs in order to continue their service to the Lord without disturbance and settled in simple mountain caves. As their numbers grew, the monks banded together in a monastic community similar to the spiritual republic on Mount Athos.
Only a few hermits founded the very first hermitage, Dupiani, now razed to the ground. Only a small 13th-century chapel stands as a witness to their ascetic life.
In 1334 the monk Athanasius arrived in the monasteries of Meteora. With his arrival the monastic life really began to flourish in the area. In 1370 he and 14 other monks climbed the highest rock and founded the monastery of Great Meteora, also known as Metamorphosis (i.e. Transfiguration) . Covering an area of about 60,000 square meters, Meteora is one of the largest monastic complexes. According to legend, an eagle, or even an angel, lifted Athanasius up to the mountain peak. This monk first laid down the rules of conduct that the others had to follow in observing the laws of monastic life at Meteora. In time he and his followers founded several more monasteries around.
Today only 6 of the 24 monasteries are inhabited. In the monastery of St. Nicholas of Anapavasas, in the chapel of John the Baptist, laid out on shelves in even rows, are the skulls of all the monks who ever lived in this monastery. The walls of the cathedral are decorated with frescoes by Theophanes Strelidzas (ca. 1500-1559), the outstanding iconographer of the Cretan school, a group of artists in which the famous El Greco was a member. The monastery of St. Rusanou (or St. Barbara) was founded in 1388. Reconsecrated in 1950, it was more frequently plundered and desecrated than other monasteries. Its 16th-century frescoes are incomparable masterpieces. The monastery of St. Barlaam was built from 1518 to 1535 and is mentioned in the travel diary of 1779 as a convent.
Monastery of St. Nicholas of Anapavasas Ascent to the Great Meteora Monastery
The Great Meteora, the largest complex, was named so by its founder Athanasius in honor of the massive, as if hanging in the air, stone pillars called Meteora. Until 1923, when roads were paved to the monasteries and 143 stone steps were made for ascent, monks and visitors could get to the monasteries only by hanging stairs or with the help of monks who lifted them in special grids. In the same way all the building materials for the construction of the monastic structures, as well as food and other necessities for monastic life, were lifted to the top of the rocks.
With the exception of Agios Stephanos (Saint Stephanos), which is quite easily accessible, the monasteries are reached by climbing steep stone stairs, sometimes numbering over a hundred steps. The monks are accustomed to visitors, but in order to preserve the sacred character of these places, they require a proper appearance. Men, women and children must have their hands covered, at least to the elbows; pants are obligatory for men and long skirts for women.
At the foot of the very rocks where the monasteries of Meteora are built, the tallest of which reaches 300 meters, is the town of Kalambaka. After World War II, it underwent extensive reconstruction. It is worth visiting the city cathedral, the construction of which was partly based on materials from ancient buildings. You can see frescoes from the 16th century and an amazing marble pulpit – in fact, it is a pulpit dating back, like the canopy, to the early Christian era.
Ascent to Great Meteora Monastery View of Kalambaka City Streets
Two kilometers from the town, the village of Kastraki, surrounded by vineyards, is also worth your attention.
The monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas
Beyond Kastraki, on the left side of the road, is one of the smallest monasteries of Meteora. The same tiny church is adorned with delightful frescoes of the early 16th century by Theophrastus of Crete, who also worked on Mount Athos. The Last Judgment, painted on the partition between the narthex and the choir, makes an indelible impression. From here you can walk to the monastery of Barlaam in about an hour and a half.
Roofs of houses in Kalambak Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas View of the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas
Roussanou (Saint Barbara) Monastery
Also very small, this monastery (16th century) rests on a narrow rock, which can be reached by a suspension bridge. The monastery’s location is its highlight: an incredible ensemble of cliffs carved by water, winds and temperature variations acts as a backdrop. It is invariably popular with fans of mountain climbing.
A room inside the monastery Rusanu Monastery (St. Barbara) Rusanu Monastery with the cliffs in the background
A little beforehand the road branches off. The left leads to the 16th century Barlaam Monastery built on a narrow platform on the top of a rock. After climbing all 130 steps and stepping over the threshold, you will find yourself in a sun-drenched church courtyard. Inside, be sure to look at the painting depicting a saint grieving over the vanity of this world in front of the skeleton of Alexander the Great. The amazing fresco of the Last Judgment on the wall opposite the choir deserves special attention. Visitors can also see the basement and the press room, as well as a glimpse of the workings of the elevator.
The Great Meteora Monastery
At the same height as Barlaam is the Great Meteora, also called the Monastery of the Transfiguration, founded the very first in the middle of the XIV century on the highest rock. To get to it, you have to descend 106 steps, then climb 192. Despite frequent destruction, the Great Meteora has preserved priceless evidence of Byzantine art, particularly the embroidered robes of the priests and the stern frescoes. The Church of Transfiguration is famous for its wooden iconostasis. Nearby you can see the old dining room, kitchen, many rooms where various classes were held, and an ossuary with the skulls of dead monks. From the balcony there is a delightful view of the Barlaam complex.
Territory of the monastery Great Meteora Monastery In the courtyard of the monastery
The monastery of Agia Triada (Holy Trinity)
One of the most rarely visited and most secluded monasteries, Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) is built on top of a huge rock, which from afar seems to float in the air. Although part of it was built in the fifteenth century, it lacks unity because of the attached modern buildings.
The ossuary with the skulls of the dead monks The monastery of Agia Triada The cabina that runs between the monasteries
The Monastery of Agios Stephanos (Saint Stephanos)
The last monastery to be discovered is also the most easily accessible, thanks to the pedestrian bridge that connects it to the road. This place is famous for its view of Kalambakou and the Thessaly plain. The former dining hall has been turned into a museum, the most complete in Meteora, where icons, cult objects, painted manuscripts and embroideries are on display. The only church was not built until the 18th century.
Agios Stephanos Monastery Inside the Church Inside the Monastery of Agios Stephanos
No one knows exactly how the first monks managed to climb the cliffs of Meteora. Incredible fairy tales make the imagination conjure up huge paper kites, ropes tied to hawk’s feet, scaffolding construction, giant trees – anything that could have been used to make the climb. It is possible that once upon a time, shepherds and hunters suggested to the monks ways known to them alone. They soon began to use a rope ladder, which was later replaced by a net or some kind of basket tied with a rope and lifted with a winch. It took about half an hour to reach the highest cliffs. If we believe the records of travelers of former times, the rope was changed only after the old one was broken! You can still see these structures, now powered by an electric hoist. Today they are intended for cargo, and visitors prefer to climb on foot.
Greece, Meteora: monasteries between heaven and earth
Even without the world-famous monasteries, this place is an unusual natural phenomenon. More than a thousand towers, like a stone forest, have grown out of the earth of Thessaly Valley. According to geologists, in prehistoric times there was a huge sea or lake, which covered the whole area and gradually shallowed over millions of years. But the monasteries of Meteora, built on top of these sky-rocketing stone formations, are remarkable not only for their unique location.
A miracle floating in the sky
Greece is the world center of Orthodox monasticism: millions of pilgrims come to Mount Athos alone each year to honor the holy relics and pray to the ancient icons, asking for their intercession and blessing for earthly affairs. However, from Mount Athos in Greece can be compared in importance another monastic complex – Meteora, which grew near the city Kalambaki in the north of the country a little over a thousand years ago.
Meteora is not called soaring in the air for nothing: the monasteries really somehow incomprehensibly held on the very tops of the sandstone rocks, leaving a feeling of a miracle unfolding before your eyes.
According to various sources, there used to be 21, 22 or even 24 monasteries among the Meteora Mountains. Time and world upheavals have not spared most of them: only six monasteries survived to this day, the fate of the rest was the destruction and oblivion.
The road to the remaining monasteries was originally rope ladders and wooden scaffolding, but by the 1920s all of them simply rotted away, so it was necessary to cut through the rocks much more comfortable, safe and durable steps.
As a result, UNESCO – a renowned scientific and cultural organization – included the Meteora Monastery complex, which literally rose from the ashes in the late 80’s, in the World Heritage List – Greece thus gained the fifth of the seventeen existing and officially recognized world masterpieces in this country. In this impressive list Meteora is number 425.
The experience of visiting the temples of Meteora is somehow different from anything you have experienced before. You seem to see the same as you do after stepping inside an ordinary Christian church: gilded iconostases, majestic icons, holy faces of skilful paintings on the walls of the temples.
But the mysterious light of the unquenchable lamps and the flickering flame of candles, and most importantly – the realization of how old (centuries) everything that you see around you now – all this together makes you realize that this time you are not quite in an ordinary place. And if you are lucky enough to get into a monastery when there is no large influx of tourists, these feelings will be experienced by anyone who has climbed at least to one of the monasteries and looked at its treasures.
Megala Meteora, the Great Meteoron Monastery, or the Monastery of the Transfiguration
At Platilitos, the largest Meteora rock (613 m) and 475 m above Kalambaki and Kastraki, is also the largest surviving monastery. The first temple was built by Athanasius in 1380, then by Joasaph in 1387-1388 and was renovated and completed by Simeon in 1541-1542.
Some of the most stunning masterpieces of Great Meteora are the magnificent iconostasis and the abbot’s throne, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, are a must-see. The beautiful frescoes, the work of the masters of temple painting of the XVI century, will amaze your imagination. Taking photos and videos of many of the relics of Meteora’s monasteries is undesirable, so watch and absorb: you can only share what you see with other people in words.
The museum monastery is the repository of the wonderfully embroidered shroud of the 14th century and also of unique icons: the Birth and Crucifixion of Christ, the Pains of the Lord and the Sorrowful Mother of God.
Here you can also venerate the relics of the founding fathers of Meteora and other revered saints. Once upon a time patriarchs and monarchs of Byzantium loved to visit the mountain monasteries and brought the monks many gifts. All of them have been lovingly preserved to this day, as have the 600 volumes of priceless manuscripts kept in this museum.
The architectural complex of the Monastery of the Transfiguration is based on:
A continuation of the museum, but already outdoors, are examples of post-Byzantine architecture – the holy of holies of monastic life, usually hidden from the secular eye – the cells, the refectory with the kitchen, the monastic hospital. There is also a folklore museum.
St. Nicholas Monastery (Μονή Αγίου Νικολάου Αναπαυσά)
It’s a long and tiresome way to get there: 143 steps to the foot of the cliff from Kastraki and then another 85 steps cut through the rock.
The monastery was built at the end of the XV century, erected in three levels. On each of them – a different temple:
- The Chapel of St. Anthony
- The church of St. Nicholas with a spacious nave and a refectory. Its unique architectural solution is in full repetition of relief of a flat rock adjacent to the southern wall of the monastery
- Church of St. John the Baptist with attached cells and crypt
The monastery was founded by the ancient monk Nikolas Anapavas the Reconciler, who apparently earned his monk’s nickname for his humble service to God and his personal example of Christian patience.
The monastery is famous for the fact that the murals of the church of St. Nicholas were painted by the famous artist-monk from Crete Theophanes (“Bafias”). His inscription on one of the walls testifies that the master painted the last stroke of his first ever masterpiece in 1527.
Then there were his other, no less magnificent creations – murals on the walls of the Athos churches.
The Monastery of Barlaam (Μονή Βαρλαάμ) or All Saints
It is the second biggest monastery of all the monasteries in Meteora and was built on a 375 meter high rock. Its history began with a church built by hieromonk Barlaam in 1350 and called the Three Saints. Later the monks’ cells also appeared here. The monk-brothers, Nektarios and Theophanes Apsaradonos, continued the work of their predecessor 200 years later and are thus remembered in world history as the true founders of the monastery.
They turned the little church into a full-fledged temple of the Three Holy Hierarchs by covering it with a wooden roof and performing rich paintings on the temple walls.
Then the Church of All Saints appeared. It was based on huge tuff stone that took 22 long years to lift to the rock, but the walls were erected with a remarkable speed even for us – only 20 days. The cathedral was completely finished by the middle of the 16th century.
The monastery became the center of the largest scriptor’s studio in Meteora and functioned till XVIII century, then it was an era of oblivion and even plundering: its treasury was badly damaged during World War II, having lost almost all its works. The new life of the monastery began in the 60s, after restoration.
The surviving relics of Varlaam Monastery are now safely stored in the museum – the former refectory. Here you can see:
- Famous icons.
- The Shroud of the founders, finished with gold
- Crosses, crockery
- Manuscript parchment codices
- A large library with almost three hundred books, including the Gospels.
Holy Trinity Monastery (Μονή Αγίας Τριάδος)
The inscription on its facade reads that it was founded presumably in the 50s and 70s of the 15th century. In the Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Meteora there is a Venetian Gospel, an ancient relic, very much revered by the Orthodox Christians. To get here you can only overcome 140 steps, cut through in the 20s of the last century.
The second temple, the Church of St. John the Baptist, was skillfully carved directly into the rock. But it is not only the architecture that impresses: the course of the Pinos River at the foot of the cliff, the stone valley and the forested mountain ridge above the cliff create one of the most majestic and fascinating scenes in Greece. The panoramic views from the balcony behind the cathedral are fascinating.
You can snap your camera here: you can see all the other monasteries of Meteora from here – the pictures from the rock are excellent.
Roussanou Monastery (Μονή Ρουσάνου) or St. Barbara
There is no written evidence indicating that Rusanos was the founding father of the monastery. Presumably it was founded in 1380 by the hieromonks Nicodemos and Venediktos, and about a century later, in the 16th century, it was completed by Maximus and Joasaph. They then spent their entire lives there.
The wall paintings are by Cretan artists: they painted here at the peak of their school. The openwork carved iconostasis shines with a lavish gilding on the wood. The church keeps icons and crockery, vestments and holy relics.
The Monastery of St. Stephen (Μονή Αγίου Στεφάνου)
Founded in the late Middle Ages by the monk Antonios, this monastery is clearly visible from Kalambaka as it is the closest monastery to the city. There are two cathedrals here, one commonly referred to as the old one and the other as the Cathedral of St. Harlampi. It was built much later, in the XVIII century.
It is famous for its museum, which keeps a rich collection of portable icons. This museum was opened in the ancient altar. The monastic cells and the monastery’s stables were also reconstructed.
The territory is perfectly groomed and comfortable, everywhere are flowers and decorative bushes. And no wonder, as this monastery is one of the two active female monasteries in Meteora.
St. Stephen Monastery is easy to reach: the bridge and the access road are on the same level as the rock.
Time of visit and how to get to Meteora
You can visit all six monasteries in one day by bus, but a guided tour usually includes three. The others can be seen and photographed from different angles and at different heights, driving up and down the ring to the other monasteries.
You can buy such a tour in any travel agency, in which case you will not be bothered with the question of how to get to Meteora, and on the way from your hotel and back in a few hours you will also see a good chunk of Greece.
From Thessaloniki to Meteora you can get there on your own:
- By train (direct and connecting), schedule and prices at www.trainose.gr/en/;
- By bus from the Macedonia bus station. Two trips a day (at 12:00 and 17:30) go through Trikala, travel time is 2 hours. 45 minutes. Round trip ticket costs 31€, one way ticket costs 19.7€. You can check the current schedule and buy tickets on the KTEL website – www.ktel-trikala.gr;
- by car.
Read on this page what to see first of all in Thessaloniki.
For those who need to get to Meteora from Athens (350 km) there are also three ways:
Two daily direct Athens-Kalambaka flights from Larisis train station and several transfers (Paleofarsalos). Travel time is 4.5 hours. For actual train schedule see the website of railways in Greece – www.ktel-trikala.gr
To see the must-see sights in Athens click here.
From the bus station Liosion to Kalambaki there are four daily flights. Departure times: 7:00, 10:30, 15:30 и 18:00. The cost of a full ticket is 29€. To find out the current schedule and to buy passes, visit the previously mentioned website – www.ktel-trikala.gr.
The route is E-75, time – 4 hours. You can find hitchhikers in advance on Bla-Bla, or have a credit card to rent a car. The roads in Greece are great. On the way you can visit the seaside town Volos.
In the monasteries of Meteora in Greece, half-naked because of the intense heat can not go: shoulders and legs must be closed. Therefore, shorts (for both men and women) are inappropriate. The best women’s clothing for such an excursion is a long skirt with a closed blouse, or almost a closed dress.
|1||Great Meteora (Transfiguration of the Lord)||from 9:00 till 17:00||9:00 to 15:00||Tuesday/Tuesday and Wednesday (seasonal)|
|2||St. Nicholas||9:00 am to 3:30 pm||9:00 to 16:00||Friday|
|3||Barlaam||9:00 to 16:00||9:00 to 15:00||Friday|
|4||St. Rusanu||9:00 to 16:00||9:00 to 14:00||Wednesday|
|5||St. Trinity||from 9:00 till 17:00||10:00 to 16:00||Thursday|
|6||St. Stephen||9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.||9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.||Monday|
Many tourists after a one-day organized tour return here as pilgrims and spend several days in Meteora, staying in one of the many camping sites at the foot of the Meteora Mountains or in the hotels and guesthouses at Kalambaki. The spirit of one of the greatest Orthodox shrines is contagious and does not leave many until their next visit.
How to book a hotel nearby, the availability of sites in the campsites, changes in the seasonal schedule of visits to the monasteries and the timetable of transport, feedback from tourists and pilgrims – all this and much more useful and detailed information about Meteora in Greece you can find on the website of the tour company of the monastery complex. There you can also book a tour and read the local news.
The address of the tour agency is 2 Patriarchou Dimitriou, Kastraki, Kalambaka 422 00, Greece.
All prices and schedules on the page are for November 2020.
- Until the 1920s, the monasteries could be accessed only by stairs, either by a ladder or a rope ladder. Later, monks began to use large wicker nets, which were designed to lift loads. It would take at least 30 minutes to climb to the top. Today the way to the monasteries is less energy-consuming and safer – there are steps and paths in the rocks.
- The highest rock of Meteora reaches 613 meters.
- Some of the frescoes in the monastery churches are not for the faint-hearted. They depict the suffering and torture of martyrs: crucifixions, burning on bonfires, beheadings, etc.
- In one of the James Bond films, there are scenes shot at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. Also, some of the action in the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” series takes place on the grounds of monasteries.
Over many centuries, this majestic place has become a spiritual oasis for thousands of ascetics and pilgrims. They come here in search of a source of spiritual strength and tranquility. And for secular people, ordinary tourists who first enter the rocky monasteries of Meteora, the first look at everything around them at first generates even a certain sense of fear. And then reflection carries our thoughts to endless spaces and celestial worlds.
At least once in your life you should visit this place.
Watch an informative and beautiful aerial video of the monasteries of Meteora in Greece.
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Mesmerizing…Both written and seen from a drone…I wish I could go there! Thank you for such a detailed and informative introduction to this wonder on our Mother Earth.
Olga, we are glad that you liked the article and that it was useful. If you tune in correctly, you will definitely get to this place!:)