Friday, April 24, 2015

Monasteries in the Sky

Meteora is such a special place in Greece, and I've never seen anything like in elsewhere in the world. These are a group of centuries-old monasteries perched atop of steep cliffs in the Greek countryside. In the olden days, the monasteries were so secluded and difficult to reach, and the monks had to pull themselves up with rope. Thankfully, there are now carved footpaths and roads that lead up to these wonders.

This is a bit of a more information-heavy post, since I think some of the logistical knowledge is useful both for casual readers who want to get an idea of what Meteora is like, and also those who might be planning on making the trip.

We spent three days here in the last leg of our trip in Greece. There are a few nearby towns to stay in for climbing up to the monasteries. Kastraki and Kalambaka are the two towns directly beneath the mountains, whereas Trikala is about 10 kilometers away and is somewhat of a larger town. You can probably find less touristy and cheaper accommodations in Trikala (as we did), but the commute will be longer, which you should factor into your climbing schedule.

Here is some more logistical info which you can skip unless you plan on making a trip (which you should!). There are six monasteries in total. They have different opening hours depending on the day and the season, and your hotel or hostel should have that information for you.. You can drive up nearly to the top of the monasteries, and merely climb a few stone steps, or you can take the more difficult route and hike up from the base of the mountains from either Kalambaka or Kastraki. The entrances to the paths are a bit hard to find, so you probably will need to ask a local. Once you are on the path, it is fairly easy to follow it all as it winds up through mountain passes. The signage is pretty clear too. It’s a bit difficult in the winter season because there can be snow and ice on the paths.

On the two days of climbing, we decided to do the hike from the bottom of the hill, both for the full experience and because we did not have access to a car. As an inexperienced hiker and moderately fit person, I would say that the climbs are doable, and not extremely difficult in any particular places, but these are day-long excursions and you are constantly hiking, walking, or climbing up steps, so it's something you should prepare for with proper clothing, food, and water. We brought a loaf of fresh bread and some cheese from the town below, which turned out to be excellent hiking fuel! 

We split our adventure into two days in order to fully explore the different monasteries, since they are located on separate parts of cliffs and some are quite difficult to reach or at least take a good amount of time to walk. Unfortunately, some of them were closed or under renovation while we were visiting, but at least we got to see the outside of all six monasteries. 

Now, these are functioning monasteries with monks and nuns, as opposed to old ruins. This makes the visits more interesting in my opinion, but there are also more rules that visitors have to follow in order to enter. 

If you are a female, you will need to put on a long wrap to cover your legs at the entrance to each monastery. There is an admissions fee of 3 euros for each but sometimes if it is almost closing the person at the front will let you in for a quick visit for free. Interestingly enough, there are gift shops that sell homemade soaps, wine, religious icons, and postcards. I bought a jar of delicious fig marmalade and a little bar of olive oil and honey soap.

The views out from the cliffs were stunning, and the rock formations were like something from out of this world. I still get chills thinking about how some monks in the ninth century found these cliffs and decided to live a secluded and ascetic lifestyle atop them. That degree of religious devotion is unbelievable. 

On the second day we visited the Grand Meteora, the largest of the sixth monasteries. It's the central attraction, and the was the only one where I saw larger tour groups. This monastery was a large complex with a chapel, museum, and some rooms that were preserved to look like they did in the past.

There was one strange little room full of skulls, which you could see through a little window in the door.

We weren't allowed to take photos inside the churches of any of the monasteries, but they were so ornately decorated and full of religious artwork. There was a devout, solemn, and spiritual air throughout the whole space.

Hiking up to these monasteries was a really tiring but unforgettable experience. We were deciding between spending a few days here or flying out the one of the Greek islands, but ultimately decided that late February was hiking weather more so than beach weather. If you are in Greece, don't miss out on Meteora!

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