No matter how much we enjoyed the week at Kato Gatzea, it was lovely driving off and being back on the road. Even better we found the new Volos ring road this time, so what took 3 hours last time took 25 minutes this time – its all so easy when you know how 🙂 The ring road is so new its not on Sat Nav yet and possibly not on the radar of many locals as hardly a car on it, therefore I do not feel as bad that we didn’t find it on the way in. We couldn’t find a reason to visit the city of Volos but driving round the edge you get a fabulous view right across and down to the sea, miles of white buildings with hardly a high-rise in sight it looks more like a large town than the second city of a country.
We were straight out to the motorway where we treated ourselves to a toll (€10) from Volos up Larisa. Tolls are odd here, we paid based on our height not our length, if we have been 6 cm lower then it would have cost us €4. Then again if we had come off at the exit half a mile before the toll booths it wouldn’t have cost us a penny – they don’t have that many toll booths so it would be easy to just come on and off and skirt around them if you so desired. From there is was straight up the dual carriageway to Kastraki, and the nearest campsite to Meteora. You can see it from 10 km away, amazing outcrops of sandstone rock towers that loom over Kalambaka and Kastraki. We pulled up at Camping Kastraki and as usual not a soul about, its right in the middle of the village of Kastraki beneath the sandstone pinnacles which look close enough to touch.
The name Meteora means “middle of the sky” and very aptly describes the monasteries here which are perched atop the most incredible sandstone pinnacles. From some angles it looks as if they are built on top of mountains, which would be impressive, but they are each on a pinnacle. The tradition of Greek Orthodoxy has continued uninterrupted here for over 600 years, the complex is second in importance only to Mount Athos. We can’t visit Mt Athos though as they do not allow women or children into their ‘state’ at all, even people working there must be over 18 and be men. I have no qualms on the equality piece, just a bit rubbish I can’t visit and see such an amazing place.
Anyway, Meteora welcomes everyone, its actually a tourist centre nearly as much as a monastic centre to be honest. There were 24 monasteries but now only six monasteries are left, four are inhabited by monks and two by nuns. There are less than ten monks or nuns in each monastery, they have been all but turned over to tourism now and the whole area declared a UNESCO site. So they don’t really mind who comes and visits as long as you show a bit of respect, don’t wear shorts, women wear a skirt and you spend a few Euro.
There is now a road that takes you around the mountain to each site, we took a taxi to the top and walked to each monastery and then back down. More than a bit of a hike, we only went inside one monastery and it still took us over 4 hours. The best way to describe the landscape is like something out of a science fiction film, a bit like the Hobbit with better castles. Slightly surreal where everything looks like a Hollywood film-set as surely no-one would really build massive buildings on top of 1200 ft sandstone rocks.
The road up around the monasteries
The steps cut into the mountains that lead to each monastery are fairly new additions, most of which were completed in the 20th century, Before that everything and everyone was either hoisted up or down on ropes, climbed ladders lashed together or hoisted up 1200 vertical feet in a net (pilgrims included). The story goes that the priests used to decide it was time to get new ropes when the old ones broke! Not sure there isn’t some poetic licence there but new ropes or old there is no way on earth you would have gone up or down the sides of those cliffs held in a net unless you were one very brave monk.
Outside Megalo Monastery – a drop of 1200 ft between me and it
To get to all but one of the monasteries you need to climb the steps, first down the side of the mountain to a bridge and then back up the pinnacle the side, its hard going at this time of year so in summer it must be unbearable. The monks have their own transport system, they installed cable cars at three monasteries – if you can call it that! We saw them in operation at two different places, to be honest you would not get me on one of them for all the tea in china.
Cable car at Megalo Monastery
The highest and largest is Megalo Meteoro Monastery, supposedly the best monastery with the most to see inside, so we started there – just our luck then they close on a Tuesday. The next largest is on the next pinnacle, Varlaam Monastery, which was built in 1541 and thankfully open. We arrived at the same time as four tour buses, but managed to keep out of their way fairly well. I was allowed inside the monasteries here, but the strict dress code means women must wear a skirt – not something I bought with me. The monks thoughtfully provide skirts for those of us that need one, mostly very fetching checked little numbers which were fine.
Happily appropriately dressed and admitted
Whether they are still used as fully functional monasteries wasn’t clear, there were a few monks about but many more builders doing repairs. We were allowed into the church, a small exhibition and to see where the nets for hoisting goods and people were (are) dropped from a balcony. Everywhere else was off limits, a shame as the interesting thing we hoped to see was where and how they lived. In all honesty, the inside was lovely but really doesn’t compare with looking at the structure from afar. Being Greece the old H&S doesn’t apply, people were literally climbing to the edge of pinnacle for the best photos. We didn’t do that! hence our photos are a bit rubbish – if you want to see how awesome it really is Google it 🙂
Monastery Varlaam from below
All around the area are hundred of caves, before the monasteries were built the monks lived in them. Many look as if people still make use of them today, would guess its just locals and climbs. One cave has literally hundreds of flags hanging all around it. The taxi driver told us one man regularly climbs up to the cave and each time hangs a new flag. Amongst the caves are ruins of old churches, some perched on the edge of the caves, other just outside. Again, how they were built defies understanding.
We walked across the couple of kilometres to probably the monastery that most people would recognise, that of The Holy Trinity as it was featured in the 1981 James Bond film ‘ For Your Eyes Only’. We sat down by the ‘cable car’ to have our picnic and as we did so the thing started moving. We saw the priest let someone in on the other side and send him over the gorge with a flick of a switch. It was mesmerising and terrifying all at once. The fella who came over didn’t even shut the door!
Monastery of the Holy Trinity – aka St. Cyrils of James Bond fame
There are a few tacky tourist tatt stalls outside the monasteries but not too many. There isn’t a cafe, restaurant or even a drinks wagon at any of them, which we did think was missing out on some major euro profit. They do provide loos, just not of the porcelain variety, obviously the one thing they never bothered hauling up the side of the rocks then!
On our way back into the village the last monastery was St. Nicholas, the tour buses don’t stop there so its very quiet. Outside was a local lady selling the gaudiest hand knitted goods, whereas all the other tatt sellers had been to the wholesalers. Iain reckoned she just buys rubbish looking knitwear from the wholesalers but I believed she makes it herself. I decided to buy something off her as she looked freezing and probably hadn’t sold anything all day. She tried to rip me off €15 for a woolly hat! We did a bit of bargaining between us and I got her down to €10 – get me 🙂
It is difficult to write about Meteora without listing out superlatives, for us it has been magical and we think one of the most memorable places we have yet to visit. The pinnacles themselves really would be worth seeing, add the caves and then the monasteries and its going to have to be a big contender for one of our Seven Wonders of the Baxterbus Tour.
That’s us done with monasteries now, heading off today for Thessaloniki.