The road from Tríkala northwest to Kalambáka is mesmerisingly boring – until suddenly out of nowhere a forest of sandstone pillars appears, rising straight up from the valley floor. Eroded, iron grey and water scarred, their sometimes stubby, sometimes pointed pinnacles are visible for miles, and from a distance they look as two-dimensional as a cartoon backdrop.
More than 800 smooth and windswept rocks, some over 360m high cover 20km2. Geologists drily call it debris left over from a primeval river delta that the earth pushed up to create a lofty, fault-filled plateau 60 million years ago, but it’s really the mighty Pindus range’s last and greatest conjuring trick, a spectacular geographical non sequitur, before it releases its spell on the landscape and subsides into the dull Thessalian plain.
Even if monks of old had not built in its improbable recesses and on its inaccessible peaks, the area would still be visited for the sheer grandeur of its scenery. Meteora (Μετέωρα) means ‘things hovering in the air’ – as in meteor – as apt a name for the rocks themselves as it is for the stupendous and unforgettable monasteries that crown them. Hiking among the rocks is magical, and, if you’re very lucky, you might see a critically endangered Egyptian vulture – one of the last breeding pairs nests in the pinnacles.
Two villages provide the closest base for visiting: big bustling Kalambáka (Καλαμπάκα), formerly the Byzantine town of Stagoi, renamed ‘strong castle’ kale mpak in Turkish – but burned to the ground by the Germans in 1943 – and traditional, smaller Kastráki (Καστράκι) closer to the monasteries. It is marvellously photogenic, but what you won’t see in most pictures are the dozens of tour buses parked under each monastery and the long snaking queues trundling up the steps. Try to go early in the day or out of season.
The magical setting first attracted people 130,000 years ago; the cave of Theópetra (3km south of Kalambáka) is famous for its extraordinarily long period of human habitation. But what is bizarre, given the ancient Greek penchant for telling stories about every river, spring and mountain, is that, as far as anyone knows, Meteora was never mentioned in antiquity. Not once. It was, however, a magnet for spiritual athletes: a ragtag group of misanthropic hermits came seeking salvation in Meteora’s clefts and caves, perhaps as early as the 8th century ad, although no one mentioned them until the 11th century.
A small proto-monastic community developed at Doúpiani (present-day Kastráki), and built a small church to serve their few communal liturgical needs. Then, in 1336, Athanásios, a monk from Athos, founded the Great Meteora, the first monastery set at the very summit of the pinnacles themselves. This and subsequent monasteries were coenobitic, which stressed hierarchical communal living – the kind of monasticism preferred by the Orthodox church to wild-eyed hermits in lonely caves who often ignored or, worse, challenged the church’s authority and its more worldly approach to salvation.
As these grander monuments to Orthodoxy sprang up, the hermits might have been forgiven for doubting whether the absence of solitude and conspicuous wealth made Holy Contemplation any easier. The monasteries got an improbable boost in the Middle Ages during the shortlived Serbian interlude in Thessaly, thanks to the piety of their kings. Under the Ottomans, after serious initial setbacks, Meteora recovered and by the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–66) there were 13 substantial monasteries, replete with wooden galleries, corniced rooftops, and frescoed katholikóns, along with 20 smaller establishments.
The second most important clutch of Orthodox monasteries after Athos itself, they were well endowed by princes hoping for salvation, owning lands as far away as Moldavia and Wallachia. Ironically, their decline began with Greek independence in 1830. The new state did not include Thessaly, leaving the monasteries suspended in the Ottoman Empire, as many monks abandoned them for the new Greek state. The six survivors (two are now convents), the massif and the village of Kastráki are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but Meteora’s renaissance as a megatourist attraction has a downside.
If the mere fact of coenobitic monasticism made contemplation difficult early on, then any monk at today’s Meteora is surely facing an uphill battle to sanctity, guarding the door against insensitive tourists with uncovered knees, and flogging postcards, icons and tourist tat. The fact that they now charge admission emphasises the fact that these once vital monasteries have become museums, glorious paeans to things that once were and never will be again.