En route to Meteora from Thessaloniki, I managed to navigate Him and I an hour in the opposite direction – east toward Turkey instead of west toward Kalambaka. But our excursion to Istanbul, the last stop on our World Trip, wouldn’t come for a week yet, so we made a U-turn around Lake Koroneia and found our way westbound on Highway 2. By this time, Him was well accustomed to my shoddy navigation skills, and I must say he took the detour exceptionally well.
Two and a half hours later, we had arrived at Meteora, land of towering sandstone peaks and the monasteries perched precariously on their tops. The pinnacles, some of which rise 400 meters above the Thessalian plain, were created 60 million years ago during the Tertiary Period, according to UNESCO, which has classified the area a World Heritage Site. The first hermits arrived in the 11th century, and construction on the monasteries began in the 14th century, when Turkish invaders threatened Thessaly. By the end of the 15th century, 24 monasteries had been constructed, and access to their religious communities was limited to a pulley system of baskets and the use of rope ladders. Remnants of these primitive elevators still exist, and some are even operational.
Most visitors to Meteora stay in one of two small towns situated at the base of the rock formations: Kalambaka or Kastraki. Him and I had booked a private room at Guesthouse Arsenis (40 Euros a night), a comfortable but no-frills bed and breakfast (and campground!) surrounded by olive groves a few kilometers outside Kalambaka. We were able to appreciate the semi-remote location because we had access to a rental car, but anyone traveling by bus would probably find it more convenient to stay in Kalambaka or Kastraki as there are plenty of dining options in those towns and both offer access to hiking trails leading to the monasteries.
Operating since 1840, Guesthouse Arsenis is a family business currently run by brothers Costas and Peno. Costas checked us in and provided us with a handy, albeit simplistic, map of the area, including the monastery locations and the visiting hours of the monasteries open to the public.
Today, there are six monasteries open to visitors, four of which still host coenobiums, or active religious communities. Tourists pay 2 Euors for access into each one and may wander on their own through a handful of rooms containing religious artifacts and art. Many of the monasteries feature exquisite rose gardens and all offer spectacular views. A strict dress code mandates shoulders must be covered, men must wear long trousers and women must wear skirts that fall below their knee; wrap-around skirts are loaned free of charge.
As the monasteries are all situated along a loop road called Epar. Od. Meteoron-Kallitheas, it’s possible for ambitious tourists to take in all six in a single day. But the most spectacular aspect of the monasteries, in my opinion, is the view of them from afar, and Him and I exhausted our interest in the interiors after visiting three: Moni Agias Traiados, Moni Agiou Stefanou and Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas.
We began our self-guided tour at Moni Agias Traiados (the “Monastery of the Holy Trinity”), forever solidified in pop culture by its cameo appearance at the end of the 1981 James Bond film, “For Your Eyes Only.” If you don’t mind climbing steps (140 in total), visit Moni Agias Traiados because, apparently, many tourists do mind them and therefore avoid it. Beyond the garden, there’s an outcropping of boulders that, once scaled, offer impressive views of the river valley but neck-breaking falls should one slip off.
Although founded as a monastery, the Moni Agiou Stefanou (Monastery of St. Stephanos), became a convent in 1961. There’s a bridge offering easy access to the monastery, and it’s worth a look for its views of the Pinios River and perhaps the most graphic display of religious art I’ve ever encountered; a 16th century fresco inside depicts a gory scene of missing limbs and heads. Apparently, the monastery also contains the head of the martyred St. Charalambos (c. 89 – 202 A.D.), the Bishop of Magnesia, where Thessaly is today. The head was a gift from Prince Vladislav of Wallachia (a region of Romania) around the turn of the 14th century. If you, like me, are wondering why Prince Vlad possessed the head in the first place, this might clear things up: according to Wallachia royal lineage, he was likely related to Vladislav III (1431 – 1476), also known as “Vlad the Impaler,” the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas (Monastery of Saint Nicholas Who Offers Rest) is the closest monastery to Kastraki. It’s a gentle hike from the Epar. Od. Meteoron-Kallitheas Road to the base of the narrow rock supporting the monastery. Of note are the wire cables suspended between the bottom of the stone staircase and the coenobium; they’re for ferrying a tiny elevator cage up and down. The Monastery of Saint Nicholas is known for its katholikon, or main building, which is decorated with wall paintings by the renowned Cretan Iconographer Theophanis Bathas-Strelitzas.
We happened to be in Meteora over the Greek Orthodox Easter celebration, and it seemed every backyard in Kastraki and Kalambaka contained a lamb rotating on a spit. The meat smelled fantastic, but I found the animals’ skinless bodies and sightless eyes a bit unsettling. We didn’t have an opportunity to try this traditional Easter delicacy, but Costas and his family included hard-boiled eggs dyed red as part of our complimentary breakfast. Reflecting back, I wish we had taken them up on the offer to attend a midnight mass at their church, but we were too exhausted to leave the hotel after a day of touring the monasteries and hiking in the forest.
From Meteora, we headed through Trikala and Larissa to arrive at the coast and Litochoro, gateway to Mount Olympus, because even after 13 days of the Everest Base Camp trek, tramping through the 264,000- square-meter Petra Archaeological Park complex and exploring Meteora’s network of trails, Him had yet to reach his fill of hiking. The mountain, of course, is known for its association as the home of the Greek gods. At 2,917 meters tall, its Mytikas Peak is also the tallest in Greece.
Mount Olympus offers a few different hiking paths, but we chose the most frequented one, Prionia (1100 m), the highest point accessible by car, to Spilios Agapitos Refuge (2100m), a 90-year-old sanctuary offering dorm-style accommodations for hikers. Despite the trail’s reported popularity, we encountered very few people during our five-hour, round-trip hike, and I filled the silence by complaining about the sudden rain shower and inquiring whether we hadn’t already done enough hiking in Nepal? Alas, we did not encounter Zeus, but we passed through thick forests of fir, beech and pine trees and admired the shards of white and rose marble scattered along the path. The weather at the trailhead was warm enough to suggest short sleeved-attire, so we were surprised to find a mass of snow covering a gully near the refuge. The refuge was closed for the season, but we navigated through the snow to appreciate the complex’s vista views and inspect its exterior before heading back down the mountain.
That night, we gorged ourselves on well-deserved gyros and ice cream (Greek ice cream shops are so much more reasonably priced than their U.S. counterparts!) and then succumbed to exhaustion at Hotel Mirto, Agiou Nikolaou 5, a boutique bed and breakfast in central Litochoro (60 Euros a night).
We awoke early the next day because we had an important engagement back in Thessaloniki: Bobby and Carole (Him’s parents) were arriving from Florida, and we would be blessed with a few days in their company before we decamped their condo for Istanbul.
As Bobby and Carole also live in Jupiter, Fla., we had grown accustomed to visiting with them every week before leaving on our trip. But almost six months had gone by since we had seen family in the flesh, and it was extremely comforting to hug Him’s parents after all that time. Together, the four of us did little sightseeing. We spent our time together dining on divine Mediterranean cuisine, slurping up ice cream and strolling the city streets. Mostly, however, we just stared at each other and marveled at each other’s presence.