Step beyond stereotypical Greece, with its iconic Aegean islands and classic Athens monuments, and instead explore one of the country's best-kept secrets: the amazing rock pinnacles of Meteora
'Are you planning to go out to a party later,' enquired George, my host, as he handed me the second iced cold frappé I’d ordered that evening. The expression on his face was somewhere between concern and amusement. It was a silky summer evening full of warmth, laughter and, as it turned out, caffeine.
Sat in a pavement café that spilled onto the streets of Trikala, a lively market town in the Thessaly region of central Greece, I learned an important lesson about the Greek frappé. With a content of about four strong espressos, it’s not really a nightcap. Two frappés in one night meant only one thing: certain insomnia. Not really ideal preparation for an early start and a few days of walking.
Being alert that evening, however, was to have its advantages. As we made the 40-minute drive to our hotel in the neighbouring town of Kalambaka I caught the first shadowy glimpse of my walking venue.
Rearing up from an otherwise flat floodplain they towered like freakish fungi formations. In the dusk-filtered light of dancing shadows, there was something otherworldly and extraordinary about these out-of-context, out-of-place rock spires. It was almost as if a Star Wars set had been erected; only the crew had forgotten to take it down.
These twisting rock spires at Meteora in central Greece have been attracting their fair share of visitors for some time. The area has been a place of spiritual retreat since the eleventh century, when devout hermits seeking spiritual isolation built rudimentary wooden structures, precariously clinging to the rock faces. Some even sought solace in the rock-gouged caves. One look at these basic shelters and you can’t imagine there was a good night’s sleep had amongst the lot of them.
Eventually they moved things on a notch, and these grand rock spires are crowned with Byzantine monasteries. The very first monastery was founded in the fourteenth century by the monk Athanasios, on a rock he named Megalo Meteoron or Great Meteoron. Later on, Meteora was the name given to the whole complex of monasteries. Meaning ‘suspended in air’, it’s an apt description for these precariously perched buildings, their craggy spires, wooden galleries and corniced rooftops crowning these formidable pinnacles.
At their height, there were 24 working monasteries, but a period of persecution in the fifteenth century by occupying Turkish forces led to their complete closure. Today a road connects the six inhabited monasteries now open to visitors.
You can avoid the thronging crowds and busloads of pilgrims and enjoy a very different sort of spiritual ascension when you pull on a pair of walking boots. The twisting paths, which led the early followers to their monastic sanctuaries above, still lace the base of the rock pinnacles, gradually weaving upwards. As they have done for centuries, these well-worn paths take travellers into the heart of this masterful rock garden.
One of the most popular walking routes begins in the village of Kastraki, which nestles beneath the weighty outcrop of Aghio Pneuma and is 2km north of Kalambaka. Heading north from the village square, a short stroll through the outskirts of the village brings you to the secluded church of Aghios Georgios Mandylas. Paved steps lead up from the road into cloaking woodland. On St George’s day this peaceful haven is transformed when residents line the path, eagerly awaiting the young men of the village, who climb the towering rock wall above and place cloths in the small shrine cavern above. These fluttering amulets look almost like prayer flags strung high.
Winding its way through the scrubby woodland below, the path skirts down to the main road, which you cross a few hundred metres from the monastery of Aghios Nicholas, perched on an isolated column close to the tooth-like Doupiani rock. An initially cobbled pathway leads gently upwards through a steep sided gorge, where moss-laden branches almost obscure the path in places. The route now passes both Varlaam and Great Meteoro monasteries, where twisting stone stairways lead to bulky wooden doorways and a glimpse into this remote devotional life.
Continuing roughly northwards, the path enters far more secluded woods, where tumbling cairns mark the way to the uninhabited Ipanpanti Monastery. A dirt tracks winds back through gentle countryside giving further views of the Meteora rocks. Here, tall yellow grasses frame the west-facing rocks and the path then weaves southwards to the bulky mass of Doupiani and the road back to Kastraki.
The imposing nature of these craggy columns makes them look largely impassable. For the most, theses spires are the playground of climbers. But the lofty Aghio Pneumea can be reached on foot. By following the previous path around its base, and then continuing past the wooden slatted platform of the cave hermitage known as the monastic prison, you reach a narrow inner gorge. A pathway leads upwards to the Holy Spirit Monastery, a cave shrine gouged into the rock wall at the top.
A scramble onto the rocks above, and you are rewarded with lofty views across the plains to the encircling Pindos and Antichasia mountain massifs and the Peneios river below; for a moment you may well feel suspended in mid-air. Or was that just the caffeine talking?
- Flights: British Airways flies from London Gatwick to Thessoloniki
- Tour guide: Konstantina Papaefthimiou, (licensed English-speaking guide),
- Walking specialists: walking as a commercial activity is still in its infancy so there is not a widespread choice of locally-based operators if you are looking for guided walks. Vagelis Batsios is a locally based, English-speaking guide offering a range of guided day walks. You can try to contact him through his family owned restaurant, Paradissos in Kastraki. There are also a number of travel companies who offer combined walking trips, which include a few days in Meteora as part of their itineraries. These include: Adventures Great and Small and Magic Travel.
- Further reading: walking through Meteora was selected as one of the walks to feature in the BBC Book Unforgettable Walks To Take Before You Die by Clare Jones & Steve Watkins.
- If you prefer to go it alone, pick up a copy of The Footpaths of Meteora by Antonis Kalogirou (Kritiki Publishing SA). It's sold in the newsagents in Kalambaka (opposite the Tourist Information Office). A variety of walking routes are covered and it includes a map of the area.