Greece: The Monasteries of Meteora

When traveling to Greece, it is obvious that first you would think of the islands, then the history, then perhaps the food or nightlife. But there is a natural wonder of the world residing within the mainland that many people miss.

These are the mountains of Meteora. Immense cliffs, carved by the wind, tower over a small town and carry spiritual havens atop. The monasteries were built on these cliffs for monks to live an isolated life, dedicated to god, and free from the worry of being robbed.

Meteora is located far in the middle of mainland Greece, near Thessaly, and a long drive from Athens. The mountains themselves have been occupied since 50,000 years ago, with the Eastern Orthodox monasteries built in the 4th century. The Monasteries were built to be hard to access, with older generations of monks using a mix of rope ladders, baskets, and other devices to reach the top.

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As they were never originally built for tourism, the monasteries remained solely for the monks for most of their working years. There was an extreme fear of being robbed, coming from a fear of losing the precious holy artifacts that reside within. This fear proved true when in WWII, the monasteries were bombed and items were in fact stolen.

Since then, much has changed. Now there are only 6 monasteries inhabited, with the others falling in disrepair. And as the population of the monks grew low, nuns were allowed into the ranks and granted possession of two of monasteries, with the other four remaining in the hands of the monks. Tourists can visit them now and more accessible entrances have been made available, some with newly carved stone steps.

Keep in mind that wherever you go, you will likely have to do a bit of walking and climbing. For the most accessible entrance, I recommend the Monastery of St. Stephen, where there is much less climbing and a bridge to cross instead. This is where I went with my grandparents and they had no trouble accessing all that the mountain had to offer.

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Everyone should be modestly covered, with the men not wearing shorts and the women wearing long skirts. Long pants for women are not accepted (at least not for when I went) and instead you will be offered a skirt that you can tie around your waist. Pictures are not allowed in the churches, because the intricate frescos can be easily damaged and are meant to be a private experience.

Each monastery will have amazing views of the wind-carved cliffs and one of a kind artifacts to discover, but I recommend limiting your time to two-three of them. Each has its own times of entry and random days off, so there is no way of accessing all six of them in one day or even two days. And while you can reach the mountains by a private car or taxi, it is best to go with a tour group because the monasteries do not offer tours themselves. You may see a monk or nun going about her business or offering skirts for the women to cover their legs, but they will not show you around and likely only speak Greek.

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The Monastery of St. Stephen is a good choice for those who need an accessible entrance, want to see beautiful frescos, and are interested in seeing how WWII affected the sites, as there is still damage present. But the largest, most impressive, and most popular of them is the Monastery of the Great Meteoron. It is extensive, with three chapels, and a library with some of the most important Byzantine relics existing. There are steep stairs but the view at the top more than makes up for it.

Meteora is farther away from most of the sites that tourists want to visit while in Greece. But remember, going off the beaten path can be a life changing experience. Especially when that path leads to a breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Site like Meteora.

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