I’m supposed to have a driver, Nikos, pick me up at 10.30 a.m. in Thessaloniki, but at 9.30 a.m. I’m told that his car has broken down and he' going to be late. I finally set off at noon with a new driver, Kostas and his hastily pressganged ( I gather) assistant Zoe. She is a young music student at Thessaloniki, who lives in the village of Kalabaka at Meteora, where I am headed. Kostas and Nikos live there too. Apparently, everyone knows everyone else in Kalabaka. Zoe chatters away to me. Kostas leans more towards the taciturn, but that doesn’t stop him complaining at the bursts of conversation. ‘I don’t speak English…’ he sulks. This is not the way to earn a tip, I think.
We’re taking the scenic route as compensation for the delay. Alongside us is huge and lofty Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece at 2918 metres above the sea. It's home of the gods, but they are disappointingly not in evidence today, as it’s swathed in cloud. And a stop, to the south east at a medieval fortress. Platamon, is a Crusader castle in a strategic coastal position which controls the exit of the Tempe Valley, connecting Macedonia with Thessaly and southern Greece. It has one lone tower, sadly not accessible as part of the three euro ticket, and fabulous views across the wide bays and beaches below.
My next viewpoints are from Kalabaki itself. Meteora is spread before me, one of those stunning places that should be on any bucket list. It is already included on the UNESCO World Heritage List - more on that later. It is a series of rock formations (unromantically composed of sandstone conglomerate originally from the seabed) hosting precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries, second in importance only to Mount Athos. The six (from an original 24) monasteries are perched on immense natural pillars and huge rounded boulders that dominate the skyline. The area is named Meteora for obvious reasons. And it’s astonishing.
Amazingly, radiocarbon dating evidences human presence 50,000 years ago, in caves in the area. The first people documented to inhabit Meteora, after the Neolithic Era, were an ascetic group of hermit monks in the ninth century AD. Seeking tranquillity, they moved up to the ancient pinnacles and lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some as high as 550 metres above the plain. This great height, combined with the sheerness of the cliff walls, kept away all but the most determined visitors.
I can’t help but feel sorry for them; as is so often the case their solitude was intruded upon by official organisation of the monks into monasteries. Numbers grew still further when additional monks sought shelter from the Turkish invasion and subsequent religious oppression. They still managed to maintain their isolation by restricting access using a system of nets, baskets, ropes and ladders to access the pinnacles and transport goods. The ladders were drawn up when danger threatened. The ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only "When the Lord let them break”.
But eventually, even the monks' heroic determination failed to keep out the rest of the world. Steps were carved into the rock during the 1920s. And some monasteries were rendered uninhabitable because of Italian bombing during World War II, when they were again being used as a refuge. Treasures were damaged or purloined. Rescue came in the form of UNESCO recognition, which led to a huge influx of money for restoration and repair. It also led to a huge influx of tourists. Today, there is a road up to the main entrances of the largest. Ironically, most of the monks have left. Of the 24 monasteries, only six - four for men, two for women, (who were allowed in, during the 1960s) - are still functioning, with each housing fewer than ten individuals. The remainder are now uninhabited ruins.
I’m not visiting by road though, I’m virtuously hiking, taking the old monks’ trails. My guide is called Heracles. He has a shaven head, twinkly blue eyes and muscles that go well with his name. This bodes ominously for the severity of my ‘gentle hike’ into the mountains. He says not to worry, it’s not a very arduous walk and then bounds off in a straight line up the steep, gravel covered slope of the Doupiani Peak in front of us. I follow after, trying simultaneously not to topple over and to keep breathing.
Thankfully, the path gradient lessens when we reach the upper peaks. And it really is worth the clamber, for the incredible panoramas and the tranquillity of the woodlands. Heracles says that north Thessaly is known as the land of oaks. The leaves are much larger than English oaks – I think they might be Turkey oaks. But I’m not going to suggest that in Greece. We’re also assaulted by small nipping flies. Heracles says they’re a legacy of the recent heavy rains - a medicane (Mediterranean hurricane) zipped though here last week.
We rest atop one peak to admire the unravelling panorama alongside a cross, and a circular helicopter landing type area with a statue of a heroic monk Thymios Vlachavas, a Greek klepht or resistance fighter against the Turks. He’s wielding a gun and sword, as he was intent on organising some large scale resistance. But it didn’t get beyond the planning stage. He was betrayed, captured by Ali Pasha, executed and quartered.
Our destination is the Great Meteoron Monastery on the Broad Rock. It is the oldest and largest monastery, founded by Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos in 1356. It also receives the most visitors, which is probably why only three monks currently reside there. The Katholikon (main church), dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus was erected in the middle of the fourteenth century and sublimely a hundred years (or so) later. (No pictures allowed).
Across the ravine - Great Meteron probably has the best views of all, from its balcony - is perhaps the most photographed monastery, Varlaam. It is reputed to house the finger of St. John and the shoulder blade of St. Andrew. Varlaam is appropriately and scenically positioned on a finger of rock. Heracles says that if it weren’t for Covid the buildings would be swarming and there would be ten coaches lined up in the car park opposite, alongside the souvenir stalls.
Kastraki village is huddled under the huge peaks. One looms over the church like King Kong waiting to pounce. There's a monastery directly above. This one is closed but, according to tradition, the local people donate clothes once year. These are festooned, colourful pennant strings, across the balustrades. There is a tiny taverna lined square in front of the church, atmospheric al fresco dining in the lee of the giant rocks. The succulent souvlakli at the Bakaliarakia are excellent.
The Doupiani House Hotel is nestled below the first hill I climb - the Doupiani Peak - and boasts that it has the best panoramic view in the village of Kastraki. That’s probably true. It would be hard to better the vista from my balcony. There are little tables and chairs scattered beguilingly under the olive trees. There’s welcoming fruit, local wine and some kind of gorgeously gelatinous sweet stuff in a dish – Grecian Delight? Breakfast is typical Greek fare - plenty of yogurt, honey, fruit, rice pudding and flaky apple cake served by beaming waitresses. The rooms are traditionally styled and provide all I need, though the pillows are a little unforgiving. Sadly though the walls are less traditional and I can hear the conversations and TVs streaming seamlessly from both sides of me.
Next stop Delphi.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.