Northern Greece: Thessaloniki and the Great Monasteries of Meteora

My next stop in Greece was to the site of Meteora. where a number of mountain top monasteries were build starting in the 14th Century (although monks have been living in the area since the 9th Century). The monasteries are surrounded by the village of Kastraki and the town of Kalambaka. From access to restaurants, cafes, etc, stay in town, for proximity to the monasteries stay in the village (although you can still easily walk from the town to the monasteries).

I had seen nice pictures of the site but I must say when I got there, even the city map was impressive. This was a billboard map and I didn’t have one myself. However, I thought the little dotted line path to the top would likely be more interesting than walking alongside the road, and I went for it. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too hard to find or follow without a proper map.

As it turns out, elite commando skills were not required to navigate this route.

The first Monastery, Agios Stephanos (St Stephen), built in the 16th Century, taken over by nuns after World War II.

Probably the easiest to get to, if you drive there. From the parking, a short walk will lead you to a little stone bridge and you are there. I figured that I would get bored visiting the interior of all the monasteries, so I skipped the first one.

Nearby Agia Trias (Holy Trinity, 15th Century) is connected by a small cable car. I actually saw it in use and set-up the camera to get a good shot. As I pressed the shutter button the camera read “Shutter disabled – change battery”. By the time I did, the little cable car was gone.

Even though I knew this monastery was closed, I decided to climb up to check it out from the outside. It was useless, as it is really perched on the top, and without entering it, you cannot get anywhere around or besides it. I hit a locked door, but the staircase carved straight out of the mountain still allowed me a cool view of the village below. Unfortunately, the sky did not cooperate with my picture taking endeavours, but I did manage to get back to the hotel before the rain started.

Walking from the eastern to the western temples was so much more pleasant than doing it by tour bus. I got to stop at all sorts of little mountain side parking spots which provided magnificent views of the valley below. I’m sure the locals go there for a romantic sunset look at their beautiful valley.

And for other, less contemplative, activities.

The monastery of Varlaam, the second largest, 16th Century.

I was going to visit this one, but as I climbed up, I realized my timing coincided with the arrival of several busloads of French school kids. That line-up was not going to happen and I turned back.

Finally, the most important and largest Monastery in the area, the Great Meteora, 14th Century.

Also reached by a network of stairs carved straight out of the mountain face.

As this was off season for international tourism, but a long week-end in Greece, the place was pretty busy, but mostly with Greek tourists. Although there was no service in the Church, most of the locals did whatever the Greek Orthodox do when they visit a church. Unfortunately, the church, and all the art collections were off-limit to cameras.

The Great Meteora, like the other ones, is still a living monastery (2 are nunneries, if that’s the correct word). However, the areas where the tourists visit, and the areas where the monks monk are distinct and separated. I did not even see a single one, which is not that surprising; I read there are only a few of them left in each monastery. Because they now survive financially on mass tourism, the monastic experience of the place is somewhat lost. That being, said, I’m sure it is quite special in the evening or early morning, when no tourists are present. The area open to tourists has been completely converted from a functioning monastery to a museum, including a section on Greek military history, which seems a little odd in this place. Photography is not allowed in these areas. This is the old carpenter’s workshop.

The old kitchen.

And the retired monks. I am glad we do not practice this type burial with Public Servants in Canada. Ottawa’s Government buildings would be a little scary.

Happy with my off-road excursion on the way up, I again looked for a path. This one turned out to be not quite as paved, and I often felt the need for a machete. I also notice that what I thought was a path, was really in fact a natural overflow outlet from the stream at the bottom of the valley. I was quite happy the sky did not open into torrential rains, or I might have gone swimming.

The valley offered magnificent views, and of course I was the only fool there.

A smaller Monastery, closer to the village, Rousanou, 16th Century.

I literally crawled out of a bush an emerged on a little village road. The sheep seemed quite surprised to see me appear out of nowhere. All in all, that little excursion turned into a 6 hour mountain walk. Since this was a holiday, March 25th, Independence Day, I was hoping to catch some sort of celebrations in town. Unfortunately, apart from the cafes being full and the kids hanging around the gaming arcade on a school day, nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be taking place. I settled for some online hotel booking and other administrative matters, while the weather turned rainy.

The next day was also rainy in Thessaloniki, which probably explains why I am so up-to-date on the blog! Eventually, the sky cleared and I went to the must-see attraction, the White Tower. The former fortification and Ottoman house of torture and execution is now the symbol of the city. The tower has been extensively restored and now houses a museum of regional and Greek history. The fact that all the signs, narration and everything else is only in Greek does not contribute to its interest for visiting tourists.

What you get for 3 euros is a seven floor stair workout and a good view of the city. I will never understand why cities put a busy street on the shore (sometimes even a highway!). What a ridiculous way to ruin your waterfront. Go: water – pedestrian area – row of buildings and then big street. It seems so obvious.

A large waterfront park was currently being renovated and access was forbidden. The statue honours a fairly well know kid from the area, Alexander the Great.

And the street honours a former Canadian Prime Minister.

And on the odd side, a question for you. A place called “Solo Men’s Club”, with a suggestive picture of a woman, but rainbows all over the place: what do you expect to see inside?

Finally, a very small observation on the economic situation in Greece. This bad picture shows a line-up in front of the ticket counter in Thessaloniki’s bus station, while other counters are empty. I had seen a much worst version of this in Athens, but was too much in a hurry to snap a photo. There is a line-up because a bus will soon leave, but nobody goes to the other counters, because each counter can only sell tickets for a specific list of destinations. So, with a few changes to their computer ticket system, you could – literally in a day – improve service to customers by saving them from line-ups, and cut staff by half. A coincidence or a good illustration of the Greek problem? I don’t know, but in integrated, modern economies, zero productivity, “make work” jobs are hardly the recipe for long term economic success.


10 thoughts on “Northern Greece: Thessaloniki and the Great Monasteries of Meteora

  1. Beautiful insight and just what I’m looking for. I’m viisiting Greece in October and wanted to know if 1 and 1/2 day good enough for Meteora? Any recommendations on where to stay?

    • Thanks for the compliment. I would say a day and a half is enough if you just want to hike around town and visit a few monasteries. Certainly enough if you drive around. I think that’s how long I stayed. The only risk is that if you get bad weather, you have no back-up day. I’m sorry I don’t remember where I stayed, but I remember accommodation in Greece being good value in the low season. Have a nice trip!

    • In Meteora, if you want to visit all monasteries, you have to stay 2 days because some of them are open in a day and the others the next day. Enjoy sirtaki & ouzo and all those magnificent views! In Kalambaka you can find many good hotels with low prices.

  2. Enjoy your site: easy conversational style, off-the-beaten path spirit, humor and most useful local information. We’ll put it to use when we visit there.

  3. Thank you, Colin, for your Meteora notes, I remembered my own visit there and in Thessaloniki. There are places to visit again (I walked on the road, not in the valley; you was more intelligent :) )

    • Thanks, but as I wrote, I was smart on the way up, but maybe not so smart on the way down. The bottom of the valley become a small river when it rains, so one has to check the weather before going there!

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