The drive from Athens to Meteora wasn’t too exciting, besides having to pay nearly €20 in tolls and getting a bit lost. The GPS we’d rented with the car was probably a solid eight years old and didn’t work very well, so we ended up taking a wrong turn and ending up in Rachos before we turned around. Our map was all in Greek so it was somewhat difficult to navigate, although at least the road signs are in the Greek alphabet and the English/Latin alphabet. Luckily I had downloaded this area of Greece on Google Maps and we were able to navigate offline. Even without a SIM card you can use it, since your phone will still have GPS capabilities–you just won’t get traffic updates. Once we got back on track and started using Google Maps things went much more smoothly.
We arrived in Meteora around 2:30, which was unfortunate, because the largest monastery–Grand Meteoron–was only open until 3pm, and closed for the next two days that we would be in Meteora. All of the monasteries are closed at least one day of the week, but I’m not sure why the largest (and I believe most popular) one would have the worst hours and only be open five days a week. Either way, the result was that we hurried to cross the bridge and book it up hundreds of steps to see the monastery before it closed. We reached the top finally, quite winded, and the monks let us in without paying. However, I only had time to snap a couple of pictures before they were shooing us out again, and we had to descend down the stairs we’d just run up to see the monastery. It all seemed rather pointless, and I wish we’d have stopped along the twisting road to the top to get pictures of goats instead! 😉
Then, as we (and a group of maybe a dozen other tourists) were being herded back down the steps, a few of us tried to get pictures, as there was a gorgeous view of one of the other monasteries from the steps. But the monk who was herding us–one who wore jeans and a sweatshirt, so maybe he was new–was not having that and kept saying “Hurry up” over and over, anytime someone tried to get a picture. We wondered why he was in such a hurry when the monastery would be closing to tourists for two whole days afterward, but either way we didn’t get the greatest impression of that monastery!
We stopped by a couple of souvenir stalls after we’d crossed the bridge again and I admired the religious icons they had–I bought a €4 guidebook and a small tapestry of St. George and the Dragon for my sister, as her birthday is on his saint’s day. Then we drove back down the mountain (very fast, as Ryan was having a little too much fun tearing around the winding roads) and found our hotel in the city of Kalambaka.
On the way, we had to stop because Ryan saw a rusty old truck and wanted to get a couple of pictures of it. Later he looked it up and found out that it was a Romanian truck, an Aro from 1950. While we were stopped a little old woman who didn’t speak English pointed one direction and said “Meteora”, then the other and said “Kalambaka”. I just nodded, thinking she thought we were lost and that she was giving us directions, but then an old man who spoke slightly more English stopped to talk to Ryan and we figured out that they wanted a lift into Kalambaka, so she was asking which way we were headed.
We agreed and they got in the backseat. On the way the old man joked that Ryan had a “moto problem” which couldn’t have been more accurate. 🙂 We dropped them off in the town square, which is absolutely adorable and has a little fountain in the middle. They thanked us (“efcharisto poli”) and we continued on to our hotel, the Toti Boutique. After getting settled into our room and studying a map of Kalambaka, we decided to set out and explore a bit. We stopped by the old church near our hotel, and then continued on to the pretty square where we’d dropped off the old couple. The town is so cute and peaceful (especially after Athens) and we reached the square right around sunset. We stopped to enjoy the fountain, and the views of the mountains behind, for a moment, and the whole setting was probably one of the most romantic of our trip. And then we spotted a bakery and decided to have a couple of pastries as we walked on to the other square in town.
After we reached the other square (which didn’t have a cute fountain or really anything else of interest) we turned and headed back to the one with the fountain, where a restaurant I’d read about before the trip was located. It’s called Taverna Panellinio, and definitely seems to be one of the best restaurants in Meteora. We had a fantastic Greek salad, and then I had lemon chicken which was quite good. I tried a local white wine (Restina) the waiter recommended, and then, on seeing a cab driver (who was being as friendly–or more so–to the patrons) as the owner having a 7UP, I asked for one too. The waiter asked if I wanted to mix the 7UP and wine, and after he assured me he wasn’t joking had me try it. It was quite good, since the wine was rather dry, and I suppose it wasn’t really different than a white wine spritzer or something like that. We had a great experience at that restaurant and would definitely recommend it.
When we were finished, we walked the few blocks back to our hotel and went to sleep, ready to wake up and explore as many of the other five still-active monasteries as we could fit into one day.
The night before I’d figured out the optimal schedule, based on the location and opening hours of each of the monasteries, to fit them all into one day. We ended up not following at all, however. If you see a few of the monasteries while in Meteora, you’ve seen quite a lot, and I don’t think it’s really necessary to visit all six. We did take some notes, however, on how high up the list we thought each one that you could visit should be.
After breakfast at the hotel, we drove up the winding road we’d driven down yesterday and ended up at Varlaam Monastery first. We really enjoyed this monastery, as there was quite a bit to see, and only a medium amount of stairs to get up to it. (Which in Meteora, is still quite a few stairs!) Their museum was one of the best we visited. They had gorgeous Byzantine artifacts, gilded religious icons, and very detailed ceremonial vestments to see. Their chapel, as all of the monasteries’ chapels were, was full of paintings of religious scenes, the scent of incense, and a very calm, quiet feeling. We saw our first monks who were wearing black robes here, although the younger ones were wearing jeans, sweatshirts, and tennis shoes. Those ones also weren’t nearly as friendly–we wondered if they were newer to the monastery life. Varlaam also has a huge wine barrel and a huge net that was used to raise supplies up to the monastery. There are really nice views, and we stopped in the gift shop, where I bought a St. George icon that was painted at the monastery and a bottle of tsipouro. I think Varlaam is one worth visiting, especially as an alternative to Grand Meteoron if you want to see a larger monastery.
The next monastery (or, more accurately, nunnery) that we stopped at was Roussanou. If Varlaam has a medium amount of stairs, Roussanou has a lot of stairs. There are nice views on the way up, though. We also spotted a bathroom about halfway up and decided to stop. I thought it was funny that after everywhere I’ve been, right there in Meteora, Greece was where I’d experience my first squat toilets! It wasn’t a super pleasant experience–I have no idea if all of the monasteries have squat toilets, but to be on the safe side try to do your business at your hotel!
All those stairs do pay off with great views–you can see four other monasteries from Roussanou, which was really cool, and I did get some nice pictures on the way up.
Inside the nunnery, we were rather disappointed. Their chapel was the smallest we saw, and they had no museum–only about 7 religious icons hung on the walls. They also didn’t allow any photography inside (though they had almost nothing to photograph) and cost the same as all the other monasteries (€3) despite the small size. Since there were at least nice views, we asked one of the nuns if we could go out onto this wooden balcony they had, but she was rather rude and ignored us, although we were clearly speaking to her. All we really got out of all of those stairs was some nice views and a picture of the nunnery’s flower garden. Basically, I would put this one on the bottom of your list if you don’t have a lot of time in Meteora.
Next we drove to St. Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery, which was next on our schedule. When we saw the number of stairs, however–reaching from basically the bottom of the mountains up to the monastery, we decided to make that one our “if time allows” monastery and head to the Holy Trinity (Agia Triada) next instead.
When we reached the Holy Trinity Monastery, we were surprised to find a sign saying that the monastery was closed for renovations until December 4th. We stopped for a moment to admire the overlook nearby, and then continued on to St. Stephen’s Monastery/Nunnery.
Halfway between the two monasteries, there was a really great overlook from which you could see nearly all the monasteries of Meteora, so we stopped to get some nice pictures there. It was really peaceful and quiet up there, and we enjoyed sitting for a few minutes and just enjoying the place where we were. The fall colors made Meteora seem even more surreal than it already did. The monasteries cling to the cliffs impossibly, and the whole place has this calm feeling so that you perfectly understand why people have been going to these cliffs for spiritual enlightenment for nearly a millennium.
Finally, we headed on to St. Stephen’s (Stefanos) Nunnery, which was probably my favorite. First of all–there are no stairs! Instead, you cross a bridge to enter the nunnery. They had the largest chapel (I think even larger than Grand Meteoron’s, from what I glimpsed of it) and a very nice museum, featuring the original religious icon of St. George I’d been watching out for all day. The nuns were super nice there–in the museum gift shop I didn’t have the right change for the postcards I wanted and the nun told me (or indicated, I guess, since she didn’t speak English) that I could just have them! In their other little gift shop, I found some really pretty embroidery that the nuns there do, and bought one as my mom’s souvenir. After visiting this one, I think it should definitely be on your list… I mean, there aren’t even any stairs! The only downsides of this one were that it didn’t have quite as stunning views as the others, and it wasn’t quite as peaceful. It seemed pretty popular, so there were more tourists there, and you could also hear some city noise of Kalambaka, which you couldn’t hear from the others.
After we’d finished at Agia Stefanos, we decided that we could use some lunch. We had basically two options–drive back to Kalambaka, or check out Vlachava Village and the Eagle’s Nest cafe which were further up the mountain–at the very top of our map. We chose the latter and Ryan had a grand old time driving way, way too fast up the narrow road to the village. Along the way we saw some cows and I had Ryan stop so I could get pictures. We also saw more of the roadside shrines (which, before we knew what they were we had been calling “church mailboxes”). These are everywhere along the road in Greece. They mark either where people died in accidents, or where people survived accidents and they are giving thanks to one of the saints. They usually contain a religious icon of some sort and little offerings, like flowers or food or water. We had a lot of fun exploring this off-the-beaten-path part of Meteora, and even at one point found a whole herd of cows in a little valley. They all wore bells, and there was this most wonderful melodic sound as the whole herd’s bells were sounding. I even bought a windchime/bell souvenir later to remember it by–it now hangs on our front porch.
Lunch at Eagle’s Nest was good–it was a sort of German/Greek restaurant and I had some delicious Greek meatballs called keftedes. The service wasn’t great but the food was good, and there’s a nice panoramic view of the countryside from the restaurant. There are tons of tables and chairs outdoors, so I imagine that in the summer it’s a really nice place to sit and have a meal!
When we were finished, we drove back down the winding road and got a few pictures at the Holy Trinity Monastery again, before deciding not to attempt the climb to the top of Nikolaos Anapafsas. At that point in the day it was likely that by the time we reached the top the monastery would be closed to visitors anyway! We figured that we would visit the next day if we felt the urge, but in the end we decided to get an earlier start on to Delphi instead.
We had a bit more exploring to do yet that day in Kalambaka before we left, though.
First, we stopped by Vindros Icons, a store with hundreds of the little religious icons that are everywhere in Meteora. If there’s some sort of obscure saint you’re looking for, I’m sure they’d have it there! They had many other Greek souvenirs there too, and I bought onyx and turquoise silver rings for my cocktail ring collection there. I also noticed little vials labeled “nardos” that smelled exactly like all of the monasteries. So, there you go–if you want to know what the monasteries at Meteora smell like, just get yourself some of the essential oil spikenard!
Our next stop in Kalambaka was a museum. I’d heard about the Meteora Natural History & Mushroom Museum and felt we had to go–I mean, it’s a mushroom museum! It cost €5 to enter and we had a lot of fun! The building is actually very new and nice. The museum isn’t too big, but everything in it is well-done, and they managed to still have over 300 bird species and over 250 mushroom species on display! The first floor is focused on animals/natural history and the second floor is focused on mushrooms. On the second floor there are some really great murals illustrating the background, uses, and history of different mushroom species. The gift shop is also on the second floor, and there you can sample different mushroom products. We tried shiitake, portobello, and a kind of mushroom that literally tasted like candy! I’m not a big fan of mushrooms but I probably could have eaten a whole jar of those sweet ones! Anyway, we thought the mushroom museum was really fun and worth a stop in Kalambaka.
After the museum, we chilled at the hotel for a bit before heading out to dinner. That evening (and the next morning) we noticed the strangest thing–the tour buses seemed to have left and it was as if we were the only tourists left in Kalambaka. It was really cool to have the laid-back, adorable little town to ourselves, which probably contributes to why Meteora was our favorite place of our trip.
For dinner that evening, we went to a gyro place next to Taverna Panellinion… and kind of wish we had just gone to the Taverna again! The proprietor seemed almost annoyed/resentful that he had to cook for us (our first clue that we were the only tourists left!). The food was okay though, and when we finished we decided to find somewhere to get drinks.
In Greece, most of the bars are also coffee shops, which makes total sense and means you can get some pretty cool drinks. However, we made the mistake of going into a bar that was just a coffee shop. Ryan had a coffee and I had a hot chocolate veronnaise (which just means with whipped cream though). It was quite good, but we decided to keep looking for a place with proper drinks. On the way we stopped in a bakery with all sorts of delicious and homey-looking pastries. We bought our first baklava of the trip (not sure what we were doing up until that point, not ordering baklava at every opportunity) and decided to save it for later.
Finally, we found a really cool cafe where we could get some drinks. It’s located on the roundabout right next to the fountain and called Cafe Meludrov (Μέλυδρον). The music and atmosphere in the place was great… they had a nice view of the Central Square from there too. Ryan and I both had a few drinks–I had a Cuba Libre, a daiquiri, and then another chocolate veronnaise. The drinks were quite strong and good, and we were a bit tipsy by the time we headed back to the hotel. We have yet to master the European art of making one drink last three hours! 😉
Anyway, we went to bed quite happy with our experience in Meteora, and kind of wishing we’d planned for another day there so we could just bum around in Kalambaka some more before heading on to Delphi. Our overall verdict? This amazing place is 100% worth the drive from Athens!