To the Centre of Greece: Meteora and Kalambaka

This time last year I was travelling around Greece and at the start of my whirlwind European adventure. I honestly can’t believe that it’s been a year since I’ve travelled sound Europe. So much has happened since coming back to Australia: getting a great job in a community legal centre, my partner and I getting our first pet together, my sister moving in with us, plenty of weddings, hens nights and baby announcements, family reunions, going back to univeristy to become admitted as a solicitor, and of course – finally confirming my volunteer program in Cambodia for May next year.

But I still reminisce about the amazing time I had overseas. In particular, I remember deciding that I really wanted to go experience a part of a country that not many people see. I chose to do this through Greece.


After my amazing Busabout tour around the Greek Islands, I decided to head to Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. It is located at the top of Greece near the Macedonian border. But first I was going to stop and explore the mountains of Meteora in the middle of Greece.


Background and HistoryThe mountains of Meteora are quite different to the rest of the scenery in Greece. This area of Greece was originally under water millions of years ago. Long story short, after many many millenniums of geographical changes such as earthquakes and rain, these impressive rocks formed.One mountain in particular was given the name of Meteora. From memory this can be translated into “the in heavens” or “the middle of the sky”.

The religious significance of the mountains is evident with the Monestries that are scattered throughout this area. The oldest known inhabitants were the Hermits or Monks. The “hermit/monks” would isolate themselves high up along the side of the rocks. The hermits would use scaffolding wedges in holes alongside the cliff face so they could climb up. They would pray in solitude to reach “Christian perfection” as they believed high up in the mountains that they were closer to God.

 

The hermits would come out of their solitude to pray with other hermits on Sunday’s. This eventually lead to monestaries being built at the top of many rocks. Around 20 monestaries were built, but only 6 remain today.

Apparently a combination of earthquakes and war destroyed many of these monestaries and only a few remain. Some of these remaining monestaries include: The Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoro, Holy Monastery of Varlaam, Holy Monastery of Rousanou, Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen, Holy Monastery of St Nicholas and the Holy Trinity Monastery. These are now protected by UNESCO.

Holy Monastery of Varlaam

The Monastery of Holy Trinity - one of six remain monasteries of Meteora, Greece

The Monastery of Holy Trinity

Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron - one of six remaining monasteries of Meteora, Greece

Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron

Monastery of Saint Stephen - one of six remaining monasteries of Meteora, Greece

Monastery of Saint Stephen

Did you know…

I like learning about the places I see and it’s always interesting to hear a bit of trivia from the places I’ve visited. From what I remember, the Monastery of the Holy Tronity was the backdrop in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”.

A historical fact: Nazis attacked the Monastery of St Stephen as they believed it was hiding insurgents. It was abandoned for some time until nuns took over and refurbished the Monastery.

Another fun fact: Apparently the Holy Monastery of St Nicholas was the inspiration for Tomb Raider (the computer game).

And lastly: When the hermits/monks lived in the caves and the sides of cliffs, they still needed to transport goods such as food. They created “pully” systems made of ropes and buckets to get these items up and down the mountain cliffs.


Getting to Meteora

So now that you know a bit about this destination, if you’re wantihg to visit this place you’re probably wondering how to get there…

There are two ways for tourists to get from Athens to Thessaloniki: train or plane. There is a bus system, but this can be tricky – websites say avoid this if possible. You can also drive but it has been described as difficult in navigating Athens traffic. Apparently once you have survived Athens, then it is a breeze driving to Kalambaka and the surrounding sights.

I noticed you can catch a train frlm Athens to Kalambaka, then Kalambaka to Thessaloniki. There are trains that go straight to Thessaloniki, departing Athens, but as I had a few days I thought I could take it slow and stop at Kalambaka for a few days. 

Train to Meteora

I booked a train from Athens to Kalambaka and did this online. It is advisable to pre-book these trains during busy periods like holidays or on the weekends.

Now here is something that you need to know about booking but is not easy information to find: you can only book the train ticket a maximum of 10 days in advance. But you should definitely prebook if you need to be somewhere by a specific date.

It’s relatively cheap. I booked a first class seat for around 20 Euros.

When I got on the train I was reminded that Greece is a relatively poor country nowadays, and the “first class” cabin is not necessarily the first class seat that people may come to expect. It is not like the first class seats on TVG or other European rail companies. There were 6 seats in the one cabin. In my 6 person first class cabin there was an American couple, an older Greek man, a middle aged Greek lady and her 5 year old daughter. It was cosy but there was still enough space for everyone and all our luggage.

There were no “meals” included in this ticket but there was a food station in the train. There were mainly sandwiches, pastries and some drinks. No gluten free food, but I didn’t expect there to be.

I made sure I booked a seat by the window and was rewarded with some beautiful scenery. Kalambaka was the end of the line so it was fairly easy to figure out when to get off.

 

Taxis/cabs at Kalambaka

I ended up staying a little further away from the train station at the neighbouring town of Kastraki. Silly me and I did not know how to get a taxi or even how to ask for one in Greek! At first I started freaking out… I’ve heard so many stories about what happens to young females travelling by themselves… But eventually I asked someone in English if they knew where I could get a cab and much to my surprise everyone was very helpful.

Accommodation


I found a hotel on booking.com and I wasn’t too concerned with having too many luxuries – I just wanted somewhere quiet and relaxing after my Busabout tour. I booked 2 nights so I could leisurely take the train from Athens to Thessaloniki, stopping at Kalambaka. It also meant that I had a full day to explore the mountains and Monestries that Kalambaka is famous for.

I booked Hotel Tsikeli thinking it was in the centre of Kalambaka and hence close to Meteora. Turns out that whilst I wasn’t staying in the heart of Kalambaka, I was definitely close to the mountains of Meteora. I was actually amazed at how close the mountains were to the hotel!

It is a fairly old hotel, with the standard small European bathroom. There was a queen bed, dresser, mirror and TV. There were plenty of power sockets for charging all my devices.

Breakfast was included and this was a typical European hotel breakfast: toast, boiled eggs, ham, crossoints, filtered coffee and orange juice.

The breakfast room runs into the lush green courtyard that looks straight up to some of the mountains. It was beautiful sitting in the warm summer sun, skyping back home, writing some blog posts… It was very relaxing!

I believe the hotel is a family run business and they were all so welcoming. It felt like I was staying at a relatives house. I would definitely recommend this play purely based on the warm welcome I experienced throughout my stay.

Local Town

Kastraki is the local town I stayed in and it has a small town feel to it. It is cute and lined with small local businesses. The owners of the businesses appear to live on the storey above and display plenty of colourful flowers which really brighten up the streets.

There is a small mini-mart grocery store with fruits, milk, some deli meets and pantry items. I went here to purchase some “supplies” like snack foods and water.

There was also a little bakehouse down the road which also had deli meets and plenty of delicious smelling bread. I don’t think they had any gluten free bread, but there were plenty of delicious looking treats here!

Food

When I went for a wander down the local town I found this gorgeous little family run business. I definitely wanted to try some traditional Greek food, so I decided to stop in an have a nice meal.

There was a local tavern down the road. I often forget that Greeks like many Europeans, have dinner quite late at night, often around 10 to 11pm. It would be very obvious that I was a tourist when I ordered dinner at 6:30/7pm! (I’m sure my bleach blonde hair would have given it away first).

They were still quite welcoming and happy to accommodate me. They spoke little English but we managed. I guess you can always point to a menu an say the basic please or thank you in the local language!

Lunch

I stopped by this random tavern/restaurant when I was walking along the main road leading up to Meteora. I think it might be called Meteora something… Sorry I can’t be more specific! But it was a cute little placed that seated me quickly and provided me with a delicious lunch.

The only thing was that there were stray kittens everywhere. Not cute ones though – skinny cats and some missing bits of fur. It made me feel really sad.

Sunset Tour

I had read a bit about the mountains, monasteries and tours. I had also seen the pictures and how pretty the scenery was. I decided that it would be good to go along for a tour and ge some local history on the area. I booked a tour through the Visit Meteora website. This website has plenty of information and is the best place to start when researching Meteora as a travel destination. 

I decided that this would be a good idea because I could do my own thing during the day. Then, at the best time for photos, someone would be driving me around and giving me a commentary on the impressive natural wonders.

 

The tour is a total of 4 hours, starting at 4.30pm in summer. It was 35 Euros which I thought was reasonable considering the time of the tour and the distance covered. Plus I was willing to part with that money for the experience.

It was definitely worth the money. It was a small group of seven people from memory, plus the driver and the tour leader. The bus was fairly new, comfortable and air conditioned which was very nice considering it was a hot summers day!

We got to stop for plenty of photo opportunities – I just wish I had my DSLR on me for these photos.

The tour leader was knowledgeable, friendly and made a few jokes here and there. I made sure that I gave the tour leader and driver a generous tip as well, as it was a truly a great experience that I would recommend to anyone travelling through Greece.

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