It’s a descriptor I’ve had multiple writing professors warn me against. And I understand why. It’s cliche, and it’s more or less meaningless considering how often it’s used to describe something that barely elicits a jowl droop. But what about those times your mouth actually does fall open in awe at the sight of what lies in front of you?
That’s what happened to me at Meteora.
My expectations were stratosphere-high the morning I woke up in Kalambaka, ready to finally lay eyes on the clifftop monasteries I’d heard and read so much about. Every person I know who’d been struggled to find words to describe the experience, and photos appeared to be from a movie set rather than an actual non-fictional space on this planet. The previous day’s exploration of Delphi had only heightened my anticipation.
And as the bus heaved around the final bend, and the first limestone cliffs emerged in the distance, there was only one way to describe the scene ahead: jaw-dropping.
I was on day two of a Two Day Trip to Delphi and Meteora from Athens, a tour I’d signed on for to maximize my extremely limited time left in Greece and finally scratch my Meteora itch. The historically important area was originally home to twenty four Eastern Orthodox monasteries, of which six still remain. Five monasteries are open per day, with the rotating sixth taking a turn being closed to visitors, so the monks or nuns may pray in peace. Our guide would take us on guided tours to two, starting with The Holy Monastery of Varlaam.
After huffing the steep steps from the parking lot, donning modesty skirts and shawls, and being dutifully handed our thin paper tickets, our tour guide Joy gathered us close. For once I listened intently to a guide’s words rather than scurry away with my camera, and marveled at the history that had seeped deep into the walls over the past seven centuries.
And then eventually, you know, I scurried away with my camera.
Photography is not allowed within the inner sanctums of the buildings, but there was plenty to play with within sanctioned areas.
“So are you a professional photographer then?,” one of my fellow tour members asked, as I obsessively tried to capture the Greek flag flapping in front of a squinting sun. “No, just an asshole with a big camera who likes to pretend to be one,” I replied, and we cackled in unison. I was starting to appreciate these tour groups, and their built-in audience to my bad jokes.
One of the most amazing aspects of the monasteries? They were built without roads or paths up to the doors — materials were lifted using pulley systems that are still in use today. I stood at the bottom of the Holy Monastery of Varlaam for a full twenty minutes before we left, just watching the basket be lifted and lowered from the tower above. A relic from another era, still in use today.
Which makes visiting Meteora a lot like going back in time.
Between our two monastery visits, we pulled over to the side of the road at a viewpoint where we could admire the unique topography of the valley. Meteora literally means “suspended in the air,” and I could see why. The cliffs looked like the fingers of the Earth, trying to claw their way into the sky.
Formed by earthquakes, smoothed by water and wind, these cliffs form one of the most distinctive landscapes I’ve ever seen.
At one point, our guided pointed out a cave filled with fabric and clothing, a tradition kept up by the local villagers from nearby Kastraki.
Our next stop was Agiou Stefanou, the only monastery populated by nuns rather than monks. While this monastery was perched much closer to ground level, the surroundings were no less dramatic.
The monasteries of Meteora are indeed flooded with tourists — at least in the summer. Joy confided that her favorite time to visit is in the winter, when there’s a light dusting of snow on the ground and no footprints from fellow tourists to mar it. Yet regardless of the number of people I was sharing the experience with, Meteora had an unshakeable spiritual air.
While ideally I would have spent several days based in Meteora, visiting all the monasteries and taking part in some of the adventure travel opportunities in the area, sometimes compromises have to be made. This tour involves a significant number of hours on the road, and there is no time to enjoy either the beautiful hotel you stay in or the modern versions of the ancient cities you visit. Regardless, I’m so grateful there is an option out there that allowed me to make it to Meteora in the days I had left in Greece.
And there were bonuses — the views from the bus seat made the hours pass quickly, and the alternative for those trying to replicate the route independently are pretty nightmarish (there is no direct public transportation from Delphi to Meteora, meaning either multiple bus transfers or an extremely expensive private transfer). Our hotel and both meals included there were lovely. Our guide Joy was, well, truly a joy. While I wasn’t overly impressed with the typical tourist restaurants we were bussed to for our non-included lunch both days, Joy happily pointed me in the direction of where I could walk to grab to cheap gyro instead. All in all, it was the perfect note to end my pitch perfect time in Greece — and Europe — on.
My first trip to Greece was a tease, just a week — enough to know I wanted to come back someday, enough to know I really liked the place. This time, leaving Athens almost a month after I first passed through — this was enough to know that I love this country, that I want to come back again and again.
Recently a friend and I made a list of every country we’d ever been to, and then challenged each other to pick our top five favorites. It was a struggle to narrow down out of my twenty-six, but when I finished, there was a scrawled ballpoint pen heart marked firmly next to number thirteen: Greece.
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