I’ve just come back from the AdventureNEXT Balkans conference and my head is spinning with great new travel ideas! The two week journey took me across Kosovo and Albania by bike and boat… to the shores of Macedonia’s beautiful Lake Ohrid… and finally down to the jaw-dropping cliffs of Meteora in Greece.
I’m writing longer profiles on each for my new column for Paste Magazine, but Meteora just had too much beauty to contain in one article. So, without further ado, here they are… the top five reasons why you must visit Meteora NOW!
So this is obvious… Meteora is known for its many monasteries perched atop steep cliffs and they are the reason it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is estimated that 24 monasteries were built from the 11th century on, but there are currently only six “active” monasteries (actually, four monasteries and two convents) that tourists can visit for 3 euros each.
Several of the bigger monasteries – like Great Meteora and Varlaam – have gone through modern renovations and can get pretty crowded… but you can head over to St. Stephen’s or Holy Trinity to get a sense of what life is like for the hundreds of monks and nuns who have occupied them for centuries. All of the monasteries offer some of the most beautiful examples of iconography that can be found in Greece.
Meteora remains one of the most important places for the modern Greek Orthodox Church and the 60 members of the clergy that currently reside in its impressive structures keep a close rein on tourism development. Recent efforts to bring hot air balloon tours to the site faced a successful legal challenge from Meteora’s monks and nuns.
One of Meteora’s biggest draws for tourists, unsurprisingly, is rock climbing — on any of the cliffs that does not host a monastery. In fact, the area has over 800 bolted routes to keep climbers busy for days. Meteora’s modern rock climbing scene can be traced back to the 1970s when German climbers Dietrich Hasse and Heinz Lothaz Stutte first visited the region after seeing pictures of its peaks on a tobacco advertisement, but in truth, the monks have been climbing Meteora’s cliffs for centuries.
Meaning “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above,” Meteora is home to some of the world’s most unique limestone rock formations. Hasse and Stutte wrote the book on Meteora climbing and are attributed with its minimalist approach to placing bolts, which makes even the easier climbs feel a lot more exposed. They also established the common practice of leaving notebooks at the top of each climb, which means that some of the peaks still contain books with inscriptions dating back to the region’s first climbers.
Can’t find Hasse and Stutte’s book? The Vertical Life Climbing App has information on a fair number of routes.
Hiking & Cave-Hopping
Is climbing a little too intense for you? Not to worry… Meteora is also home to some incredible hiking over the paths that shepherds and monks have been walking for centuries. Taking the monopatia, or “old monk trails,” allows you to access some of the most beautiful attractions that tour buses can’t reach.
While you are never in danger of finding yourself stranded far from civilization, I would highly recommend taking one of the many guided hikes offered by Visit Meteora, who hosted my recent visit. Their knowledgable guides will weave together stories of the region’s history as you walk, scramble, or climb around Meteora’s beautiful peaks. They can also lead you to one of the area’s many hermit caves, long inhabited by those monks who sought an even more extreme type of seclusion.
Food & Culture
Another no-brainer. Greece has been a hot tourist destination for years in large part because of its fresh, delicious food and lively culture. The food in northern Greece where Meteora is located is slightly different from the grilled calamari that might immediately come to mind, but no less delicious. Palmyra Gkertsou (pictured above) is the owner and head chef at Restaurant Meteora which has been serving up favorites like moussaka, tomatoes and peppers stuffed with minced meat, and more since 1925.
Looking for something a bit more romantic? Meteoron Panorama is just the spot. The outdoor terrace of the restaurant offers breathtaking views of Meteora with the nearby cliffs lit beautifully at night.
Perhaps my favorite dining experience during my time in Meteora, however, was at a tiny restaurant called Taverna to Paramithi. Here, we were treated not only to some of the freshest food of our stay, but also to an evening of music and dancing:
… and, of course… Wine!
Not to worry, it wasn’t all about athleticism during my time in Meteora. The region also offers some truly great wine! The monks have recently started growing wine grapes on some of their land near the monasteries, which – while not ready yet for distribution – I am tracking closely so that I can return for a taste. The real star of the show, however, is a winery called Katogi Averoff in nearby Metsovo.
An easy day trip from Meteora, Katogi Averoff is Greece’s highest altitude vineyard, offering up to 15 different wines on any given year. Each year, over 12,000 people come to the winery for a tour and tasting that can’t be missed. You can learn about the winery’s eccentric founder, Evangelos Averoff, and wander through the modern art instillation that is the wine cellar and tasting room.
After a day of wine-tasting, you can stay in the hotel attached to the winery, or venture to the five-star Grand Forest Metsovo nearby. The views, facilities, and food at the Grand Forest simply can’t be beat for a price that starts at only 99 euros per room.