By Jim Ferri
The sound was so loud and unexpected it made me jump.
I turned to its source and saw a black-robed nun pounding a mallet on a large hanging wooden cylinder. At St. Barbara Monastery in Meteora, Greece, she was continuing the centuries-old ritual, broadcasting the daily 5:00 pm call to prayer.
Meteora is famous for these ancient monasteries, set atop near-inaccessible rock pinnacles, some over 1,000 feet tall. In fact, the meaning of the word Meteora in Greek is “suspended in the air.”
The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but unlike some other UNESCO site’s, tourists haven’t overrun it. What likely saves it is its location, well off the beaten tourist track in central Greece.
Find it on a map, and you’ll see it’s closer to the northwestern island of Corfu than to Athens. It’s adjacent to the town of Kalampaka, about a five-hour train ride from the Greek capital.
Getting the Last Seat
I had taken the train not from Athens, however, but from Thessaloniki in the north, about a three-hour train ride. At any rate, I was glad to have arrived at all since the train broke down halfway into the journey.
Consequently, I was a bit worried since I wanted to join the sunset tour of Meteora and the monasteries. On the other hand, I had booked a hotel a few days earlier just in case such as mishap occurred.
It was the small Toti Hotel in Kalampaka, clean and comfortable, run by the two Toti sisters. As one of them checked me in, I shared my concern about joining the tour, now in the late afternoon.
She quickly called Meteorama Travel, the tour organizers, and was told that the tour van had already departed. Thankfully, though, they would call the guide and alert him to pick me up. Thank God for cell phones, I thought.
Minutes later I gave thanks again as the van arrived with only one seat left on the 12-person tour.
Our first stop was at St. Barbara, aka Rousannou, a 16th-century monastery that is now a nunnery. Although the lowest of the Meteora monasteries, it was still quite a climb up the steps to the entrance. (The €3 entrance fee, the same for all the monasteries, was not included in the tour price.)
Wraparounds were provided for all of the women in our group who wore pants and shorts, forbidden inside. Although shorts and short sleeves were forbidden for men, the shirt requirement was disregarded.
The Byzantine artwork was beautiful, as is most artwork at its source. Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, photos are prohibited in all the monasteries to protect the incredible artwork.
A Stop in the Gift Shop
After viewing the art in the small public area, we moved on to the nunnery’s little gift shop, There in addition to religious icons we also found marmalade, honey, olive oil and small bottles of liqueur for sale.
It was outside the shop where the pounding on the wooden cylinder began. The pealing of a church bell close by soon accompanied it, the signal for us to leave. From the windows high above, the voices of singing nuns drifted down to us as we returned to our bus.
After leaving, we drove around the area viewing the incredible landscape that changed at every turn. I had never seen such incredible natural formations, much less buildings constructed on top of them.
Monks who were previously hermits built the monasteries, although It’s still unknown how they scaled Meteora’s rocky towers. An even greater mystery is how they later hauled up their building supplies.
Byzantine Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary
Soon we were viewing the Great Meteoron, also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ. Founded in the 14th Century, it is the oldest and largest of the six Meteora monasteries that remain. It is also the highest at over 2,000 feet above sea level.
Unfortunately, we could not enter it on our sunset tour. Viewing it from across a rocky divide, however, our guide explained its history to us.
On the other hand, we visited the Byzantine church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary, the oldest in the region. Inside its incredible interior, we discovered a treasure trove of Byzantine frescoes.
Our guide, knowledgeable about history and Byzantine Art, pointed out the church’s pulpit with a stairway on each side. It’s something found in no other church, leading to a theory that, perhaps, it was built for an Emperor.
Beautiful mosaics were also discovered under the church’s stone floor, adding to its other 11th-century treasures. Archaeologists would like to remove the covering stone but first need to ensure the stability of the building. Meanwhile, they’ve uncovered about one square foot and covered it with glass to permit viewing of the hidden treasure.
A Spectacular Sunset
This was a sunset tour, of course, and Meteorama Travel boasts online they know the perfect spot to view it. I began to wonder just where they’d take us for our end-of-day viewing.
We continued our tour, driving around making another stop or two, before heading up to higher ground. Then around one turn, we pulled off onto a small parking area. There we found a rocky outcrop that provided a spectacular view of the monasteries and the valley and mountains beyond. Three couples had already claimed their viewpoints, but there were acres of room for all of us.
For the next half hour, we all sat in silence watching an incredibly colorful and majestic mountain sunset. It was the perfect ending to the tour.
One Last Look
The next morning I set out to view the little town of Kalampaka. Again, I was amazed by the sight of the sandstone pinnacles soaring skyward on the outskirts of town. On the other hand, now I was viewing it from an entirely different perspective, making it even more intriguing. It was evident why the Greeks had named the place Meteora.
With a bus to catch in an hour or so, I headed back to my hotel to collect my luggage. In the lobby, I again met the Toti sister who had been so helpful the day before.
I thanked her again and commented that I was surprised to see her at the front desk that morning after she had been there the night before.
“The Totti sisters do everything here,” she told me. “We run the hotel, we maintain it, and we do all of the cleaning.”
With a smile on her face, she pointed over to a TripAdvisor certificate on the wall stating that travelers had voted the Toti Hotel as one of the cleanest.
Stay at the Toti and, like me, you’ll probably agree.
If you go:
P. Dimitriou 2,
Tel: +30 24320 23820
The cost of the Sunset Tour is €35, about $47. The company also offers other tours of Meteora.
Toti Boutique Hotel
13-21 Ramou Street
Tel: +30 24320 23588
The cost of my room was $50, booked through hotels.com and included a Continental breakfast.