Since coming here, all I’ve heard are weird names like “Pillar of Rain”, “Line of the Falling Drops”, “Corner of Madness”, “Lightning Rod”, “Stairway to Heaven” and “Bridal of Satan”. .” It turns out they’re all names of climbing routes, and the climbers around me can’t decide which one to tackle first.
In Meteora you have the choice between 170 summits and 870 routes. It’s a place where your climbing instinct really kicks in, and you don’t often find yourself in spaces like this.
After two months of confinement, Camping Vrachos, the favorite lodge for climbers in Kastraki, has recently reopened and loyal visitors are delighted. Around the campsite, clothes dry on climbing ropes held by carabiners. In the central kiosk there are ropes, helmets and climbing shoes.
Maps and guidebooks are open on the benches and eager rope partners bend over them. A curious dialect is spoken in the shade of the trees, peppered with phrases like “multi-pitch”, “top-rope”, “cams” and “nuts”. These are all unfamiliar tools and techniques outside of climbing circles, but the campers here all understand each other perfectly.
Of course, climbing is not the only reason to come to Meteora. This bewitching landscape with its giant rock pillars seemingly falling from the sky is enchanting to say the least.
And if you take into account that from the 11th century, even before the construction of the famous monasteries on top of the hillocks, ascetics climbed here without any safety equipment, you get an extra dose of admiration. For its incredible natural and cultural value, UNESCO has included it in its World Heritage List.
Organized monastic community life reached Meteora in 1340, brought here by a monk from Mount Athos named Athanasios the “Meteorite”, who climbed to the top of Platys Lithos, the largest rock in the area, and named it Meteoro, thus christening the area forever. He founded the church of Panagia Meteoritissa Petra and eventually the monastery of Great Meteora.
The first monks used wooden scaffolding and ladders to reach the heights on which their monasteries were perched. Later, monks hoisted themselves into nets or iron cages using ropes. These terrifying means of transport ceased to be used in 1922, replaced by the stairs you see today.
Climbers love this place, and not just because of the fear the place inspires in them. The physical challenge is great: slender rock faces, odd holds on conglomerate walls, and bolts (where climbers secure themselves when ascending routes) that are few and far between; indeed, many climbing routes were opened 40 years ago with meager resources.
At Taverna Paradeisos, local mountaineer Vangelis Batsios, who oversees the maintenance of the routes, shows me some old photographs: “It’s Dietrich Hasse in the 1980s. Look at those shoes, look at that harness! In the photographs, some climbers are barefoot, while others are wearing climbing shoes. Many wear old climbing harnesses. They are a brave bunch, if a little mad too, just like the area’s first Saint residents – must have faith, so to speak.
Climbing ethics do not permit the addition of more bolts today – although the rock supports the use of slings as an additional safety measure. “If people did it that way, that’s how you’ll do it too,” Nikos Lazanas tells me. “A course is like a work of art: once it’s finished, we don’t go there to modify it. This is what the ethics of climbing dictate. If you want to do it, get better.
Lazanas is a member of the Hellenic Association of Mountain Guides and a mountaineering and climbing instructor with the Hellenic Mountaineering and Climbing Federation. I first find him climbing the famous rock of Adrachti.
“Meteora is characterized by slabs and fissures – and fissures are not that common in Greece,” he tells me. “They’re not bolted down. You put in your own bolts as you go, which makes the experience even more engaging and challenging. This is the art of climbing in its purest form. The courses here are not simply sports courses, as they are called; these are noble roads. Of course, there are also more relaxed routes, which are just as enjoyable as the more difficult ones, as the scenery is extremely beautiful wherever you climb.
Meteora is said to be tough for beginners, and even the most experienced climbers tell me it’s tough when they find themselves scrambling 6m distances between bolts. Maintaining a good state of mind is essential. All your feelings in Meteora are heightened.
Hikes under the pillars
As I stroll through the neighborhood, I wonder when the thousands of visitors who usually come each year will reappear. Meteora is one of the most famous places in Greece. All I have found so far are a few foreigners who were luckily trapped in Greece for three months and are now returning home with a heavy heart.
I also met a few Greeks while passing by the monasteries. The most frequented are the famous monasteries of Great Meteoron, Varlaam and Agios Stefanos. The Rousanou, Agia Triada and Anapafsa trio bathe in silence.
Walking is the best way to feel grounded here – the best way is if you’re not climbing. There are dozens of paths and it is easy to find your way around (even if the markings are a bit lax), especially if you have a map of the region.
Most of the paths are old and once linked monasteries and hermitages; some are well-maintained paved trails through dense vegetation.
In general, nature is an impressive presence here. The hiking trails are well shaded, the birdsong rarely stops, and I see dozens of turtles as I walk from place to place. The setting is straight out of a fairy tale.
The easiest and shortest routes are those that pass through the pillars closest to Kastraki. The hike to the small church on the rock of Agio Pnevma is easy and you can continue to the top.
From the top you can see the monastery of Agios Georgios Mandilas, built in a cave on another rock pillar, with sashes placed to mark the sacred vows taken, and you can also see the ‘prison of the monks’. It is a cave that monks who felt they had sinned used as a place of self-punishment.
Another splendid walk starts from the oldest part of Kastraki and takes you to the “square” formed between the pillars known as Pixari, Badova and Abaria, from where you can see the monastery of Agios Antonios, the hermit caves of Agios Grigorios and, with extra effort, the monastery of Agios Nikolaos from Badovas.
The path that starts near the monastery of Anapafsa and ends at the Great Meteor is also well known.
Now, on a similar hike between the Mikra Teichi (“small walls”) and Delta Spur sectors, I find my friends, and they climb. I’m ambivalent about joining them, but they put a harness on me, put a rope through it, and I started climbing, my legs shaking. I’m sure I can’t stand the height, even if this pillar isn’t that high.
To my surprise, I reach the top without too much difficulty and we write our names in the book alongside those of everyone else who has made it this far.
This place may not be for beginners, but finding myself here is like a dream – I defied the height and my fears, the same fears that would have paralyzed me had I been in any other part of Greece.
The sense of wonder, the beauty that surrounds me, and the realization of where I am have encouraged me along the way. As did Roula, of course, who was by my side, helping me. Now from above the people and cars below look like toys.
Looking to one side, I have a panoramic view of the city of Kalabaka; looking to the other side, I can see the monasteries and the climbers on the nearby pillars swaying like spider-men in the air. And then suddenly I realize how low this “great” height is that I’m standing on, because I can see much taller rocky giants looming around me, making me feel microscopic again.
In Kastraki, you can stay at Camping Vrachos (tel. 243.202.2293) or at the Dellas Boutique Hotel (tel. 243.207.8260, dellasboutiquehotel), or at the Sotiriou-Petrinou guesthouse (tel. 243.207.8105).
Taverna Zioga (tel. 243.202.2286) is famous for its cuisine, while Paradeisos (tel. 243.202.2723) is famous among climbers; both serve good meat. Skaros in Kalabaka (tel. 243.202.4152) has a good lamb kebab. Climbers often choose to eat at one of the many good souvlakis on Kalabaka’s main street.
In Kalabaka, ask for “sapoune,” a local semolina-based treat, from Robos Patisserie and “spatula” (a type of pudding) from Kyvelia Patisserie.
This article first appeared in Greece-Is.com, an English publishing initiative of Kathimerini.