Meteora

Greece

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Meteora must be one of the world's strangest places, a “forest” of vast sandstone buttes and spires topped by ancient Byzantine monasteries, rising clear of the plains of northern Thessaly.

This area was once seabed; when crushed and forced upward by tectonic movement, the hard agglomerate sandstone – composed of smooth stones and silt from ancient rivers – cracked and subsequently eroded, leaving today's towers, with their enormous, smoothly sculpted cliffs, standing up to 550 metres above the nearby valley. Their greys are transformed to glowing ocres at sunset. They are reminiscent of, and indeed were formed by a similar process to, Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the Olgas in central Australia.

Hermits made their homes in caves and under overhangs in Meteora's cliffs from the eleventh century or earlier. Monastic communities evolved, in part as a result of increasing pressure from the marauding Turks, built on rocky towers, with access only by ladder or in baskets pulled up on ropes to heights of several hundred metres. Meteora means “suspended in the air” in Greek, and this seems entirely apposite.

In its prime, Meteora had 24 monasteries and nunneries; only six are now active, the rest in ruins and often inaccessible. This numinous place has the same capacity to move you profoundly – irrespective of your beliefs or lack of them – as China's sacred mountains and the lamaseries of the Tibetan world.

Monasteries were bombed and artwork stolen during the Second World War, and the local town of Kalambaka was razed to the ground in reprisal against partisan activity. These monuments are now, deservedly, a World Heritage Site.

Their fame means that the monasteries are now overwhelmed by tourism, with buses locked on the access roads and huge crowds in the most famous of them. It can be thoroughly depressing.

Fortunately, you can walk away from all this along ancient paths between these secluded communities. These trails are generally not well signed or maintained (or indeed mapped – we were relying on the Lonely Planet's map, which was fairly basic but much better than nothing), and find yourself struggling through thick undergrowth. But they have huge atmosphere and can be thrilling. Walking on tracks and lesser roads can be a good option, if a bit less atmospheric. You will, however, need to choose your route carefully, to avoid the worst horrors of modern tourism; the trails in the northwest and east are perhaps the best areas for the serious walker.

The old path up the steep hillside to Varlaam monastery is typical of the sort of walk that will leave you a bit underwhelmed: a clamber up through pretty woodland punctuated by glimpses of the surrounding grandeur, into the deep shade of a gully between the cliffs, emerging rather bathetically into the world of tourism at the entrance to the great monastery. The locals are missing a trick here: while Meteora is famous for stupendous rock-climbing, it could retain many more of its too-fleeting visitors if the walking network were better maintained and mapped.

We made an evening walk which left us astonished and elevated, with the charismatic, knowledgeable Lazaros Botelis, who had cleared the path himself, as our guide. Starting from the pretty village of Kastraki, we zigzagged up through abandoned terraces at the foot of the vast, smooth-walled Holy Spirit rock. A wonderful view unfolded across the bowl in which the village nestled to the scoured cliff-faces that surrounded it.

We studied the remains of an ancient hermitage in a shallow cave some thirty metres up, and gawped at the monumental rubble of a blister of rock that had come crashing down one night in the 1950s. We watched a beetle make its fatal journey down into the pungent heart of a weird carnivorous plant with a foot-long purple stamen.

Then we were clambering up another huge slab that had peeled off the rock face and was leaning, intact, against it. Health and Safety have not yet made their baleful presence felt here, and at times we edged our way close to the giddy, unguarded drop below us. It was real.

A hundred metres or so up, we climbed through a gap between two cliffs onto a little platform where a tiny, whitewashed chapel has been hewn from the cliff, with two slender columns of living rock in the middle and icons and candles lining its sides. The trunks of a quiet little stand of olives were silhouetted against the bright plain far below. To the right, a line of majestic sentinels rose from the plain, surrounded by hazy, golden evening light.

We clambered up onto a rough sandstone dome topped by a bell, with extraordinary views over Kastraki village toward the vast crags around the bowl, many with trees clinging to their crevices, which dwarfed the houses far below. Ahead was another sandstone spire bearing a cross; behind it, across the river plain, the foothills of the Pindos Mountains were silhouetted against the evening sky. It was captivating, and we sat and feasted on our surroundings.

Eventually, we reluctantly scrambled back down and swung round the base of the Holy Spirit rock, crossing a narrow, chilly pass between the towers, the Rousanou nunnery glowing against a pewter sky on its impossible finger of rock in the distance. We dropped into a beautiful valley, which is surveyed from their fastnesses by the majority of the extant monasteries. We revelled in intense birdsong as we meandered through terraces, abandoned to wildflowers and on that June evening dotted with pure white lilies, and then along a surprising little ravine of fat old trees.

We then wound up through the dry old fields of the far hillside beneath St Nicholas Anapausas, with its rich paintings, the Holy Spirit across the valley behind us glowing in the evening sun. We circled behind another sheer tower with a ruined monastery on a small, high platform – it was once famously dangerous to get up to – and a climber marooned near its summit. Round behind this cliff was a long, steep, blister-inducing slope of bare rock, from which the ancient smoothed river stones protruded, down which we gingerly picked our way back to Kastraki and a very cold, very welcome beer.

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