The monasteries of the METÉORA are indisputably one of the great sights of Greece. These extraordinary buildings, perched on seemingly inaccessible rock pinnacles, occupy a valley just north of Kalambáka; metéora means “suspended in mid-air”, while kalabak is an Ottoman Turkish word meaning cliff or pinnacle. Arriving at the town, you glimpse the closest of the monasteries, Ayíou Stefánou, firmly ensconced on a massive pedestal; beyond stretches a forest of greyish pinnacles, cones and stubbier, rounded cliffs. These are remnants of river sediment which flowed into a prehistoric sea that covered the plain of Thessaly around 25 million years ago, subsequently moulded into bizarre shapes by the combined action of fissuring from tectonic-plate pressures and erosion by the infant River Piniós.
Legend credits St Athanasios, founder of the earliest hermitage here (late 900s), with flying up the rocks on the back of an eagle. More prosaically, local villagers may have helped the original hermits up – with ropes and pulleys. Centuries later, in 1336 they were joined by two Athonite monks: Gregorios and his disciple Athanasios. Gregorios soon returned to Áthos, having ordered Athanasios to found a monastery. This Athanasios did around 1344, establishing Megálou Meteórou. Despite imposing a particularly austere rule he was quickly joined by other brothers, including (in 1381) John Urod, who renounced the throne of Serbia to become the monk Ioasaph.
Royal patronage was instrumental in endowing monasteries and hermitages, which multiplied on all the (relatively) accessible rocks to 24 institutions during the reign of Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520–66). Money was provided by estates in distant Wallachia and Moldavia, as well as in Thessaly itself. It was largely the loss of land and revenues (particularly after the Greco-Turkish war) that brought about the ruin of the monasteries – although some were simply not built to withstand the centuries and gradually disintegrated in the harsh climatic conditions here.
By the late 1950s, there were just four active monasteries, struggling along with barely a dozen monks between them – an era chronicled in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Roumeli. Ironically, before being overtaken by tourism in the 1970s, the monasteries had begun to revive, attracting younger and more educated brothers; today about sixty monks and fifteen nuns dwell in the six extant foundations.