Not for those without a head for heights: Rough Guides editor Ros Walford conquers one of the cliffs of the Metéora.
This is no ordinary day. I’m dangling by a rope from a vertical rock face in mainland Greece. All around me are towers of sandstone, jutting from a wide plain – carved by water and wind and transformed by earthquakes. High up on top of these rocks sit ancient Greek Orthodox monasteries, the barely accessible homes of monks since around the ninth century AD, while cliff-side caves mark the former homes of lone hermits. When I’m not grappling with my carabiner, I’m gazing open-mouthed at the scene around me. There’s no doubt about it, the Metéora is one of the most extraordinary climbing destinations in the world.
What makes the Metéora so special?
It’s a strange and captivating landscape. I’m here in spring, while it’s lush and green, daubed with pink blossom and the air smells of fresh herbs. At sunset, the great rock pillars stand out, silhouetted against a hazy golden sky, while a soundtrack of crickets welcomes the night.
The name Metéora means “suspended in the air”, which refers not only to the remarkable geology of this UNESCO Heritage site, but also to the monasteries that seem to float above it all. It’s also an extremely peaceful place (away from the coachloads of tourists at Megálou Metéorou Monastery at least) and today, even with the bustling towns of Kalambaka and Kastraki slung out along the lower reaches of the rocks, you don’t have to go far to find a quiet spot. It’s not hard to guess why medieval monks seeking isolation were attracted to the place.
For climbers though, all this forms an impressive backdrop to a giant playground. With around a thousand routes that steer well clear of the sacred spots, there’s something for all abilities, including the professionals who come for the international events held here. Many locals are climbers too: don’t be surprised if your waiter is also an expert.
People have been climbing here for centuries. It’s easy to forget that the monasteries were built by engineers who reached the peaks without modern equipment, cranes and scaffolding. So how on Earth did they get up so high? And why would they want to?
Local people started climbing in the Metéora during the second century BC, using the impenetrable location as protection against a succession of invaders, including the Romans, the Ottoman Turks and the Serbs (and, much later, the Nazis). In about the ninth century, hermits began living in caves accessed by a system of retractable ladders and ledges. No harnesses and carabiners for them; just complete faith and a lot of skill. By the fourteenth century, more solid buildings were established. Twenty-four religious centres were built in total (of which six remain active), complete with Greek Orthodox chapels ornately decorated in gold, icons and moralistic torture scenes. Access became more advanced: there were drawbridges, steps were carved into the rock and a system of ropes and pulleys was used to winch the monks up and down in baskets – they were, literally, “suspended in the air”.
Blind faith at 400 metres
Mountaineering in the Metéora really gives you a sense of how great the monks’ achievements were. I want to see how I stack up against my 600-year-old predecessors so I’m tackling the via ferrata (iron road) to Great Saint rock – a harnessed scramble up a steep valley using ropes attached to iron hooks set into the rocks.
The day starts off gently: my guide Kostas takes me and a small group of beginners on a hike through the forested lowlands, passing shepherd’s huts and sheep pens. We emerge at the base of the “Spindle” where experienced climbers are scaling the 40-metre-high bulging column. From here, we can also see some others crawling up the 300-metre-high cliff on the other side of the valley passing a hermit’s cave halfway. I start to wonder what I’ve let myself in for. Kostas beckons us to follow him up a steep slope. Our footsteps dislodge loose rocks and he shouts out “STONES!” to warn those below of a potentially fatal hazard.
Further up, Kostas clips my carabiner to a rope that’s attached to a hook in the rock. Now that I feel safer, I traverse the slope with more confidence. At the top is a narrow ledge above a vertical drop. As I inch along the ledge, I don’t look down. I have blind faith in the skills of my guide and the safety of modern climbing equipment. Fortunately, without mishap I reach a set of carved steps that once led to the (now long-gone) monastery of the Twelve Apostles. At the top, there are views in all directions. I’d be happy to stay here but we press on, passing an ancient cistern that was used to collect rainwater in times of siege.
The final push involves an abseil, then a climb to a narrow pass with a white cross on the edge of a cliff overlooking Kalambaka and the vast plain beyond. This is it: we’ve reached the summit and I’m feeling rather pleased with myself – until some local teenagers scuttle up to the ridge, light as mountain goats and with not a rope or harness in sight. Initially, it’s a mild blow to my ego but I realise that these boys grew up here: extreme climbing is in their blood. Personally, I’m more than happy to be fully kitted out with safety gear. Although I’ve done quite a good job of the via ferrata, I know that I couldn’t have cut it as a cliff-dwelling hermit.
Need to know
Tours: you can arrange a climbing, hiking or sightseeing tour with Visit Metéora – offices in Kalambaka and Kastraki town centres. Accommodation: stay at the Hotel Metéora near Kastraki, which has an outdoor pool and gorgeous panoramic view of the Metéora range. For travel from Athens, trains can be booked through trainose.gr. Explore more of Greece with the Rough Guide to Greece. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Featured image by George Kourelis.