World Heritage Sites in Central Greece: Meteora and Delphi

Following my visit to Macedonian Greece, I took a bus south towards the center of the country to visit two of its gems: Meteora and Delphi. The region of Meteora is a spectacular place, both naturally and historically. It is surrounded by towering cliffs with sheer drop-offs, which were formed over millions of years by erosion. The scenery looks like something straight out of a Flintstones cartoon. But the story does not end there: Hundreds of years ago, Orthodox monks were attracted to Meteora because of its remote location. They built two dozen monasteries atop the cliffs where they could live and pray in isolation. Today only six of these survive.

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The towering cliffs of Meteora

One of the biggest mysteries about Meteora is how the monks actually managed to build the monasteries on top of these cliffs. Today, there are steps, hiking trails, and even a road to reach the top, but hundreds of years ago none of that existed. Supposedly, they used a system of pulleys to hoist the building materials (and even people!) to the top, but even with pulleys it’s difficult to imagine how long it must have taken to build these churches.

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A monk using the modern pulley system

There are two possible towns to stay in when visiting Meteora; the larger Kalambaka and the smaller Kastraki. Kalambaka has more choice of accommodation, but Kastraki has a more authentic feel and is closer to the monasteries. For these reasons, I elected to stay in Kastraki during my visit. To get to the actual monasteries requires either a long, steep hike (which would not have been pleasant in the heat of August when I visited), or a short bus ride. You can catch the bus up from either Kalambaka or Kastraki, but it only departs once every couple of hours, so make sure to check the schedule or you could be waiting for a long time! Also, there are usually no taxis at the top, so the bus or walking are your only options to return to town. Finally keep in mind that every monastery is closed to visitors during at least one or two days during the week, and the closing days are different for each monastery. So if you want to be able to see all six monasteries, which I highly recommend, you should stay in town for at least two full days.

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Varlaam monastery in the front with Megalo Meteoro in the rear

Of the six remaining monasteries, the Megalo Meteoro monastery is both the largest and oldest. It is also the only monastery that all of the tour groups from Athens visit, so make sure to visit this one early in the day if you want to beat the tour groups. In the 14th century, a Serbian emperor donated all his wealth to this monastery and became a monk, which explains how it became so rich and powerful. Among other interesting finds, check out the beautiful frescoes that are hundreds or years old, along with displays of ancient manuscripts in the museum, some of which have been preserved for nearly 1000 years! Lastly, don’t miss the room of skulls, which contains several dozen old skulls which belonged to monks who lived at the monastery throughout the years.

Another interesting monastery is St. Stephen’s Monastery (Agios Stefanos), which contains two chapels, one of which was partially destroyed by the Nazis during World War II because they believed the monks were harboring insurgents. Aside from exploring the interior of the monasteries, don’t miss the spectacular views of Meteora that can be had from the exterior of the cliffside churches. Perhaps the best view of all is from the Holy Trinity Monastery. While admiring the view, keep an eye out for rock climbers. Meteora is one of the most popular places in Greece for rock climbing, because of all the sheer cliffs in the area.

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St. Stephen’s monastery

Lastly, if you have some spare time after visiting the monasteries, grab a taxi a few miles out of town to Theopetra’s Cave. Theopetra’s Cave is a prehistoric cave that had supposedly been inhabited by humans for more than 100,000 years! Near the cave is a stone wall that dates backs more than 20,000 years, which makes it one of the oldest man-made structures in the world! While I really wanted to check out this cave during my visit, unfortunately it was closed at the time due to flooding.

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Roussenou monastery

Following my visit to Meteora, I traveled to the World Heritage site of Delphi. Unfortunately, traveling between the two areas is not very straightforward, and involves at least 3 or 4 bus changes (depending on which day of the week you are traveling). However, it is definitely worth it, as Delphi was considered to be one of the one of the most sacred sites as well as the center of the universe by the ancient Greeks. It was the home of the oracle of Apollo, and powerful leaders (including Alexander the Great) often traveled hundreds of miles just to ask her for advice. While Delphi can be visited as a day trip from Athens, it makes for a long day (3 hours each way) and your time at the site will be very limited, so I would recommend staying over at least one night to do it justice.

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Delphi’s spectacular natural setting

Like Meteora, Delphi enjoys a spectacular natural setting, situated in a mountainous location on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. When visiting the Sanctuary of Apollo, which is the main part of the site, you will enter at the bottom and then travel the main street (called the Sacred Way, or Via Sacra) up to the top. One of the first really impressive sites along the way is the Treasury of Athens, which was built by the Athenians as a tribute to the god Apollo. Further up you will find several huge columns which mark the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, which was the dwelling of the revered oracle who was said to be able to communicate directly with the Greek god.

Looking down at the Temple of Apollo is a huge theatre, which offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. It’s a great place to stop for a water break and admire the scenery, especially on a hot summer day. At the very end of the Via Sacra is the hippodrome, which was used for chariot races. Although the inside of the hippodrome is blocked off to visitors, you can still get a great look inside from one end of the structure.

After visiting the Sanctuary of Apollo, don’t forget to check out the much smaller Sanctuary of Athena, which is a few hundred yards away. Inside you can view the remains of the Tholos. The Tholos is a cylindrically-shaped temple which had about 20 columns (although only a few are left standing). Its circular shape is among the most unique in ancient Greece, and my personal favorite among all the structures at Delphi. In addition, the Sanctuary of Athena is much quieter than the more crowded Sanctuary of Apollo, which I thought gives it a much peaceful, more contemplative vibe. Lastly, before leaving Delphi, take an hour or so to pay a visit to the archaeological museum. This impressive museum contains some pretty amazing treasures found during the various excavations at Delphi, including the bronze Charioteer statue and the marble Sphinx of Naxos.

Meteora and Delphi are without a doubt two of my favorite places in Greece, and should not be missed by anyone visiting this incredible country. My visit was not quite over yet however; my last stop in Greece (and in Europe on this trip) would be the beautiful and mysterious island of Santorini.

 

 

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