Summer Travel: Athens to Meteora

You don’t have to be an accountant to know that Greece’s spreadsheets are in need of some serious financial overhaul. Some would argue that the country is essentially bankrupt, and that nothing short of a European bailout and/or a return to the drachma can save it from total economic ruin.

The silver lining on the ominous storm cloud is that Greece has the potential to be one of the world’s top tourism destinations. The cradle of Western civilization, Greece is an ancient land replete with ruined cities of yore. It also has stunning natural spaces, from rugged highlands and fertile vineyards to sandy beaches and turquoise seas.

The Greek islands already attract their fair share of backpackers, cruise shippers and package holiday travelers alike. But the government’s vision is to spread the profitable fruits of tourism into the Greek hinterlands. A tough order indeed, especially given the lack of funds needed to operate struggling museums, historic sites and national parks.

In the spirit of optimism however, we’re going to use today’s blog to highlight one of our favorite Greek itineraries, namely the northern road from Athens to Meteora.

%Gallery-123052%To many people – myself included – Athens is as much a symbol as it is a destination. More than three millennia ago, Athens gave birth to the modern ideals of democracy. As a center of cultural arts and scientific learning, classical Athens hosted the academies of both Plato and Aristotle. Before its defeat by Sparta in 404 BCE, Athens was the metaphorical shining beacon of knowledge amongst the Peloponnesian city states.

Despite this distinguished pedigree, Athens doesn’t enjoy the same vaulted tourism status as other European capitals. At the very least, it’s nowhere near as romantic as Paris, nor as monumental as Rome. Detractors (Athenians included) take their criticism even further, and lament over the city’s poor sanitation, choking traffic, stray animals and graffiti-covered buildings.

To be fair, Athens was the target of a comprehensive urban renewal campaign in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics. And while the more superficial elements of the clean-up are no longer evident, Athens now boasts an immaculately restored historic center complete with pedestrian shopping streets and a massive open-air archaeological park.

The centerpiece is of course the Acropolis, a flattened hilltop that rises five-hundred feet. Here rests the Parthenon, arguably the most celebrated ruins in the whole of Europe. Constructed in the fifth century BCE, the Parthenon honors Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the patroness of the city.

Since the 1970s, the ruins have undergone extensive restoration to replace corroded iron pins with rust-resistant titanium ones. Aesthetic damage caused by the 1687 battle between the resident Ottomans and the invading Venetians is also being targeted. Marble cut from the original quarry will be precisely fitted into existing cracks and holes. As such, don’t be surprised if sections of the Acropolis are covered in scaffolding upon your arrival.

While we could highlight some of capital’s other noteworthy attractions, today’s post is really about journeying into the Greek countryside, specifically northwestern Thessaly. In order to embark on this trip, simply take a taxi to Larissa railway station. From here, there are several daily train departures to the town of Kalampaka. The trip should take you no more than 5 hours at a cost of around twenty euros. Note that while highway buses make the same journey, the train trip is, in our humble opinion, much more scenic.

Kalampaka is a lovely little hamlet nestled at the base of Meteora, a collection of monasteries that were built in the Middle Ages atop towering sandstone pillars. In addition to serving as a pilgrimage site for followers of the Eastern Orthodox church, Meteora also enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status. Fans of James Bond might recognize Meteora as one of the film locations in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Younger readers might also recognize Meteora as the inspiration for Linkin Park’s album Meteora (2002).

Even if you’re previously unfamiliar with Meteora, it doesn’t take long to become enchanted by its magic. First built in the mid-14th century, the monasteries at Meteora were established as religious sanctuaries from the political upheaval. As the Byzantine Empire began to crumble, and threats of Turkish encroachment grew in severity, monastic orders took to the pillars for safety and freedom from persecution.

Accessing such lofty heights was something of an exercise in religious faith. A combination of ladders, ropes and nets were needed to scale the rocks, and it was not until the early 20th century that steps were first carved out of the foundation stone. Even more astounding is the presence of a local legend, which dictates that the ropes were only replaced when the Lord above allowed them to break!

Although more than twenty monasteries were originally constructed, only six remain today – the others were unfortunately destroyed during World War II aerial bombing campaigns. The monasteries are still inhabited by small numbers of monks and nuns, though they largely operate as tourist attractions.

In terms of visiting, most accommodation options are located in Kalampaka alongside restaurants, bars, cafes and other tourist-related services. Organized bus tours dominate the roads, but independent travelers can easily hire a taxi and complete the monastery circuit on their own. Alternatively, you can also eschew motorized transportation all-together, and follow weathered foot paths up into the hillsides.

While there is no denying the allure of the Greek islands, consider adding the Athens-Meteora circuit to your summer travels. Sure, you’re bound to sweat a bit in the summer heat, but it will give some perspective to subsequent idle lazing alongside the shores of the Mediterranean. And finally, just in case you need a bit more inspiration, check out the gallery below.

[All photos and gallery images are the author’s own original work unless otherwise specified.]