In the Thessaly Valley, Kalambaka is a town watched by the surreal rock formations of Meteora.
With wisps of greenery, these gigantic sandstone and conglomerate pillars are up to 400 metres high and topped with monasteries that make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The columns were separated by earthquakes and then shaped by wind and water, and the monasteries on top seem to defy gravity.
Daring monks would use rope lifts hundreds of metres from the valley floor, but thankfully we can take stairways to look around these complexes, the oldest of which was founded in the early-1300s.
All the big six monasteries have churches with beautiful frescoes and you can look through refectories, kitchens and cells.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kalambaka:
1. Holy Monastery of Great Meteoro
The largest and oldest of Meteora’s monasteries was founded in the 14th century by St Athanasios the Meteorite, marking the beginning of organised monasticism in this extraordinary place.
The name “Meteoro” approximately translates to “suspended in the air”, which is an accurate description! The main church dates from the monastery’s foundation, while its frescoes were painted in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The museum here has an array of icons and codices to admire.
Afterwards you can enter the sacristy, refectory (which has a table from the 1500s), kitchen, scriptorium and the New Martyrs Halls (a former nursing home and hospital). It hardly needs saying, but the constant sight of Meteora’s colossal columns of rock may leave you weak at the knees.
2. The Varlaam Monastery
Facing the Great Meteoro Monastery across the void, the Varlaam Monastery was set up a little later, in the mid 14th century by the ascetic monk Hosios Varlaam.
You’ll get there by crossing a narrow bridge, and may bump into one of the seven monks in the garden, welcoming visitors.
The current buildings were completed in 1541, and the main church was decorated in 1548. These paintings almost merit a visit by themselves and are the work of the hagiographer Frangos Katalanos, who hailed from Thebes.
Also remarkable are the frescoes in the exonarthex, painted in 1566. The monastery’s tower still has its 16th-century windlass and rope basket, which was the only way to lift people and supplies up to the monastery.
The old refectory is now a museum with vestments and icons, many of which were painted in the Renaissance.
3. Monastery of the Holy Trinity
Just looking at this monastery on top of its monolithic rock above Kalambaka, you know it’s going to be a challenge to get up there.
First you have to follow a path south to the foot of the rock, before working your way up 140 steps.
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity dates from 1362 while its surviving buildings were raised in the 1470s.
The frescoes in the main church of scenes like the Last Supper and Jesus washing his disciples’ feet are more recent, painted in 1741 by two monks.
The wonderful little chapel of St John the Baptist has been carved from the rock and is embellished with frescoes painted in 1682, one depicting the Sisoes the Monk at the tomb of Alexander the Great.
James Bond fans may recognise this monastery from the climax to 1981’s For Your Eyes Only.
4. Roussanou Monastery
Inhabited by nuns, this monastery is dedicated to St Barbara and is most likely named after the first hermit to inhabit the rock.
Perched on a lower pedestal Roussanou is a bit easier than most of the other monasteries to get to.
It’s also slightly younger having been established towards the start of the 16th century, while its compact cruciform distyle church was painted in 1560. The artist is unknown but the frescoes are of the highest quality and are executed in the style of the Cretan School, which blended eastern and western styles.
Like many of the Meteora’s monasteries there’s also a beautifully painted exonarthex with a barrel vault.
Because of the unusual contours of this rock, Roussanou is oriented towards the north rather than the east as is the tradition, and the veranda offers all-encompassing vistas of Meteora’s magical landscape.
5. Monastery of St Stephen
Another of Meteora’s more convenient monasteries, St Stephen sits on the plain instead of a cliff-top, so is the best choice for people with impaired mobility.
Also housing nuns, St Stephen suffered the worst damage in the Second World War, as it was believed to have been occupied by insurgents.
The first hermit arrived as long ago as the 1100s, while the small, war-damaged chapel to St Stephen was erected in 1545. The larger main church from the 18th century is dedicated to St Charalambos and contains relics of this saint who was apparently martyred in 202 at the age of 113. There are stark reminders of the Second World War and the civil war that followed in the form of bullet holes in some of the icons.
The panorama from this monastery is as beautiful as you’d hope, encompassing the columns of the Thessaly Valley, the Pinios River and the Pindos Mountains on the horizon.
6. Monastery of St Nikolaos Anapafsas
The first monastery on the road from Kastraki to Great Meteoro, the Monastery of St Nikolaos was born in the last decades of the 14th century.
The origin of “Anapafsas” isn’t clear, but “resting” in Greek is “anapafsys”, and given the position of this monastery it could have been a place of repose before completing the climb to Great Meteoro.
On a particularly narrow rock, St Nikolaos Anapafsas is without a courtyard, has the smallest footprint of any of the ensemble and is built on multiple storeys.
There’s a small church at the entrance to complex with frescoes dating to the 1300s.
The main church is above and was painted by the great 16th-century artist Theophanes the Cretan in 1527. Be sure to see the ossuary, the monks’ cells and the Chapel of St John the Baptist.
7. Natural History Museum of Meteora & Mushroom Museum
Back in Kalambaka there’s a great museum that opened in 2014, examining the wildlife and botany of the region.
This is done with well-presented dioramas placing taxidermied animals in simulated environments.
There are over 350 species of mammals and birds in these showcases, with accompanying information about their behaviour and diet.
On the second floor, the museum’s other department is centred on mushrooms, a culinary speciality of Meteora.
There are models of the 250 different species of mushroom that grow on the Thessaly Plain, showing each one in three different stages of its lifecycle.
8. Theopetra Cave
A limestone outcrop 10 minutes from Kalambaka has a cave with evidence of human habitation dating back at least 130,000 years.
Footprints from 135,000 years ago have been found in this rectangular cavity, as well as Mesolithic skeletons, coal and traces of plants and seeds that offer a glimpse of the occupants’ dietary habits.
The Theopetra Cave also has the world’s oldest man-made structure, a stone wall that blocked the majority of the opening to the cave, probably as a way to keep the wind out during the Ice Age.
This wall would have been erected 23,000 years ago.
When this post was written in 2018 the cave was closed for renovations, but until it opens you can check out the information centre, which presents some of the findings from the cave.
9. Kalambaka Town
You can get some phenomenal photographs on the streets of Kalambaka as the town is dwarfed by two of Meteora’s rocks, standing in two titanic clumps to the north with houses and churches built at their base.
And if you can tear your eyes away from these natural monuments there’s a lot to love about the town, especially in its old centre of maze-like cobblestone lanes.
Known as Stagi in Medieval times, Kalambaka was an important settlement during the Byzantine Empire and there are two churches from that time, St John the Baptist and Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary, which we’ll cover below.
Souvenir shops in the town sell local handmade embroidery, leather sandals and carved wooden handicrafts.
10. Church of the Assumption
Beneath the Aea rock is a Byzantine church consecrated in the 11th century but built over a much older early-Christian basilica.
One of many exciting things about this monument is the spolia (re-used ancient stone) on its walls.
Some of these marble stones belong to an Ancient Greek temple, possibly to Apollo.
The current church is a three-aisled basilica (the centre raised above the sides) and a wooden roof.
On the eastern and southern walls you can make out traces of frescoes produced in the 11th and 12th centuries, while most of the other paintings were composed by the son of Theophanes the Cretan and date to 1573.
It can be tough on the calves, but the most gratifying way to journey through Meteora’s monasteries and supernatural rock formations is with your own two feet.
There are dozens of stairways and side trails to investigate, but the two main routes are the Eastern (half-day) and Western Trails (full-day). The first begins at the Monastery of St Stephen and then wends its way along the valley to the Holy Trinity on its roost above Kalambaka.
The Western Trail requires a bit of experience and preparation, but leads you on a rollercoaster journey to four monasteries: Great Meteoro, Vaarlam, Roussanou and St Nikolaos Anapafsas.
In between are caves and panoramic lookouts, including one at which you can see all six monasteries at once.
This activity is a bit more complicated than simply strolling through Meteora.
Scrambling is a guided experience combining hiking and climbing, in which you’ll put on a helmet and harness to reach places you can’t usually go.
One such trip will lead you up the Great Saint, Meteora’s tallest rock, 400 metres over Kalambaka.
The trek is only three kilometres long, but a lot of that distance is vertical and you’ll shuffle along via cordatas over vertiginous drops and climb historic stairways cut from the rock by the monks of the abandoned Monastery of the Twelve Apostles.
13. Rock Climbing
For climbers, Meteora’s forest of columns hundreds of metres high will look like a giant playground, and in summer it can be fun just to sit and watch the experts at work.
Hermits and then monks were climbing these landforms long before tourists arrived, which adds a layer of historical interest to the powerful vistas and sense of achievement.
There are a handful of companies that will pick you up from your accommodation and taking you to a choice of walls.
All your equipment will be provided, and the conglomerate on the cliffs create lots of hand and footholds.
Many courses are now bolted for quick and convenient single pitch climbs.
14. Hellenic Culture Museum
Another beautifully presented museum, this gallery for books and education is based on the personal library of the book collector Pavlos Balogiannis.
If you’re wondering about the unique geology of Meteora your questions will be answered by a few exhibits and a short movie.
You can also watch archive footage of a monk being lifted to his monastery by a rope net and see how these monuments were constructed.
There’s an entire room dedicated to Aesop’s fables, while the book collection is a compendium of modern Greek literature and has historic manuscripts are kept open in glass cases.
The section on education has a reconstructed classroom with vintage posters and charts.
15. Local Cuisine
As you can imagine, a town with a museum partially devoted to mushrooms has no lack of products derived from fungi.
In the museum shop alone you can buy truffle flakes, truffle oil, packets of dried mushrooms, powdered mushrooms, mushrooms preserved in oil and, strangest of all, a mushroom liqueur.
In autumn and winter you also can organise mushroom-picking and truffle hunting excursions.
Mushrooms aside, the local diet draws on produce like yoghurt, cheese, honey, fruit and first-rate meat.
At a taverna try the local leek sausage or lamb stew with aubergine.
The sweet soutzoukos is a speciality, made from grape must and nuts, while you can tour a family-run winery to visit just across the Pineios River in Diava.