James Bond, 'Game of Thrones' were here: Tour the breathtaking monasteries of Meteora

Sitting on top of isolated columns of stone in central Greece are the incredible monasteries of Meteora. Here's how they look up close.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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The town of Kalambaka nestles right up to the base of Meteora.

For the full story behind this tour, check out From James Bond to Game of Thrones, the impossible and incredible monasteries of Meteora.

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Up on a hill

The monastery, now nunnery, of St Stephen's is at the eastern end. The first of my two tours took us around the town, then up for some scenic views, and for a tour of that nunnery.

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Under the western end of Meteora sits the village of Kastraki.

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Our first stop was to some ancient caves where early hermits and monks lived. These were naturally formed. You can see them right above the trees.

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Room with a view

The only access was via ladder, which they could pull up for security.

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Location, location, location

This is actually a newer building, now home to one elderly monk so he can be closer to town.

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When you see it...

What's really interesting is when you look in the opposite direction. An abandoned monestary tucked into the rock.

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One wall

Using a large natural cave, this monastery has four floors, but only one wall. The Nazis blew it up (and burned the town to the ground). It was rebuilt after the war, but not before it was gutted by theives.

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Great Meteora

Closed on the day I arrived, the huge Great Meteora is the largest of the monasteries. I'd visit it the next day (those photos a bit farther along).

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Two at sunset

The large monastery on the left is Varlaam, one of two I didn't visit.

The small one on the right is the Nunnery of Rousanou, also known as St. Barbara, which you'll see pictures of later.

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Thirteen nuns live in Rousanou, which is small but gorgeous on its perch.

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Holy Trinity

The famous Monastery of the Holy Trinity. It is just as incredible in person. More so, since it doens't look real.

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The Monastery of the Holy Trinity is home to four monks. You don't need to know how to climb to get up there. Today there are stairs, and if you look closely you can see them.

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St. Stephen

Being at the eastern end of Meteora, St. Stephen has great views of the plains.

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All the remaining monasteries are called, well, monasteries, even the two housing nuns. (So would that be a nunnery or convent?)

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The nuns do a far better job than the monks keeping their monasteries beautified.

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Off limits

Though you can tour many areas, there are large parts of all the monasteries that remain off limits.

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Due to the unseasonable humidity, sunset was quite hazy, creating a mystical look to the landscape that was just as cool as a "regular" sunset -- maybe cooler?

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Day 2

First stop on day two was Great Meteora. As you'd expect, there were a lot of stairs going to be stepped on this day.

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In other words, don't be a jerk. Other signs said men had to wear pants, and women had to be in skirts. Most men were in shorts (it was over 90f/30c) and that seemed fine. Women, however, were asked to put on shawls (available for free at the entrance) and either fashion a skirt or shawl depending on what they were wearing.

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The stairs to get to the various monasteries were all well done, blending well the rocks. I've visited a few countries that would have just slapped down a metal bridge and been done with it.

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Old entrance

Gone are the days of ropes and pulleys. There's still a mechanical way to get to each monastery, which you'll see later.

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Still more climbing. Each of the monasteries has a small fee (3 euros when I was there) which is reasonable, since they don't receive money from the government.

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Old carpenter's room

Each monastery is split up between museum, church, and living quarters for the monks or nuns. The latter was off limits. No photography in the churches.

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Despite having 161,458-square-feet (15,000m2) of space, only three monks live here.

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That's the church directly ahead. I wish I could have taken photos inside. I've never seen anything so ornate. Floor to ceiling art, intricate chandeliers.

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There are several small museums, documenting the history of the area, Meteora, and the monasteries.

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Many buildings

Interestingly, the Meteora area is private land, not state owned. Even more interesting, do to a decision by the main Greek Orthodox Church, the monasteries are self governing.

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Great Meteora lives up to its name, seeming more like a fortress than a monastery.

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What was interesting, once you noticed it, is there isn't anything big. Sure the buildings are, but they're made up of smaller pieces. Nothing so large that it isn't easily carried or able to be put in the motorized bucket that you'll see in a few slides.

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Old kitchen

I'm guessing it was a bit messier when this was the main kitchen.

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Want a ride?

A motorized... bucket (palanquin?) is the main way to get across the ravine for elderly monks (probably the young ones too) and any heavy supplies. It's pretty slow.

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Can't beat that view

The village of Kastraki. Kalambaka is around the corner to the left.

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Most of the time the monasteries weren't busy. People, sure, but not crowded. That is, unless you timed it just wrong to show up when a big tour bus arrived. Thankfully, I always seemed to miss them.

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There were once 24 monasteries in Meteora. The five intervening centuries saw most of them lost to war, time, neglect, and so on. Many of the ruins are still visible if you know (or are told) where to look.

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Holy Trinity redux

There it is in all its greatness.

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Oh good, more stairs. It's amazing how different it is standing this close. From a distance it seems like a circular column, but up close pieces jut out.

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Zombie protection

This would be a pretty good spot to survive the zombie apocalypse.

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At the top, finally

After many stairs and some solid views, the entrance of the monastery greets you. The top floor is living space for the four monks who live here.

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On the left is an alcove with holy accoutrements inside.

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In contrast to the monasteries run by nuns, the ones staffed by monks are far more stark and simple.

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Everything was spotless in all the monasteries I visited.

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These doors are part of the lodgings of the four monks who live here. Behind me is the small church.

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Top of the hill... er, column

Behind me is the monastery. You can just barely see this cross from the town below. If you go back to the first picture, Holy Trinity is the narrow column almost directly in the center of the image.

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What a view

The city of Kalambaka. As a UNESCO site, all building designs are strictly regulated. Only red roofs, no building taller than three stories.

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This is pretty much all the buildings of Holy Trinity in one photo. Still, not bad for something made with almost no machines (and most of it carried or lifted up here).

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Old entrance hall

Like at Great Meteora, the mechanical basket was moved elsewhere, and this is just for posterity.

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Left out of photos

Pretty rare you get to see this view, of the path down to the stairs that bring you up to the monastery. Again I'll give them credit -- you can't see any of this from the best photo spots (except for one section of stairs).

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Good wall

The drop off the side is exactly what you'd expect.

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I love how the stairs follow the curves of the rock, like it was natural and they just put a safety wall up.

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The last monastery on my tour, Rousanou. The church inside is dedicated to St. Barbara.

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This was my favorite after Holy Trinity. It was small but homey. The nuns did a great job making it look like a place you'd want to live.

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From the balcony, you can see Grand Meteora and Varlaam.

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Ring them bells

Looking back at where the last picture was taken.

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This area was off limits, but I hope the room is just that narrow. Cozy room with a tremendous view. Would you live there?

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A beautiful garden nestled in between the monastery and the rocks, under the bridge.

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Now permanent, this was once a drawbridge.

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So long

I was sad to leave Meteora. So often in life things don't live up to the expectations you've built for them. That was not the case here. If anything, Meteora was cooler than I ever imagined. Definitely check it out, if you can.

For the full story behind this tour, check out From James Bond to Game of Thrones, the impossible and incredible monasteries of Meteora.

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