The karst rises from the flatland as if escaping the underworld, violently forced up by something down there. The truth is the opposite. The stark, imposing rocks are what's left after millions of years of weathering take its toll on the surrounding land. Towers of stone form the base, literally and figuratively, for the magic of this place.
Somehow, impossibly perched atop these majestic peaks, are buildings. Not just a stone hut, but extensive complexes of beige rock and red roofs. They rise up where the stone ends, is if carved.
As you marvel at one, you notice another, and then another. A series of these incredible buildings, made without roads, cranes, or even...stairs.
This is Meteora, in central Greece, and it is unlike any place in the world.
Here's what they look like up close, and inside.
James Bond, 'Game of Thrones' were here: Tour the breathtaking monasteries of MeteoraSee all photos
It takes about five hours by train to get from Athens to Meteora. On my trip, one of the two trains lacked air conditioning which is, shall we say, a bit of a challenge in the 95-plus degree Greek summer.
The trip is worth it, however, the moment you see those epic columns of rock. Kalambaka is situated in a massive valley, surrounded on three sides by towering mountains. The karsts of Meteora, though, rise up seemingly separate.
At first, from the town, the only monastery you can see is St Stephen's, at the eastern end. This is, in fact, not a monastery at all, being one of two nunneries.
Today you can drive to most of the six main monasteries, and hike to the others. The road was built in the late '70s, at a time when Meteora was unknown to most of the outside world. That would change in 1981, however, thanks to Britain's most famous spy.
In the climactic scene at the end of " For Your Eyes Only," Bond has to steal back the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicamcguffin from "St. Cyril's." The fictional St. Cyril's is the real life Monastery of the Holy Trinity, the most amazing real-world Bond villain lair anywhere. Except for maybe Gunkanjima Island.
Sitting atop a 1312-foot/400m stone column, with no connecting bridge whatsoever, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity didn't seem real, even when I was standing right in front of it.
The other monasteries are impressive in their own ways. Great Meteora is the largest, 15,000 square meters of multitiered amazingness. Roussanou is one of the smallest, but totally covers the rock it sits upon, feeling even more like it floats in the air as the area's name describes ("meteora" roughly translates as "hangs in the air").
You can drive or hike to the monasteries, or you can take guided tours like I did. A sunset tour was first, on the day I arrived, offering scenic views and an inside look at one monastery while the light turned perfect. The next morning, another tour gave access to the inside of three more monasteries and more. Demetri was my tour guide with Meteora Thrones, and he was great. A local with tons of fantastic info about the whole area. I paid 25 euros for each tour.
While Bond had to climb up the face, I was able to take the far less strenuous stairs built more recently for tourists like myself. The inside was as simple, yet beautiful, as you'd expect. The view out, however, was mind-blowing.
And if the stone columns seem somewhat familiar, Bond isn't the only fictional visitor to this place. The Eyrie in " Game of Thrones," the one with the Moon Door and Tyrion's Sky Cell, was inspired by Meteora, though they weren't allowed to shoot here. It was also in "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles " (remember that show?), several video games like "Tomb Raider" and "COD:MW 3," and more.
In total I spent three days in Kalambaka, a town of delightful people and delicious food (like all of Greece), always with an eye towards the stone and sights above. I was surprised, after the crowds of the Greek islands, how few people were there. Still a steady stream, of course, but nothing like the swarms that descend on Santorini.
It's not the easiest place to get to, but I highly recommend checking out Meteora if you can. One of the coolest places I've ever been, and that's saying something.
If it's not on your travel list right now, check out the photos above.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.