In a tiny studio tucked away by itself, I came upon a monk painting traditional icons. He did not acknowledge me as I entered, but neither did he turn me away when he saw my camera. Perhaps he allowed himself this one tiny act of vanity, being proud of his work. He used hand ground pigments bonded with egg yolk to make tempera paint common in the middle ages, but almost unheard of today. He outlined his subjects in pencil, then applied real gold leaf backgrounds. The gold leaf was applied by rubbing it over his forehead using natural oils in his skin as an adhesive. Icons are a time-honored tradition in Greece, and this man was continuing a line unbroken for centuries.

All who dwell within these walls have forsaken the modern world. Visitors are welcome, but there is little or no interaction between tourists and the inhabitants.

The one concession they make to the modern world is their gift shops. Each building has one, selling reproductions of icons, statues and books about the history of the valley and its famous residents. The monks and nuns who man the cash registers are friendly and courteous but self-contained. If you ask a personal question or anything not covered by a guidebook, they will stonewall you with a polite smile. They are among us, but not of us.

Today you can park your car and climb a walkway to all these places, but once you pass their gates, you have stepped back centuries to the land in the clouds.

If You Go

When to go

Greece is very hot and humid in the summer. Spring and fall are recommended for travel. Many of the older hotels do not have air conditioning, but most will offer a ceiling fan or table fan if requested.

How to get there

Take a four-hour ride by bus or catch a train from Athens’ Larissis Station to the town of Volos in central Greece. Then take the narrow gauge railway to Kalambaka. Once in town, any taxi driver will give you a tour. The group of monasteries is about a mile (1.6 km) north of Kalambaka.

The hilltop monastary

Hire George Kokkotos. George is a local native who drove cabs in New York for several years before returning home to run his one man tour company and has become rather famous. He will pick you up in his Mercedes sedan and make the three-hour drive to Delphi for a tour of the ruins. Then it’s on to Meteora where George will arrange for you to stay in one of a number of private residences on local farms. Each trip is custom, depending on what you want to see and do. Call George at +30 21-09637030 and his mobile phone is +30 69-32205887. For a three-day tour with George, I paid about US$ 300.

Where to stay

In Kalambaka try the Divani Meteora Hotel. This is a four-star luxury hotel with 165 rooms, pool and on-site restaurant and bar in downtown Kalambaka. This town is so small; you can see all of it from the central square.

Antoniades Hotel is well suited for budget travelers. The two-star hotel popular with backpackers and rock climbers has 59 rooms with a restaurant.

Greek National Tourism Organization

World Heritage Site Meteora

Author: James Michael Dorsey