Greece: Heavenly Meteora

I loved my time in Albania but it was time to move south into my final European destination on this trip – Greece. There isn’t a whole load of reliable information on how to get to Greece from Albania and, specifically, Gjirokaster but buses do run. Athens is the most well-advertised destination from Gjirokaster, costing €25 for a trip that I imagine is painfully long. Many of the ticket offices around the petrol stations on the main road outside Gjirokaster (where you will have been dropped off when arriving) will sell tickets for the Athens route. Apparently there’s a morning and an evening bus.

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The legendary Meteora
However, I didn’t want to rush straight to Athens yet and decided to stop off in the north of Greece, specifically Meteora, an incredible landscape of imposing rock formations with monasteries balanced perfectly on top of them. It should be a Wonder of the World. The pictures looked breathtaking and I was really keen to go, but I struggled to find much information on transport from Gjirokaster other than “there’s a bus”. The agencies I went to only did tickets for Athens. However, said bus does exist. The trick is to find the one agency which sells tickets. That agency is called Liko and Kosta and is located next to the Vodafone shop on the junction with the petrol stations. It was closed on Sunday when I first tried to visit but was open the next day. The woman in there spoke alright English and was able to sort out my ticket. It’s handy to have your passport with you when booking so they can copy down your name etc. The main town in Meteora is Kalambaka – this is where the bus dropped me off. A ticket to Kalambaka cost €20 (or 2800 lek so it was actually more economical to pay in euros) and the bus departs daily at 6.45am… ish. This is Albania so in reality the bus rocked up at around 7.10. I’m guessing it had come from Tirana. The woman told me to come to the Liko and Kosta office before 6.45am the next day to catch the bus. When I got there, a man took me over the road and flagged down the bus for me as it came past. The bus wasn’t full – I probably could have got my ticket on the day but for peace of mind I preferred to get it the day before and at least they then knew to wait for me.

The bus was big and pretty comfortable and it didn’t take long to reach the Greek border. This is when it turned into a major faff. At first, it was normal – the guy on the bus collected everyone’s passports and then returned 10 minutes later. However, unlike all the other European borders I’d crossed in the Balkans, for this one, all the passengers had to disembark for a bag inspection. This basically involved a police officer peering inside my bag, having a good fiddle with my camera and then moving on. Whilst this happened, the bus disappeared for a while and showed up a good 40 minutes later despite the fact the bag check took 10 minutes tops. It was a miserable day but luckily wasn’t raining though it was pretty chilly. Everyone got back on the bus… only to get off again to show our passports to Greek immigration though this was a lot quicker. The whole thing took well over an hour. The other thing I forgot was that Greece is an hour ahead of Albania so I lost a whole hour of my life at that border.

After the border, it probably took another 3 hours to reach Kalambaka. I was the only passenger alighting here but the ticket inspector from the bus remembered me as the only tourist so showed me when to get off – so it’s definitely worth making it known you’re getting off at Kalambaka. The bus dropped me by the railway station from which it was a very short walk to my fantastic hostel, Meteora Central Hostel. I’d really recommend it – the owners are great and very informative, its location is… well… central and the beds are super comfy after day’s hiking. I couldn’t really get a grasp of the beauty of the town and Meteora as a whole when I arrived because it was a really miserable day. However, fortunately, the next day when I was actually hiking, was clear and sunny. That’s when I realised I’d absolutely made the right decision to stop off here. The owner of the hostel gave me a map and talked me through the various walking routes around Meteora.

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The views are just incredible.

From Kalambaka, there is a bus which departs three times a day. The first one leaves the bus station at 9am, the second at 12pm and there’s another one later on. I’d definitely recommend the 9am one so you’re not rushing. The bus costs €1.80 and goes from Kalambaka into the neighbouring town of Kastraki before heading up towards the monasteries. Of course, one thing you’ll definitely want to do is actually catch the bus and not miss it like I did. There was a bus stop right outside the hostel but because of roadworks on another road, the bus was rerouted. As a result, I’d recommend getting the bus from Kalambaka bus station where it starts so there’s no danger of missing it. Fortunately, one of the hostel owners saw me and very kindly gave me a lift up to Meteora on the back of his motorbike which was a bracing way to start the day! I opted to take the “bus” up and then hike back down to Kalambaka but you could do it the other way or take the bus in both directions. I was dropped off at the first bus stop by a car park. From here, there is a short trail which winds its way upwards to the Great Meteor Monastery. This is where the upper road, boasting the most spectacular views, begins. The trail takes about 20 minutes or so. It wasn’t too steep but got a little slippery because there had been rain for a few days before – you’ll appreciate sturdy shoes in Meteora. There were definite Indiana Jones vibes walking up the trail until finally I was up high next to the entrance to the monastery.

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The view from the Great Meteor Monastery.

The Great Meteor Monastery was the only monastery I actually went inside in Meteora. There are about 7 or 8 scattered all the way through the area but the advice I got from the woman at the hostel was to pick one or two I liked the look of. Some are small and the views from them wouldn’t be much different from those along the road, whereas others are raised up and have amazing vantage points. The view from Great Meteor was incredible and I well worth the money and the steep ascent to get to it (after the trail you can either head to the road or climb the gazillion steps up to the monastery). Each monastery has a €3 entrance fee and it each monastery was closed on one particular day so if you’ve got your heart set on one, check the opening days beforehand. As I said, the views from this one were amazing, especially in the morning haze which, with the dazzling sunlight, gave the whole area a magical feel. I hadn’t seen rock formations like this since Zhangjiajie in China and, honestly, after visiting there I never thought I would see such imposing, jagged, gigantic rocks of that kind again. There aren’t really any words or pictures that can do it justice.

 

However, this is a blog and words and pictures are all I’ve got, so I’ll press on regardless. After the monastery, it’s literally a case of just following the road to get the amazing views. That doesn’t sound hugely exciting but the sublime views make up for the lack of a proper hike. Besides, there are many rock platforms along the way where you can step off the road. Some are flat, some are more scrambly and all give even better panoramic views of Meteora. They also make for great lunch stops (bring a picnic).

The road continues for about 4km or so but it will take you longer than you think on account of how many stops you’ll most likely make to soak it all in. The road itself snakes back down to Kalambaka but don’t take that turn off – instead follow it to the final monastery, St. Stephen’s. From around here, there is a trail which leads back to Kalambaka, taking just under an hour. Like the first trail, it’s a little slippery at first but not too steep at all and deposits you nicely back in the centre of Kalambaka. Of course, you can also catch the bus back down from this area but it only runs three times a day. I think one departs around 4.15pm. The walk down is really worth doing though.

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Kalambaka nestled below Meteora.

The next day, I had time to kill before my evening train to Athens so I decided to have a morning stroll to neighbouring Kastraki. From Kalambaka, it’s easy enough to follow the main road towards Kastraki. You’ll reach the sign announcing Kastraki in about 20 minutes or so. After this sign, a smaller road veers off to the right and this is the one you want to take. From this smaller road, there are awesome views of the rocks and the nearby mountains and there’s a small lookout point with benches. If you’re there in the evening, I imagine it would be an ace sunset spot. After chilling there, I followed the road which descended back down into the tiny centre of Kastraki where there is one shop and a few restaurants. I then took another easy footpath from Kastraki which took me up to where I’d been dropped off on the motorbike the day before. There’s another monastery here and more great views of course. After soaking it all up, I walked back down to Kastraki, grabbed some lunch and then headed back to Kalambaka.

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The walk from Kalambaka to Kastraki.

Some people head to Meteora on a day trip from Athens and that’s perfectly feasible (it’s about 3-4 hour drive) – if that’s your only option to see Meteora I’d probably say do it because it’s so stunning. However, this is a place where it pays to stay a couple of nights. Kalambaka is charming with plenty of cafes and restaurants and amazing views to boot. You can explore the nooks, crannies and footpaths that straddle this area and, most importantly, you can take your time savouring the breathtaking views up there. I would walk round Meteora every day if I could. It’s rare you get to visit somewhere that would have been on your travel bucket list had you known about it before you went there. Meteora is one of those places and I can’t believe it’s not talked about more.

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