The plain of Thessaly stretches out, laden with history, blood, and storms. On its horizons, contemplative, rise the fabulous formations of Meteora, possibly one of the most amazing places a traveler could wish for.
Meteora means “suspended from the sky.” And so we can see the many temples built on improbable rock pillars, battered for ages by water and wind. These sites were colonized in the 14th century by monks trying to escape from the Turkish and Albanian forces that ravaged this region, divided by the Peneo River. Classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1988, they are home to monks and attractions of tourists, who incessantly swarm throughout the year for these beautiful constructions.
Here, old and profound stories abound, told on their walls by polychrome frescoes detailing the martyrdom suffered by Christians. Up to 24 temples were founded, stone by stone, carried there by human hands, like ancient climbers towards the promised verticality of a god, whose defense was as much the faith as the more than 600 meters of height that put air in the middle with the eventual conquerors of the valley.
Among these must-see temples, filming scenes such as Game of Thrones, the Great Meteor stand out. This temple envelops a Byzantine-style church, relics, cats, and silence, broken only by the usual storms that sweep through this chimerical landscape.
GREECE’S HIDDEN TREASURE
The crags of this region, like a telluric dream of some giant, create gorges and passages that can be traversed on foot and by mountain bike. Its walls are the pasture of climbers’ ambition and home to eagles and vultures. There are also hidden caves and small and hermetic sanctuaries, which require a backpack and several days for complete exploration. The activity is possible and more than recommended: a few days of mystical walking among the diverse energies shared by the rock pillars.
“Meteora is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the region and one of the must-sees of our Greek trip, but by no means should one stop here.”
Our Local in-Destination Experts will make things easy for you, offering all kinds of tours in the area. Kalambaka, the coquettish village that serves as the entrance to Meteora and its immutable geologies, offers everything you need to establish the base camp, cozy hotels, an old town that invites you to taste the local beer. Here I recommend the restaurant “Meteora,” opened in 1925, and one of those walls is a sort of canvas on which to place anything that catches the eye. Equally baroque is its regional food: homemade and generous delicacies (let the waiters advise you), with unique atmospheres and flavors.
Meteora is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the region and one of the must-sees of our Greek trip, but by no means should one stop here. This chaos of rock and tradition serves as a border with the region of Epirus, where to indulge various outdoor passions. From rock to ocean waters and one of the cleanest rivers in the world. From forests and mountains to bustling ports, Greece hides a treasure in the hands of local tourism, not yet very open to promotion outside its borders. Until now.
THE HIDDEN VITALITY OF ZAGORI
We usually use the term vitality to define that which is agitated and changeable, that which flows with a bustle, but in this case, we are simply referring to the will to live, which, as you know, everyone transcends in their way. And the vitality of Epirus is different. It is an environment that combines peaceful coasts with breathtaking and unknown mountains, where dragons and other myths still give the name to mountain peaks and lakes. You can meet both a brown bear and a turtle on the road. Visiting a village is to go into an undaunted peace, forged for generations by quiet people, welcoming but shy, who have been finding their place among pastures and rock walls of areas like Zagori.
Zagori is just as surprising as Meteora, or perhaps more so in our case because we had never heard of a region bordered by a dozen mountain villages, carved in gray stone and black slate, also suspended but in time. Zagori can be translated as “the place behind the mountain.” And so, protected from the winds and storms, its inhabitants have been surviving the harsh war years (about 80% of its population was lost during the world wars), crushing winters, and economic hardship to serve the traveler a cocktail of all their hospitality bathed in humility and sympathy.”
For me, the people here are all heroes: they always, and despite everything, have a smile on their faces.” So speaking, Remos Vasilis, our rafting guide. Remos abandoned a promising (and exhausting) career as an accountant to find a simpler life in an ever-changing area, where the honey is delicious, the history is tragic, and the future lies in revitalizing the economy of villages that have been losing population and vigor in recent decades. The Voidomatis River can undoubtedly help.
RAFTING & WINE
“Rafting here is simple, not so much an adventure as a way to connect with the river and with this land,” Remos continues. “The river is both tranquility and change, and that, on days as beautiful as today, is a blessing to reflect and take life with a different face.” The truth is that the sun bathed the clean, turquoise waters of the Voidomatis, wedged between impressive inviolate gorges such as Vikos, crossing the mythical bridges that are wedged between bluffs up to 900 meters high. Special mention to the Kokoros and Aristi bridges, which you will recognize immediately by their veteran beauty or by some bus vomiting tourists camera in hand (although they are somewhat few).
The river rafting is enjoyable and smooth, under the watchful eye of the Pindo peaks, ideal for first contact with the activity. The options are legion if we want to get more ambitious and put on our hiking boots. Still, we recommend a visit to Drakolimni Lake, which besides serving as home to the local version of Nessie and being one of the last traces of the Ice Age, offers a panoramic view of this alpine treasure and its gems in the form of villages such as Aristi, Vikos, Dilofo or Kipi.
“The beauty of these mountains cannot be changed to suit humans, we must be the ones to adapt to this unspoiled and special environment”
Aristi is the village we chose as our center of operations. The Aristi Mountain Resort stands out, one of the most beautiful lodges on the planet for National Geographic and which has charming rooms, a first-class restaurant, and a first-class restaurant spa to abandon yourself to the routine. Stella Sidera, its manager, knows what she is doing. In her eyes, you can see the pride of running a unique place in the world and a gateway to an undiscovered region that, for me, is one of the unknown natural wonders of Europe.
“We feel lucky,” Stella acknowledges. “It is possible to further develop tourism in the region, but we want to do it healthily and sustainably. The beauty of these mountains cannot be changed to suit humans; we must be the ones to adapt to this unspoiled and special environment.”
A BLUE SOUP FULL OF LIFE
We wanted to put on our booties and take a dive among the chaotic rock formations of its seabed, also inside the caves that the salt and the tides have drilled in the coastline. And so we did it with Alexandros Marketos, a tough guy in a Navy Seals T-shirt, with arms like oxygen cylinders and a charming smile who guided us through these warm waters of pure underwater enjoyment. High visibility, formations to play hide and seek, and lots and lots of life outside the hustle and bustle of the pearly beaches and boardwalks, usually crowded with local tourists, but not overwhelming.
“Greece hides many treasures, some at first sight as these waters and mountains await, cautious, the arrival of new visitors.”
I don’t know what it is about this area that relaxation flows and life goes on, and perhaps that is why it is not as open to tourism as other Greek regions. However, preserving its charm is essential. Villas hanging from cliffs, dizzyingly colored, over a sea in which boats bob, children splash, and offers products to taste as the highly recommended grilled octopus. Both Parga and Sivota are worth a visit, if only for the spectacular road that connects them, following a neat and conservative coastline.
For those who want to put on their fins, Sivota is the ideal place for its tranquility and open bays, while for midday beers, Parga offers a view that envies nothing to the best islands of the Ionian. If we get active, we can trek down the river Acheron, or if we get transcendent, we can visit the oracle of Necromanteion of Ephyra. Or we can take the towel and look for some of the lonely beaches in the area, such as Ai-Sostis, Arillas, Pogonia, or Kryoneri, among many others.
And with all this, I don’t think you have any doubt that in Greece there is a territory to explore, with adventure and people, traditions and gastronomy not to be missed and with that thrill of feeling like a pioneer of travel.