Kalambaka is 356km (220 miles) NW of Athens; the circuit of the Meteora monasteries is approximately 25km (15 miles)

As you drive across the plain of Thessaly, which can seem endless on a hot summer day, you'll suddenly see a cluster of gnarled black humps and peaks outside the town of Kalambaka. Some travelers have compared these crags to the mountains of the moon. The rock formations of the Meteora (the word means "in midair") are unique. Many geographers speculate that some 30 million years ago, all Thessaly was a vast inland sea; when the sea receded, sweeping the topsoil along, rock formations were left behind. Over the millennia, the Peneios River and the wind carved the rock into the weird, twisted shapes that now rise about 300m (984 ft.) above the plain. The Meteora is especially stunning in winter, when snow caps the Pindos range and mists swirl around the monasteries.

These bizarre rock formations would be attraction enough, but many are topped with substantial monasteries. Why did monks settle here, and how did they build anything larger than huts on the rocks atop these sheer, slippery, seemingly unscalable rocks that really do seem to hang in midair? Small wonder that many monks believe that St. Athanasios (founder of the first monastery here) did not scale these rocks, but was carried up by an eagle.

The first monks to live here were probably 10th-century ascetics who lived as hermits in caves and spent their days in prayer and meditation. In fact, the word "monk" comes from the Greek for "alone." Over the centuries, more and more hermits and monks seeking to lead the solitary life made their way to the Meteora until, in the 14th century St. Athanasios founded the Great Meteoron (Monastery of the Transfiguration). By 1500, there were 24 monasteries here. Six -- the Great Meteoron, Varlaam, Roussanou, Ayia Triada, Ayios Nikolaos Anapaphsas, and Ayiou Stefanou -- are still inhabited and welcome visitors.

Touring the monasteries is not easy for those who suffer from severe acrophobia and downright impossible for those unable to climb the steep (sometimes slippery) flights of stairs cut into the rock's face. These vertiginous stepped paths are an improvement over what earlier visitors had to endure. When the English traveler Leake visited here in the 19th century, he was ferried up to the Great Meteoron in a net attached by a slender rope to a winch. Leake later wrote, "Visitors' morale was not helped by persistent rumors that the monks only replaced the homemade ropes which held the nets when they broke -- usually in midair!"

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.