Meteora & Pindus Mountains walking vacations

Having strong faith is kind of a prerequisite for being a monk. In 14th-century Meteora, in the heart of mainland Greece, it was doubly important. The ancient monasteries here were built atop huge monolithic pillars, as a refuge from increasingly frequent Turkish attacks. There was no network of paths and steps carved into the rock as there is today, and access to the monasteries was usually by large nets, which would haul up goods and monks alike. Health and safety legislation still being some centuries away, the ropes would normally be replaced as and when they broke. And if you happened to be in the net when it snapped, well, they would surely light a candle for you.

Meteora, and the Zagoria region of the Pindus Mountains just to the north, are full of fascinating stories like this, offering a unique link to the past. These are places that are best explored over time and on foot, in the company of a knowledgeable local guide. Because when there are so many tales to hear – about why these places were built and how, about ways of life in the monasteries and remote mountain communities, about sure-footed goats, hermits and herbal healers, it helps to have a human guidebook at your side. The stunning rock formations and monasteries of Meteora can be combined with the vast Vikos Gorge, and the 18th-century stone villages and bridges of Zagorohoria. Most other tour groups pass through this region quickly, and with little attention to the region’s fascinating history – but when was the last time you were in a hurry for a good story to end?

Meteora, monasteries, monopatia & Moore

Monks have occupied the caverns and crags of Meteora since the 11th century, following in the footsteps of hermits, and Paleolithic and Neolithic communities many centuries ago. The monks began heading upwards during the Turkish occupation, and their Byzantine monasteries became centers of religious, academic and artistic tradition. The monasteries of Meteora are one reason Hellenic culture was able to survive the Ottoman Empire, and their precarious perch, it is said, represents man’s eternal struggle for spiritual elevation.

Today, Meteora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of Europe’s most captivating landscapes, and a popular rock-climbing destination (it was used as a location for the dramatic climax of Roger Moore’s For Your Eyes Only). Six of the monasteries remain inhabited, by a community of some 50 monks and nuns, while another 18 are largely in ruins. As well as providing incredible views over the fertile Thessaly plain, they house a treasure trove of religious frescoes and relics, icons and libraries full of ancient manuscripts.

Walking here with a guide, you’ll discover hidden trails that only the locals are familiar with, the ‘monopatia’ (old monks’ trails), and learn stories and legends about this captivating landscape. You may visit the Monastery of Great Meteoron or Varlaam, and see the prison cave used for naughty monks. Many visitors pass through the Meteora region quite quickly, so walking around for a few days accompanied by a local makes for a much more satisfying and immersive experience. “Meteora at sunset is simply breathtaking!” says Alex Pazderski of our specialist walking operator The Natural Adventure Company. “There are certain spots on the cliffs from where you have a panoramic view of the entire site, perfectly oriented to watch the sunset. You get to enjoy the evening orange light and take amazing pictures away from big crowds.”

Zagorohoria – walking back in time

Meteora is easily combined with a few days of self guided walking in the nearby Pindus Mountains, the range stretching from the border with Albania in the northwest to the northern Peloponnese in the southeast. Here you’ll walk cobbled stone footpaths, around lakes in forested foothills, and through the timeless villages of the Zagori region. This remote cluster of 40-odd traditional mountain communities, built of stone and slate, with their handsome churches and arched bridges is delightfully photogenic and a pleasure to wander around at your own pace.

The Vikos Gorge is the undisputed highlight of hiking around the Pindus Mountains. It is almost 500m deep at points, but narrows at times to just a few metres wide. Rare chamois scuttle around the rocky heights, while medicinal herbs once in demand for local healers sprout from the slopes – “a journey through an open-air geological museum” as Alex Pazderski puts it. Walking here with responsible operators helps preserve the region – guides and hotel owners are encouraged to keep the trails clear of litter, and restore old way marking signs.

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Practicalities

Walking vacations in Meteora, and around Zagori and the Pindus Mountains, typically last around eight days in total. You will likely be guided around Meteora, enabling you to seek out trails that monks have used for centuries and to obey the etiquette when visiting working monasteries, such as wearing the proper attire and not rocking around too much when the nets pull you up the mountains (just kidding, there are steps up now).
You’ll have different options for walks of around four to five hours in length, and if you’re up for a bit more of a challenge you can also tackle a via corda (a climbing route with ropes attached to the rock). “It’s a hiking and scrambling tour that normally takes around three hours,” says Alex. “It requires reasonable fitness, but nothing out of the ordinary. At certain parts of the trail you'll need to use both arms and legs to ascend, but it’s nothing like real climbing. You don't have to really pull your weight up. We’ve had participants of all ages without any issues.” Sunset tours of the region are usually by car, as you don’t want to be negotiating your way back in the darkness.

Though remote, the region is easily accessible, four hours from Athens and three from Delphi or Thessaloniki. Zagori is frequently paired with walking on the island of Lefkada, just to the west, as well. Trails in the Pindus Mountains are well-marked, and you’ll be provided with all the maps and information you need, and 24-hour support just in case. You’ll stay in a series of boutique hotels and stone mansions in little villages, small and locally owned properties for the most part that ensure the communities feel a genuine benefit from your vacation. Your luggage will be transferred between accommodations so that you need carry only a day pack.

These are usually tailor made tours so that you can travel on dates that suit you. Alex Pazderski of has some suggestions on when to go however. “In Zagori in June you have everything! Long days, perfect climate for hiking, forests with leaves on the trees, an amazing variety of wild flowers, water in the canyon and, of course, accessibility to the alpine zone as the snow is usually absent. Also because the schools are still open it’s not as busy as summer. So June is naturally popular with hikers.” And as for the Vikos Gorge: “It doesn’t get too crowded, and between May and late October the number of people walking it is fairly stable. Only in August is there a slight increase. The weekend of the Zagori Mountain Running event, which usually takes place the last weekend of July, is really crowded though.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Wisniowy] [Intro: Dido3] [Meteora: Dido3] [Zagorohoria: Ale30307] [Practicalities: Biedermann]
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