Day-Hiking Meteora: What Tour Buses Miss

Drew Shaw
5 min readJul 17, 2022


KALAMBAKA, GREECE — I got to my hostel late in the afternoon, seeing Meteora for the first time on the walk from the train station. Kalambaka and its neighboring town, Kastraki, are planted on the toes of the area’s famous stone pillars housing six Orthodox monasteries. After processing the town’s surreal landscape, the next thing that struck me was was the town’s apparent indifference to it.

Despite the floating monasteries, which are undoubtedly central to Kalambaka’s identity and economy, town life didn’t seem to revolve around tourism. Without the souvenir shops and hiking maps scattering the streets, the city would feel no different than an ordinary farming village. And, in a time when people like me didn’t habitually travel continents for sightseeing, it probably was.

Around 19:30 I took an evening walk through town to watch the sun set through the pillars. The streets were silent and empty, but not without life. Old Greeks sat perched on their porches, quietly soaking the twilight under their red terra cotta roofs. Every night they sip their coffee and watch stray cats and backpackers wander the roads. Two hours later, on my walk back, the town had migrated into the cafes and bars and the square was unrecognizably busy.

From what I could gather, Greeks siesta in the afternoon from about 14:00 to 19:00, then down an espresso freddo and party in the town. I spent a sleepless night next to an open window overlooking a cafe full of undying conversation and laughs.

In the morning, I took the budget-friendly route and walked the road from my hostel to see the monasteries. I left early, expecting a hot sun and Saturday tourist crowds. Throughout the day, the weather stayed constantly on the verge of rain, actually chilly and pleasant for a Mediterranean summer.

This was when I discovered Greek feta and spinach pies (spanakopita), one of the finest delicacies the country has to offer.

Multiple tour buses passed me on the way up. Evidently, I hadn’t left early enough. A hiking trail broke off the street into the woods as an alternative route to Great Meteoron and Varlaam, the first and biggest monasteries. The path was short, steep and sweet, about 40 minutes long. In the courtyard of the monastery, I stopped to put on joggers that fit the strictly enforced “below the knees” dress code.

As I put on my pants a massive, loud, American group of tourists flooded from the road through the entryway and formed a line to funnel into the monastery. It really irked me. Here I was trying to enjoy the peaceful forests and monastic beauty only to be conjoined with a league of buses for the rest of the day.

American accents are ten times more annoying in Europe. Wandering the monastery with the tourists, watching them take photos, I mulled over the roots of my distaste for tour bus groups. The “lone wolf” superiority complex that comes with traveling alone is inevitable but, deeper than that, I think tour buses steal something special from any world wonder. I understand their appeal, especially for families with kids, but in most other contexts tour buses feel too safe.

Taking a tour bus is like ordering chicken tenders at a Mexican cantina. Tour buses condense the experience of an exciting, exotic place into a comfortable commodity to be consumed. Of course, a tourist is a tourist; we’re all just trying to enjoy the same corner of the world in our preferred method. Walking 20km between monasteries isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But in exchange for a bus, tourists give up their freedom and autonomy as an adventurer — a notable sacrifice. Anywhere in the world, you can sit and be driven by an English speaker who tells you where to turn your head. Sure, you’ll see some cool sights and take a few nice selfies, but, in the end, chicken tenders will always taste more or less the same. At some point I’d rather just skip the restaurant and order cheap fast food from home. In this case, that means watching a documentary and browsing Google images.

I went into three of the six monasteries. Great Meteoron was the first, largest and most crowded. It had a couple of museums full of Byzantine religious relics. One hallway showcased old Greek WWII campaign art, the writing on the wall paying tribute to little Greece’s resistance against Nazism.

The other two monasteries were quieter and more remote. There weren’t any large notable displays, only atmospheric old corridors and cute gardens. The Holy Trinity Monastery, a nunnery, dated back to the 14th century. Its courtyard overlooked a lush gorge between pillars; bird chirps therapeutically bounced with the breeze between the stone.

I didn’t get to see any Greek monks or nuns; they stay properly hidden on weekends. All the monasteries had old church halls spiced with incense and painted with Orthodox imagery. A few religious travelers kissed the icons and went through their prayer rituals. Their worship’s intricacy made protestant pop radio seem heretically immature.

Meteora’s splendor was a slow burner. Coming from the high peaks of Mount Olympus, these rocks didn’t immediately strike me as jaw-dropping. I was well acquainted with them from photos I’ve admired since I was a kid, so it was only at the end of the day on my walk back to the hostel that I felt I fully appreciated it all. The monks pray from the pillars, the locals nap in the valley, the tourists photograph both: all are valid means of enjoying the serene beauty of this corner of the world.



Drew Shaw

Journalism and political science student, backpacking enthusiast, avid drinker of LaCroix.