Incredible Landscape of Meteora

Meteora, Greece has been on my bucket list for years and after 3 times visiting Greece, we finally made it. Back then, self-driving wasn’t as easy as today, thanks to Google Maps and T-Mobile’s free 2G international data with our phone plan, the 4 hours drive was straightforward. We flew from Paros to Athens early in the morning at 7:10 AM, I was surprised to see our plane was packed. Once we landed Athens, we went to the COVID test center located on the lower level of the airport to get our rapid antigen test done. US CDC requires a negative COVID test (PCR or rapid antigen) up to three days before the departure flight home. We did our test on Tuesday for our flight on Thursday to get it done beforehand so we don’t need to stress about it on the day of our flight; so glad we did it as the line was long and painfully slow. Please check the CDC’s website for the latest requirement as it could change; I heard more testing for unvaccinated travelers is upcoming. There were two lines at the COVID test center, one for people who prepaid online and one without prepayment. Both lines were long and painfully slow. There was one staff each process at each of the lines but the one without prepayment got an extra staff to help speed it up while we were waiting. It took a good 45 minutes of wait and we were there pretty early in the morning. The line was twice as long by the time it was our turn so I can’t imagine how long of a wait those people had!

During the wait, we were surprised to see how unprepared people were! One girl came up and asked us if she can get ahead because her flight will be boarding in 30 minutes!!! Everyone in the line was nice enough to let her go first but not sure if she made it. If her country requires a PCR test to return then she’s screwed! Then, another lady has no clue what’s the difference between PCR and rapid test nor the requirement. She assumed the staff would know so when it was her turn, she asked. The staff said they do not know every single country’s requirement! They told her that the PCR test result would take 24 hours whereas the rapid test result would take 15-30 minutes. That lady even made a ridiculous comment that if she doesn’t get the result back on time, the airline would have to let her broad right? WRONG!!! Airline staff needs to verify all the requirements before they can issue the boarding pass!!! Finally, the dad of a family who was in front of us was in complete panic mode. At one point, he shouted “who’s flying to New York, do you know what’s the testing requirement? PCR or rapid test?” Oh yikes!

It was our turn, we gave our passports to the staff to fill out all the information, we have to sign some papers, and got the password to access our results. The report will be sent via email but you need the password to open the file so please keep the paper! The rapid antigen test was €20 each, now Greece capped at €10 prepaid online and €15 at the test center. I wish testing is that cheap, fast, and convenient in the US! There was no line for the testing when our turn, we proceed right into the room where the woman swabbed our nose and done! After our test, we walked to the Sixt rental car counter to pick up our car. I booked via Priceline for $214.99 for two days; rental car prices skyrocketed during the pandemic due to car shortages. The staff at the counter was nice and offered us an upgrade to a diesel car to save us money for an extra €7 per day. For the long-distance drive, it made sense to upgrade. By the time we got the car key and went to the cafe to get sandwiches, we received the emails with the COVID test result! Both of us were negative, yay we were set to go home! We got out of the airport at around 10 AM.

The route to Meteora from Athens Airport was straight-forward, mostly on the highway, some mountain road but the road was wide enough, and then lastly through small towns. There were some sections of the highway that was pretty newly built that not many cars on it, probably due to the high toll fees? It was shocking to see that we can go on for miles without seeing any other cars on the highway! The one-way toll totaled €20.35 which we paid all in cash to avoid the hassle in the event that our credit card gets declined for no reason; we had that once in Italy and it was a pain. Each toll station has booths for cash payment with staff.

As we approached Kalabaka, the town beneath the Meteora monasteries, we started to see the rock formations. We got to our hotel, Doupiani House Hotel to check-in, quickly put the luggage in our room, and start our exploration of the beautiful area. There are 6 monasteries that are open for visitors but with different opening days so it would be impossible to visit all 6 within a day. Also, no photograph is allowed inside the monasteries so it wasn’t that important to us to visit all 6; we are more interested in the outside landscape. From our hotel, the first monastery we drove by was the Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapafsas, this is the only monastery that opens every day from 9 AM to 5 PM. We skipped this one because it is the smallest. On our way to the next monastery, the Monastery of Rousanou, it opens from 10 AM to 4 PM and closes on Wednesdays, we pulled over on the shoulder of the road to take photos.

The Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapafsas on top of the rock:

From this pullover spot, we can see the Monastery of Varlaam (right) and the Great Meteoron Holy Monastery (far left).

The Monastery of Varlaam is huge from this angle, it opens 9 AM to 4 PM and closes on Fridays.

We continued our drive to the Monastery of Rousanou and there were a few parking spots next to the entrance. Due to the pandemic, lesser crowds so we were able to find parking spots. I can’t imagine how it would be during normal times and the peak summer season! Right across from the parking lot, there’s an open area where you can take great photos of The Great Meteoron Holy Monastery, it opens from 9 AM to 3 PM and closes on Tuesdays (the day we were there).

At this photo spot, you can capture both The Great Meteoron Holy Monastery and the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapafsas.

The landscape is incredible!

From the entrance, it was all stairs (I would say hundreds of steps) up to the Monastery of Rousanou but at least mostly were covered by trees to provide shades; it was hot in July! A strict dress code is enforced so make sure you cover your showers and knees. I heard they do provide skirts and scarves to cover up but I didn’t need to. We finally reached the monastery and paid the €3 admission fee per person to visit. The Monastery of Rousanou was quite small and it has a small deck that you can take photos of the landscape underneath the monastery.

The pretty garden is not accessible for visitors.

After a quick visit, we were off to the next monastery – the Holy Monastery of Varlaam. It has a much bigger parking lot there and a food truck that sells snacks and ice-cold drinks! The owner really knows the best location for business! I bought the melon-flavored aloe drink while Jason got a can of coke. The melon-flavored aloe drink was so good that after that I tried to find it in supermarkets but none sells it!

We walked in and after the first photo, I noticed the camera memory card is getting full and I left the 2nd set of memory cards in the hotel room!!! Look at those stairs up the monastery, without any shades! It was almost 4 PM so by the time we went back to our hotel to get the memory cards and come back, the monastery is already closed. In a way, I was glad that we didn’t need to hike those stairs 😛

After we got the memory cards from our hotel, we walked to the open area with big boulders for photos. Jason was brave enough to climb up on the boulders for photos while I waited at a safe flat spot for him. Photos he took: look at those stairs…..and the Great Meteoron on the right.

The Holy Monastery of Rousanou we visited, it was unbelievable on how those monks built those monasteries back in the days!

Next, we drove to the Great Meteoron which is the oldest and largest monastery in Meteora! It was closed on the day we were there so we couldn’t make a visit.

In between the Monastery of Varlaam and the Great Meteoron, there’s a good photo spot for photos, you do need to pull over on the road or park at the Great Meteoron parking lot and walk down. You can get awesome views of the Monastery of Varlaam from there but do pay extra attention not to walk too close on the edge!

We continued on our way to the Holy Monastery of Holy Trinity and made a few stops along the way. This small pullover spot has the view of the 4 monasteries in one picture.

Next is the first parking spot after the split (the left road goes back to the Holy Monastery of Rousanou and the right road to the Holy Monastery of Holy Trinity). It requires an easy climb up to the big boulders to get to the photo spot. We think that’s the best spot for sunset, better than the “Meteora Observation Deck” marked in Google Maps. The sunsets behind those mountains far back in the direction of the Holy Monastery of Rousanou.

A couple asked us to help to take a photo of them two with their cellphone and in return, they helped us 🙂

The next parking lot on the road was marked as “Meteora Observation Deck” in Google Maps. Don’t get fooled by its name, it’s not a deck. It does require walking on uneven boulders to get to the spot. Here, you can see the view of the monasteries was much further away so it doesn’t provide a good “subject” for photos.

Next is the Holy Monastery of Holy Trinity where it appeared in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”. It opens 10 AM to 4 PM and closes on Thursdays.

The cable car is for staff only. For visitors, you need to walk down the pedestrian path to the foot of the cliff and then climb 145 steps up!

The last monastery is the Holy Monastery of St. Stephen which is the most accessible monastery, cross a bridge to get to the monastery. It opens 9 AM to 1:30 PM and then from 2:30 PM to 5:30 PM and closes on Mondays.

We were starving by then so we headed back down to town for early dinner at Meteoron Panorama. The restaurant has good views of the rock formations!

Cellphone photo of us 🙂

We ordered the local steak and it was good! I do wish for more vegetables as sides instead of sweet potatoes.

Jason ordered a grilled fish as it was less than €15 (forgot the exact amount); it was much cheaper and better than the €35 fish we had in Naxos LOL!

Free dessert, the chocolate ice cream was refreshing! The total for our dinner was €66.50 and we tipped €3.50 tips to make it €70.

After dinner, we had some time before sunset at around 8:30 PM so we went back to our hotel to take a quick break. Photos of our room, I hate the dim yellow lightings, I already adjusted the color temperature for the sake of photos.

The bed was not comfortable at all 🙁

The view from the balcony, even though I paid extra for the panoramic double room with Meteora view ($110.34 for the night that I reserved with, that tree blocked the view grrrr!

After a quick break, we headed back out to the parking spot where we identified the best for sunset photos. All the parking spots were taken and many cars parked on the side of the road. We were surprised to see so many people there!

The sunrays as the sun setting behind the mountains. I took the photos handheld as there were a lot of people, the uneven boulders, and it was windy so it wasn’t a good condition to use the tripod. We saw someone flying a drone and another person doing timelapse.

Then, a photographer and a videographer came along with the bride and groom to ask if they can have the spot for few photos. Of course, everyone moved out of the way so they can take photos and videos. I am not sure what backdrop the photographer was taking as he was using an 85 mm lens; at that distance he was taking the photos at, the frame would be just the couple and hardly any background. I snapped a photo and you can see a lot of people there!

A dog came, occupied the best spot, and decided to take a nap there LOL!

After the sun has set, most of the people left and we waited for few more minutes to see if the sky will change color. Unfortunately, it did not!

The next day, we went back to the same spot for sunrise as there’s really no spot facing the direction of the sun rising. We were the only ones there as the sun light slowly lighting up the rocks.

After a few photos, we headed to the “Meteora Observation Deck” spot to get the 4 monasteries.

We headed back to the hotel for breakfast which is included in the rate. The homemade sausages were salty 🙁

After breakfast, we asked the receptionist about the 7th monastery we saw on the tourist map that the hotel provided us. She said that is newly opened for the public but required driving on an unpaved rocky road and then a hike to reach it. We thought about it and decided not to go since we don’t want to risk it with our low-clearance car. Then, we checked out and started our journey back to Athens so we can check out the post offices for Jason’s stamps. There was no traffic until we got to Athens center, felt like driving in Times Square that it took a long time to get through one block but worst with motorcycles constantly cutting the lanes. We stayed at NEW Hotel, very close to Syntagma Square which I redeemed the Marriott’s free night certificate (about to expire) that I got from my credit card. There’s a parking lot right across from the hotel that offers a discounted rate for hotel guests at €20 per day so it was convenient. The hotel is quite new, photos of our room:

The vanity sink is located on the outside of the bathroom, the design is not too practical in my opinion.

The balcony with no view, who would stay out there with that view anyways?

We took the elevator up to check out its restaurant/bar that claims to have a view of the Acropolis…..only from the far corner:

The other side is the Lycabettus Hill:

A church across the street:

For lunch, I was planning to go to Jing, a Szechuan cuisine restaurant but it was closed. Around the corner, there was a Chinese sign to Attic Moon Restaurant but from the menu, it’s very much like Americanized Chinese take-out food. We ended up going to East Pearl Chinese Restaurant. Due to recent COVID restriction changes, only vaccinated people are allowed to dine indoors at Athens. Restaurant staff has the app to scan the QR code to verify guest’s vaccination status and all Europeans vaccination certificate has a QR code. For us Americans, our CDC card does not have it 🙁 The waitress who speaks Mandarin said that the government imposes a heavy fine for violating the law so she can’t let us dine inside but there are a few tables outside across the street on the pedestrian sidewalk. She warned us to put our purse and bag on our laps and watch out for our cellphones as there are a lot of pickpockets in Athens. You can tell by the menu that it’s authentic Szechuan cuisine! Our yummy and filling lunch on the sidewalk for €58.90.

The next stop was the post office so Jason can check out the collectible stamps like the one below. He was on a shopping spree, I think he purchased over €100 of stamps! There were Mykonos, Crete, and other island series but no Santorini unfortunately.

We headed to Plaka to check out the souvenir shops but nothing interesting to us so we went back to our hotel to rest. For dinner, we went to Jing’s again but it was closed so not sure if it’s a temporary or permanent closure. We had a choice to go back to East Pearl or ChunXi located right at Syntagma Square. We went to check out ChunXi and once again, we were not allowed to dine in with our CDC cards. We decided to order take out to bring back to our hotel instead. While we were waiting for our food, we didn’t realize that there was a protest going on at Syntagma Square; we thought those people gathered there were tourists. Things got crazy very fast when we saw people throwing water bottles and then we saw smoke rising in the air. It was tear gas OMG, we started smelling it, and the waitress and restaurant owner? quickly close the doors and gates. They were nice enough to let us stay inside the restaurant and invited us to go upstairs to look. Jason went up while I stayed downstairs. The pepper smell started to get stronger and the lady got tear gas in her eyes while they were upstairs and she started tearing yikes! Jason was trying to take photos with his phone upstairs and they warned him that it’s dangerous to take photos of the protest so he took a video instead. We stayed inside the restaurant for almost half an hour until the anti-vaccine protesters marched down to Filellinon Street. The restaurant staff open the doors and gates and told us to walk at the opposite direction, Leoforos Vasilisis Amalias Street, to get back to our hotel. We quickly walked away from Syntagma Square and safely made it back to our hotel, phew! It was an unexpected adventure. My advice from this is to stay away from Syntagma Square when you see a lot of people gathered there and as someone in Tripadvisor pointed out, you can ask the hotel to check if there’s a protest scheduled for that day and avoid the area!

Photo of our take-out food which cost €44.20 and a lifetime story to tell our friends. The food, in general, is on the sweet side especially the stirred fried pork in Peking style sauce (it was super sweet that we couldn’t eat it). The other dishes were fine.

Our flight was the next day at 12:45 PM, we checked out by 8 AM and drove to the gas station to refuel along the highway to the airport. It turned out that the gas station ran out of gas urg! So we had to refuel at the gas station inside the airport. We returned our car, showed our negative COVID test results that we printed out at the hotel to the United staff, checked in, got our boarding passes, and made it home!

Traveling internationally for the first time after almost 2 years was definitely very different than past travels; it required a little more planning but not too bad since we were fully vaccinated and the entry rules for Greece weren’t as tedious as other countries. At the Greek islands, we felt pretty “normal” as everything and restaurants were outdoors so no mask was required unless we go into stores. Meteora was incredible and glad we made it during the pandemic that not many visitors so parking and photo-taking were easy. Athens was a bit chaotic due to the new rule that we couldn’t dine indoor and the protest. I am grateful that we were able to travel internationally before our 2nd baby arrives – that would be almost another year of no travel! With all those variants emerging and the pace of getting the world to be vaccinated, I can say that COVID is not going away anytime soon. We’ll need to adapt to the new “normal”. Our plan is as long as our kids get vaccinated, hopefully in the near future, we will get back to travel although won’t be as frequent as before until our kids get a little bit older 😉

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