The Monasteries of the Menalon Trail

The Menalon Trail originated as a way to connect villages and monasteries along the Menalon Mountain in Arcadia, deep in the Peloponnese region of Greece. The first section of the trail, from Stemnitsa to Dimitsana, features three monasteries of the Menalon Trail–the Prodromos Monastery, the Old Philosophou Monastery, and the New Philosophou Monastery. These monasteries are incredibly different from one another and are a unique way to experience history while you hike. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the historical and cultural significance of these monasteries, although they are pilgrimage destinations for some who are.

New Philosophou Monastery

The New Philosophou Monastery dates to the 17th century and is the first monastery we encountered on our hike. A lot of people hike this stretch in the opposite direction so come across this monastery last, but I’m going with my own experience. The Menalon Trail goes right through the monastery grounds and some restoration work has been completed because of this. This monastery was built as a less restrictive place of worship than the (now) Old Philosophou Monastery.

This is an active men’s monastery and visitors do not have access to everything. The catholicon (church) is used for services that visitors can participate in and visit at other times. Frescoes cover the walls and ceiling of this Orthodox church and date to the mid-to-late 1600s.

Old Philosophou Monastery

The Old Philosophou Monastery, otherwise known as the Secret School (963 A.D.), is now a ruins carved into the cliff. It’s a slight detour from the main trail and is very much an enter at your own risk scenario due to crumbling rocks. I’ll be honest–I obviously went inside because how could I not and I felt totally safe. Don’t mess with the walls or touch things and watch where you step. Use common sense and enjoy walking through history.

After climbing rather steep and narrow stone steps to get to the entrance (it’s one of the very few areas of the trail that has a railing). The door doesn’t move–you’ll need to be able to sidle through it.

The Old Philosophou Monastery dates back to Byzantine times and and is one of the oldest monasteries in Arcadia. It became known as the Secret School during the Ottoman rule of Greece when it, quite literally, became a secret school. Because of being built into the rock itself, it is difficult to see unless you know it is there and this helped it stay protected from the Ottomans.

I could have happily stayed here for hours. You know I love my quiet and the sense of peace I felt wandering these spaces, if only for a short time, was like every last weight I had been carrying had been lifted. While I loved hiking the trail itself, exploring the Old Philosophou Monastery was a definite highlight.

Prodromos Monastery

The Prodromos Monastery is arguably the most recognized of the three. It is built into the cliff and houses the church of St. John the Baptist. The monastery dates back to the 16th century and has gone through many transitions, including as a refuge and hospital for fighters during the Greek Revolution. The monastery was dissolved for a short time due to a low number of monks but became active again in the 1800s and has stayed that way. Visiting hours are limited due to this and unfortunately we took too long on our hike and the monastery was closed to outsiders by the time we reached it. Seeing inside is something I’ll look forward to on my next trip, though, as the monastery houses more than 1000 antique books and artifacts.

Things to Know

Be respectful. Part of travel is acknowledging and appreciating cultures different from yours. You are entering their space. Don’t touch anything you aren’t invited to touch. Women may be asked to cover their shoulders or legs (scarves were provided at the New Philosophou Monastery and I believe it’s the same at the Prodromos Monastery). If you’re asked not to take photos, just don’t.

Pay attention to your surroundings. You should already be doing that since you’re hiking, but the monasteries are old (especially the Old Philosophou) and the ground and footpaths are uneven. You also don’t want to bump into any ancient artifacts on display!

You can refill your water bottle at the New Philosophou Monastery. They have a tap in the courtyard for anyone to use. It’s safe to drink and I know I appreciate having a place to refill as opposed to bringing multiple bottles. There are also benches around if you want a place to rest.

Visiting the monasteries of the Menalon Trail is such a great way to experience firsthand how the trail actually got started–by connecting them. They have different but connected history and bring a deeper level of cultural and historical awareness to an already epic hike.

A massive thank you to Trekking Hellas for guiding us on our hike of the Menalon Trail and for providing information overload on everything we saw. Another thanks to TBEX for putting the conference together and allowing us to experience this!

Want to know more history of the Menalon Trail? Here you go!

And if you’re interested in hiking it (and of course you are!), here’s my beginner’s guide to hiking the Menalon Trail.


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