I had a bit of a strange, mildly spooky, experience in Meteora.
Meteora, in northern Greece, is an area of freakish rock formations onto which a series of late-medieval monasteries were built. It's a spectacular vision of sheer rock, plunging ravines, and improbable buildings. There's a lot of history, much of it lost. Six monasteries exist today out of a one-time total of twenty-four. Eighteen, therefore, lie in ruins. Spotting these eighteen are difficult; reaching them even moreso - they are built upon such teetering peaks that defy logic as to how they got there. There are also strange wooden constructions built within the pockmarks of the cliff faces.
It wasn't to a monastery I went on a late Wednesday afternoon - our second of the three days we spent in the area. Danielle and I had spent our day visiting two of the largest monasteries, the Great Meteoron and Varlaam; returning to our hotel, I was keen to visit a couple of other locations. The first was to the above picture, a hermitage according to the map. A half-hour walk from there was a natural rock formation, very clear from the village of Kastraki, that I was keen to see close up.
This turned out to be a pleasant walk, skirting around the village, then entering a woods. It was a warm evening, the sun speckled on the ground through the trees, giving the place a fairytale feel. Adding to that were the two chapels I passed. The first looked old, overgrown, and possibly out of use.
The second, further up the slope, was certainly out of use. Partially boarded up, with some broken windows, it felt a little creepy. Peering through a doorway, I could see a clear interior with a single white chair at the back.
I passed through and soon reached my destination. The rock has a name, Adrachti ("spindle"), and it rises all of a sudden from the forest floor, as though a giant had stuck it there deliberately in ancient times. I was able to clamber up a little, enjoying views of the area.
By reaching Adrachti, I was pretty much in the centre of a large cluster of Meteora's largest formations. Massive rocks and rock faces surrounded me on all sides, and between these huge chunks of rocks were gaps, like gorges. One such gap looked appealing for a quick explore - reaching the top would give me a whole new view, possibly of some monasteries. To get there involved a bit of climbing and clambering, as the gorge became quite narrow. At one point, I had to duck under a boulder that was wedged between the two opposing slabs of rock, and at times I had to press myself against both sheer cliff faces to advance. It was only mildly dangerous - a bad slip could have seen a broken bone - but definitely looked undignified. Towards the top of the gap, still with Meteora's main rocks high above me, I was given a view of another valley, forested then becoming steep with hills. Very nice, I thought, but there weren't any monasteries, no obvious paths, and I couldn't quite figure out where it was on the map. I stood for a while, soaking up the view. Some orange peel was scattered, quite fresh by the looks of it, which I admit made me feel a little disappointed - I thought I'd come somewhere far away from the normal paths that few people would visit.
By now, it was evening, and it would be getting dark in about an hour. Definitely time to head back. The obvious way was to return the way I'd come, but I was a little concerned by it. It had been challenging to climb up, climbing back down seemed hazardous. But continuing on through woods into this new valley seemed foolish - I had no idea where it was or how long it would take me to find a path. So I returned to the top of the gap and headed back.
As I was mentally preparing my route, looking at the rocks I'd have to negotiate, something caught my eye. I looked up - a man was standing, not too far away. Had he been waving at me? He was roughly equidistant between me and Adrachti, but at the bottom of the shallow valley, perhaps a hundred metres away. I looked at him and he looked at me, neither of us moving. He looked local - certainly not a tourist - and was wearing what appeared to be brown clothes, trousers and jacket, heavy-looking, old-fashioned. He looked a little older than me, hard to tell, anything up to 20 years more. For about five seconds, we both stood, unmoving. Then he started moving towards me.
Screw this, I thought. I'd been just about to make an awkward clamber back down the slope and now this guy was there. I'd looked like a fanny going up - I didn't want this guy watching me slip and scramble about and looking like a fanny going down. I'd go the other route, it had to lead somewhere. Meteora isn't that large an area, and I'd figure out where I was soon enough. I returned to the top of the gap and began a different undignified scramble down a different slope.
The slope was forested with occasional boulders and steep without being dramatic, and I flung myself down for about five minutes until I realised: is this really the best way? The light was fading and I had no idea how long this route might take. In the distance, it appeared there may be a few paths - I couldn't be sure - but how to reach these were uncertain. Even if I did reach them, they were potentially still a long walk back to Kastraki, perhaps longer than the light would allow. Ok, I'd head back the other way. If I bumped into the man, I'd confidently smile and say hello as he thought to himself, what a weirdo. I clambered back up the slope, by now quite out of breath.
Reaching the top of the gap - the main rocks of Meteora were of course still towering above - I realised: there was a third route. This one looked attractive. Another gap between the giant slabs of rocks, but slightly wider than the tight one I'd come up, it looked less steep and went in an obvious direction. I could find my way back easily, and put myself at far less risk, whether in terms of danger or just indignity. Definitely, I thought. Much safer.
It was still light, though the sun was now behind the massive rocks of Meteora. There was silence. I began clambering down, and the descent was easy. At both sides were sheer rock faces but the small canyon I was descending was grassy and rocky and not too steep. Then, about half way down, I heard a noise. And another one.
A rock bounced near my head. What? There was silence, then I saw another one. A fist-sized rock smacked into the rock face nearby. It had come from directly above. I craned my neck, looking vertically up towards the tops of the vast pillars of rock above. Another fist-sized rock appeared, seemingly lobbed from an unseen point, flying down towards me, striking the opposing cliff face nearby and ricocheting off.
Immediately, I pressed myself to the side of the cliff that the rocks were appearing from - less chance of being hit this way, except by a ricochet. A direct hit, I realised would not be good news. Some of the rocks of Meteora are over 600 metres above sea level, and around 400 metres higher than the surrounding area. From where I was standing, the top of the rock was anywhere from 50 to 100 metres above. A fist-sized rock dropped from 10 metres would do damage, a fist-sized rock hitting me from a lot more could do me a lot worse.
The rocks kept coming. Not loads at a time, just one, sometimes two in fairly quick succession, about every fifteen seconds. Sometimes I saw them appear, as though flung, from the top; sometimes I just heard them crashing down somewhere near me. What the hell is going on, I wondered. There was no way that a person was up there - the peaks are inaccessible, and even if they somehow had managed the climb, they wouldn't still be there in the fading light. Still, I scanned the top of the huge rocks, half expecting to see a face or figure. Animals too - no way do any animals live up there. Could it be birds? The rocks seemed big, the kind of size a person could easily throw. Perhaps birds were building nests and dropping a lot of stones while doing so.
Whatever the reason, I knew it wasn't safe to hang around. Carefully keeping myself pressed to one side, I made my way down, only to realise with dismay that my route dropped away steeply all of a sudden. It was possible to make the climb, but it put me in the direct line of fire from these rocks. No way. I waited a couple of minutes, pondering my options. Go back up, I realised.
Towards the top, this exposed me to the falling rocks, which had taken a brief moratorium. I covered my head in my hands, hoping that if I took a direct hit this might cushion the impact, and scrambled up. I made it. Time to go back down the original way, as I should have done in the first place.
And the man was standing there again. Still, after at least half-an-hour. Now he was a little more in the distance, further away than before, this time much closer to Adrachti. He wasn't moving, just looking at me, arms by his body just as before. I looked back at him, then down as I began my descent. I looked up and he'd gone.
As it happened, my descent turned out to be much easier than expected, and not at all undignified. Mercifully, no rocks were falling on this side. I made it back to the path, and walked back down the forest trail. I was walking fast, half expecting to catch up with the brown-clothed man, but I never did. Indeed, I rather hoped I wouldn't, by now feeling slightly spooked. As I passed the derelict chapel, I half-expected to see his face in a window. Perhaps if I looked in the door, I might see him sitting on the little white chair.
When I got back to the hotel, the light now dim, I was pretty knackered. I told Danielle and she immediately said "ghost!" I don't believe in such things, although I still love a good ghost story, but she reminded me of a tale that our guide during the Inca Trail had told us. Some years ago, he said, he'd been guiding a group when a girl went missing. For hours they searched, and panic had set in. She'd vanished. Only when he went back to the day's starting point did someone point out that a distant scree slope looked, just perhaps, like a trail. It was on a mountain they didn't trek across so he'd never bothered to make the usual small daily ritual to it. He went over to it and in a shallow ditch found the girl, clothes ripped, exhausted, dehydrated, but otherwise in good health. She thought only a couple of hours had gone by. She'd gone that way because of an illusion: she thought she'd seen a trail of other hikers, so had simply tried to follow them.
Each mountain has a spirit, our guide told us, pay respect to the Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Perhaps, on Wednesday, I somehow disrespected Meteora.
(Or perhaps the man was a local trying to warn me not to go into an area that had nesting birds dropping stones, and hung around until he saw me emerge safely. But let's not have a practical theory get in the way of a good story.)