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Saturday, 24 January 2009

A place to keep silence

Last night we arrived in Ano Korakiana to find the house dry and sweet. Mr Leftheris greeted us with a fine five kilo marrow rescued from rotting in our garden. This morning the sky's grey. Rain's been falling in abundance, but not a drop in the house, warmed by our log stove, lit with one match. Having coached from Birmingham, we flew from Luton to Bulgaria, landing at Sofia after midnight. Until five-o-clock, we waited in the airport café for the first bus – 84 - at a stop by the terminal. Dobran, a student cameraman, finishing security duty, jotted down our bus connections, helped with fare paying and pointed out Hotel Pliska, where we changed buses for the central station. We were driven slowly through Sofia's outskirts on carriageways edged by dirty snow heaped against indefinite frontages lit by tall yellow lights. A fellow passenger - Emir Kusturica - seeing us gazing at this placeless streetscape nodded that he was going the same way as us. I like public transport for the likelihood of helpful locals who read the minds of strangers. Our bus route ended beside the neon-lit concrete of central station rising conspicuously from shiny streets, suckled by yellow cabs, a cavernous old modernist atrium where we were swiftly befriended by a man over keen to assist. Queuing behind five sets of passengers, we watched the clock marking our train time drawing closer as two women, having started the day with a smoke, opened a counter for the tiresome business of issuing tickets. One customer, ashen and elderly, abruptly taken by shakes, peeled away to steady her wrist with her other hand. I wished I could have made her well. One of the women behind glass stared interrogatively at her before getting on with writing dockets, printing tickets, stapling papers, receiving fare and explaining procedure. Realising plastic wasn’t currency, I scurried to a nearby money changer and bought levs with my euros getting notes in Bulgarian currency but small change in euro's. Three students - one called Goran Bregovic - pointed us towards our platform but our helper, bent on some return, picked up Lin’s bag, led us to a carriage and a compartment. I tipped him лв5 and he, seeing change, asked for more, but Lin restrained me.The train – a Greek one - slid away almost at once. For six hours we sped through a damp grey landscape on a single track to Thessaloniki - a comfortable compartment to ourselves. 1055 we were checked at Kulata, the Bulgarian side of the border. At Promachon, the Greek border station, a young Greek policeman inspecting our papers said “You’re in Hellas”. I smiled and punched the air. He responded with a gleeful grin. At Thessaloniki at one – about twenty-four hours since we’d left Birmingham – we were to take a bus to Meteora, but learned that a "sort of a strike" had cancelled it, so we caught a six-o-clock train to Kalambaka, chatting and snoozing and reading – Lin, a thriller, and me engrossed in Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s twentieth century – a whodunit with a cast of millions, many plots and measureless violence, and I still don't know who did it. Kalambaka was the end of the line. At nine thirty we strolled from the station up a narrow street to our guesthouse beneath dimly lit rocks soaring into darkness – Meteoro, ‘the wide rocks’. How could we ever ascend such dizzying heights? We rose Thursday morning and started upwards. The road from the guest house became a lane, then a well crafted path winding between mossy boulders, grassy spaces, small trees and shrubs. After an hour's walking we came to the monastery of Holy Trinity - closed Wednesdays and Thursdays - connected by a small cable car to the plateau behind Meteora, over which a road could bring visitors by car and coach. As we gazed at the great rock pillars, the town of Kalambaka and the winding river Pinious far below, a friendly man on a scooter called Kostas arrived and gave us free souvenir postcards, a cigarette lighter and a map, plus some handouts to pass on, encouraging us to stay at his guest house. For the climb we had the pleasant valley and the towering rocks to ourselves and the wheeling birds. Going down Lin went ahead. I walked down alone in quietness broken by the occasional rumble of jets. This place was defined by its holy inaccessibility, providing isolation and refuge for prayer in a dangerous world. Serving a secular economy Meteora's strengths might, but for modern engineering, have become a weakness. Patrick Leigh-Fermor, travelling in Roumeli over forty years ago, wrote of the recession of spirituality in Greece. His wonderful writing has the same touch of melancholy as Matthew Arnold's line on faith's long withdrawing roar - both writers understood and only part regretted. Modern guides celebrate what has been inherited, preserved and restored, courtesy of EU, UNESCO, the Greek government and the region’s Metropolitan - and much voluntary work by the few remaining inhabitants of the monasteries. How ever far we trek along what ever enticing route, a car park, landing strip or a marina will mark our destination and if they don’t they will. I shan’t forget our walk up and down that path between Kalambaka and the road to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. We saw signs of goats beside our track. Once I slipped on my back missing a small pile of dung but was unhurt. We spied goats standing quietly in a clearing among the hollyoaks across the valley between the rocks. The ground about us was bursting with small plants and even early flowers. Later in the evening, my knees aching, we ate tasty lamb roasted on an open fire along with properly chopped chips and local red wine. From the bus station next morning we took a coach through a whitened landscape to Ioannina where we caught another to Igoumenitsa. From that now familiar jetty we sailed on the Saint Irene to Corfu Port, enjoying the company of two young Australians, Katherine and Roseanne, visiting Corfu to meet a sick relative, on their first visit to Greece.


  1. Welcome to Greece and to Corfu mr. Simon! Have a nice stay!


  2. Thank you so much John. We are so happy to be here.


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Simon Baddeley