Moving Mountains

Albert Buhr goes monastic in a misguided attempt to find his inner 007.

Fathers who expect their offspring to follow in their footsteps fail to take the competition into account. For me it was settled at the age of six: I would model my life entirely on James Bond. When For Your Eyes Only hit the silver screen in 1981, it was my first encounter with 007, and I concurred with countless other boys that Roger Moore represented the ultimate role model. Reality, however, will smother epic aspirations based on action-packed fiction, with my Bond ambition suffering its final throttle on a recent visit to Meteora in central Greece.

Meteora Greece

These pillars are marked by horizontal lines that geologists maintain were made by the waters of a prehistoric sea

I’d caught a national bus from Athens, with a changeover at Trikala facilitating the final 22km to Kalabaka. The town sits under Meteora, a spectacular series of rock pillars with a medieval monastery perched on each pinnacle. Some of these towers more than 500 metres above the plain. The sight is unforgettable, to say the least, and was already seared onto my young brain from For Your Eyes Only. It is the quintessential Bond film location, and the movie is arguably Moore’s best.

The rundown includes Blofeld finally getting his comeuppance, some regrettable screeching from Sheena Easton, and Bond foiling an endless clique of hired killers. Then the dapper cad scales the steepest part of the rock face at Meteora to mount an attack on a villain who’d converted one of the monasteries into a hideout. Repeated viewings of the franchise over the years has generated my own personal list of must-visit venues, with Meteora right at the top.

At Kalabaka, I suspect, a town conspiracy is afoot: not a soul would admit to knowing a stitch of English. My Greek consisted solely of six words calculated to ensure my survival: mousaka, tzatziki, keftedes, dolmades, souvlaki, spanokopita. Yum. And, in case of emergency: ouzo! Only one of these proved helpful when I tried to book into my hotel. The establishment seemed quaint and cosy, but communication was a problem. When things got to a simmering impasse at the reception desk I finally just gave up and asked for some ouzo, which very effectively defused the tension and somehow got me a room.

I was well stocked with sandwiches, a satchel-full of furtive glances and an imaginary Walther PPK. But then, on my way through the lobby, my adversary the desk manager scuppered my mission by foisting Madge on me.

Meteora Greece

The town sits under Meteora, a spectacular series of rock pillars with a medieval monastery perched on each pinnacle.

I’d met the pre-elderly Madge the previous afternoon at the local outdoor market. The olives on offer had been overwhelming in their variety, and she’d asked my advice on the options. I then escorted her back to the hotel we happened to share, because she’d seemed so relieved to find a traveller who pretended not to be out of his depth. “I don’t understand a word these people are saying, my dear,” she confided with some agitation. “It’s all Greek to me.”

She had left her miserly husband back in Blacklung or Bovril-on-Rye or some such borough in the English Midlands, and was now in need of a gentleman’s arm for the day’s excursion. Apparently I’d been forgiven for suggesting the unpickled olives, a bitter error I only discovered when I practically choked to death in my room the previous evening.

James Bond and Shirley bloody Valentine. My imagination clung precariously to my fantasy, like Roger to the rock face – a task hampered even further when the desk manager foisted a box of frocks on us and insisted we choose one. We hesitated to catch his meaning. Ladies can’t enter monasteries wearing tracksuit slacks, it turns out, and the hotel management was apparently well prepared for this sort of contingency. The proud smile shining from under the receptionist’s moustache suggested that a moth-eaten skirt was one of the complimentary perks of this establishment. Clutching her gift with some perplexity, Madge and I were bundled into a taxi and were soon winding our way up into the hills.

“Meteora” translates to something like “suspended rocks” and would certainly act as inspiration for some surrealist painter, like Magritte. Curiously these pillars are marked by horizontal lines that geologists maintain were made by the waters of a prehistoric sea. In the 5th century BC even the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that local people believed the plain of Thessaly had once been a sea. What attracts most intrepid visitors today, however, is the fact that Meteora became one of the most significant bastions of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.

An ascetic group of hermit monks were the first people to inhabit these peaks in the 9th century, where the great height and sheerness of the cliffs promised to give pesky pilgrims the cold shoulder.

Initially the hermits lived in caves and led a life of solitude, meeting only on special holy days to worship in their small chapel.

But by the early 12th century something of a monastic state had formed that attracted an ever-growing ascetic community. Over the centuries that followed, more than 20 monasteries were built, and the myth was born that the founder of the first monastery, St Athanasius, had not scaled the rock but had been carried to the top by a giant eagle.

It’s easy to see how such a legend could come about. Even the country road leading up to the monasteries seemed excessively precarious. It didn’t help that much of it was iced over. The old Mercedes-Benz kept sliding sideways toward the drop on the left, upon which the driver would turn into the skid and slam on the brakes. Madge and I occasionally held each other on the back seat as the car crept ahead and resorted to engine-roaring wheel spins just to hammer the danger home. Nonetheless, Madge seemed to be doing better than I was, perhaps because she was already closer in line to the final departure. I was soon having palpitations and, clutching to an old lady, had to privately submit to the truth that I would never be James Bond. It was humiliating.

Ice-encrusted roads aside, I highly recommend visiting Meteora in winter. For one, there were no other tourists. More importantly, the vision of the monasteries dusted in snow increased their fairy-tale quality ten-fold.

When we finally reached the single nunnery, the Holy Monastery of St Stephen, we found ourselves in a glistening, snow-capped world of silence. After Madge wrestled herself into the floral-print skirt, looking literally as if she’d simply wrapped a beach towel around her waist, we crunched across a wooden bridge. The chasm below induced acute vertigo.

Until the 17th century, the primary access to these abodes was by means of baskets and ropes, as demonstrated in the Bond film. Access was deliberately difficult, with long ladders lashed together or large nets to haul up provisions and people – an operation that presumed a liberal measure of blind faith. The ropes were only replaced, apparently, “when the Lord let them break”. In the words of UNESCO, who have named this a world heritage site: “The net in which intrepid pilgrims were hoisted up vertically symbolises the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction.”

In the 1920s, steps were cut into the rock, making some of the monasteries accessible via bridges from the plateau where our taxi was presently parked. Today each monastery has fewer than 10 residents, and welcomes visitors to admire the inspiring frescoes, icons and handwritten gospels and manuscripts in their museums.

We knocked on an ancient wooden door, and waited in the soft drip, drip of melting ice. After a while a nun jiggled an iron lock and escorted us to the inner courtyard. She said nothing, just put a finger to her lips, inviting us to temporarily join her vow of silence, then floated off down a corridor and left us alone.

Holy Monastery of St Stephen

At the far end of the courtyard I took my seat on a small wall and gazed out over the plain and the town of Kalabaka below. The name of the town is Turkish in origin, and means “powerful fortress”. After the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, Turkish occupation expanded across Greece. The hermits of Meteora had not needed to concern themselves too much with such minor worldly affairs as the fall of empires, but rather focussed on forging their link to heaven through centuries of unbroken prayer.

You can feel these transcendent priorities if you care to visit under the right conditions – namely in winter, and preferably alone. I was glad my unexpected companion and I had come on our own steam and not on a guided tour. And in the end I was also glad I’d left Bond in Kalabaka. What I experienced instead was a tranquil spectacle, and the taste of a certain suspension… They say faith moves mountains – here, they float, regardless.

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