Turkey for Christmas. That was always the plan. Ok when I say Turkey I mean the country – I figured that I could be in Istanbul for Christmas, heading north from Delphi. But then the beauty of travelling solo is that your only boss is you, and plans can change like the wind. That’s how I find myself surrounded by incredible snow capped mountains in Epirus – the towers of Papigo – the early morning sun illuminating and glowing orange on the top of the ridge which leads to a mountain refuge and onwards to drakolimni – dragon lake – which sits at 2100 metres, on the edge of the world. How did I come to be here? Perhaps it was a message from the gods…
In the days that followed my visit to Delphi I tried to rediscover my walking passion – I travelled on the E4, the European trail which I had followed in Crete, and I searched out small roads, mountain trails and footpaths. I knew that I didn’t want cars around. The days when I was able to get away from them I was happiest, and I just went on instinct: plunging along goat trails, climbing through spiky bushes and shrubs, sliding down mountainsides, slipping, sliding, clambering and scratching myself unknown times. I was amongst the wilderness, and it felt like a release. Often I would emerge into a clearing between trees to find myself face to face with surprised sunbathing tortoises – what must they have thought of me?
From the hills and the mountains I descended into a plain, filled with fields of βαμβάκι – cotton – and a depression was on the land, and soon settled on me. For days it seemed I walked through this land of low spirits and cheerless grey villages where the people were less friendly, looking at me through suspicious narrow eyes, as if I were an alien from another planet. These are the cotton fields of Thessaly, where life revolved around these fluffy white plants. Endless fields, which in days gone were filled with food. Now they serve one purpose: cotton is grown and collected in Greece, transported to Turkey where it is made into balls, before being shipped to China to be made into clothes that nobody wants and nobody needs. Then these clothes find their way back to the markets and shops of Europe, completing the circle of useless conformity. Few in this process can make enough money now to make a living (apart from one or two of the richer farmers) – instead every part of the procedure is about nothing more than existing, fulfilling “the quota”. This is life. Why? As I was told by a man who employs Albanians at a pittance…for καλλο ζωή (kallo zoi) – the good life. So he can drive a big car, have a house in the mountains, and at the beach, and in the village.
For days I felt this drudgery imposing itself on me, and I couldn’t shake my despondency. I arrived in Karditsa, the main city of the area and had to leave immediately. The sounds of cars and the noise was totally overwhelming. I needed something to lift my spirits again so I headed for the mountains and the hills…
My next stop after from Delphi was Meteora, a UNESCO site of incredible natural beauty. Meteora means ‘suspended in the air’, although these rocks do not so much hang as seem to grow from the earth, like trees. They are huge pinnacles, millions of years years old, created by seismic activity and eroded and shaped by now extinct rivers to create a scene of impressive magnificence. Nowadays it is one of the most visited sites in the world for rock climbers, who are equipped with all the necessary modern gear. But from the 11th century onwards hermits began to climb and settle in the caves. Then, during the 14th -16th centuries monks climbed and scaled these monoliths to build inaccessible monasteries, where they could live in complete isolation, transforming the area into a place of retreat, meditation and prayer. There were 24 monasteries built and they continued to flourish until the 17th century. Eventually they were all but abandoned, until a new initiative backed by the government and the tourist board of Greece brought them back to life in the early 60s and 70s. At that time there was just one old monk living in the Great Monastery and when he heard about the plans to open the area to tourism, he shut himself in his cell and went on hunger strike. After 40 days he died. Now there are 7 reconstructed and inhabited monasteries which can be visited, and the monks and nuns live a strange life which both relies on, and abhors, tourism. But one undeniable thing is that these are incredible examples of human ingenuity and represent a unique artistic achievement.
I spent a few days wandering this fantastic area, drinking-in the magic atmosphere as I wandered the footpaths, the scent of mushrooms filling the air amidst the earthy smell of an autumn forest, and staring in awe at the magnificent monasteries towering high up.
But at the same time something was missing. I was feeling tired in a way that I have not, and felt I could feel the weather changing. My thoughts began to turn to what I would do during winter. My body was going into hibernation mode. Even the nomads of the past, and the warring armies that travelled the ends of the earth stopped for the cold weather. Last year I learnt how to make mozzarella during Christmas time. What could I do now? Was there something new and exciting I could learn? And it was during this time that I had a vision, or perhaps it was a dream – perhaps finally the oracle WAS speaking to me. I saw myself riding a horse through the steppes of Kazakhstan, the wind blowing through my hair, the grass rustling all around me, a wild happiness coursing through my veins. In my living lucid state I could still feel the sensation of freedom, the scent of the spring grass. Kazakhstan is many miles away, but I know now that when I arrive, I want that dream to be reality.
But there was one big, underlying problem: it was so many years since I had ridden a horse, and to be confident riding in the steppes, possibly alone, I needed to find somewhere to really learn about horses – not just riding, but the whole package. To be able to care for and feed not just myself, but another living creature.
In need of inspiration I took to the internet, searching helpx, a website for volunteering and travelling. In the search box: horses. In the country: Greece. Search results: 5 options. Scrolling through them I found the perfect place. Just 170kms from meteora (a weeks walk), high up in the Pindus mountains, North of Ioannina, 75kms from Igoumenitsa…in Epirus. The irony did not escape me: in February I had travelled South from igoumenitsa, and I had done a huge loop, almost coming full circle back to where I started in Greece. This country continues to amaze and hold me…something new always round the corner, and despite the overwhelming sense of wanting to continue onwards, sometimes it is necessary to stand still, to take stock, and to follow the body.
And so I find myself now volunteering at a stable in the beautiful village of Papigo, surrounded by incredible mountain peaks – the home of the Titans according to mythology. Even if the oracle had nothing to do with it, I like to imagine that I have been shown the way. White Pegasus is my home for the winter, and there will be more to come from the horses…