I hope you will forgive me but as I have been writing a new novel (working title “A Primer on Magic”) I ran across an earlier article I had written some time ago and wanted to share with you all. The experience of which I wrote was more like a dream or vision at the time and it still feels that way. I hope you enjoy it.
The ancient Greek, Roman, Venetian, and Ottoman world is steeped in myth, mysticism, and magic and that was never made more clear to me than when I found myself climbing with four other intrepid souls the mountain battlements of Kotor a coastal town in the small Dalmation Coast country of Montenegro (part of the old Yugoslavia) along the Adriatic. This area was first mentioned during the Roman era around 168 BCE. It is an area in the Aegean/Adriatic where many ancient Greek legends were born and where I was researching the ruins of several Asclepeions where people from all over the ancient world would come for healing. They were clinics where people would incubate a dream and the onsite priests would decipher and prescribe cures.
As we trekked through “black Mountain” hillsides we climbed over 1300 stone steps that lead us to a fortress lookout high above the city making the crème colored stucco buildings with red tile roofs look like a miniature diorama nestled in a narrow valley sloping from the high mountains to the sea. When Kotor was part of the maritime Venetian empire and prone to attacks from pirates and Arabs of the Ottoman Empire this medieval fortress was built to protect the region.
Exhausted at the end of the climb on an unseasonably hot day I was not looking forward to our descent back to the town, but Rok our Slovenian guide who was climbing with us lead us down to another path that would take us off the mountain through a little known back door.
A few hundred feet down the way we had come he left the steps, veering onto a path that traversed a defensive wall perpendicular to the one we had been traveling beside. Built into the wall was a narrow stone portal barely high enough to allow a person to duck down into a crouch in order to pass through. On the other side of this tunnel was a verdant valley hidden from the town below. It was then that I noticed that the temperature had dropped considerably. “That’s curious!” I thought. But the sun was on the western side of mountain now so I didn’t think any more about it.
Unknown to me at that moment was that we had passed through a portal in time.
We climbed down the rocky side of a cliff and landed upon a narrow path that lead us down into the valley toward a stone ruin of a church. The rocky cliff gave way to a forest of olive, pomegranate, and fig trees.
As we made our way deeper into the trees I caught movement to my right and turned to see long horned mountain goats grazing the hillside from whence we had come. A female herder sat among the rocks and under the shade of an old and twisted olive tree. There she sat paying us no attention and rolling some tobacco she’d pulled from a pouch into a small sheet of paper. Behind her one of the goats tried to pull a low hanging fig from a tree growing from a crag in the cliff above.
We approached the ruins of the ancient church, that from close up had somehow morphed into a building more intact and still useable and looking for all the world as though it had been built yesterday, I noticed other stone buildings with their roofs collapsed or missing, connected by high walls that may have formed courtyards and pens for animals at a much earlier time– a Hereford cow munched on the grassy area between the ruins.
Something nudged my rear and I turned to see what was happening and saw a black goat nibbling at a stash of wild flowers I’d stuffed into a pocket for later inspection. “So much for that” I thought and pulled the last of them and offered the bundle to the cheeky little fellow who then devoured them gleefully.
The day was getting late and we still had some distance to go so we left this bucolic scene from another time and place and headed down the gently slopping switchbacks that would lead us toward the outskirts of the town. The road was covered with stone what with the Venetians having used this passage to shuttle both cattle and cannon to and from the fortress but offered us many an opportunity to trip and stumble down the hillside. The way demanded careful negotiation and caused slow going.
Eventually the trail led to a seasonal river, a wash really, and we crossed a stone bridge into the outskirts of the town. At the crossing I noticed immediately that we had passed through yet another portal in time for there before us was a modern mall where we stopped for a few smoothies in a refreshing air-conditioned space. From the window the world we had come through could no longer be seen.
The contrast between these two worlds helped me to be more aware of the realm the earlier peoples of the region were immersed in and how the terrain, weather, and culture conspired to infuse magic into everyday life. This was a phenomenon that was much harder to see in my world.