The Stone Coast

The Stone CoastFor centuries men cloistered here, monastic, remote, alone. Men who’d shed some of the world as a way of contemplating its essence, stricter in their spiritual devotion to it. At the edge of this high mountain lake, they lived lives pared down to clear symmetry, in the way a piece of bone is carved slowly into shape, made recognisable by what is no longer there. Made meaningful by the things that are let go.

Pale as the winter moon at its tip, this crescent coast mottles to mineral brown as it bends south. A curve of limestone bluffs, trellised with creepers and fugitive trees, an anchor for the ancient junipers that grow gnarled and woven on its surface. A few weeks ago, when I last stood on the peninsula, the lake was bathed in pewter light, misted and mysterious. Ahead of me, like a moat-ringed citadel, rose the island of Golem Grad, dark and magnetic in the distance. Thousands of great crested grebes floated on the worn glitter of the waves, drawn to this singular place, the deepest part of Great Prespa Lake, to feed on the endemic bleak that dwell there in winter. Each year the fish gather in deep uvalas, the karstic underwater depressions that lay off the tip of Cape Roti, enticing the grebes with their vast, shoaling presence. A siren song from beneath the waves.

Looking south

It’s long been a dwelling place, this stone coast. The stilted cliffs are fissured with caves that house colonies of chambered bats and otters course the shore, denning in dark, coastal hollows. But the relics of human residency can be found here as well, seen in the collapsing monks’ cells and fading frescoes of saints on the cliff faces, the peninsular chapels enclosed by stone. The Hermitage of the Metamorphosis was raised in the 13th century, built into the cliffs at a time when the lake’s water level was almost certainly higher. Encircled by high mountains, and more isolated than the lowland plains when Ottoman rule swept across the Balkans, this peninsula, including two further hermitages built along its shore in the 15th century, became a centre for spiritual solitude, a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

Rock flowers

Hermitage, at distance

They dwelled in stone, these men. While some hermits homed inside caves, others carved beds from the cliffs, little more than hard, ungiving lips suspended above the lake. In the summer crush of light, all the heat of the season is gathered by the suntrap of the cliffs, reflected until it wearies with its sharp intensity, its arid indifference. The sun is no consolation at its height here; it is as relentless as winter. The white stones could be coals underfoot, and sunlight fires the cliffs to a brilliant, blinding glare. The heat is dry and withering, and I wonder if that is what the monks sought here: to live with the light of their desert fathers.

Winter light

The monks’ lives were composed of prayer and contemplation, a persistent devotion to scriptural study, and the constant toil for provisions. They must have sown seeds on the surface of the cliffs, nurturing sparse crops in the thin soil between stones and trees, and journeyed across the water to collect stores from lakeside villages. But mostly they must have fished to survive on this seam of rock. As they rowed away from the hermitages, they would have passed pygmy cormorants standing like dark crosses on the stones, their still, outstretched wings drying in sunlight and wind. They’ll have heard the whirr of wings when pelicans kept close to the coast, as if charting its bends and bays, marking a map held in ancestral memory. A memory that once told of monks.

Hermitage, close up

Across the lake

In winter, the vaulted sky over the peninsula can be a bruise that doesn’t heal, the clouds edged for days in violet and dark blue. The monks would have shivered into a thicker, rougher set of robes with the coming of the cold, facing the wail of snow until the skin around their eyes was raw from it, scraped into red weals as if with the edge of a blade. They would have rowed from the hermitage to the waters off the cape, to the same deep places where thousands of grebes still gather for the same reason, in search of silver glinting fish long after the monks have gone. With fingers gone numb from hauling their iced nets into boats, and no longer able to endure the cold needling ever deeper inside them, the men landed their catch on the coast, dragging their skiffs through deepening snow, tying them down with rope. Some say smugglers bring cigarettes ashore in this place now, and the rings of black, fire-singed stones that I sometimes find could be evidence of those landings. But it’s the older tenants of these cliffs that I think of when I’m there. Somewhere on that peninsula, where it tilts into the blue bowl of the lake or beneath the ancient, woven junipers foresting the flats, some of these monks must be buried. A nest of bones in a dark clot of earth; given to the place that became their world.

Juniper

Hermitage of the Metamorphosis

At night, during winter storms, I sometimes imagine the murmur of their voices from long ago. It’s quiet at first – a shallow rise and fall that could be the sound of water on a summer shore. But gradually it deepens, gathering strength as more monks leave their stone beds to climb the stairs to the chapel. Saints flicker in candlelight, smoke blackening the arched ceiling while snow billows across the peninsula, flailing over the lake and deepening in drifts against the fishing boats. Wind shreds the walls to whistle inside the chapel, guttering the flames. But the voices of the monks, secluded for years on this stone coast, never lessen; together their words are woven, air becoming sound and soaring, angling towards eventual light.

Through the window, the world

22 thoughts on “The Stone Coast

  1. Exquisite as always, Julian — I lingered over many images, especially “a nest of bones in a dark clot of earth,” and the resurrection you achieved in the last paragraph. (Speaking of which, I too have seen cormorants as crucifixes – love the mutual recognition, am humbled by the perfect way it fits your topic and setting.) Once again you’ve seamlessly integrated history and imagination to vividly bring the past to life, and I am, as always, in awe. Thank you for sharing this hidden hermitage with us.

    1. Thanks ever so much, Jenny! The cormorants along the coast do add a nice symmetry to the history of the place, drying their wings like crucifixes after diving for fish. I’m so pleased your enjoyed this visit to the stone coast, and looking forward to being shown some of the stories of your part of the world soon!

    1. Thank you very much, fifepsy, as always! Having been reading Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines this past week, I’ve been feeling a connection to those traces still in existence in Scotland – the long tenancy in stone, particularly on islands like Rona. It’s left me wanting to explore the country even more. Thanks for the good wishes for the tour; which suddenly seems alarmingly close!

  2. You always find those touchstones of imagery that bring such a foreign and mysterious place into my understanding as if I had been there, adding rich layers to my own experience. Here the peace of remembered solitudes anchored by undulating water and coastline is chastened by skin “scraped into red weals as if with the edge of a blade” to balance and humanize it.

    1. Thank you, as always, Cindy, for your generous words. I’m continually amazed when I walk the peninsula to see that lives were fashioned there, so I wanted to try and imagine what those lives might have been like, however approximate it might be. So I’m delighted that this place, and those lives, resonated with you. Thank you.

  3. Lovely post. Love the lines: “At the edge of this high mountain lake, they lived lives pared down to clear symmetry, in the way a piece of bone is carved slowly into shape, made recognisable by what is no longer there. Made meaningful by the things that are let go.”

  4. Beautiful; thanks Julian. This piece has a calm maturity, an unhurried charm. I sense, dare I suggest, a shift in your writing style, a renewed sense of ‘writing from the heart’, Maybe the book has stimulated you in many ways?

    I hope all is well in the middle of the Greek winter

    best wishes

    Ian

    1. Many thanks, Ian. So pleased you enjoyed this post from the monks’ coast, one of my favourite places in the whole basin. It doesn’t feel to me that there’s been a shift in style, but one of the wonderful mysteries of writing is how little you are sometimes aware of yourself in your own work; if anything – and this is partially why your recent post resonated deeply with me – the words have been a real struggle to find or feel for some months now. After the upcoming book tour, however, I’m looking forward to having time again for letting them surface.

      We’re still waiting for winter to appear here; it’s been worryingly dry, much the opposite of your season. Hope you’re keeping well amidst it all.

      Best wishes,

      Julian

  5. What would it be like to be surrounded only by the birds that descend to the ocean’s surface and the fish that rise to it? More and more I think it would be quite magnificent, to be reminded of the grace, beauty and ferocity that the human race you sought to escape can never destroy.

    ‘Saints flicker in candlelight’ – almost unbearably evocative.

  6. Marvellously evocative as always, Julian – your writing brought into even closer focus by the beautiful images. I am currently devouring The Small Heart of Things and loving it – no doubt a later re-reading will reveal more wonders.
    Warm best wishes, Laurence

    1. Thank you ever so much, Laurence. It’s a real pleasure to find your message today and to hear that you’ve been enjoying the book. I’m honoured by your kind words. I have a feeling that this place would speak to you on a number of levels, so do let me know if you ever think of making a visit!

      With gratitude and warm wishes,

      Julian

  7. Thank you, Julian. The territory that you write about sounds alluring on so many levels and I would dearly love to visit sometime. I have travelled to the Macedonian Lake Ohrid area before, and southern Albanian too, but never that intriguing border zone on the Greek side of the frontier.

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