Rather to my surprise Mark said no. He then softened it to, ‘not yet’. I lowered my eyebrows, accepting his greater wisdom (he had been here before) and followed him. We walked further along the narrow, paved street until we arrived at a large side door into the Cathedral. ‘Now can we go in?’ With a silent smile, he nodded. As I turned through the double archway I stopped dead. I, a soul who is never short of words, was utterly dumbstruck. I couldn’t believe the sight before me. ‘Now do you see why we had to wait?’ he asked. I could only nod in mute agreement.
The scene before us was of the cloisters. Being only used to the plain conservatism of English cathedrals, I was in awe and wonderment of the array of plants, trees, running water and fountains and above all, geese, yes real live, honking geese, that were living within the cloisters. This living, moving, everyday scene was so far removed from my experience and expectations, that all I could do was wander around, mouth open wide.
Eventually the photographer in me reasserted itself. I decided my best option was to walk all the way round, taking it all in, then choosing the best positions and coming back for those later. So we walked. And I gawped. And he followed and enjoyed my amazement.
We came to the door into the Cathedral itself, and followed the inevitable path inside. This time I wasn’t surprised. It was a Catholic shrine within an old building adorned with copious Baroque edifices attesting the locals’ history and faith. The choir stalls were even older and more elaborate – a greater testament to antiquity and Catholicism, but excessive for my more minimalist needs. Nevertheless, we walked and observed and discussed and, like good tourists, took our photos.
Suddenly I was beginning to feel a little peculiar – I don’t know what other word to use.
I had a heavy, prickly sensation up the back of my head behind both ears. We moved back out to the cloisters. Suddenly the sensation was even more pronounced. I had intended to return to the entrance gates to take an elaborate photographic montage. But by the time I got there, I was feeling decidedly unwell; I just knew I had to get out of the whole building and if I didn’t move quickly I would be physically sick. I stood in the doorway my brain only half connecting to what I wanted to do. I couldn’t get it under control at all. I felt really ill.
On auto-pilot I took three simple shots, and raced back to Mark saying, ‘I’ve just got to get out of here’.
I dived for nearest exit and slightly bemused but nonetheless supportive, he followed with some concern. By now I was overwhelmed with sensations I couldn’t describe. I knew it was spooky but not in the sense of ghosts or haunted houses. It didn’t seem like a presence, a spiritual presence, and the words resonance and energy didn’t seem quite right either. I’d run out of descriptors.
Being a caring and logical soul, Mark steered me away from the Cathedral and we sat in a nearby square. But I just could not throw off this all-pervasive creepiness. Eventually we moved on to other parts of the old town, but I still was dominated by this sensation. It took the best part of another two hours or more before I can honestly say I was grounded and fully rational again.
All that happened on Friday. On the following Wednesday I suddenly realised that I had a whole afternoon to fill in before my flight home.
I instinctively knew where I had to go.
Back to the Cathedral; on my own. This time I was alert to the likely consequences, and I could sense the creepiness up behind my ears even as I approached the building. I walked around the cloisters again but with a sprightlier step. I entered the building with some greater sense of control. I was drawn to a small side chapel and sat in the back pew. Suddenly I was in floods of uncontrollable tears. Why? I wish I knew. At least I could do this quietly and privately. I tried to think what on earth this was all about, but being rational was difficult. Eventually I calmed down enough to dry my eyes and move back into the real world. But I was very subdued for the rest of the day. I figured that all I could do was to try and work it out later.
I am now writing this ten days after my first encounter. I can still feel the creepiness just by recalling the situation. I haven’t come to any logical or rational conclusions about the experience. Perhaps I was here in a past life and had some odd experiences? Was it heaven? Perhaps that’s what the cloisters represented. I don’t think it was hell. It might just be another dimension altogether.
I am now editing this 20 years after that experience and I can still feel the prickliness behind my ears. However, in recent times I have explored my past lives. I now know that I experienced a humiliating chastisement in that cathedral in the 18th century. I was a monk who was punished for falling in love with a colleague. We were both dunked in the well in the cloisters until we nearly drowned. The abbot overseeing this was… Mark.
NB: This story was first published in Travellers’ Tales from Heaven and Hell, a 1998 anthology resulting from a UK travel-writing competition in which the best 100 entries were compiled into this book. There were over 3000 entries received.