We were on the road. Aiming to travel as far as we could into the lands of northern Greece. Leaving the port town of Igoumenitsa we faced, straight away, the vast foothills of the Pindus range. Mountains lying like the sides of gigantic sleeping dogs, curled up, heads resting on enormous paws. We cut into this range – we were looking for where we could speak with the dead.
Necromanteion. An ancient Greek temple, housed on a hill looking down onto the banks of the Acheron River, dedicated to the oracles of death. Gullible travellers in ancient times would make pilgrimage here to speak to those who had passed over to the other side. Wily priests would lead these believers down into the dark crypts and then, having taken the their money, starved them for days, feeding them hallucinogenic plants, would bringing them back up into the daylight where, staggered and dazed, the followers would see the dead before them, larger than in life. The temple became famous throughout the Hellenic lands. The bereaved flocking here in huge numbers to search out loved ones. The sanctuaries and the black oppressive underground crypt, over 3,000 years old had been opened up for us now to climb down in to. The pots where visitors left their dedications still stood preserved. We waited a long time down in the open tomb, but when Giristroula and emerged back again up out of the dark crypts, blinking in the light, there was a disappointing lack of obvious signals from the dead. So we made our way down to the plains we had seen from on high, and to the Acheron River itself – the river of legend that took souls from this world to Hades and the underworld of the next.
You no longer need the sordid ferryman Charon – foul with grease and eyes of furnaces of fire – to transport you across the river here to the underworld. There are now zipwires and hoardings and boards advertising pony trekking and red and yellow helmeted kayakers and families screeching and splashing about in the water. Hell is not down this river. Hell is here.
We headed along the bank, up river to get away from this miserable organised holiday fun. We passed the weekend hippies camping, playing guitars, and after a 20 minutes or so walk set up a tent ourselves, just above the gushing springs and cave that opens down into Hades. The river was clear and frighteningly cold to stand in. The noise downriver from the crowds slowly ended as the sun died and the river became ours. But we needed food. The local town of Glyki held no appeal, with its busy, brightly lit road and tavernas with plasticky low-resolution pictures outside of the food they offered. So instead we took a road up into the hills where initially there seemed to be nothing. Even the nature seemed completely unprepared for outside invasion; birds pecking in the rough road seemingly hadn’t learnt to fly from on-coming cars. A cat woke on a wall and looks left, right, left again, utterly outraged at its peace being disturbed. There was one taverna in the small village of Choika. High in the air, looking down again on the plains. Full of locals. Good meats, wines, farmers, a family, a priest, a smack of cards, a clatter of backgammon. A world away from the painful holiday fun below.
Early next day we headed away from Acheron even higher into the mountains. The road wound us round with high views up towards Souli. Giristroula told me of a dance she did, and every Greek girl does, back when she was at school. The Dance of the Souliotisses. School girls learn this dance in tribute to the women of Souli, the women who were caught in the Greek-Turkish nineteenth century war. The dance ends with all the girls flinging themselves, and their doll babies, off the edge of the school stage – copying the heroic mass suicide of the women, who plunged to their deaths off these very mountain tops to avoid the terrors of capture and slavery at the hands of the barbarous Ali Pasha. They fall with the song: “The women of Souli have learnt how to survive, and they also know how to die…”
I found all this rather moving and, as we approached the top of the climb and a vast expanse of field hemmed in by a ring of huge mountainous rock walls, where battle took place between Greeks and Turks, there was an eerie silence. Despite the now gentle peace sitting over these spread green fields, I could hear in my mind the hills reverberating with ancient gun shot. Statues sit here, solemnly, dedicated to the Greek resistance heroes Botsaris and Tzavelas. I was, however, desperate for a piss and so cheered to find this completely deserted but well-maintained memorial had lavatories. I couldn’t help but feel though, as I squatted, that the choice of Turkish toilet was a bit of a final insult in this place of tragic loss and ruination.
We descended one side of the Souli mountains, freewheeled down into the town of Dodona. Three centuries before Christ, a theatre was built here. Festivals were held, sports played. Dodoni rivalled Ancient Olympia in its concours and entertainments. And before this, temples to Zeus were built. And back even further still, Dodona was a central location for its devotion and its rites with its sacred tree. Pilgrims would come to the oak tree and priests would deduce the prophetic messages for them from the rustling leaves and the cawing from the birds in the branches.
We passed the ugly warehouses and bottled water factories now on the modern Dodona roundabouts. And then suddenly, the theatre was there. Old as time but still able to house audiences for performances in its sturdy but misshaped senescent stone arc. In fact, performers were getting ready for a rehearsal that very afternoon.
Walking the parched grounds, stones creaking under foot, between the broken columns we saw the oak trees were still standing here. The birds were still making their noises, holding portentous branches in their claws – and, even on this still dry day, a strong wind inexplicably rose and the oaks sighed. Though what exactly they were trying to tell us about our future it was a little difficult to say.
We continued eastwards, rolling down towards the city of Ioannina, capital of Epirus.
Epirus is one of the diamerismas – the nine large divided areas of Greece – three of which we would be careering through as we took our northern journey across the country. Ioannina is its jewel. Famed for its silver work, we passed down roads full of old silver shops, spilling out with produce from the old wooden shop fronts. We were on the look-out for the family home of our koubara – one of the bridesmaid from our wedding – a Ioanninite from these parts.
The city seemed a peculiar mix. It has Byzantine churches and eastern minarets in the castle; then alpine-looking buildings in the central streets: stone-built with dark wood beams and hanging roofs for the snow. Unlike the rest of Greece there seemed few balconies – usually vital places for Greeks to pad around after their afternoon sleeps, soaking up the sun in their white underpants, cigarette and Greek coffee in hand. There are even wide pavements in Ioannina for pedestrians – very rare. It struck me more as a central European city.
We met our koubara and took the short bus-boat ride over the mountain-reflecting lake in the centre of Ioannana to To Nisi – the island – with its small community of little homes and tavernas and monasteries. There’s a small lopsided house where a bullet hole in the floorboards shows where Ali Pasha finally got his just deserts. There were old bakeries offering Ionnana’s famous baklava sweet desserts and we ate at a taverna selling the town’s signature dish of frog’s legs straight out of the luridly luminous green reedy waters that surrounded us.
“Vrekekeks quarks quarks…”
In Greece frogs, apparently, make a different sound from how they do elsewhere. They’re not especially tastier here than they would be elsewhere either. We sailed back to the centre of town. I was struggling with the Greek I was hearing around me in this town – people from Epirus seemingly making a different sound here to how they do in the rest of Greece too… Epirots seem to cut the syllables from the end of every word. The word, say, for table – trapehzee – becomes trapehz’. And then other speakers cut the sounds in the MIDDLE of the word too. So it becomes tra’ehz’. I was, of course, totally lost by all this. I asked why exactly they do it. The answer I’m given was that it can get so cold in the winter in these parts that people don’t have time to hang around talking. So they cut words down to the minimum length possible.
We sat drinking on Kalari street, with its stained old stone buildings, and watched a cheerful crowds throng the streets and I thought how the common Greek saying “San tin Arta kai ta Ioannina” – Dressing like Arta and Ioannina – a saying perhaps best summed up in English as “mutton dressed up as lamb” – didn’t seem at all fair in this easy, unpretentious, genial city.
Our koubara’s grandmother, Labrini, was a strong-faced, strong-willed widow of somewhere well over 90 years of age. She arrived at the family house the next morning, bent double, black headscarved, worrying the cat with her stick, grumbling – griniazei – at everything and everybody. Utterly discontented at having to be here in Ioannina. She hated the city, living her whole life outside in the small country town of Filipiada, 40 kilometers or so away. She had been ferried to the city today for a hospital appointment. She had absolutely no interest in introductions, but placed a horny hand on my shoulder and lent towards me to tell me something.
“Den echo dei te thalassa pote...”
I wondered if my often faulty Greek was amiss here… She had never seen the sea? I double checked and it was true, living in central Greece, up here in the elevated highlands, she had never set eyes on the sea in the whole of her quite extraordinarily long life. She told me she never wanted to. I imagined now, she never would. I tried to chat a little further, but without warning she was off, up the street, shaking her stick at the cats in the road making them flee under cars as she passed.
With thanks and kisses and helpings of home-cultivated feta and broken baskets of fresh picked oregano hoisted on us, we said goodbye to our koubara’s family and left the clamorous overflowing home and headed out of the city. We drove up sinewy slopes beyond the city’s edges and then, as the trees around us turned a strange russet brown – we started to plunge down again. Down to meet the Vikos Gorge.
We initially missed the path into the Gorge and instead walked straight into a small uneven stone church – the 15th century Saint Paraskevi monastery, clinging desperately to the rocks, with the gorge flowing an alarming thousand feet underneath. Seemingly abandoned for any religious use – empty rooms, faded frescoes. A priest was sat painting tacky icons on pieces of wood under a stall, looking to sell these tatty items. We asked him for directions for the path down to the gorge. He placed down his brush and slowly stood up to look us both, closely, in the eye.
“Are you sure you want to go?”
This was unexpected. I told him, yes, we were very keen.
“Are you determined?”
I told him we were.
“Yes? How determined?”
His eyes fixed me a stare I couldn’t break. I said we were really very determined to walk the gorge. He kept his gaze on me for a long while.
“Really,” I repeated. “We are…”
“The path is there,” he broke and pointed down the track between the trees.
As we left, he called out to ask Giristroula where she was from, and it was with a great surprise to them both that we found he was from the same small town of Amaliada that she’s from, down in the Peloponnese.
We set out on the path, shepherded by a hard sun straight above us. A fast moving tortoise came from the undergrowth and kept pace with us for a while. The scalding heat at the top of the gorge was slowly replaced as we lowered ourselves, cautiously, into the bath tub of thick green trees, bush and shrub in the valley below.
The Vikos Gorge, by some measurements, is the deepest in the world. I found this surprising as I thought I would have heard this said somewhere before, but Greece doesn’t boast and these are the facts and so there I was, scudding down hundreds of feet on a steep loose path to the dry, rocky river bed at the bottom. Then, as we started on the 10 or so kilometres walk from Monodendri to the village of Vikos, along the base of the gorge, we were annoyingly thrown upwards again. And then down again, to the chaos of boulders at the bottom. And then up again, and then down again… The gorge’s path took many different forms: sometimes clearly laid out, sometimes requiring sheer guess work. Fallen trees needing to be vaulted; a rope left out to haul ourselves up a rock face. The bleached stones of the empty river bed acting as a weaving guide. I looked at the deep score of the gorge and thought how it must rage with water when the snows here fall and then melt.
The scene changed often: the hard bare staircase levelled out to a flat grassy glade then turned to a sandy path. Sudden dead tree trunks; a climb down on flying stones; then a thick wood. The shade of green changed every few hundred meters too. Fir trees gave way to pear trees then to stunted thin reedy saplings which were then brushed aside by tall spreaders. And all the time we were continually looked down upon by the great jagged skyscrapers of towering rock above.
We finally lifted ourselves out of the gorge and up to the few scattered buildings of Vikos village about 5 hours after we started. The sun was setting. We stood outside an old cafeneo and tried to flag down a lift. The fat lady owner of the cafe stood in the doorway of her bar, smiling at our efforts.
“Do you want my husband to drive you? Only 30 euros to the next Zagori village. A taxi will be double. You won’t find anyone to take you, you know…”
Even though I was turned down by a succession of farmers and old pick-up trucks from which I tried to thumb a lift, I was determined to prove the woman wrong. But then, as one man spat from his tractor at my feet and sneered, asking why I don’t just order a taxi, I gave in and turn to the round old woman still sat with her couple of cloth-capped clients, sipping tsipouros, and told her that, ok, I’d take the offer of her husband… I was slightly put out to then see her husband – the same man who’d spat from on high up on his tractor – as he appeared round the corner now in his dented saloon, an outstretched palm ready for the money to take us up and around the Zagori hills.
Endless hairpin turns climbing Mount Tymfi. Ears popping, tired slacked-necked heads banging on the window, we finally reached the village of Mikro Papigo at a late hour. But the old stone hotel we fell into was still open and serving. We sat down at the first long wooden table in the open terrace. Giristroula thought she recognised one of the other hikers sat eating in the courtyard.
“Nikos?” she said.
I told her she was making a mistake, I’d heard them speaking German to each other. But it was Nikos. A boy from her old town of Amaliada that she had gone to school with and who had left years ago to work in Switzerland. He had now brought his Swiss friends to walk the Zagoria.
“Ha! Mono vouno meh vouno den smigei!” laughed Giristroula – only mountains can’t meet each other! An old Greek saying on the very common chance in this country that you will run into someone again, somewhere, sometime down the line… We had met two people from her small insignificant seaside Peloponnese town, 400 kilometers away, here in this remote, impermeable, mountain-locked region on the same day. It seemed incredible.
Reunions were made and as we sat and ate late, and listened to the friends’ stories of walks and climbs in Germanic countries. With the lit orange lantern lights making the courtyard dance in the darkness, I could have sworn I was in the Alps right now. The thick stone buildings surrounding us in the village adding further to the illusion. We asked if they knew of the priest from Amaliada in the monastery down on the other side of the gorge. Nikos, who comes back to Zagoria – this Greek area of hundreds of square miles of untouched nature – almost every year, said he knew him well. Everyone here talked about him. He was known for his drinking and carousing and his womanising. Bringing shame to the name of their old hometown.
So we drained our glasses and toasted Zagoria. We toasted Eprirus… this great little hotel… the hotel owner, who kept bringing us more and more bottles to drink… the mountains we would tackle the next day that hung over us now in the dark… Switzerland… the rascally priest…until there was nothing left to toast and we fell heavily into our beds. The huge Papigo rock towers glowering at us, reproachfully, through our cracked wood and solid iron-crossed bedroom windows.
The morning came early. We set off, after a climber’s breakfast, to tackle the mountain of Gamila, a short pathway walk from the village. We passed a man with his family already coming back down from the mountain. When had they started? How long had they been on the route?
“The end of the path,” he puffed at me as he staggered closer, with a frail smile, “It’s..it’s like Ithaki…” he said, channelling Odysseus and his epic, interminable journey back to his home island. The journey that never seemed to get any closer.
“I don’t know where I end and where the sweat begins,” his wife said as she passed. Her face like an old red cabbage.
The climb up Gamila was hard – 2,500 meters: the sixth highest peak in Greece – with camping gear and tent on our backs. And in truth it was a fairly unenjoyable hike. The scenery was a bit savourless, a bit plain. The sweat ran into our eyes and we were buzzed endlessly by huge black rapacious flies. But then after slogging for hours, with only stops for water from the natural wells at different points up the scrub-coated slope, we reached Drakolimni – the dragon lake. This stunned us to a halt. Rocking us back on our heels.
An ecliptic lake, floating over 2000 meters up in the sky, set down in an amphitheater of great grey rockface. All the effort was worth it for this alone. Legend has it this was where dragons met and fought, viciously sculpting the landscape. The lake now contained hundreds of miniature dragon-like newts – black with bright orange stomachs and angry nefarious faces – that twisted angrily and looked as if they wished they could burp flame and smoke at us as we, cruelly, picked them up by the tail and inspected them. Beyond the lake was a yellow grassy elevation that we climbed and which suddenly, dramatically, fell away and an enormous prospect of the Pindos mountains opened up below and stretched away from us. Our stomachs fell and recovered, as if we were looping in the sky. The evening was stacking up in crowded streaks of purple above us and the previously bitter-looking, sharp, slate mountains around us took a gentler, rounded look as we stood closer together in the dying sun.
We set up tent and spent the night alone on Gamila. Except that even here, miles from civilisation, wild deer pecking at our tent as our only neighbours, we were still under the flight path from Athens to Europe. And so we lay and watched the constellations move, heard the plop of the Lilliputian dragons falling from their stones into the lake. And counted the distant 747s taking people somewhere else, worlds away.
On the way back down to a distant Papigo village next morning, we were accompanied and ushered along by a series of shouts and yelps. I used these shepherds urging barks and bawls to keep me going up and down the hard path, and enjoyed his constant presence, even though I couldn’t see him. I realised though he must be one of the fabled nomadic Vlach shepherds. I had read how this community of herdsmen, stretching back to absolute antiquity with their unique customs and language and ways, climb these mountains to graze their flocks during the good summer months, living alone here on the peaks and only returning back to the plains when the weather turns in the winters.
We carried on with our toil and lumber back down the slope, the landscape toppling down alongside us. And then I caught sight him. There was the shepherd… far away, stood on a high crag of limestone rock, black and thin, crow-like, surveying the scene. I caught my breath a little at the sight of this mythical man, living with seeming ease in this highland that we had laboured to reach. And then, just as suddenly, he was gone again. Only his cries, following us back down the decline into the Zagoria villages.
There are 46 villages, lurking in the 1000 square kilometres of the Zagori. Quiet, thinly-peopled villages. Heavy solid stone buildings with loose slate roofs, cobbled streets, ancient schools and churches. Famous for its pitas – its pastry pies – tyropitas, spanakopitas: cheese, spinach. The best in Greece so it’s said. We sat in one peaceful mesochori – the Zagori village square – and tucked into one. It was overly expensive and pretty tasteless. And the misery of cheap tourism crept even into this idyll. Zagoria is also renowned for its arched bridges. Stone again, years old. The village of Konitsa has the most picturesque and – since an earthquake in Tzoumerka recently felled the stone bridge there – the tallest in Greece. We stood, necks craned, admiring it for a while before noticing two rather dirty tatty figures chatting, eating together on a bench. We approached to ask these two apparent Konitsa veterans if they perhaps knew anything about the area. One turned out to be the priest of the town, and the other the mayor.
They told us not to eat a pita now in Zagoria. The tourist industry has ruined them for good, they said. We know, we replied. Instead they advised us to go to Bourazani to eat. I remembered now sitting in the old, rather impressively decayed Epirus Club in the old town of Corfu – good, cheap Epirus cuisine, walls covered in posters of old bridges and wooded mountains, populated by the few Epirotes who had been forced over the 20 miles of sea to Corfu from their homeland. We had been advised there to go to Bourazani to eat too. So we headed that way. The priest also insisted, quite vociferously, we must go and see Molyvdoskepastos on the way.
We drove through Konitsa centre. It was a sweet town. Sat small and round on the lower part of a tall wide mountain. Like the spot on a ladybird’s wings. The town looked as if, perhaps, it had slipped down the mountain side with the winter snow. Inside the old market streets life moved at an easy-going plod. Everyone seemed to have washed their carpets on this very afternoon. Bright reds and zigzagged patterned rugs hung, dripping from the balconies and railings, watched over by weathered-faced old women and learning young grandchildren.
We kept going, onwards to Molyvdoskepastos, and found a village of almost no people, advertising its fairs, its shut tsipouro distillery, its empty ‘sweets of the spoon’ shops and a large sign declaring its great significance once upon a time as a stopping point on the old Imperial Road – the road linking Constantinople to Ancient Rome, through Macedonia and Epirus. There were few people on the street here but every hundred meters or so there was a monastery. Again and again, a fresh large canonical monastery reared up. One – the Apostles church: a busy working monastery, with the most incredible, brought-back-from-the-dead, restored 10th century frescoes – has been built exactly on the Albanian border. Ah yes. We were on the border. Back up in Molyvdoskepastos we could see high over the checkpoint and down onto the border on the river – just after the Greek mountain ranges, and just before the Albanian.
Walking round a neglected corner in the village, we stumbled on an army barracks. A solitary guard was on duty, protecting his country from Albania. He was dozing, feet up on a chair, his cap on his lap. Slowly he caught sight of us walking past and snapped to attention, grabbing his gun. Then putting it the right way round. He stood up rigidly looking out towards Albania and any great threat beyond. And, every so often, looking sheepishly at us from the corner of his eye, checking to see if we were still watching him.
When we found the greatly advocated Bourazani, it was with a disappointment. An area of woods and lands for hunting. The owner of the large restaurant there proudly showed off the heads on the wall of huge wild boar – the main ingredient of the great signature dish they all sit and dream on back in the Epirus Club – and a smell of death covered the place. We left as quickly as we could and headed away into the country, further on, north-eastwards. Floating birds of prey hovered in the sky above us. The solid shadow of some powerfully-winged bird enveloped the whole car and followed us for miles, darkening the brightly lit deserted road.
We passed graffitis: “North Epirus is Greece!” scrawled on tunnels and rocks. A references to the loss of a part of Greece upon the creation of the state Albania. Greeks seem to have strong, long, memories. Memories that stretch back further than they do. Further back than their parents. Their parents’ parents. Memories that can stretch, if needs be, back hundreds of years. Back even to antiquity. North Epirus is just one of many contested issues of lands and borders and peoples and history.
A neighbour we had back in Corfu was a Greek-Albanian, from this area just beyond the Greek border. From the Albanian area of North Epirus. As I met her one stingingly bright day, outside sweeping her step, I asked where she came from. She seemed ashamed to say she was Albanian, telling me she was a Northern Epirot. I smiled and nodded dumby, not knowing quite what that was back then. Now, as we drove along the border, I looked out over this land and felt sad knowing that some Greek-descendant Northern Epirotes felt they need to disguise themselves in Greece, and also how many of them were not wholly welcomed in Albania either.
We tracked along Greece’s long northern perimeter, with the sun beginning its climb down into its deep orange cast. We had only really just started this journey, there was much more to see, but whole new aspects of the country were already opening up wide.