We were on the road, 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 straight into this range. We were looking to visit a place where we could speak with the dead.
Necromanteion. An ancient Greek temple, housed on a hill looking down to the banks of the Acheron River, dedicated to oracles of death, who believers would make pilgrimage towards, to come and speak to those who had passed to the other side.
In those ancient times the wily priests, having taken the money, would lead the visitors down into the dark crypts here, starving them for days, then feeding them hallucinogenic plants, 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 lands. The bereaved would flock here to search out their loved ones.
The sanctuaries and the black oppressive underground crypt, perhaps over 3,000 years old had now been opened up for us to climb down in to. The pots where the believers left their dedications stood here preserved.
After a long time down in the open tomb, waiting, we emerged out of the dark crypts, blinking in the light. Disappointed, with no real obvious signal from the dead, we left. Making our way down to the plain we saw 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 screechingly splashing in the water.
Hell is not down this river. Hell is here.
We headed along the bank, up river to get away from the painful organised holiday fun. Then passed the weekend hippies camping, playing guitars. And after a 20 minutes or so walk we set up a tent ourselves, just above the gushing springs and the cave that open down towards 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 pictures outside of the food you could eat inside. Instead we took a road up into the hills where initially there seemed to be nothing.
Even the nature here 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 plain. Happily it was full of locals. Good meats, wines, farmers, a family, a priest, a smack of cards, a clatter of backgammon. A whole other world away from the world of holiday fun below.
Early next day we headed away from Acheron even higher into the mountains.
The road wound us with dramatic, vertiginous 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 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, dangerously 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 now a bloodless, gentle peace sitting pleasantly heavy over these spread green fields, I could still hear in my mind the hills reverberating with ancient gun shot.
More than so many other places of supposed battles – maybe due to the lack of other people here and the all prevailing quiet – you truly feel what has happened under these skies.
Statues sit there, solemnly, 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 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 were played. Dodoni rivalled Ancient Olympia in its concours and entertainments.
Before this, temples to Zeus were built. And before even this, Dodona was central 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 here now on the modern Dodona roundabouts. 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. 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 still standing. The birds were still making their noises, holding portentous branches in their claws. 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, one of the diamerismas – the nine large divided areas of Greece – three of which we would be trying to career through as we went on this northern journey of the country.
Ioannina is famed for its silver work and we passed down roads full of old silver shops, spilling out with produce, as we look for the family home of our koubara – one of the bridesmaid from our wedding – a Yanninite from these parts.
The city seemed a peculiar mix.
Ioannina 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 and there were even wide pavements for pedestrians – very rare. It struck me more as a central European city.
With our koubara, we took a 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 its many monasteries.
There was 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. We dined at a taverna selling the town’s signature dish of frog’s legs straight out of the luridly luminous green reedy waters that surrounds us.
“Vrekekeks quarks quarks…”
In Greece, frogs make a different sound from how they do elsewhere. They don’t taste particularly better here than I guessed they would elsewhere either.
Later we sailed back to the centre of town. And I struggled with the Greek I heard around me – 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, frequently lost in all this. I asked why exactly they do it. The answer I was given is 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 possible.
We sat drinking on Kalari street, with its stained brown old stone buildings, and watched the cheerful crowds pass and throng 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”) doesn’t seem at all appropriate in this easy, unpretentious, genial city.
Our koubara’s grandmother, Labrini, is 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 hates 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 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 checked…but yes, 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 wants to. And I imagine now, she never will.
I tried to chat to her 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. Going, who knew where.
With thanks and kisses and helpings of home-cultivated feta and broken baskets of fresh picked oregano hoisted on us, we 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 desolated for any religious use – empty rooms with 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 to look us both, closely, in the eye.
“Are you sure you want to go?”
This was unexpected.
I told him 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 told him we are really quite resolute in our desire to walk the gorge.
He kept his gaze on me for a long while.
“Really,” I repeated. “We really 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 a while. The scalding heat at the top of the gorge was slowly replaced, however, 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 very surprising as I thought I would have heard this 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-floored, 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 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.
All the time the bleached stones of the empty river bed acted as a weaving guide.
I thought how this gorge must rage with water when the snows fall and then melt.
The natural scene changed often: the staircase of hard bare rock levelled out to a flat grassy glade, then 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. Fir trees gave way to pear then to stunted thin reedy saplings which were then brushed aside by great tall spreaders.
And we were continually looked down upon by the jagged walls of stone skyscrapers – crowned king’s heads of towering rock above us.
We finally lifted ourselves out of the gorge 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 stood in the doorway of her bar, sagaciously 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 fat woman wrong. But then, as one man spat from his tractor at my feet and asked me why I don’t just order a taxi, I gave in and turn to the round the 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 then slightly put out to see her husband – the same man who’d spat from on high on his tractor – appeared round the corner now in his dented saloon – an outstretched palm ready for the money – to take us round the Zagori hills.
Up endless hairpin turns climbing the soaring 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 rustic hotel we fell into was still open and serving.
We sat at a long wooden table in the open terrace and Giristroula thought she recognised one of the hikers, sat eating.
“Nikos?” she said.
I told her she’s making a mistake, I’d heard them speaking German to each other. But it was me who’d got it wrong, it was Nikos. From her old town of Amaliada.
A boy she went to school with who had left years ago to work in Switzerland who had now brought his Swiss friends to walk the Zagoria.
“Ha! Mono vouno meh vouno den smigei!” said Giristroula – only mountains can’t meet each other! An old Greek saying on the common chance in this country that you will always run into someone again, somewhere, sometime.
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 to me.
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 now. The thick stone buildings surrounding us in the village, as I looked around, adding further and further to the delusion.
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, thick 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 toast Zagoria.
We toasted Eprirus… this great little hotel… the hotel owner, who brought us more and more bottles to drink… the mountains we will 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 glowered 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 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 staggers closer, with a frail smile, “It’s..it’s like Ithaki…” he said, channelling Odysseus and his epic, interminable protracted journey back to his home island. The journey that never seemed to get any closer.
The climb up Gamila was hard – 2,500 meters: it’s 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 savorless, 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 there, over 2000 meters up in the sky, set down in an amphitheatre 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 and looked as if they wished they could burp flame and smoke when they were – cruelly – picked up by the tail and inspected.
Beyond the lake was a green-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. The previous bitter-looking, sharp, slate mountains around us took a kinder, rounder, look as we all stood closer 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 747s taking people somewhere else, worlds away.
On the way back down to a distant Papigo next morning, we were accompanied and ushered by a series of shouts and yelps.
I used these shepherd’s urging barks and bawls to keep me going up and down the hard path, and enjoyed his constant presence, but I couldn’t see him.
I realised though he must be one of the fabled, mythical nomad Vlach shepherds.
I had read how this community of herdsmen, from absolute antiquity with their utterly unique customs and language and ways, climb these mountains to graze their flocks during the good summer months, living alone here on the peaks, returning back to the plains when the weather turned in the winters.
We carried on with our toil and lumber back down the slope, the landscape toppling down alongside us. And then, there he was… Far away, stood on a high crag of limestone rock, black and thin, crow-like, surveying the scene.
I caught my breath at the sight of the almost unreal shepherd, living with seeming ease in this highland that we had laboured to reach. And then he was gone again. Only his cries, following us down the decline back into the Zagoria villages.
There are 46 villages, lurking in the 1000 square kilometres of the Zagori.
Dusty, 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 effusive Epirotes – the few who had been forced over the 20 miles of sea to Corfu from their homeland), we were advised then to go to Bourazani to eat too.
The priest insisted, vociferously, we must also go and see Molyvdoskepastos.
We drove towards Konitsa centre. It’s 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 plod.
Everyone seemed to have washed their carpets 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 grand kids.
We kept going, onwards to Molyvdoskepastos, and found a village of almost absolutely no people, advertising its fairs, its tsipouro distillery, its Greek ‘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 here but every hundred meters or so there was a monastery.
Again and again, a fresh large canonical monastery. 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 the border down 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 he 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.
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 animal of the great signature dish they sit and dream on 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 powerfully winged bird envelopes 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.
It’s a references to the loss of a part of Greece on the creation of the state Albania.
Greeks 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 land and border and people that many Greek people have.
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, sweeping her step, I asked where she came from. She was ashamed to say she was Albanian, telling me she was a Northern Epirot. I smiled and nodded, not knowing quite what that was back then.
As we drove along the border now I looked out over to this land and felt sad to know that the Greek descendant Northern Epirotes felt they need to disguise themselves in Greece. And how they were also not welcomed in Albania.
But, as we followed Greece’s long country perimeter – with the sun beginning its slow climb down into its deep orange cast – I had set myself to expect more regrettable disharmony along this line.
Disputes and clashes in a country of otherwise endless beauty.