We were looking for a place where you can speak to the dead.
Having left 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 and headed for Necromanteion – an ancient Greek temple on a hill looking down onto the banks of the Acheron River. A temple dedicated to the oracles of death. 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 their money, starved them for days and given them hallucinogenic plants, would then 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 with the bereaved flocking here in huge numbers to search out dead loved ones. The sanctuaries and the black oppressive underground crypt, 3,000 years old, had been opened up for Giristroula and me now to climb down into. The pots where visitors left their dedications still stood preserved. We clambered down and waited in the open tomb, but when we emerged back up again out of the dark crypts, blinking in the light, it was with a disappointing lack of any obvious signs from the dead. So, instead, we made our way down onto the plains we had seen from up high, and to the Acheron River itself – the river of legend which took souls from this world to Hades’ 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 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 all this miserable organised holiday fun, passing the weekend hippies camping, playing guitars. After a 20 minutes walk set up a tent ourselves, just above the gushing springs and the cave that opens up down into Hades. The river was clear and frighteningly cold to stand in. The noise downriver slowly ended as the sun died and the river became just ours. Ours and the passing empty souls heading off to the other side.
Early next day we headed away from Acheron higher into the mountains. The road wound us round with toppling 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 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…”
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 still hear in my mind the hills reverberating with ancient gun shot here. Statues sat, solemnly, dedicated to the Greek resistance heroes Botsaris and Tzavelas. I desperately needed a piss though and so, squirming and wriggling, was happy to find this completely deserted memorial actually had lavatories. I couldn’t help but feel, though, that the choice of a Turkish toilet was a bit of a final insult in this place of 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. Before this, temples to Zeus were built, and back even further still Dodona was a central location for devotion and mysterious 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 stone arc. Performers in robes and togas were milling about getting ready for a rehearsal that very afternoon in fact. Walking the parched grounds between the broken columns, stones creaking under foot, Giristroula and I 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 Epirus’ jewel. We passed down roads full of old silver shops, spilling out with produce from the old wooden fronts. We were looking out for the family home of our koubara – one of the two bridesmaids from our wedding – a Ioanninite from these parts.
The city seemed a peculiar mix. 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 afternoon sleeps, men soaking up the sun in their white underwear and smoking so deeply it looks like they are trying to suck the smoke down into their feet; woman slinging dripping wet rugs over the railings to pour down onto the street below. There were even wide pavements in Ioannina for pedestrians – very rare in Greece. It struck me as more of a central European city.
We met our koubara and took a short bus-boat ride over the mountain-reflecting lake in the centre of Ioannina to To Nisi – the island – with its small community of little homes and monasteries. There’s a small lopsided house where a bullet hole in the floorboards shows where the Turkish tyrant Ali Pasha finally met justice. We ate at a taverna where they served us Ioannina’s signature dish of frog’s legs straight out of the luridly luminous green waters that surrounded us. “Vrekekeks quarks quarks…” In Greece frogs, apparently, make quite a different sound from how they do elsewhere. They’re not especially tastier to eat here than I imagined they’d be elsewhere either. We sailed back to the centre of town. I was struggling with the Greek I was hearing around me in Ioannina – the people seem to make different sounds here 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 by all this. I asked why they do it and was told that it can get so cold in the winter in these parts that people just don’t have time to hang around talking. So they cut words down to the minimum length possible.
The three of us sat drinking on Kalari street, with its stained old stone buildings. Anastasia our koubara complained about life in Ioannina, and pulled a face as she discussed the city, determined to remain unimpressed by anything her home had to offer. However, like all the Greeks I’d sat and listened to who enjoyed their pastime of condemning their town or doing their country down, as soon as I nodded any agreement she snapped at me and couldn’t believe I wouldn’t want to live here my whole life. I did like Ioannina though, and as I watched the cheerful crowds throng the streets 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 little 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 these 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 more 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. So with thanks and kisses and baskets of food hoisted on us, we said goodbye to the 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 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 we were very keen.
“Are you determined?”
I told him we were.
He fixed me a stare I couldn’t break. I told him we really wanted to walk the gorge. His gaze stayed on me for a long while. “Really,” I repeated. “We do…”
“The path is there,” he broke off, and pointed down the track between the trees, picking up his paint brush and icon again.
As we left, he called out to ask Giristroula where she was from. It was with a great surprise to them both that they found out they were both from the same small town of Amaliada, down in the Peloponnese.
We set out on the path, shepherded along by a hard sun straight above. A fast moving tortoise came out 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 it seems doesn’t like to boast and these are the facts and 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 kilometres or so 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 was 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, which must rage with water when the snows here fall and then melt.
The scene changed often: a bare rock 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 thin reedy saplings which were then brushed aside by great 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 five hours after we started. The sun was setting. We stood outside an old kafeneo for an age 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. Her cloth-capped clients raising an eyebrow at each over their tsipouro and game of backgammon
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 looked over and 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 on the same day from her small insignificant seaside Peloponnese town, 400 kilometers away to the south, here in this remote, impermeable, mountain-locked region. 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 all adding 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 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 his carousing and his womanising, bringing shame to the name of their old hometown. We drained our glasses and toasted Zagoria. We toasted Epirus… 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. A man passed 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 forth highest peak in Greece – with camping gear and tent on our backs – and in truth it was a fairly unenjoyable hike. The scenery was 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 we stared across the land, as if we were looping in the sky. The evening was stacking up in streaks of purple above us and the previously bitter-looking, sharp, slate mountains around us took a gentler, rounded look as we all 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 shepherd’s urging barks and bawls to keep me going up and down the hard path. I enjoyed his constant presence, even though I couldn’t see him. I realised that he must be one of the fabled nomadic Vlach shepherds. I had read how this community of herdsmen, stretching back to 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 own our toil and lumber back down the slope, the landscape toppling down alongside us. And then I suddenly caught sight him. 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 one of these mythical men, living with seeming ease in this highland that we had laboured to reach. And then, just as quickly, 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 squares – and tucked into one. It was overly expensive and pretty tasteless. The misery of cheap tourism crept even into this idyll. Zagoria is also known for its arched bridges. Stone again, years old. Konitsa has the most picturesque and – since an earthquake in Tzoumerka recently felled the stone bridge there – the tallest in Greece. Giristroula and I 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, 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, impressively decayed Epirus Club in the old town of Corfu – good cheap Epirus food, 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. The priest sat here by the Konitsa bridge also insisted, vociferously, we must go and see the village of Molyvdoskepastos on the way.
Konitsa looked a sweet town. Sat small and round on the lower part of a tall wide mountain, looking as if 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 coloured and zigzagged patterned rugs hung dripping over balconies, watched over by weathered-faced old women and learning young grandchildren.
We kept going, onwards to Molyvdoskepastos, and found an empty village of no people, a shut tsipouro distillery, old signs advertising its fairs, its empty ‘sweets of the spoon’ shops and a large guidepost 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. Quite unbelievable now. There was no one on the streets round here but every hundred meters or so there was a monastery. Again and again, as we trundled along, a 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 line along the river – just after the Greek mountain ranges, and just before the Albanian. Walking round a corner now, we stumbled on an army barracks. A solitary guard on duty, protecting his whole country from the menace of Albania beyond. 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 at his gun. Then putting it the right way round. He stood up rigidly looking out towards Albania and any great threat and, every so often, looking sheepishly at us from the corner of his eye to check 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 proudly showed off the heads on the wall of huge wild boar – the main ingredient of the 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 a powerfully-winged bird enveloped the whole car and followed us for miles, darkening the brightly lit deserted road all around us.
We passed graffiti: “North Epirus is Greece!” scrawled on tunnels and rocks. A reference 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. North Epirus is 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 the area just beyond the Greek border: 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, 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 needed to disguise themselves in Greece, and how many of them were not welcomed in Albania either.
We tracked along Greece’s long northern perimeter, the sun beginning its evening climb down into a deep orange cast. This journey we were taking had only just started really, but already an unfamiliar land was freely, unashamedly revealing itself.