We are on the road. To travel as far as we can into the lands of northern Greece. To see what we can see, find what we can find.
Leaving the port town of Igoumenitsa we face, 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 want to visit a place where we can speak with the dead.
Necromanteion, an ancient Greek temple, housed on a hill looking 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 wily priests, having taken their money, would lead the habitués down into the dark crypt here, starving them for days, 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.
Becoming famous through 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 have now been opened up for us to climb down in to. The pots where the believers left their dedications stand here, preserved.
After a time down there, waiting, we emerge out of the dark crypts, blinking in the light. Disappointingly with no obvious signal from the dead. We make 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 screamingly splashing in the water.
Hell is not down this river. Hell is here.
We head along the bank, up river to get away from painful organised holiday fun, and then past 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 opens up towards Hades.
The river is clear and frighteningly cold to stand in, the trees hang happily, kingfisher fly, the noise downriver from the crowds slowly ends as the sun dies, an apricot tinge, and the river becomes ours.
The local town of Glyki holds no real appeal, with its busy, brightly lit road and tavernas with plasticky pictures of food outside. Instead we take a road up into the hills where there seems to be nothing.
Even the nature seems unprepared for outside invasion; birds pecking in the rough road haven’t learnt to fly from our on-coming car, a cat wakes on a wall and looks left, right, left again, utterly outraged at its peace being disturbed.
There is one taverna in the small village of Choika. looking down again on the plain. Happily it is full of locals. Good meats, wines, farmers, a family, a priest, a smack of cards, a clatter of backgammon. A world away from the world below.
Early next day we head away from Acheron even higher into the mountains.
The road winds us with dramatic, vertiginous views up towards Souli.
My travelling companion on this northern Greek trek tells me of a dance she did, and every Greek girl does, at school. The Dance of the Souliotisses.
School girls dance in tribute to the women of Souli who were caught in the Greek-Turkish nineteenth century war.
The dance ends with all dancers 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 find all this moving and, as we approach the top of the climb and a vast expanse of field hemmed in by a ring of huge mountain rock walls, where battle took place between Greeks and Turks, there is an eerie silence.
Despite now a bloodless, gentle peace sitting pleasantly heavy over these spread green fields, I can 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 really feel what has happened under these skies.
Statues sit solemnly to the Greek resistance heroes Botsaris and Tzavelas.
I am, however, desperate for a piss and so cheered to find this completely deserted but brilliantly maintained memorial has lavatories.
I can’t help but feel though, as I squat, that the choice of Turkish toilet is a final insult in this particular place of tragic loss and ruination.
We descend one side of the Souli mountains and freewheel 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 devotion and 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, the cawing from the birds in the branches.
We pass ugly warehouses and bottled water factories now on the modern Dodona roundabouts, but then suddenly the theatre is there. Older than time, but still able to house audiences for performances in its sturdy but misshaped senescent stone arc. Performers are getting ready for a rehearsal that very afternoon.
Walking the parched grounds, stones creaking under foot, between the broken columns we see the oak trees still stand. The birds are still making noise, holding portentous branches in claws. Even on this still dry day, a strong wind inexplicably rises and the oaks sigh.
Though what they’re trying to tell us about our futures, its difficult to say.
We continue our north Greek journey – with the aim in mind to just keep going as far east as we can – rolling down towards the city of Ioannina, capital of Epirus.
Epirus being one of the diamerismas – the nine large divided areas of Greece – three of which will be trying to career through as we go.
Ioannina is famed for its silver work and we pass down the roads full of old silver shops, spilling out with produce, as we look for the family home of our koubara – the bridesmaid from our wedding – a Yanninite from these parts.
The city is a peculiar mix.
There are Byzantine churches, 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 are few balconies and there are even wide pavements for pedestrians, very rare. It strikes more as a central European city.
With our koubara, we take a short bus-boat ride over the mountain-reflecting lake in the centre of Ioannana to To Nisi – the island – with its small community and its many monasteries.
There is a small lopsided house where a bullet hole in the floorboards shows where Ali Pasha finally got his just rewards; old bakeries offering Ionnana’s nationally famous baklava sweet deserts; and we dine 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…”
Frogs make a different sound in Greece to how they do elsewhere. They don’t taste particularly better here than I imagine they would elsewhere either.
Later we sail back to the centre of town and I struggle with the Greek I hear – people from Epirus seemingly make different sounds 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 will cut the sounds in the MIDDLE of the word too. So it becomes tra’ehz’.
I am, of course, frequently lost at this, and I ask why exactly they do it. The answer I’m given is that it can get so cold in these parts that people don’t have time to hang around talking. So they cut words down to the minimum possible.
We sit drinking on Kalari street, with its stained brown old stone buildings, and watch the cheerful crowds pass and throng and think 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 strong-faced, strong-willed widow of somewhere well over 90 years of age.
She arrives at the family house next morning, bent double, black headscarved, worrying the cat with her stick, grumbling – griniazei – utterly discontented at having to be here in Ioannina.
She hates the city, living her whole life outside the small country town of Filipiada, 40 kilometers or so away. She has been ferried to the city today for a hospital appointment.
She has no interest in introductions, but places a horny hand on my shoulder and leans towards me to tell me something.
“Den echo dei te thalassa pote...”
I wonder if my – often faulty – Greek is amiss here…
She has never seen the sea?
I check this but yes, it’s true, living in central Greece, up here in the elevated highlands, she has never set eyes on the sea in the whole of her quite extraordinarily long life. She says she never wants to. And I imagine, now, she never will.
I try to chat to her further, but without warning she’s off, up the street, shaking her stick at the cats in the road making them flee under cars as she passes.
With thanks and kisses and helpings of home-cultivated feta and broken baskets of fresh picked oregano hoisted on us, we leave the clamorous, overflowing, home and head out of the city, up sinewy slopes beyond and then, as the trees around us turn a strange russet brown – we start to plunge down again. Down to meet the Vikos Gorge.
We initially miss the path into the Gorge and instead walk 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 is sat painting tacky icons on pieces of wood under a stall selling these tatty items.
We ask him for directions for the path down to the gorge. He places down his brush and slowly stands to look us both, closely in the eye.
“Are you sure you want to go?”
This is unexpected.
I tell him we are very keen.
“Are you determined?”
I tell him we are.
“Yes? How determined?”
His eyes fix me a stare I can’t break. I tell him we are really quite resolute in our desire to walk the gorge. Really.
He keeps his gaze on me for a while.
“The path is here,” he breaks and points down the track between the trees.
As we leave, he calls out to ask R. where she is from and it is with a great surprise to them both that we find he is from the same small town of Amaliada that she is from, down in the Peloponnese.
We set out on the path, shepherded by a hard sun straight above us.
A fast moving tortoise comes from the undergrowth and keeps pace with us a while. The scalding heat at the top of the gorge is slowly replaced, however, as we lower ourselves, cautiously, into the bath of thick green trees, bush and shrub in the valley below.
The Vikos Gorge, by some measurements, is the deepest in the world. I find 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 here I am, scudding down hundreds of feet on a steep, loose-floored, path to the dry, rocky river bed at the bottom.
Then, as we start on the 10 or so kilometres walk from Monodendri to the village of Vikos along the base of the gorge, we are 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 takes many different forms: sometimes clearly laid out, sometimes requiring sheer guess work. Fallen trees need to be vaulted; a rope is left to haul ourselves up a rock face.
All the time the bleached stones of the empty river bed act as a weaving guide.
I think how this gorge must rage with water when the snows fall and then melt.
The natural scene changes often: the staircase of hard bare rock levels 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 changes every few hundred meters. Fir trees give way to pear then to stunted thin reedy saplings which are then brushed aside by great tall spreaders.
And we are continually looked down upon by the jagged walls of stone skyscrapers – crowned king’s heads of towering rock above us.
We finally lift ourselves out of the gorge up to the few buildings of Vikos village, about 5 hours after having started, as the sun sets. And we stand outside an old cafeneo, try to flag down a lift.
The fat lady owner stands 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’m turned down by a succession of farmers and old pick-up trucks I try to thumb a lift from, I’m determined to prove her wrong. But, as one man spits from his tractor at my feet and asks me why I don’t just order a taxi, I give in and turn to the round old woman still sat with her couple of cloth-capped clients, sipping tsipouros, and tell her I’ll take the offer of her husband.
I’m then slightly put out to see her husband – the same man who spat from on high on his tractor – appear 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 reach the village of Mikro Papigo at a late hour, but the old stone rustic hotel we fall into is still open and serving.
We sit at a long wooden table in the open terrace and R. thinks she recognises one of the hikers, sat eating.
“Nikos?” she says.
I tell her she’s making a great mistake, I’d heard them speaking German to each other. But it’s me who’s got it wrong, it is Nikos, from her old town of Amaliada.
A boy she went to school with who left years ago to work in Switzerland who has now brought his Swiss friends to walk the Zagoria.
We have 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 seems incredible.
Reunions are made and as we sit and eat late, and listen 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 swear I was in the Alps. The thick stone buildings surrounding us in the village, as I look around, adding further and further to the delusion.
We ask if they know 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 thick nature – almost every year, knows him well. Everyone here talks about him. He is known for his drinking and carousing and his womanising. Bringing shame to the name of their old hometown.
So we drain our glasses and toast Zagoria.
We toast Eprirus… this great little hotel… the hotel owner, who bringings us more and more bottles to drink… the mountains we will tackle the next day hanging over us now in the dark… Switzerland… the rascally priest…until there is nothing left to toast and we fall heavily into our beds.
With the huge Papigo rock towers glowering at us, reproachfully, through our cracked wood and solid iron-crossed bedroom windows.
The morning comes early. We set off, after a climber’s breakfast, to tackle the mountain of Gamila, a short pathway walk from the village.
We pass 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 puffs at me as he staggers closer, with a frail smile, “It’s..it’s like Ithaki…” he says, channelling Odysseus and his epic, interminable protracted journey back home to his home island. A journey that never seemed to get any closer.
The climb up Gamila is hard – 2,500 meters: it’s the sixth highest peak in Greece – with camping gear and tent on our backs, and in truth it’s a fairly unenjoyable hike.
The scenery is a bit savorless, a bit plain. The sweat runs into our eyes and we are buzzed endlessly by huge black rapacious flies.
Then after hours slog, with only stops for water from the natural wells at different points up the scrub coated slope, we reach Drakolimni – the dragon lake.
This stuns us to a halt, rocking us back on our heels.
An ecliptic lake, floating here magnificently 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 is where dragons met and fought, viciously sculpting the landscape. The lake now contains hundreds of miniature dragon-like newts – black with bright orange stomachs and angry nefarious faces – that twist and look as if they wished they could burp flame and smoke when they are – cruelly – picked up by the tail and inspected.
Beyond the lake is a green-yellow grassy elevation that we climb and which suddenly, dramatically, falls away and an enormous prospect of the Pindos mountains opens up below and stretches away from us.
Our stomachs fall and recover, as if we’re looping in the sky.
The evening is stacking up in crowded streaks of purple above us. The previous bitter-looking, sharp, slate mountains around us take a kinder, rounder, look up here as we all stand closer, in the dying sun.
We set up tent and spend the night alone on Gamila. Except that even here, miles from civilisation, wild deer pecking at our tent as our only neighbours, we are still under the flight path from Athens to Europe.
And so we lie and watch the constellations move, hear the plop of the Lilliputian dragons falling from their stones into the lake. And count the 747s taking people somewhere, worlds away.
On the way back down to a distant Papigo next morning, we are accompanied and ushered by a series of shouts and yelps.
I use these shepherd’s urging barks and bawls to keep me going up and down the hard path, and enjoy his constant presence, but I can’t see him.
I realise though he must be one of the fabled, mythical nomad Vlach shepherds.
I have 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 hereon the peaks, returning back to the plains when the weather turns in the winters.
We carry on with our toil and lumber down the slope, the landscape toppling down alongside us. And then, there he is. Far away, stood on a high crag of limestone rock, black and thin, crow-like, surveying the scene.
I catch my breath at the sight of the almost unreal shepherd, living with seeming ease in this highland that we have laboured to reach, and then he is 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 they say. We sit in one peaceful mesochori – the Zagori village square – and tuck into one. It’s overly expensive and of fairly poor quality… and the misery of cheap tourism creeps 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 stand, necks craned, admiring it for a while before noticing two tatty figures chatting, eating together on a bench.
We approach to ask these two apparent Konitsa veterans if they know, perhaps, anything about the area.
One turns out to be the priest of the town and the other the mayor.
They tell us not to eat a pita now in Zagoria. The tourist industry has ruined them for good, they tell us. We know, we reply. Instead they advise – as we were advised in the old, rather impressively decayed Epirus Club in the old town of Corfu before we set off on our tour (good, cheap Epirus cuisine, walls covered in posters of old bridges, populated by effusive Epirotes – the few who have been forced over the 20 miles of sea from their homeland) – to go to Bourazani to eat.
And the priest insists, vociferously, we must see Molyvdoskepastos.
We drive towards Konitsa centre. It’s a sweet town. Sat, round, on the lower part of a tall, wide, mountain, like the spot on a ladybird’s wings. Looking as if, perhaps, it has slipped down the mountain side with the winter snow.
Inside the old market streets, life moves at an easy plod.
Everyone seems to have washed their carpets this very afternoon. Bright reds and zigzagged patterns hang, dripping from the balconies and railings, watched over by weathered faced old women and learning young grandkids.
We keep going, on to Molyvdoskepastos, and find 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 are few people here but every hundred meters or so there is 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 – is built exactly on the Albanian border.
Ah yes. We’re 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 stumble on an army barracks.
A solitary guard is on duty, protecting his country from Albania.
He is dozing, feet up on a chair, his cap on his lap. Slowly he catches sight of us walking past and he snaps to attention, grabbing his gun, then putting it the right way round, and stands 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 find the greatly advocated Bourazani, it’s with a disappointment.
An area of woods and lands for hunting. The owner of the large restaurant there proudly shows 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 covers the place. We quickly leave and head away into the country, north.
Floating birds of prey hover in the sky above us. The solid shadow of a powerfully winged bird envelopes the whole car and follows us, darkening the brightly light, deserted, road, for miles.
We pass graffitis: “North Epirus is Greece!” scrawled on tunnels and rocks.
References to the loss of 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 it needs to, back hundreds of years. Back even to antiquity.
Our neighbour in Corfu was an Albanian, from this area just beyond the Greek border, this 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 drive along the border I look out over to this land and feel sad to know that the Greek descendent Northern Epirotes feel they need to disguise themselves in Greece. And are also unwelcomed in Albania.
But, as we follow Greece’s long country perimeter line northeastwards – the sun beginning its slow climb down into its deep orange cast – I have set myself to expect more regretted disharmony along this line. Disputes and clashes in a country of otherwise endless beauty.