We were aiming for the Grammos mountain.
Driving through the north western part of Greece, the region of Western Macedonia.
Like a low rumble, turning into a rolling boil, the ground rose up dramatically all around us. We stopped and ask a man at a precariously tilted petrol station the way to Aetomilitsa.
Aetomilitsa, some way ahead up the mountains before us, was once the headquarters of the leftist rebels during the Greek civil war. The operation area for those camped, displaced, guerrilla fighters.
Holding the nozzle in his hand, petrol dripping to the floor, the man turned to us, his face struck in trepidation. “Min pate!” – Don’t go! He implored us. “Aetomilitsa? No, you must not go!”
“Why not?” I asked, now a little unnerved.
“The roads,” he said, shaking a sad head.
“I went there once,” he told us – of this journey of less than an hour or so from here – his voice falling to a rasping whisper as he lent a contorted face into the car window… “I would never go again…”
The man was right though. The roads were poor. Up here in the most northern remote reaches of Greece, no one bothers to come and build or maintain any of the infrastructure.
Even the small roadside shrines that you see all over Greece have fallen into disrepair.
These small raised-up basilicas – miniature domes with glass frontages that show candles and tiny wooden religious icons, that are placed at the sites of supposed miracles, or, more tragically, by families where a road accident has happened and a family member has been lost – are usually painstakingly maintained. A fresh candle lit every day.
But the usually fixedly-devoted bereaved had even given up looking after the dotted sanatoriums on this forsaken road.
We drove over falling down bridges, picked with wide collapsing holes, as we climbed further up one side of Grammos mountain. The views down on the ascent we’d climbed up rippled away as far we could see.
We believed we had an end to aim for: a hostel, a lodge we’d booked into. But we couldn’t find it.
Eventually we abandoned the car and started walking over fields, blissfully ignorant of the mines that were left during the Greek civil war 70 years ago, designed for ratted-out skulking insurrectionary rebels, that nowadays blow unsuspecting goats sky-high in the air.
We continued to plough on through these danger fields, searching, heading towards a farm house we’d spotted glowing in the busily dying sun.
As we crashed on to the veranda, demanding to see the owner with complaints of awful directions, we noticed something was wrong.
The light in the open room was dim. Furniture was missing or pushed against – blocking out – dirty windows. A ring of bodies were sat on a crumbly unswept floor, eating from an old saucepan. The heads that turned to us were mohicaned, the styles were all tattered, military uniform-looking.
The seeming leader of the gang rose up to meet us, to see what we want.
“Er…I don’t suppose this is the Grammos Lodge is it?” I said.
Of course it wasn’t. We had instead landed on an anarchist co-operative group squatting in this old, holed-out building.
They showed great concern at our plight, pouring over their old torn battered map of the area, some arguing and pointing, others at the back kicking stones with big boots, offering us smokes.
“You can stay here if you like,” said one of the anarchists, pointing to the shared quarters and grim camp beds. They offered us the food they had. It was kind of them but, with thanks, we said no. We were determined to reach our proposed accommodation.
We had come up the wrong side of this towering 8,000 foot mountain and there was nothing to do but go down and try again.
Night had fallen fast as we climbed closer to the real location of the lodge.
We managed to get the owner on the phone and were told to take a tiny dirt track.
“Just to tell you,” the owner said “You will probably see a bear. It is possible. Likely, in fact. The thing to do is not to panic.”
Panicking the whole way, we saw no bears in the end – only fleeing long legged hares, a head-down purposeful badger scurrying from our headlights.
Distant thunder and the mountain-top was illuminated by odd flares of lightening as we finally arrived in the village of Grammos.
Next morning the sun-lit uplands we had seen in the late afternoon the day before were wreathed in clouds, bursting to let go with their downpours within.
We sat at the breakfast table with a miserable couple in their waterproofs. They had tried an early hike to the cave on Grammos which had served as the civil war rebels’ hospital – something I had also wanted to see.
But, they told us, a family of bears had set up their own camp in front of the entrance to the cave. They’d tried to get closer but the mother had raised up on her hind legs. The growling sound of a father told them he must have been close-by too. It was safe to say the cave was out of bounds.
Instead we took a walk up to the see the remaining walls of the anti-aircraft bases built by the communist rebels at the top of the peaks.
The climb looked tough but along the start we were accompanied by an 80 year old named Eudokia. She told us she was a descendent of the Vlach shepherds. Dressed in one long, complete, black, hard-material dress – old fashioned by perhaps a hundreds of years – with just a belt tied round her waist.
Her Vlach family had died out and she alone now looked after a herd of 200 cows.
She was happy to chat for a while as we walked along briskly, but she clearly got bored by the pace we could offer and soon vaulted a fence and was off, haring up the steep camber. Uncatchable.
The rain set in and Grammos looked as bleak as its history.
We made our way back down the side of the wet mountain cascade to the Lodge, and sat eating bread and homemade honey with the owner’s parent and heard about the village.
There were only 25 people living there now. At one stage there was 3,000.
The village of Grammos had befallen two monstrous tragedies in its history. The first was when Ali Pasha – that man again: the butcher from the Ottoman empire who had previously haunted us through the state of Epirus – on one of his raids through the north of Greece had fallen in love with a Grammos village girl. When she spurned his advances, Ali Pasha burned the village to the ground in revenge.
Then a century and a half later, in 1949, with the communist fighters forced up into these hills but still resisting the Greek government forces – the government turned to its backer, the United States, who had just developed a new weapon they wanted testing and which they believed could quickly finish the Greek civil war.
And so it was that the Greek government dropped napalm on this village, and on its own people, and sure enough, one August day, the communists last stand was ended. As was the village we sit in now. Only the church left standing.
I stared out the window at a sky as angry as can be. The clouds sat solid on the unhappy scene.
This landscape has been a sad backdrop to many conflicts caught deep within it. The Second World War was played out in these highlands and gullies.
Tasos, the old man of the hotel, brought out an old, thick tin drinking flask. With a shaky hand he showed it to me.
“Koita…” he said – look – and pointed at a bullet hole that had pierced both sides of this flask.
Tasos pushed the flask to his breast where it would have hung when the soldier wore it. He turned the old vessel over and showed me where its owner had scratched his name. ‘Georgio Fabritsi’.
Tasos was a boy when the Italians came into this village, his father and the other men had tried to fight them back. Tasos found the flask buried while digging the land 60 years later. He said he now spends his time trying to find the Fabritsi family back in Italy to let them have back a piece, something, a memorial, of their relative.
He scurried off again, and when he came back this time, he produced a photo. “Koita…” he commanded me again. It was a new colour photo. It appeared to be of a snake. A snake poking its head out of a hole.
“Ah. My father wants to know if this is true…” his son said to me, taking the photo.
“You are going to the Prespes lakes, yes? You will see a church there. In the small town of St Germanos. There is a famous legend about this church,” he said, tapping his finger on the photo.
“On the 15th of August, Panagia’s day, the Madonna’s day, snakes come out of a hole in the floor. They come to protect the church, to protect the Holy mother. When my father went to this church on that day he SAW the snake. It was there! He took this photo of it… but he can’t bring himself to believe it. Can it really be true? Can you find out? Can you tell us?”
The weather cleared slightly and so we decided we should try and make a move away from these rain-cocooned mountains.
Tasos stood in the doorway to say goodbye to us with his arm round his wife.
When a baby is born in these rural Greek areas it is the job of one of the boys to race around each village to tell everyone in the squares and bakeries and cafes the news. When his wife was born, it was the 8 year old Tasos’ job to spread the word of her birth.
He did it by telling everyone in each new village “Einai koritsi! Einai koritsi!” – a baby girl has been born. “And one day I will marry her!”
The baby girl’s family moved away, but 18 years later she returned to this village. And of course, Tasos fell deeply in love. One father asked the other father, as was the tradition then. And so, sure enough, the 8 year old Tasos’ prophesy came about.
The hugging old couple waved us away as our car picked up speed, freewheeling down the mountain dirt track.
We had an appointment to keep with a musical professor acquaintance of Giristroula’s in the village of Kryovrisi.
The large dark house – full of books, lamps, rugs and musical instruments – was one of just a very few in this village. The village looking down on a great sweep of low plain, checked fields.
And pylons and chimneys clumsily trying to hide behind hills.
This area of Eordaia is the centre of Greece’s real power… Four gigantic electricity stations provide three quarters of all of Greece’s electricity, pumping and burning all day and night.
While Giristroula worked on a book inside the house, I sat with the professor’s husband on the porch.
He had lived many years in the area, working his way up from apprentice to one of the directors of one of the power plants. He told me about Kryovrisi.
“You see this school..?” Vasilis pointed with his glass towards a sweet-looking old school building sat in a small copse of trees, “There was no school there once upon a time. One man built that school. Built it with his own hands. Taught the few kids here on his own. Then one day he left. He left to join the fighting in the civil war. Later his sons joined him too.”
My storyteller shifted his seat round and pointed his glass close behind my head.
“That was his house, over there.”
I turned to look at a broken down old building.
“His wife looked after it when they were gone. Just her and her young daughters. She would tell people in the village ‘I wish my boys would come back. Just for one day. I wish they would leave the fighting just for one day and come back to see their mother.’”
Vasilis went quiet, looked at his drink.
“One day there was a knock on her door. Two men from the rebel army. ‘Your sons, they are here…” they tell her. ‘My sons? Here?’ she’s overjoyed, looking over their shoulders, desperate to see her boys.
‘They’re over there,’ they say ‘waiting in the woods for you…’
“There were thick woods here once upon a time,” Vasilis’ glass does a sweep with his glass out in front of his house. “Thick woods all here… So she tells her daughters to set the table ‘Your brothers will be back home soon!’ and rushes to join the soldiers already walking into the trees.”
Vasilis took a drink, “The daughters were waiting by that table the whole day.
Later the priest is walking back to our village through the woods. He sees the wife. Calls out to her. Wonders why she doesn’t reply…
Hanged. Hanged out there in the trees. Just for wanting to see her sons.” Vasilis’ glass goes down cheerlessly on the table.
“This country has much shame in its history. Much beauty, much glory, but so much shame.”
We spent the evenings in the nearby city of Ptolemaida. A beautifully ugly place.
The large main square – white pavestones, marble sculptures – was heaving every night. Adolescents, parading. In their best, cheap, clothes. Made-up, walking up and down, catching eyes. Dark skinned, dark hair and eyes. Exotic looking, attractive kids. The sons and daughters of the electricity workers. A vivid working class community.
Everyone seemed happy to help us: us, two lost, unpolished strangers. People wanted to talk, wanted to share. I instantly warmed to the place. Even the middle-aged ladies working in the bakaliko – the mini markets – were remarkably dressed-up and flirty.
We stopped for pitas. The customary Greek take-out. However, up here in this part of Western Macedonia they have their own idiosyncrasies. Rather than the usual pita bread they use the unleavened lagana bread, bread that everyone else in Greece only eats on the first day of Lent. And quite uniquely they serve giros kebab with beef.
I was sad that we had to end our stop-over around Ptolemaida – an area sniffily looked down on by all the people I had told we would be having a halt here. The wisecracks about how living under the shadow of the power plants they’ll all die young, and we should take care not to stay too long, just in case, didn’t seem funny at all to me as we left this kind, congenial city.
But we had to keep moving. Northern Greece is not small.
Navigating round mountains meant we had overshot slightly on our route, so we back-tracked a little west and then headed north towards the huge lake on the Greek border. But before we reached Greece’s gigantic Prespes Lake we hit the smaller – but still vast – lake at Kastoria.
We approached the town round its tray-flat water. A rising and falling yelp of houses – all coloured only in white and orange – sat up before the mountains beyond.
And as we entered the town, something strange slowly revealed itself.
Every other shop seemed to be a large windowed store selling fur. Often with signs written in both Greek and Russian, and always with an incongruous picture – in this town, under the lavishly bright hot sun – of women models clutching fur hoods pulled tight round pouting faces.
Kastoria got rich years ago on the fur trade and now looked unlike any Greek town I’d been to. Prosperous, clean, tidy. A little please with itself. A little unwelcoming.
The old town, higher up, was full of handsome medieval-style, Italian-esque villas built by the first to have made their money on the fur trade in the 18th Century. Attractive as they were, I didn’t feel any great enjoyment looking at this beauty, in these small squares. There seemed something soulless here.
It’s only from high up though that you realise that the great expanse of water you look over in Kastoria is only half of Lake Orestiada. Kastoria is just a jetty, a spur, sticking out into Orestiada. There are tens more kilometres of lake, thousands more litres of ridged freshwater, hundreds of crouping flamingos, all on the other side.
As big as Orestiada is though, we were soon on the move northwards to a lake ten times larger. Prespes.
On arriving, we pulled into the small village of Microlimni and stopped at a quiet taverna on the Prespes lake front. It was satisfyingly tranquil. A few people having a quiet late lunch. A dog asleep, breathing deepily, under a heavy sun.
Quite unexpectedly though, we noticed things suddenly get busier. People started arriving. More people than can fit in the taverna.
Rather peculiar looking people. People who look like they hadn’t been out of their houses in ten years. Village men uncomfortable in old suits. Farming women awkward in smart clothes. A large headed man, sweating heavily in his old, thick, best clothes, his bushy eyebrows ringing like two wet rugs.
Then, at the next table a young military brass band sat down next to us dressed in full fatigues, fussing and banging big gold instruments. They were in turn shooed away by four medalled generals in large hats, carrying sticks, who sat down importantly in their seats instead.
What can be happening? A crowd had gathered around a covered statue in the small village square outside. A row of rigidly stood soldiers had appeared and started singing – remarkably out of tune – the Greek national anthem. A black collection of priests gathered and anointed the crowd with swung, smoking thimyataris.
I walked over to see what’s going on just at a moment of stirring in the crowd. Darkly dressed ladies who had been soundlessly crying into handkerchiefs lowered them for a moment and stood aside with some reverence to let somebody through.
And there I was. Face to face with Prokopis Pavlopoulos – the President of Greece.
No one seemed to know what to do. His bodyguards, me, or indeed Pakis– the large nosed, slightly grotesque-looking President.
Eventually he stuck out a hand. I shook it.
“Bravo,” I said. Though I’m not sure why. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
He paused, a little puzzled. “Er…naste kala,” – thank you.
He then made his way to the statue and said some words to the crowd, and some tv camera that had arrived. He unveiled a man’s face carved in solid rock, as the sombre ladies gasped at handkerchiefs again.
And then he was making his way to his presidential car. Turning to look at me, a brief wave of confusion crossing his face again before ducking inside, and he was gone.
The police guard followed him with a roar down the quiet road, as did a second tuneless rendition of the national anthem. And he left this tiny village quiet again, sat unattached and trivial on its huge lake.
The residents filed past me, some giving me looks, and eventually I found from one of them that a local, rural policeman here had been shot and was killed on the lake when he had uncovered, by unlucky chance, a smuggling gang out on the waters. Pavlopoulos had been here to honour the local man with a statue.
I watched the villagers take off their old suit jackets and slowly start to breathe again. Plates and bottles of ouzo appearing from under the tables. A back gammon board is opened and cards dealt. Prespes village life re-ordered itself back into its sluggish shape.
Having raced against the darkness stacking up over the water to get our tent pitched under trees on the lake front, we set off to explore the island of Agios Ahillios,
We drove along the strip dividing the smaller Mikri Prespa lake from Megali Prespa and walked across a floating pontoon bridge onto the island, enveloped in a black night.
We cautiously circumnavigated the marshy area of reeds, the looming churches and the few old, large residential houses. Groping our way in front of us in the dark.
Then, pushing through a thicket of trees, we’ were suddenly confronted by the sight of a few hundred people, lit-up, sat facing us on a large grass sloped hill clearing.
A stage was illuminated in front of the bashed-about 10th Century Bascilica of Agios Ahillios.
Not knowing what’s going on, we took a seat with the crowd on the grass and waited.
Out from the wings cameSavopolous, the white bearded legendary entehno singer. The Bob Dylan of Greece, so people say. He was then followed by Eleni Vitali, another influential singer of Greek new-wave folk songs. For the next two hours they played a set of Greek classics, and their own political songs, long into the night.
I saw President Pavlopoulos sat in the prime seat in the front row.
By chance we had stumbled across a performance by two of Greece’s musical royalty here on a lonely island in Prespes – an area that only 30 years ago or so was completely deserted. The closeness to Albania and the history of the civil war meaning anyone wanting to visit the area had to be accompanied by a soldier at all times.
It seemed incredible.
Pavlopoulos left before even halfway though.
We woke next morning on the strip of beach separating the two parts of the lake, a great grove of tall golden reeds around us, fortressing the water under a thickly bright sun.
I opened the tent to this scene. And faced a morning pelican looking in at us through the door, framed in our tent flap. Behind him a long row of cow arses were lined up, left to right – the owners drinking deep from the lake. I’m told these dwarf cows are peculiar to only this one area of Greece.
The pelican took wing, away from us, over the lake towards the country of Macedonia straight ahead over the horizon. Mosquitos sailed past us with a whine as we sat on the shoreline and stared at the scene and drank camp stove Greek coffee.
We headed towards the village of Agios Germanos. Stopping to buy beans and lentils – famous here in Prespes – in a shop standing completely on its own by the side of the road, like the last tooth in an old man’s mouth, surrounded only by miles of sun-baked fields.
The owner pulled out a bottle of tsipouro for us, shared the aubergines he’d been frying in the old crumbly back room, chatted to us, sat for an age and seemed to forget completely we were there to to buy anything.
There were old, heavy, buff-coloured stone houses dotted in scanty collections in the small villages as we approached Agios Germano. A water mill. The odd sun-dappled taverna.
We arrived at the 11th Century church that our old friend back in Grammos had asked us to check for snakes.
I was more attracted at first by the newer, 18th Century, church next door. Eccentrically decorated with winged faces lining the wall; preposterous blue, sharp toothed, sea creatures decorating the pews and pulpits; a sign informing that women in bare clothes were not allowed in – and certainly no women (in larger letters, underlined) “in men’s clothing.”
The Byzantine church next door was a tight fit inside. The walls completely covered in frescos. Colourful 11th Century graffiti. I swivelled my head round and round to take it all in.
And then on the floor was a familiar looking hole.
Any sign of any sort of snake was very absent though.
I asked one of the villagers outside, tending the grounds – the hundred or so villagers here take responsibility to maintain the church – about the snake rumour. He seemed amused.
“The children round here,” he pointed, circling his finger round the scorched mountains surrounding us. “They go collecting snakes before August 15th. The priest gives them a few coins each time. And so out they go again into the fields collecting more and more. The priest puts all these snakes into the hole when he sees any people approaching his church.”
Another villager denied this. “No, no. Einai i Panagia! – It’s the Madonna…” He mock-angrily wafted his friends away and clasped my arm and patted it reassuringly “Einai i Panagia, einai i Panagia…” he repeated nodding, smiling kindly.
“They have sacks full! They come to the church with sacks full of snakes!” shouted back his friend from his grass cutting, laughing. “It’s not the Madonna… it’s kids!”
I decided not to tell the old man back in Grammos anything. Let him believe in his miracle in this town of old stone and bewitchery.
Psarades – heading back eastwards along the lake, back past Agios Achillios island that we could now see in the daylight, with its churches and the residents who say they regularly see the ghost of Greek hero Achilles, strolling slow and thoughtful, on the enclave – was busy.
Busy, that is, for an area that only has one bus each week: a scant service that often leaves the locals here completely stranded.
We sat in a humming taverna and ate the gigantes beans and the carp that are the two singular foods of Prespes (official information signs along the water’s edge had pictures labelling the different types of fish in the lake. ‘Grivadi – this is the fish of Prespes,’ it insisted of carp. ‘Do not order anything other than this to eat while you are here,’ it commanded).
It was a little bland to be truthful. As was the local white wine.
We got into an argument with a local fisherman sitting on the taverna’s terrace. He was quite drunk, in a skewwhiff dirty white captain’s hat. We debated a price for a trip onto the lake in his boat. Eventually he gave in, slapped the table hard, and for 20 euros he lead us unsteadily down the small wooden wharf and onto his small boat.
The lake was green jewel-glass. Reflecting a sky holding a few let-loose silver-rimmed clouds. Deep and calm.
The boat chugged us out past the frowning cliffs. The old fisherman stopped and pointed up to the high cascading shelf. There, next to a hole in the rock which had housed a lone 14th Century monk, was a large, perfect portrait of the Virgin painted on the rock. Still clear with deep reds and other colours. Like a 14th Century advertising poster.
We rounded a bend in the bluff and the rough-looking captain put the boat towards land.
We landed on a hidden bay and the fisherman nodded us up a high flight of steps cut in the rock. While he stayed in the boat, we pushed up the way he indicated, up the steps, not knowing what to expect.
And then, there, in a deep crevice in the rock, was a cockeyed ancient church jammed, tight, into the cave.
Built, again, by hermit monks up here 600 years ago. It was a sweet-looking sloped church. The Church of Panagia Eleousa. Crammed in whole below the rough cave slabs. More frescoes. I liked that somewhere in these ancient paintings, sneakily tucked in among the Christs and the Virgins, was the slightly incongruous-looking two beaming monk artist responsible for the work.
Our old fisherman of Psarades was a proud Greek.
However, along with Greek he also spoke an inherited Slavic language. He spoke nothing but Slavic at home to his equally Greek wife.
This comes from down the years and all the confusion and the turmoil in this area during the Balkan wars when Greeks, Macedonians, Bulgarians united in a struggle against the Ottoman Empire. Later, during the Second World War, more Macedonians were cut off from their land. Stuck in Greece, becoming Greek, but never forgetting their roots.
Older residents of this area still hold this mix of language and hold it passionately. The old man told us he makes a point of speaking Slavic particularly loudly when he’s out and surrounded by young people.
We carried on out further onto the lake in the old man’s boat, and then without warning he suddenly cut the engine and we drifted forward silently. He pointed down on to the lake. “Etho…” he said. We look into the water.
We were at the point where the three countries sharing this lake – Greece, Macedonia and Albania – meet.
We bobbed for a while, in the silence, the lake lapping at the hull, all three of us thinking private thoughts, floating, buoying, from one country to the next out here in tranquil beauty.
Then, with a sigh, the old skipper started the boat up again. It coughed, slowly, reluctant to start, but then chugged its way over the rippled expanse of water.
Back towards Greece, and the huge sweep of land and mountains waiting patiently for us to continue our journey.