We were aiming for Grammos mountain, driving through the north western part of Greece. Like a low rumble, turning into a rolling boil, the ground started rising dramatically all around us. We stopped and asked a man at a precariously tilted petrol station the way to Aetomilitsa. Aetomilitsa, somewhere ahead up the mountains before us, was once the headquarters of the leftist rebels during the Greek civil war, the operation area for the 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 reminisced – of this journey of less than an hour or so away from here – his voice fell to a rasping whisper as he lent a contorted face into the car window… “I would never go again…”
The man had a point, the roads were treacherous. Up here in the most northern remote reaches of Greece no one seemed to bother to come and maintain any of the infrastructure. Even the small roadside shrines that you see all over Greece have fallen into disrepair. These small raised-up little basilicas – miniature domes with glass frontages that hold 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. Usually a fresh candle will have been lit every day, but up here even the usually fixedly-devoted or the grieving-bereaved had given up looking after the dotted monuments 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 back down over everything we’d climbed up rippled away for as far we could see.
We thought there was an end we were aiming for: a lodge we’d booked into. But we couldn’t find it. We abandoned the car and went searching on foot 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 ploughing on through these danger fields, searching for our hostel. We headed 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, something seemed wrong. The light in the open room was dim. Furniture was pushed against, blocking out, dirty windows and a ring of bodies were sat on a crumbling unswept floor, eating from an old saucepan. The heads that turned to us were mohicaned, the styles all tattered military uniform-looking. The apparent leader of the gang rose up to meet us, to see what we wanted.
“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 and it was all very kind of them but we declined. We were determined to reach our booked accommodation. Having 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 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 that a family of bears had set up their own camp in front of the entrance to the cave. As they’d tried to get closer but the mother had raised up on her hind legs, the growling sound of the 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 early paths we were accompanied by an 80 year old named Eudokia. She told us she was a descendant of the Vlach shepherds. Old Eudokia was dressed in one long dress – black and a tough material, old-fashioned by perhaps a hundreds of years – with just a belt tied round her waist and a slapping pair of wellington boots on her feet. 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 briskly along, but clearly bored by the pace we could offer 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 parents and listened to stories about the village. There were only 25 people living here 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 ruinous Greek civil war. And so it was, one August day, the Greek government dropped napalm on this village, and on its own people. Sure enough, this barbarous act was enough and the communists last stand was ended. As was the village we sat in now. Only the church left standing. I stared out the window at a sky as angry as could 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 he 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 told us he now spends his time trying to find the Fabritsi family back in Italy to let them have back this piece, a memorial of their relative.
The old man scurried off again, and when he came back he produced a photo. “Koita…” he commanded again. It was a 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, walking over and taking hold of the photo.
“You are going to the Prespes lakes I think, 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 sure enough, the 8 year old Tasos’ prophesy came about. 60 years on, the hugging 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 friend 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 small scattering in this village. The village looking down on a great sweep of checked fields – with 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 providing 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 tell her ‘They’re here…’ ‘My sons? Here?’ the wife said. 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 in a long arc 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!’ She rushes to join the soldiers already walking into the trees.” Vasilis took a sip of his drink. “The daughters were waiting by that table the whole day. Later the priest was walking back to our village through the woods. He sees the wife. Calls out to her. Wonders why she doesn’t reply. Walks over to see what’s wrong… Hanged. Hanged out there in the trees. Just for wanting to see her sons.” Vasilis’ glass went down cheerlessly on the table. “This country has much shame in its history. Much beauty, much glory, but so much shame…”
Giristroula and I 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. Girls made-up with bright red lipsticks, walking up and down, catching looks from the boys. 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 see us here: 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 usual Greek take-out. However up here in this part of Western Macedonia, rather than the pita bread they use the unleavened lagana bread, bread that everyone else in Greece only eats on the first day of Lent. Also strangely, they serve their gyros and souvlakis kebab with beef. I don’t know why. We sat and ate and I was sad that we would soon have to say goodbye to Ptolemaida – an area sniffily looked down on by all the people I had told we would be having a stop-over here. The wisecracks about how living under the shadow of the power plants they all die young round these parts, and we should take care not to stay too long here, just in case, didn’t seem funny at all to me as we left this kind, congenial city. But we had to keep moving, keep in motion. 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. Approaching the town, coming round its tray-flat water, a rising and falling yelp of houses – all coloured only in white and orange – sat up for us before the mountains beyond. And as we entered, something very strange started to reveal 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 – under the lavishly 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 pretty much any other Greek town I’d travelled through. 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 enjoy looking at this beauty, in these small squares. There seemed something soulless here. But it was only from high up that I realised that the great expanse of water I looked over in Kastoria was only half of Lake Orestiada. Kastoria is just a spur sticking out into Orestiada. There’s thousands more litres of ridged freshwater and hundreds more crouping flamingos, all on the other side. As big as Lake Orestiada is though, we were soon on the move northwards to a lake ten times larger. Prespes.
On arriving at Prespes lake, we pulled into the small village of Microlimni and stopped at a quiet taverna on the lake front. It was satisfyingly tranquil. A few people having a quiet late lunch, a dog asleep, breathing deeply, under a heavy sun. Half an hour later though, we noticed things suddenly started getting busier. People started arriving. More people than could fit in the taverna. 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, Sunday-best clothes, his bushy eyebrows ringing out 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 the seats instead. What could be 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 was 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… It was a small shock for both of us, I think, that I suddenly found myself 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 himself. 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.” Pakis made his way to the statue and said some words to the crowd and the few 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 it was over. Pakis was making his way back to his presidential car. Turning to look at me one last time, a brief wave of confusion crossing his face again before he ducked inside and was gone. The police guard followed him with a roar down the quiet road, and a second tuneless rendition of the national anthem. The tiny village was left silent again. Resting unattached and trivial on its huge lake. The residents filed past me, some giving me dark looks. Eventually I found from one of them that a local, rural policeman here had been shot and 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 where they had been hidden under the tables. A backgammon board was opened and cards were dealt. Prespes village life re-ordered itself back into its usual 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 now in a black night. 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, facing us on a large grass sloped hill clearing. A stage illuminated in front of the bashed-about 10th Century Bascilica of Agios Ahillios. Not knowing what was going on, we took a seat with the crowd on the grass and waited. Out from the wings came Savopolous, the white bearded legendary entehno singer – the Bob Dylan of Greece, so people say. For the next two hours he played a set of Greek classics. President Pavlopoulos sat in the prime seat in the front row. By chance we had stumbled across this performance 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 that anyone wanting to visit the area had to be accompanied by a soldier at all times. It seemed incredible. I saw Pavlopoulos left before the halftime interval.
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 thick bright sun. I opened the tent to this scene, and found myself face-to-face with a morning pelican looking in at us through the door, framed between our tent flaps. Behind him a long row of cow arses were lined up, left to right – the owners drinking deeply from the lake. Dwarf cows peculiar to only this one area of Greece. The pelican took wing, flying 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.
After gathering ourselves together, 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, seemed to forget completely we were there to to buy anything.
There were old 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 finally arrived at the 11th Century church that our old host back in Grammos had asked us to check for snakes. I was more attracted at first by the newer, 18th Century, church next door though – 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 were 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 sadly very absent though.
I asked one of the villagers outside, tending the grounds – the villagers here all 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 wafted his friends away and clasped my arm and patted it reassuringly “Einai i Panagia, einai i Panagia…” he repeated, nodding and smiling at me 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 just kids!”
I decided not to tell the old man back in Grammos anything. Let him believe in his miracle in this small town of stone and bewitchery.
Heading back eastwards along the lake, we passed Agios Achillios island again. We could see it 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.
The village of Psarades 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 little taverna and ate gigantes beans and carp – the famous dishes of Prespes – and got into an argument with a local fisherman sitting on the taverna’s terrace. The fisherman was swaying drunk, in a skewwhiff dirty white captain’s hat. We heatedly debated a price for a trip onto the lake in his boat before he eventually gave in, slapped the table hard, and for 20 euros jerked his head towards the path and lead us unsteadily down to the small wooden wharf and onto his small boat.
The lake was green jewel-glass. Reflecting a sky holding just a few 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 rock. There, next to a hole 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. Like a 14th Century advertising poster. We rounded a bend in the cliffs and the captain put his boat towards land and landed us on a hidden bay. He nodded us up a high flight of steps cut in the cliff. While the fisherman stayed in the boat, lying back with his cap over his eyes, we pushed up the way he’d indicated, climbing the steps, not knowing what to expect. 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 inside, and hidden in these ancient paintings, sneakily tucked in among the Christs and the Virgins, the two slightly incongruous-looking beaming monk artist responsible for the work.
Our old captain of the fishing boat was a proud Greek from Psarades. However, along with Greek he also spoke an inherited Slavic language. He spoke nothing but this Slavic language at home to his equally Greek wife. He told me this mix of languages and cultures came from down the years and the confusion and turmoil in this area just before the First World War – at the end of the Ottoman Empire’s final days. Lands had been taken, new borders drawn. Ethnic Slavs – people who identified themselves not as Serbs, or Greek, or Bulgarian, but called themselves Macedonian – were pushed out or became minorities here. After the Second World War, despite the Slavic Macedonians having fought the Nazi occupation in Greece, more still were exiled. The ethnic Slavic Macedonians that remained became Greek, but never forgot their roots. For a long time, speaking this Macedonian language was dangerous. State-sponsored harassment could follow. This Macedonian minority had pretty much been written out of history and existence. But the older residents of this area still held this language, and held it passionately. The old man told us, in defiance, he made a point of speaking Slavic when out and about, singing old Macedonian songs. He said he spoke it particularly loudly when 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 all together and we drifted forward silently. He pointed down on to the lake. “Etho…” he said. We looked down into the water, and then back at him again. Here, he said, was the point where the three countries sharing this lake – Greece, Macedonia and Albania – all meet. We bobbed for a while, in silence, the lake lapping at the hull of the boat. All three of us thinking private thoughts, floating listlessly from one country to the another out here on the tranquil waters. Then, with a sigh, the old skipper started the engine up again. It coughed into life slowly, reluctant to start, and chugged us back over the rippled water. Back towards Greece, and the huge sweep of land and mountains waiting patiently for us to continue our journey.