GREECE 2006 - Weeks 12~13

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WEEK 13 NEWS - Western Macedonia and Epiros - the Prespa Lakes, Zagoria villages and Vikos Gorge, Dodona, Lia;  and finally the ferry from Igoumenitsa back to Venice:

The broad Macedonian plain rises suddenly at its western limit to a high plateau, and perched on the escarpment edge is Edessa, our next stop. Water courses from the mountains converge to flow through the town and plunge down to the plain below, endowing Edessa with its main asset, the magnificent waterfalls.
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We had planned to spend a whole day here, but having seen the waterfalls, eaten the previous evening at the town's apparently only and very mediocre taverna, and been appalled at the irresponsible squandering of EU grant given to restore the town's 19th century industrial heritage but used largely to tart-up the former rope-factory as a yuppie restaurant, we were about to give up on Edessa as a sad little town worthy of the motto Parvum in parvo (Rutlanders will forgive the pun). Then we discovered Edessa's real highlight: it was in fact the only place in Greece stocking Camping Gaz cylinders. 1 of ours was exhausted and the other was getting low, and in the length and breadth of Greece, we had so far not found replacements - until that is we came to Edessa. At Nikos' garage near the town centre, we replaced our pristine blue empty for a battered rusty full cylinder - we could cook again! If you need Gaz in Greece, this is the place to come. And that was Edessa; gratefully we departed westwards.
En route we wild-camped at an idyllic vantage point overlooking Lake Vegoritidha. On a wonderfully sunny evening, we enjoyed supper looking out across this magical panorama, with Pelicans, Grebes and Cormorants gracing the lake (Photo 1).

Our next stop was the Prespa Lakes in the far NW corner of Macedonia. In the 1913 territorial carve up of the imploding Ottoman Empire, the 2 Prespa Lakes - Megali (Large) and Mikri (Small) Prespa - found themselves at the converging point of what became Greek Macedonia, Albania and subsequently the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM - independent since 1991). The borders of the 3 countries meet uncomfortably in the middle of Megali Prespa. It is still a militarily sensitive area, given the inter-ethnic strife endemic in the Balkans, the Greeks' hysterically proprietary anti-reaction to FYROM's 1991 adoption of the name Macedonia, and the flood of illegal immigrants from Albania entering Greece by this mountainous back-door. Given the position in the heart of the Southern Balkans, Prespa has been a conflict point throughout history. During the 500 year Turkish occupation, the area's isolated position made it a sanctuary for Christian refugees who built monasteries and hermitages around the lakes, including the beautiful basilica of Agios Achilleios (see right) now stark ruins. During the 1946~49 Greek Civil War, the Communists had their HQ at Prespa and the vicious fighting around Mounts Grammos and Vitsa led to destruction of villages by bombardment and desolation of the Prespa countryside. Major depopulation followed as residents emigrated either to Eastern Europe or USA/Australia depending on loyalties during the Civil War. Despite a revival of interest in Prespa, the population remains small with a number of deserted villages. There is still an army post by the Lakes, officially to discourage illegal Albanian immigrants, but despite the  ominous sight of armed soldiers, their presence was largely unobtrusive. The illegal Albanians are another dilemma for the Greek authorities, since without their cheap labour (5 for a day's work), local agriculture producing phasolia beans on the fertile soil around the Lake could not survive. Despite the weather turning unsettled giving the area a gloomy feel, we enjoyed 4 days thrilling wild-camping by Mikri Prespa and close to the hamlet of Psaradhes on the shores of Megali Prespa where the 3 countries' borders converge. The bird presence was awe-inspiring: huge flocks of Dalmatian and White Pelicans nest and feed on the Lakes (Photo 2); it was impossible to eat breakfast without reaching for binoculars and camera, as Pelicans soared and wheeled overhead, treating us to superb aerobatic displays. The constant presence of Pelicans, Storks, Cormorants, and Egrets around our camp became commonplace. The overcast weather gave the Lakes an eerily dramatic beauty which created endless photographic opportunity, both by the lake-shore (Photos 3~4) and across the lake to the distant Albanian hills as we walked the path trodden by illegal immigrants from Albania (Photo 5). The lakes are set at an altitude of 3,000 feet, and the nights were distinctly cold; rain during the night fell as snow on the surrounding 6,000 feet mountains. After the recent torridly hot sunshine, it seemed totally irrational now to be wearing sweaters and jackets to walk over to the taverna for supper, and to welcome the log fire burning in the grate. The local fish specialty is crisply fried steaks of Grivadhi, huge carp caught in the Lakes, served with local phasolia beans; you'll get fish at Prespa like no-where else in Greece. Despite its remote position on the borders of Albania and FYROM, Prespa had come to feel curiously homely after our 4 day stay: the soldiers at the army post gave us a cheery wave as we walked past, and locals in the taverna greeted us with a welcoming 'Yassas' as we arrived for supper; even the Pelicans seemed to treat us as part of the scenery.

But it was time to move on, and unfortunately it was Sunday when we drove to Kastoria, another lake-side town. There is something menacing about driving on a Sunday in Greece: put a car's steering wheel into Greek hands and he/she changes character into a personality-deprived homicidal maniac, even more so, curiously, on Sundays. Perhaps this is why you see churches dedicated to Agia Kyriaki (Holy Sunday), to ward off the evil eye of Sunday drivers. We survived, just, the experience to camp by the lakeside at Kastoria. Set on a wooded hilly peninsula extending into the lake, Kastoria's wealth stems from its unique position as the centre of the Balkan fur trade; the name derives from 'Kastori' , meaning a beaver. The town is still filled with fur emporia, and the signs in Cyrillic script suggest the target market is now Eastern Europe; perhaps the inflated prices are now only affordable by Russian Mafiosi buying furs for their jewel be-decked womenfolk. Be that as it may, we spent an enjoyable day walking the narrow streets of Kastoria's old quarter, admiring the impressive mansions of the wealthy fur traders and tiny Byzantine chapels endowed by them.

We had travelled the length and breadth of Greece, seeing much and learning even more about this fascinating land and its enigmatic people. Our time was fast running out but the climax of our trip was still to come - a few days spent in the Zagoria villages of Epiros and the unbelievably spectacular Vikos Gorge. To reach this area meant a long drive over the remote mountains of North Epiros and down to the  barren Sarandaporos valley where the friable shale and mudstone mountains spill rock-fall debris across the road. The drive was made even more challenging by the convoys of slow-moving trucks which use this route until the Egnatia motorway is completed across the Pindos Mountains. Beyond Konitsa, we turned off the main road up into the remote Zagoria region, set amid wooded hills and craggy limestone gorges. Cobbled footpaths (kalderimi) were the only communications between the isolated villages. The mountainous terrain meant spanning gorges with the arched pack-horse bridges for which Zagoria is famous; many of the bridges survive as monuments to the skills of the itinerant gangs of craftsmen-masons who built them and the wealthy families who sponsored their 18/19thcentury construction. We camped at Kipi village and spent a memorable day walking the kalderimi to visit several of the stone pack-horse bridges, single, double and even triple arched spanning the craggy limestone gorges (Photo 6). But no visit to Zagoria would be complete  without at least sampling the world's deepest ravine, the 12 km long Vikos Gorge; in places the walls are 3,000 feet high cutting through the limestone tablelands of Mt Gamila. We camped at 3,600 feet by the mountain hamlet of Monodhendhri, and descended the superbly engineered kalderimi which zig-zags some 2,500 feet down into the bed of the Vikos Gorge. The wooded cliff-walls fell away before us, giving a staggering view of the awe-inspiring scale of the gorge. Turn after turn, we continued downwards, losing height in spectacular fashion; and 1 hour later, we stood in the dry bed of the gorge, peering distantly upwards at the unbelievable route of our descent. Without doubt, this was the climactic point of our whole trip. Our limited time and resources meant we had to re-ascend by the same route. Although a gruelling climb, the path was so well conceived that we gained height in remarkable time and reached the village in another hour, virtually the same time taken for the descent, perhaps inspired by the thought of the cold beer awaiting us at the taverna. where we also enjoyed a suitable climactic supper of lemon-lamb and plevrotous mushrooms.

Moving on, we negotiated the Ioannina traffic and drove over the hills south of the city to re-visit the site of Zeus' Oracle at "Wintry Dodona" as Homer calls it. Dodona had been a sacred site from time immemorial. The cult of Zeus reached Dodona with the first Greek-speaking migrant peoples in the early 2nd millennium BC; the god gave his oracular responses through the rustling of the symbolic oak tree's leaves in the sacred precinct, interpreted by priests with very strange habits. From these primitive beginnings, the oracle grew in prestige until eclipsed in political influence by Delphi. But even by Hellenistic times, Dodona remained a prestigious site and King Pyrrhos (of 'Pyrrhic victory' fame) built the monumental theatre seating 17,000 spectators and stadium to host the festival of Naia in honour of Dodonan Zeus. Looking out over the theatre's stone seating and down the long wooded valley overshadowed  by the towering massif of Mt Tomoros (Photo 8), we could understand why the spectacular setting of Dodona had remained a sacred place for so long. It was even taken over by early Christians, who in their intolerant zeal not only usurped Zeus' sacred site but chopped down his oak tree and built a basilica on the site of his temple. We camped close to the sacred precinct, and  as dusk fell, fireflies twinkled among the grass as if to symbolise the magical mystery of the place.

We had both been reading Eleni Gage's North of Ithaca during our time in Greece, the story of the author's rebuilding of her grandmother's house in the village of Lia; her father's earlier book Eleni had told of the tragic execution of the grandmother, Eleni Gatzoyiannis, by Communists during the Civil War. Since Lia was only a short distance off the road from Ioannina to the ferry port of Igoumenitsa, we drove the 32 km up into the Mourgana mountains bordering on Albania to see for ourselves the setting of a family's tragedy from that dreadful period of Greek history. It was a moving final experience in a trip that had brought us so much learning. And so to Igoumenitsa for the ferry, as squalid a port as most, and scorching hot in the June sun. We had travelled with Minoan Lines, but had been unable to book in advance the Camping on Deck option as allegedly full. At the docks, we enquired further, all ready to resort to Greek methods of persuasion (ie a 20 note, to help the boarding officer in reaching a positive decision). In fact, we were directed aboard and were able to sleep in our own camper. Bear this in mind if you cross to Greece in your camper.

Our 2006 Greek trip has brought us such a wealth of experience, not only visiting such historically significant places, but so many recollections of encounters with so many delightful people. And the modern Greeks - well, you come to both love and hate them: their almost dutiful sense of bountiful hospitality to stranger/guests sometimes overwhelms with kindness, their cultural inheritance is admirable, their language reminds how much we owe to Greek, their tragic history evokes sorrowful empathy ... BUT ... their apparent easy-going manner disguises a seemingly inherent laziness, their abuse of boundless EU grants, squandered on ill-conceived and unfinished projects, appals those of us whose taxation pays the bill, corruption and nepotism are still endemic in their society whatever their politicians claim, and their homicidal driving standards explain why the road death rate is so high; but we survived, having driven almost 4,000 miles in the country over the last 3 months. But despite all these negative feelings, a week's absence from Greece, and the nostalgia that brought us here is already at work planning a future Odyssey.

It's home now for a few weeks while the Continent is awash with holiday makers, then later in August, our plans are for a trip closer to home - NE France, Flanders and the WW 1 battlefields, Alsace-Lorraine, and the Ardennes - for us, unexplored territory. As always, we'll be reporting via our web site, so stay tuned

Sheila and Paul                                                                                      Published: Friday 23 June

     Music this week:
     Zalongos Dance


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