ELT News: February 1998

A Touch of the Tyrol on the Pinnacles of the Pindus
by Andrew Leech (aleech@ath.forthnet.gr)

We left Athens on the night of 25 December, at a time when most people were busy sleeping off, or adding to, their Christmas Day excesses of food and drink. The traffic was still busy as we threaded through the busy streets to Larissis Railway Station and, with the usual few minutes to spare, crawled onto the rear carriage of the train— only to find that our compartment was 6 carriages in the other direction! Grabbing 2 suitcases I walked and pushed, followed by 13-year-old-number-one son carrying whatever he could and 7-year-old-number-two son carrying my camera bag slung round his neck and complaining as bitterly and vociferously as Donald Duck’s nephews.

The trouble with Greek trains is that they are either too hot or too cold. And on this journey, even with the heating turned flat down (up or down produced the same result), I boiled. I was in the upper sleeper bunk and, of course, the hot air just wafted upwards and gently roasted me, like a Christmas chestnut, throughout the night. So, next morning, when I staggered out into the swirling snowstorm that greeted us on Thessaloniki Station at 6.30 am, it was in a rather comatose and bleary-eyed state.

During the taxi ride to our friends’ house we saw a clean city, some buildings had received their first spring clean this century, and it was a treat to see the immaculate brick and stonework peeping through the grime. One particular building that was very tastefully done was the old Customs House, on the quayside, that has been turned into a new passenger terminal. Floodlit and festooned in true Christmas spirit, the wide avenues and streets looked elegant and festive with their twinkling lights caressed by the white snowflakes that fell unceasingly. Thessaloniki was definitely well-groomed for its European role; and this gave me a warm feeling that defied the cold weather on the other side of the taxi window.

After a short sleep, we started exploring. It was nice to travel in buses that had not only a driver, but also a living conductor that collected the fares, smiled, joked, gave change and reminded you of your humanity. It was even nicer to walk along streets that were totally free of the perennial Athens smog and watch the children belting each other energetically with snowballs; their shrieks of delight punctuating the Christmas music emanating from those establishments still open.We stopped at a souvlaki place and gorged for a while; the pitas were really large and stuffed with chips, salad, tsatziki and meat. It was a nice change after the turkey of the preceding two days.

The next day I went into the centre to see a company that has been working very hard over the past couple of years, exporting Greek traditional specialities and foodstuffs to the U.S. — Pelopac S.A. — and who have popularised the brand name Peloponnese in many delicatessens abroad. I had heard about them in Athens and was curious how they had managed to increase their business to the level of exporting at least a whole container-load of Roasted Florina Sweet Peppers per week; not to mention the ten different kinds of regional olive, orektika and a host of other goodies. That is the type of operation we need to climb out of our recession; an operation that not only brings in welcome foreign exchange but, with the establishment of its own factory, is providing many badly needed jobs in the area. And they are not limiting themselves just to food. With the co-operation of some of the Averof family in Metsovo, they are trying to export and market Greek Folk Products (sold under the label of: Access to Tradition), that are hand-made in small villages; the sale of which will help Greek traditional crafts, and craftsmen/women, to survive the onslaught of modernisation which threatens their ancient livelihoods with extinction.

Lidia and Sotiris Kitrilakis welcomed me with a cup of hot coffee and took me round the Thessaloniki offices that were situated in a nineteenth-century building, reminiscent of an old warehouse. The outside might be dated, but the offices were definitely state-of-the-art with PC terminals, printers, modems and faxes very much in evidence. I was agreeably surprised to find they were even on E-Mail — and that they used it on a daily basis. The offices were decorated with charts showing the different Greek natural foods, and their areas of origin and, surprise of surprises: beautifully decorated recipe charts showing what you could do with the ingredients. Our philosophers may be in the past, but our gastronomy is very much in the present, advertising to every stomach the Glories of Greece — and travelling well!

Then it was down to the Port for a lunch of ... fish and chips, served in a little hole of a shop on Nikis Avenue, and on brown paper spread out over the table. This was fish and chips parodying the grand old British Style of newspaper, salt and vinegar ... with the addition of skordalia (garlic sauce) — to stress its Greekness and was delicious. We sat round the spread out, fried, filleted cod and mountain of game chips and just dipped and stuffed ourselves.

Then it was off shopping for a couple of items I’d forgotten to pack in Athens: a full-face skiing balaclava that could also double as terrorist headgear when I sprang out on my unsuspecting victims, camera in hand and divested them of their life story and obscurity, and a pair of thick gloves! Those, and a respectable kilo of sausages, bacon and the half dozen tins of Baked Beans no British Explorer travels without, completed my purchases. The last item on the list was a pair of sunglasses and, after a while I found an optician open. A delectable young lady, amply proportioned, had exactly what I was looking for and, while she fitted the shades on my nose and brushed my chest with the outline of her full figure, I realised just how exciting and hospitable Thessaloniki was! The transaction over, we all returned home, calling at the Frontistirio of Daniilidou-Christidou on the corner of Vass. Olga and Sofouli, on the off-chance there might be some life (but it was dead as the grave), hung up our snow-covered clothes and I was free to give my full and undivided attention to a large bottle of Single Malt I’d received for Christmas, but hung on to, unopened.

George, number-two-offspring of Jenny, my hostess, was at that precocious point of adolescence where he was constantly in love with every nubile beauty who decorated any magazine cover, and this week it was the turn of an aspiring, unknown, would-be-star by the name of Sandra Bullock he’d viewed on the Net ... and sent several loving Emails to, but without reply. On seeing his misery, I knew I had to do something to cheer him up. So, after he’d gone out for a while, I grabbed his PC, got onto the Net and, using the cyber-address of the well-proportioned Miss Bullock, sent him a stirring, erotic answer to the Email he’d been sending her. George slept well and happy that night and, no doubt, his dreams would be subject to censorship if they ever got into print.

Before leaving for Metsovo, next day, I checked the chains — I was sure we’d need them. They didn’t fit. I tried again and still couldn’t make them go over the wheel. So, it was hunt down a good friend who might have a spare set, persuade him to relinquish them, throw them into the over-stuffed boot, squeeze the lid shut and try to make up for lost time on the good section of the road down to Larissa — Jenny and I comfortable in the front and Jason and the little squawker behind; squeezed in on the back seat with whatever hadn’t fitted in the boot.

All went well till we passed Meteora, then the snow increased in quantity and visibility was down to about 40 metres. At one point Jason (14 year-old-number-one-son) got out to brush some snow away from a sign — to find out where we were — but gave up after falling up to his waist in a snowdrift. The road, however, was fair and we didn’t need chains till we got to within a few kilometres of Katara when, with a final slide, we realised that the next bend would be our last unless we did something about it. Stopping in a safe place, I got out the chains and, following the instructions carefully, tried to fit them. They wouldn’t fit. I tried again ... they still wouldn’t fit. I re-read the instructions and tried once again. Nothing doing.

And then the enormity of our predicament hit me: we were sitting on a lonely mountain road, with evening approaching fast, an ice-covered road before us, few barriers and lots of 300 metre drops if one was careless enough to skid on a bend —and a pair of bloody chains that didn’t fit (although the box assured me they were our size)!! And to cap it all the place was known as Katara (Curse)!! Now, I knew why!! I am not a very religious man, but I started praying; and the kids joined in, too — even little Alexander adding his 7-year-old’s worth to the pleas going post-haste, express and registered, to the Almighty somewhere above the white and mist shrouded peaks of Pindus that surrounded us. And, as we fervently prayed, a set of lights came round the bend and a car slowed to a stop behind us.

For an Angel, the occupant was mighty different from what I have seen painted on church walls, being built somewhat like a sumo wrestler, but his name was Gabriel, which was good enough for me, and he came from Halkidiki; which is after all a kind of Paradise! He too, had stopped to put on his chains — and they were the same type as mine. I pointed out my problem and he smiled, waddled over with a grin that split his face from side to side and, in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, the first chain was on. I gasped ... he had made it so easy; he also hadn’t followed the instructions on the box: in Greek, French, German, English, Spanish, Italian and several other languages I couldn’t decipher. As he pointed out to me: the original set of instructions seemed to be back to front — and the other translators had probably just followed the first one’s lead.

We were off and, following our Angel, we had no trouble in dealing with the rest of the road. We parted company two kilometres short of Metsovo; he went on to another Heavenly errand in Iannina, while we slowly descended from the main road to the central village square, where the villagers, in traditional late 19th century dress, were going about their business under 20th century umbrellas to protect them from the furiously falling snow. We parked, called our hosts, and made our way to a small three-roomed house, a 5 minute walk from the plateia, where we were introduced to the wonders of being heated by, and doing our cooking on, 80 year old wood-burning stoves. And, once we had got used to them, we found them extremely effective.

That night, after a filling meal at a local hostelry called ‘ta platanakia’ that included boiled-goat, local vegetable soup, hor-topita, sausages, rigani-seasoned pork fillet on the skewer, tirosalata (a cheese dip) and the inevitable litre of the house red, we went to bed totally exhausted, but happy at the thought we’d get some skiing in next day. However, it was not to be. The Heavenly tribute exacted for providing Gabriel the day before, and no doubt to teach us some solemn piety, was that the snow —of which a good half metre had fallen — started to melt almost immediately, under the influence of heavy rain and, by the time we got to the slopes, had started to turn into a grey, slushy soup that slopped over the tops of our boots and down into our socks. There was barely enough whiteness left to get in a good snow-fight with the kids. It was obvious we were not going to get any skiing in on this visit; eating and tourism would be the only consolations.

The next day we visited the Monastery of Aghios Nicolaos, which has some beautiful murals painted in 1702, and the Church of Aghia Paraskevi, in the centre of the town, with its mosaics and an interesting wooden altar carved in 1730.

And on the way back, to combine business with pleasure, I decided to look up the two ELT frontistirio owners in Metsovo: Chryssanthi Mokou-Billa and Iphigeneia Tsinou, but despite the one being the ‘coumbara (best woman)’ of our hosts, nei-ther of the two could be found and I was unable to see what I had hoped might resemble a 19th century frontistirio (remember Metsovo has kept its traditional style and clothing)!!

In the evening we decided to eat at a local village that rejoiced in the name of Anilio (Sunless) and, after sharing a couple of large glases of local tsipouro with our landlord’s family, obtained precise directions as to where it lay. “Bear right after the public telephone” he’d said, “the immediate right.” And that was what we did. We bore right, drove down a narrow road that widened as it crossed someone’s roof — I’m not joking, the road actually was on a roof — and then slowly narrowed to the point where the car had to come to a complete halt and we had to attempt to reverse.

After a lot of perspiration and slow maneuvering, with Jenny and Jason guiding me, inch by inch, we got back to the roof and tried to do what is called a three-point turn, although in our case a 25-point-turn would be closer to reality, with the edge of the roof overlooking a swollen torrent some 15 metres below it. It was at a delicate juncture of the manoevres that we realised the next one would send one wheel over the edge and were gathered round the vehicle, some muttering imprecations at the gentleman who’d given us the instructions and others calling on the Almighty for help again, when a bow-legged grinning giant swayed along the path.

He looked at us, grinned again, and spoke to us solemnly in Vlahica (the local language, which is an ancient Roman lan-guage, with variations found in most northern Greek provinces). When we replied in Greek he apologised, and told us he’d taken us for foreign tourists, which was why he’d used Vlahica; and, then, we pointed out our predicament. He understood immediately and straightening to his full height, which was a good 2 metres, he informed us: “I am Boubas. I have drunk 3 bottles and I am in good shape,” flexing a pair of barrel-like biceps to prove it. He then, practically unaided, picked up the car by its rear end and swung it back on the path, facing the right direction.

We were astounded at his feat and extremely grateful for our good fortune in meeting him. But Boubas, refusing any form of gratuity, grinned again and swayed his way along the path and out of sight. I am not sure if our thanks should go to the Almighty for sending him, or to the potent Asterix-like-qualities of the local wine, but certainly the name of Boubas does not decorate any Orthodox Angel, while it might easily have been the nomenclature of a follower of Dionysos and Pindus is not far from Olympus!

We were now free to continue our journey to Anilio and, this time taking the correct road, we exited Metsovo and started descending, by way of a winding, barrierless road, into a gigantic soup-bowl situated between two mountains. As we descended, we could see packs of stray dogs, like wolves, gathering and getting ready for their festive celebrations and at times, as they approached the car, we could see the redness of their eyes reflected in the headlights like hot coals; like the descendants of Cerberus or the guardians of Dante’s Inferno. Yet, all around lay ice and discoloured snow.

Down and down we went, a good 800 metres deep into the soup-bowl; down into the bowels of this gigantic mouth; and the dogs howled and the wind shrieked to announce our arrival. Down, down, down the winding road seemed interminable — until at last we came to a raging river, in full flood; a veritable Styx fuelled by the melting snow, and spanned by a narrow bridge: a bridge so slender, and totally bereft of any form of barrier — like a long, thin plank across the 10th floors of 2 adjoining skyscrapers — that I was unsure whether it was wide enough to accept the car wheels!!

I got out of the car to check the width and noticed the slippery ice covering the bridge; the temperature was dropping again. And, with the cold air on my face and the kids holding each other’s hands in fear and uncertainty, reason asserted itself. Was it really worth falling into that raging torrent just for the sake of a meal in Hades? After all we had no aspirations of imitating Heracles! And the howling of a dog-pack nearby completed the decision as, with complementary howls of fear, both kids bolted back into the warmth of the car and slammed the door.

I did my second 25-point-turn that evening and we started to climb out of the Abyss, the dogs racing alongside the car, “like lost werewolves,” as little squawker put it, and howling miserably at Anilio being cheated of its prey. And, after a long climb, we eventually rolled, safely and gently, into the brightly decorated main square of Metsovo, parked the car in a taxi-only space (we weren’t too fussy and there didn’t seem to be any taxis around), and headed for the nearest eatery where we did our best to rival our old friend, Boubas, and where Jenny waxed so lyrical, after a few glasses, she mockingly knelt and kissed my feet in thanks for our earlier deliverance (much to the amusement of the other patrons around, who were reminded of shades of Ali Pasha).

The following day I determined to instill some culture into Alexander so I took him to the Pinacothiki (the Metsovo Art Gal-ery) that was set up in 1988, a three-storey donation from Evangelos Averof, housing about 250 paintings representative of Greek art. We spent a couple of very pleasant hours and I was pleased to see that they also had a children’s section, where youngsters could actually get to grips with paint, clay and papier-mache and produce their own work; and some of the work, by 9 year olds was truly impressive. Today, the Gallery is run by Tatiana Averof, the daughter of Evangelos.

That evening Jenny and I had a meeting with Helena and Iannis Averof, who had invited us to see the exhibition on the Balkan Wars they were hosting (on loan from shipowner Andreas Potamianos, who had spotted it in London and returned it to its homeland) and view the work of the Egnatia Epirus Foundation. In contrast to other Averof and Averof-Tositsa endowments and foundations, this one has a greater scope than the immediate geographical area as it concerns the whole North-West of Greece and even includes Albania, working in collaboration with the National Technical University of Athens, the University of Ioannina, the NIFES Consulting Group (UK) and the National Committee of Energy and the Academy of Sciences.

Its work encapsulates anything to do with the effective use of energy (of all types) and training people in the efficient use of energy. It is very much of a ‘High Tec’ Operation that is on an academic level with anything being produced in other European States. For example, in the case of Albania, the Foundation is involved in improving the energy efficiency of the Albanian economy and protecting the environment. It is also promoting the use of renewable energy sources which, besides having a lower environmental impact, reduces the rate of depletion of conventional fuels. The main objectives of the Egnatia Epirus Foundation are the following:

  • To support the Letters and Arts and preserve the national heritage of Epirus.
  • To contribute to the integrated development of Epirus, through economic, cultural and social activities, “compatible” with the environment and tradition of the region.To develop state-of-the-art communication channels with a view to enhancing the links of the region with Europe and the rest of the World.
  • The exploitation of Epirus’ human resources and the rational utilisation of the area’s natural wealth and beauty, to be-come the cultural bridge connecting the European Community with the Central Balkans and the Middle East.
  • In order to attain its objectives the Foundation uses the following tools: (a) A Conference Centre in Metsovo (b) an Infor-mation Technologies Centre in Ioannina (c) an Energy Technologies Office in Ioannina (d) a network of ‘special activity cells’ based both on the local traditions and the achievements of today’s world, and introducing new techniques and work methods always compatible with the environment and tradition of the area.

As Iannis Averof put it to me:”we want to keep what is technologically and culturally valuable of the past and add to it what is technologically and culturally valuable from the present and the future.” One could say this is a far-sighted visionary view of what could be done, but, nonetheless, the Averofs are doing it, and keeping up with their family heritage which has al-ways been to help whenever, wherever and whatever Greece needed. A hundred years ago George Averof built the first modern Olympic Stadium, in Athens. In 1910 he provided the finance for the cruiser “Averof,” which did such sterling work during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and in the 1950’s the family started the first Foundation for the cultural protection of the area of Metsovo and its surroundings.

However, not content with what has been done to date, Iannis and Helena Averof have recently branched out in a new venture (the Laikis Technis — Access to Tradition — project with Sotiris and Lidia Kitrilakis, in Thessaloniki): to ensure the continuation of the traditional hand-made crafts of the region by exporting them to other countries. It is hoped that the sale of these traditional goods, many produced with hand tools that have been in use for 150 years, will keep alive the ancient Epirot cottage-industries and prevent the harsh, soulless ‘plasticity’ of modernization from destroying a way of life. “ If we are going to keep alive a way of life, a local culture, then we must ensure that the craftsmen can earn a fair living from it and keep their families in a comparable style to what they might earning elsewhere. And, so far, it seems that our handicraft culture is taking on a new lease of life.” said Iannis Averof and continued jokingly:”and since we have 3 banks (soon to be 4), in a village of 3000 people, it must be working!” “And,” Helena Averof continued, “ we believe that people abroad would be interested in having an article that has been hand-produced in the same way, and often with the same tools, that their great grandparents would have been familiar with. Remember Metsovo has been making some of these articles for the past 1500 years.”

We were then given a tour around the Conference Centre which was very modern and impressive. It used to be a luxury hotel and has still kept many of the original features, like the large lounge, with local tapestries on the walls, and sporting the ubiquitous open fireplace of all Metsovian houses; the dining-room with its central stone stove; the little nooks and crannies one can retire to for a peaceful conversation or to read a book; and, of course, a beautiful garden. The conference rooms, themselves, are very modern and have full infrared translation facilities for 3/4 languages, simultaneously; video and projection facilities; and are round-table conference or theatre-style in design. If anyone is interested in visiting its Web site, the address is http://www.uio.gr/metsovo and E-Mail is metsovo@cc.uoi.gr while the ubiquitous fax number is +30 (0656) 42320.

The current exhibition of documents from the Balkan Wars featured many thousands of photographs, newspapers, postcards, letters and military documents signed by the generals of the time — and occupied three rooms. I spent a good two hours on it and left most unwillingly. If anybody happens to be in the Metsovo area, don’t miss it. It’s superb.

Then it was New Year’s Eve and for Reveillon, with music and excellent food, we went to ‘to Tzaki,’ in the main square where we had a full menu at 4000 drs, a head — with the little squawker being thrown in free! We ate and drank our fill and finally staggered home at around 3 am, where we had had a game of Scrabble, followed by Blackjack, before hitting the sack somewhere near dawn. We played both games for money and Jason went to bed 5000 drs richer. The little pest had cleaned both of us out!

Next day was ‘pissing down with rain (as they say in the best circles)’ and so I fed the fire and tried to win back some of last night’s cash. I lost a further 2000 drs, before realising I had better start playing just for the fun of it, with no finance involved. Then I started winning and Jason kept on grinning. His loot was safe. And, not to be outdone, the little squawker, meantime, built castles and bridges with all the firewood left ... and some were quite impressive and showed vivid imagi-nation!

The following morning, 2nd January, we loaded up the car, bid our fond adieux to our kind hosts and headed towards Meteora. The day was sunny, one of those crisp, sunny-yet-cold days where the air was so bracing it imbued you with a feel-ing of total energy, like a cold plunge after a sauna, as you stood on the mountain top and just breathed it all in. I stopped at one lay-by and took a last photo of a glorious peak, still wearing its snowy cap, and couldn’t help remarking how similar it was to the Austrian Tyrol.

The road was full of bends, but without the ice we were able to keep up a steady 60 kph to the bottom of the Pindus range, then we increased the speed. Stopping to find my sunglasses, little squawker saw some goats. In a flash he was out of the car and talking to the shepherdess; and within 3 minutes, with me in tow, was off to see some 3-week-old baby goats. With great difficulty I got him back to the car and we were off once again.

After some time we were able to distinguish the faint smudge of Meteora, in the distance, like a puff of dark smoke and, as we neared, it slowly began to raise itself into the sky, like a gigantic space vehicle preparing for take-off. It was awesome, the sheerness of the sides defying any thought of climbing it. And, when we finally stood beneath it, we felt like tiny ants looking at the legs of some human spectator, or predator — the coldness of its shadow inducing a chill of uncertainty within our minds. No wonder its monasteries were considered a perfect haven for a spiritual retreat; you would have to go a monastery in the Himalayas to find anything comparable to this stark remoteness from the world you knew.

Sobered by Meteora and warmed by a good capuccino in the main square of Kalambaka, we set off for Larissa and, one uneventful hour later, arrived. It took a while to find the station that was hidden above an underpass and required a little ingenuity to locate, but finally we were at the booking office and in the queue. The time was 4 pm.

“Sorry, all trains are full till 7.15, in both classes,” the attendant informed me. There was nothing to be done but book for it, and find an eatery where we could chat and while away the intervening 3 hours. A seedy little man, stinking of garlic and representing himself as a taxi driver, came up to me and tried to interest me in taking his taxi all the way to Athens for the same price as the 3 train tickets, but an inner caution made me refuse. I just didn’t fancy being cooped up in a metal box with that particular individual for several hours, however tempting the offer might be.

At 7 pm prompt, after saying goodbye to Jenny, who was returning with the car to Thessaloniki, we were on the platform; we weren’t taking any chances with this train; and we saw the same little taxi-driver-feller still trying to find passengers for Athens. It obviously wasn’t his day, was it? Then, I asked a man standing next to me if this was the correct platform for the Athens train. He answered affirmatively and, then, asked me a question, in turn: “do you write for Hellenic Times?” It was my turn to answer affirmatively. He turned out to be a school owner from Ichalia, near Trikkala named Drivalis who was putting some young Greek-Australian relatives on the train. They were returning home after a wonderful three-and-a-half-year Grand Tour of the World.

My son had a World War I autobiography of the poet, Sassoon, that I wanted to read. I only had that night to do it as Jason was flying back to London next morning. So while he slept I speed-read as much as was possible, on the train, punctuated by strident demands for orange juice and crisps from the little squawker who strongly resisted any suggestion of sleep.

Towards 11.20, we began passing brightly lit houses and streets. We were passing through the outskirts of Athens and 10 minutes later, with a heave, snort and shunt that threw all standing passengers off their feet, we stopped; and were free to disembark, cross the railway lines and head into the hurly-burly maelstrom of Larissis Station, followed by downtown Athens, with its incessant traffic, pollution and ghastly familiarity. But, yet, it was home ... and there was a cosiness in return. The holiday, with its vivid and impressive memories, was over.

(Posted originally to HCS in March 2005; reformatted in February 2007)

View Andrew Leech's bio or read other fine articles by Mr. Leech in the HCS archives under the eponymously titled section at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/archiveleech.html .

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