Maria's Outlook (Panorea_

Monday, March 14, 2011

An Ionian Tsunami?

She fell into a deep sleep. She woke up at midnight, thirsty. Her body was aching. There was a lot of noise, music, yelling and laughing. As always, the clan was eating and drinking the night away in the restaurants, cafés, bars and nightclubs with the fruits of their ill-gained spoils. They were in the habit of going out constantly; not once did they wish to stay indoors or to face up to the problems surrounding them. Money blinded them, gave them confidence and an appetite for senseless living. They kept their bodies draped in designer clothes and their faces hidden behind expensive masks to bury their fears of cancer, unsafe roads, rats, drought and all the demands of modern life. Panorea could sleep no more. She knew where to find Kalosinatos, by the Sea, at their usual beach. Limping, and in tears, she set off to find her friends.

Kalosinatos was also exhausted. When he’d finished he took off his golden slippers. He couldn’t find his old black ones anywhere. His bosses had most probably thrown them away. They’d decided he was not presentable enough in his worn-out old black shoes. He decided to go barefoot.He found Panorea lying by the Sea. It was dark, the moonlight faint, the stars too high in the sky to give any light.

The Sea and Panorea were consoling each other, as usual. “Come and sit next to me”, Panorea called to Kalosinatos.“Take me in your arms. I’m thirsty and in pain. Oh, look at the seaweed, how it embraces my worn-out feet.”“The sewage smells so badly”, Kalosinatos cried out, in disgust.“It’s not my fault”, the Sea protested. “Tons of raw sewage, chemicals, rubbish are thrown into my arms all the time.” “Everywhere it’s the same. Please sit with me”, Panorea insisted. “I am here, near both of you”. “I’m sick. I think I could finally be dying. My whole body is disintegrating. I need water, fresh water, water that doesn’t turn my insides into rock. My hair is falling out. They’ve made such fortunes and yet they haven’t made provision for water supplies, for their well being, for the future of their children, let alone for caring for us. I’m thirsty, thirsty, so thirsty, Kolosinate, do something, Holy Man. I need a doctor, a hospital.”“Panorea, you know that isn’t possible. The hospital collapsed years ago. I can’t do anything. My strength and powers are exhausted. I’m finished, too, Panorea.”“Please stop crying Panorea. As long as we stick together, perhaps there’s a future,” the Sea gasped. “Even the members of the clan are not well. They’re sick. They’re rotting. Can’t you see? In spite of all the money they have, they’re sick in mind and in body. They take drugs to alter their moods.

Nobody cares about anything. They don’t seem to care that when they fall sick they have to travel long distances to find medical care. They die on the way, far from their own beds, in hotel rooms, in the presence of their despairing relatives. Of course they then beg me, day and night, to cure them by magic, using miraculous cures. They’ve forgotten, or most probably they never understood, why I am here. I did not come here to practise medicine, or to liberate them from slavery, or to satisfy all their whims. I came here to teach love, tolerance, hard and honest work, respect and dignity. What have they done?” Kalosinatos’s voice was sad. His eyes were sorrowful. His voice was hoarse.Suddenly the Sea roared.Panorea grabbed Kalosinatos. She trembled.A mighty wind whipped through the land. Mice that had gathered round and had been gently licking Panorea’s tears ran away in panic. Petrified stray dogs looked towards the dark shadow of the mountains opposite.Enormous mosquitoes were now flying above them. Their faces resembled those of humans. On their heads they had gold wreaths. Thick hair covered their bodies, and they had lions’ teeth. Human blood was dripping from their mouths.The wind was blowing from all directions. The Sea became wild.“I’ve also had enough. We must save ourselves,” the Sea screamed, retreating rapidly from the shore and from her friends, and rushing away towards the far horizon.The dogs barked. The mice ran and hid under mountains of rubbish.Stars started falling from the sky. The earth shook.Those among the young and old who were asleep at home awoke in horror. The rest of the clan, who were passing away the night having fun, abandoned their amusements and ran towards the shore.“Panorea, what’s going on?” they shouted.“I’m thirsty! Water, water!”“Well, that’s not a reason for an earthquake. Calm down, come and drink a bottle of water.”The roaring intensified.The people couldn’t hear each other speak.The moon vanished. Suddenly the sea changed direction. She turned back towards the shore. Although it was dark, She could be seen charging towards them. A bright beam emanating from Kalosinatos’ palm lit up the waves and the horizon, and broke the darkness of the night.“Kalosinate, the sea is coming towards us. We’ll be drowned. Do something!” they all screamed.

A second earthquake shook the land. Mountains split in the middle. Houses collapsed. Chunks of cement, bricks, and iron bars fell on the heaps of rubbish scattered all around. The clan-members were yelling. They saw the swimming pools bursting. The water was pouring down towards the sea, taking with it dead cats, drowned rats, plastic and cars.“Panorea, Kalosinate, Eternal Beings, save us!”Twelve-feet-high waves were chasing in, one after another. Thunder and lightning were followed by a hailstorm. Hail stones as big as rocks were landing everywhere, hitting everything.The shore where Panorea and Kalosinatos were sitting broke away from the land. The great chasm thus created sucked in whatever was nearby. Panorea and Kalosinatos were nowhere to be seen.The men in charge of the supermarket where Kalosinatos was forced to sell his wares were running away in despair, only to fall headlong into the chasm, still holding their huge bags full of money. The Sea swallowed up whatever managed to escape the widening chasm. The turmoil had brought the birds out of their nests; they were flying in crazed circles above the devastated land. Following the mysterious light, they saw a single majestic white wave travelling out to sea at an amazing speed, leaving all the devastation behind. The birds suddenly saw Panorea and Kalosinatos lying peacefully upon the wave. They were holding hands. They, in turn, saw the birds and smiled.“Come and join us!” they called. The birds hovered above them a little and then sat on Panoreas’ lap. She stroked them gently and they grasped her torn skirt for safety.The tempest lasted until daybreak.Nobody could have predicted such a disaster in the Mediterranean. At dawn the Sun appeared, pinkish, warm, timid. He emerged from behind the grey mountains and looked around for Panorea. A rainbow had appeared. The Sea was now calm and had returned to her usual seductive shades of blue.The Sun couldn’t see Panorea or Kalosinators anywhere.“As soon as I warm the place they will come.”

He looked closely at the land, and saw ruins everywhere. Broken fridges, burnt-out cars, iron pipes, great chunks of cement and wrecked and capsized boats were scattered all around.There was not a living soul to be seen.Then the faint bleating of sheep was heard in the distance, mixed with the gentle cries of babies.“Any minute now they’ll turn up. They must have gone somewhere, but they always come back”, said the Sun to himself, with a knowing smile.

© Maria Strani-Potts, 09/07/2008

Friday, March 11, 2011

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The Cross: Artform of Ethiopia

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Zagori, A gem in the Wilderness

Ali Pasha (1741-1822), the semi-independent despot of Epirus, who was infamous for roasting his enemies on the spit and for drowning women in Ioannina’s lake, had come to believe that Drakolimni, the Dragon Lake, high up on Mount Gamila, was filled with gold.

One summer’s day, during a quiet period between sieges and battles, he decided to visit the lake, desiring to find the gold and to bring it down to Ioannina to replenish his coffers. Who else could have a better claim on the gold than the Pasha of Epirus? Dire warnings about the ferocity of the dragon that lived in the lake did not deter him.

He gathered his slaves, loaded canoes and other equipment on their backs and set off for the top.

The Pasha’s plan was to enjoy the lake’s pristine waters, then to drain it and to recover the gold.

Nowadays the long climb up to the lake can be undertaken relatively easily, as there is a good path for most of the way; but in those days the terrain was wild.

After days of hard trekking they reached the lake. Ali went for his canoe ride and then drew up a plan about how to drain the lake.

In spite of it being the middle of a summer, a violent storm struck suddenly. The usually calm waters of the lake became a seething turmoil. Many men were drowned. The rest of them, including Ali Pasha, fled back down the mountain, yelling that the dragon was taking its revenge.

The truth or otherwise of this legend is irrelevant. Its purpose is to emphasize the Pasha’s greed and cruelty as well as the might and beauty of the Pindus Mountains.

There are few places in Europe that the travel industry has not exploited. I cannot claim that modern travellers have not set foot in the remote parts of Ali’s pashalik, but the Zagori (where the Drakolimni is to be found) still remains one of the least-explored areas of Europe, and the scenery is stunning.

“Come to Zagori!” I say to those who lament the tourist developments of Greece.

Its natural grandeur will capture the imagination of anyone seeking the magic and atmosphere of Ancient Greece. A mountainous area in the northwestern corner of Greece, not far from the Greek-Albanian border, the Zagori still remains unspoilt, beautiful, and dramatic.

The region has been continually inhabited by semi-nomadic livestock breeders for thousands of years before Christ and consists of forty-five villages. The vernacular architecture and beauty of the Zagori cannot fail to enrich one’s perception of Greece and of course of Europe.

The villages are perched high on the mountain slopes. From the many lookout points, stupendous views of the gorges can be enjoyed. Walks through the famous Vikos Gorge will satisfy the adventurous as well as the casual lover of nature. There are many routes from which to choose.

The area is divided into Eastern, Central, and Western Zagori. At the 19th kilometre point on the Ioannina-Konitsa highway there is a pedestrian flyover bridge. The signpost to the Vikos Gorge points to the right and this is the road to follow in order to reach the villages of Central Zagori.

The road is good, albeit with many bends, and just when you might think you are about to take off, a statue appears on a hilltop to the left. It is the giant-sized image of a woman, The Woman of Zagori. Zagori women have become another legend in Greek history, because of their brave contribution during the Second World War. Climbing the mountains in the harshest conditions, they carried ammunition, food and clothing on their backs. In peacetime, they stayed behind while the men went abroad to work.

They looked after the old people, the livestock, and produced children who later studied and went to university, having learnt the ethics of hard work; many of them became great benefactors to the area.

Do take the short walk to the top of the hill. This female image should be seen not just as a war memorial, but also as a monument to ancient, silent, unpretentious feminism.

The many villages are well signposted but almost invisible until you approach them. The stone houses, with roofs made of large slabs of flat local stone, are the same grey colour as the mountain rock. Often very substantial, and built in a style unique to the region, the houses have enclosed courtyards, guarded by large wooden gates. They seem formidable, but behind their fortified walls they hide the most enchanting yards. Full of flowers, these courtyards are dominated by the colour blue. Pots, flagstone joints and window frames are all painted blue, just like the sky above.

Vitsa, in Central Zagori, is the best place to spend two or three nights. Of all Greek villages it offers the ultimate Greek experience in order to enjoy the traditional hospitality and the mountain scenery. People often drive past it on the way to better-known Monodendri at the end of the road, but Vitsa has many more hidden treasures.

There are around seven main guesthouses/hotels in Vitsa. Bed and breakfast accommodation is also available. Impressively clean, centrally heated and with all modern amenities, the rooms are big enough to accommodate up to four people each.

All Zagori bedrooms have their own particular design. Wooden platforms of king-size proportions provide plenty of sleeping space on either side of the fireplace. Early in the morning only the tinkling sound of hundreds of harmoniously tuned goat bells can be heard, for miles around.

Some of the guesthouses/hotels (Selini, Beloi, En Hora Vizitsa) have restaurants attached. The others, such as Troada and Filira, offer bed and breakfast. There are about five restaurants operating in the village. Cleanliness is paramount here; the dining rooms are traditional, with open fires in the winter and cool yards covered with vines for dining al fresco in the summer.

The local specialities are well known and visitors come from far and wide to enjoy them. Predominantly a dairy region, quality grilled meats and stews, cheese, yoghurt, buttermilk, trahana (local home made sour milk based pasta) are on offer, but many vegetarian dishes are also available. The pies of the region are what bring visitors back time and time again, particularly the Zagori flour pie (alevropita). The recipe is a well-guarded secret, but I suspect that it is much the same recipe as for Yorkshire Pudding, with chunks of feta cheese added to it, and then baked in the oven. There are also wild-greens pies, chicken and spinach pies.

The village restaurants are within easy walking distance from each other and so are the hotels.

Tsipouro (local schnapps) is served before the meals and sparkling Zitsa wine can be ordered to accompany the meals. Lord Byron enjoyed it when he visited the monastery of Zitsa in 1809.
Discriminating visitors keep returning here, seeking not just the essence of nature but also the taste of the local cuisine. The walks and fresh mountain air will help you digest the food quickly!
Each restaurant has its own speciality:
‘Cinnamon and Clove’ specializes in wild mushrooms. Beloi offers authentic Epirot cuisine and Selini, located just outside the village, offers a panoramic view from the veranda as well as the best-baked aubergine dish in the world.

En Hora Versitsa, in the village square, offers a good view of a section of the gorge, as well as of Upper Vitsa, with its imposing stone manor houses. Dishes of giant baked beans served with greens are as appetising as the chicken soup.

Yannis’ Kafenio, at the entrance to Lower Vitsa, serves ouzo, wine, schnapps, mountain tea, beer, coffee and preserves. He does wonderful charcoal-grilled sausages in the summer and serves them with homemade fries.

Troada, a hotel on the way down from the square to the Vitsa Steps, is a beautifully restored manor house.

Filira offers bed and breakfast and heaps of traditional Zagori charm.

The best time to visit Zagori is in the autumn (just about now, in October and early November), when the trees turn red, yellow and copper and the temperature is perfect.

If you happen to be in Vitsa for a weekend then you can enjoy an Orthodox service in one of the churches. In the Greek Church you can come and go while the service takes place. Nobody minds. On Sunday morning you will hear the bells ringing and then you will know which church is functioning that day. Our Lady in Kato Vitsa is the oldest church in Vitsa. It became a parish church between 1600-1625. Small and intimate, it offers a powerful spiritual experience.

A walk from the village down the “Vitsa Steps” to Misios Bridge is a must. If you do not want to do the full seven-hour trek from Monodendri to Vikos village or the even longer trek up to Papingo and to the Dragon Lake, take the short walk to Kokoros Bridge. It is much easier and less demanding. The river at the bottom is full of water for much of the year, but by June it dries up.

In the winter the temperature can be low, but more often than not the warm Greek sun enables residents and visitors to eat outdoors, to go for walks, climb the mountain tracks and visit the other villages.

Oxies (Oaks) is situated beyond Monodendri. From there the gorge can be seen at its most dramatic. When I’m there, I often think of the British poet Peter Levi, who once wrote the line, “Virtue is in the mountains and in the stony villages.”

Who can argue with that?
See also “The Ionian Islands and Epirus, A Cultural History” (Signal Books, Oxford, 2010)