Samarina, village without cats

Samarina is officially listed as the Greek village of highest elevation, at 1650 meters above sea level. This isn't that much by Himalayan or Andean standards, but in "salty" Greece it can have dramatic consequences: Samarina, like other nearby villages, is inhabited for about five months per year. Of course, this has also to do with the nature of the villagers: they are Vlachs, shepherds by an ageless tradition, who have to take their flocks to the meadows of Thessaly for the winter, returning to the mountains in late spring. More precisely, people, sheep and guard dogs arrive at the sheepfolds in the outskirts of Samarina around May 1; three weeks later, on the day of Saints Constantine and Helen (May 21), the people enter the village and reopen their houses. Bus service to and from the province capital of Grevena starts only in mid-July, with village life reaching its peak during the religious festival of August 15 (Virgin Mary's day, a very important holiday throughout Greece), which attracts thousands of visitors; about ten weeks later, Samarina is deserted, except for a single man who stays there as a "winter supervisor".

I visited Samarina shortly before bus service was established for the season, so I had to take a taxi from Grevena; the trip takes close to an hour and half, due to the road's condition. The driver was telling me about the variety of passengers he had driven to Samarina, many of them mountaineers interested in conquering Smolikas (at 2640 meters, second only to Mt Olympus); among them, the example of a school teacher from Thessaloniki who had crossed the Pindos mountains all the way to the town of Konitsa, together with her seven year old daughter, stands out. Well, this time we saw people hiking the other way: desperate Albanians on their way to the fields (and jobs, hopefully) of Thessaly, their faces burned by the mountain sun and traced by fatigue; they survive the trip thanks to free food from merciful Greeks or fellow Albanians working at the sheepfolds (and thus allowing the local shepherds to sleep at home!).

Samarina and all the nearby villages are inhabited by Vlachs, most of whom unequivocally define themselves as Greeks. Still, subtle differences from village to village can be observed; the taxi driver told me, for example, that while villagers from Smiksi will switch from Vlach to Greek while riding in his taxi, the ones from Samarina do not usually bother to do that. It might not be a coincidence that the leader of the (Vlach) pro-Italian movement during Greece's occupation by the Axis, Alkiviadis Diamantis, came from Samarina; on the other hand, I was told that the people of Samarina burned their Rumanian school in 1940, differentiating between their Latin tongue and Greek conscience. (Rumania had established many schools in Vlach villages in the past, in an effort to win local hearts and minds based on scholarships and the undisputable, as well as inexplicable, affinity of the Vlach dialect to the Rumanian language.) For another example of locally produced history, one has to go a bit further to the village of Avdella, home of the first film directors of the Balkans, the Manakis brothers: they went to Avdella's Rumanian school, recorded many critical moments of Balkan History and ended up spending their last years away from each other--one of them in Skopje, the other one in Thessaloniki! (So, Yugoslavia considered them "Macedonians"--in spite of the fact that Avdella is at the southernmost part of (Greek) Macedonia, where Slavic is not spoken at all--and Greece views them as Greeks.)

Upon arriving at Samarina, I got a room and ventured to the outskirts of the village, encountering some barking dogs and discovering some mini-strawberries, less than a quarter of an inch in diameter; they tasted like ordinary strawberries, but, according to Samarina's fruit vendor, "they are medicine rather than fruit". He also told me to always carry a stick to scare dogs away, for "not all dogs are good". Later on I was treated to a delicious pie made by the wife of a souvenir shop owner, where I discussed my plans to explore Smolikas a bit and other issues; when I touched upon the issue of the local tongue, its relation to Rumanian, and all that, he changed the subject by asking me, in a very soft tone ... "should a bear pop out in front of you ... will you get scared?" ("av bgei mnpocta cou kammia apkouda ... 8a fobh8eis?")

In the evening I had dinner at a tavern in Samarina's central square --all taverns and cafes are located around it--with a local guide and story-teller named Costas Tahikas, a former shepherd who supplements his limited income by instructing visitors on how to deal with Smolikas. Costas is an inexhaustible source of mountain stories; in particular, he told me about "dragon's lake", a cold water lake at an altitude of 2,300 m or so, where no one dared to plunge--except for the wife of an Athens University professor, that is. At the beginning of our conversation, Costas had a surprise for me: he pulled out a piece of paper out of his worn-out black overcoat and asked me to read it; it was a copy of a page from the introduction to Thompson's "Nomads of the Balkans", which, according to Costas, establishes the Greek origin of the Vlachs--or Koutsovlachs, to be more precise. Upon getting that sorrowful piece of paper back, Costas raised his voice: "I want you to know that we are Greeks!" I was very impressed by that move, especially since I had not touched upon any "ethnically sensitive" topic; but Costas impressed me in several different ways, of course.

Next morning Costas led me to the beginning of a trail he recommended for such a "lone, inexperienced hiker" and (special gesture) he made for me, out of a fallen tree branch, a "kseelo", that is, a hiking and "dog-repelling" stick; when I nearly tripped over a pebble, still in one of the villages flat streets, Costas maintained his composure his an "Easy, George!" ("Ciga, Giwpgo!") tip. Finally, we parted--Costas is too old to go up the mountain where he spent half of his life, both as a shepherd and as a guide--and I started my ascent. The (not so well defined) trail is rather steep, most certainly not for everyone, yet non-technical. On my way I encountered somebody's grave (with a name on it), a shepherd, I assume, who had been buried there for unknown reasons; it later occured to me that people like him and Costas cannot really be buried, they can only be "planted". (Oh well, this probably comes from Elytis' "mountain bottom where the dead sprout flowers of tomorrow".)

After reaching a flat area, I saw a shepherd with his flock; Costas had warned me of such encounters, mentioning that "they (the shepherds) are very lonely "up there" and therefore eager to talk to hikers and give them advice about the mountain". (That particular shepherd turned out to be a distant cousin of Coctas, and he even asked me ... to send him his regards!) Indeed the shepherd called me from a distance, asking me where I was going, etc. So I approached him and the two of us had lunch together, with a dog and a few sheep at a leg's distance. One of my peaches was exchanged for some sheepfold-made cheese, together with stories about America. He told me about the 400 or so local men who emigrated together to the U.S, right after WWII, and the "minimal" poem they wrote:


Ce banopaki mnhkame, 111111111111 We entered a small ship,

cth Nea Yopkh bghkame. 1111111111 we exited in New York.


5avtou gupizame, 1111111111111111We were wondering all over,

kavevav dev gvwpizame.1111111111we did not know anyone.


Me klamata gemizame1111111111111Our tears were filling

ta gpammata nou gpafame.11111111the letters we were writting.


[A fourth verse *in Vlach* talks about the young women waiting for them.]

After this extraordinary luncheon, I continued my hike. I was now on the mountain's "backbone", offering magnificent views in both directions, crawling on sharp rocks and moderately challenged by strong winds. I did reach a point, slightly above 2,200 meters (I went past a mark, on top of which someone had left a "kseelo" held there by a large stone (?)), which seemed like the very top of the mountain; and yet, I knew that the top was "hiding" somewhere around there, behind that ice-field I never reached: a small area covered by ice year round, save for some time in August, when the ice "semi-melts", or, as the locals say, it "worms" ("generates worms", "ckoulhkiazei"). Had I some more time, I would have attempted to reach the top and that mystical "dragon's lake", against Costas' advice. Instead, I descented towards another direction, following a tiny stream (the beginning of Aoos River, if I remember that right) dropping into a valley and creating a number of small pools appropriate for a refreshing, much needed, "bath" :-)

On the way back I followed a more complicated trail, brown in the beginning, green later on; more green then I wanted it to be, in fact: rather unexpectedly, I ended up losing my way into a forrest, all this very near Samarina ... and sunset. I kept looking, in vain, for the bright red of Samarina's roofs, instead encountering some *black* here and there: big trees torn apart by lightning, a reminder of the high elevation and the possibility of rain. As the sky was quite cloudy, I kept thinking of one of the shepherd's stories: that of another hiker who got rained on Smolikas to the extent that, "when he returned to Samarina, only his tongue was dry" :-))

Anyway, I was lucky to find my way back into Samarina before sunset, chased at some point by a number ... of flies! In spite of such a miserable ending, Costas received me like a hero and took me to his house, which he claims to be 400 years old. I was treated to some loukoumi and many photos of hikers, post-cards they sent to Costas, etc; for him, who does not seem to have any immediate family, all these people are like favorite students, if not sons and daughters in some cases: for one thing, it is through them that he now "keeps in touch" with the mountain ...

Dinner took place again at the tavern owned by my temporary landlord. As a special present for Costas, he dropped a roasted "fat-cube" on Costas' plate: completely bone-free, I understand, so that Costas' few remaining teeth would not be challenged; to this day I am slightly envious of that "boneless landing", for, all the other "fat-cubes" contained bone to some extend. Oh well, more stories were exchanged over dinner, and I had a chance to meet a few more locals, notice some dating going on openly among the young (modern times!) and observe the older men leaning gracefully on their "glitsas". (The "glitsa" is an elaborate "sheep-stick" ending in a hilt in the form of a snake or some other figure; longer than an ordinary cane, it helps the old villagers to stand more upright than their urban counterparts: they reminded me of eagles extending their wings, for some reason.)

Suddenly, among all those odors and bites and sights and stories, an "obvious" question hit me: with all that meat being roasted in the taverns around the central plaza, how come there were no cats "visiting"? Alerted by this thought, as well as my failure to recall any "cat sightings" during the day, I promptly asked my "landlord", who confirmed my fears: in this harsh, summer-only, environment, dominated by sheepfolds and guard dogs, there was simply no room for cats! "They do bring some", he told me (rather apologetically), refering to pets brought to Samarina from the towns in the plains, just for the summer. But, of course, those cats would be "totally domesticated", "bourgeois" pets, feeling rather "uncomfortable" in such a harsh environment that they had never a chance of discovering at a young age, they would be like "fish out of water": no food testing at the taverns, no street patrolling, no garden fights, no late night love songs, no roof courting or hunting, no ...

... No, such a "harsh" town could not keep me for much longer! Next morning I was leaving, but not without a very interesting conversation with the ten year old girl who was running the local breakfast place (cheese shop, I mean): I was thoroughly "interrogated" by that very bright future lawyer (or teacher), an adult-like (save for the occasional locking-into-the-closet of her younger cousin, that is) kid representing Samarina's youngest generation--a generation that "understands, but does not speak, Vlach", as she put it ... Back in Grevena, trouble over my travelers' checks at the local post office: they were swearing that they are not going to see such a thing for the next three years ... and more stories about the Albanians from a friendly postal clerk ... like the setting up of roadblocks to mug drivers ... or the quick arrest of those who stole the rugs from the city's park-festival and tried to run away carrying them on their shoulders ... anyway, no problems in that Albanian- dominated bus to Kalabaka, save for some heavy body odor that kept the few "civilized" Greeks away from them ...

(Memories from a trip through Northwestern Greece, July 1992)

[Posted on soc.culture.greek in May 1994]

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