A Trek through Greece, Macedonia, and Albania

Bitola bus station in the rain is not the most romantic of spots, and only the most devoted of wives would have tolerated this halfway stop in our wet wild whirlwind Balkan tour. There was an hour to wait before the bus to Ohrid arrived. She had a book, and I settled down as so often in my life to write up my thoughts in a low bar.

It had been a dull damp summer in England. A week in Wales had not allowed much time for writing or low bars, as we had most of our grandchildren with us. We decided to head for Greece and Macedonia, hoping to meet the odd Vlach on the way. There was a rare week of sunshine in England and on September 23rd my wife Helen was bathing in the Aegean, although the beach south of Salonica was almost totally deserted. We had arrived out of season, and thus enjoyed cheap prices. We did not enjoy fine weather.

From Salonica we proceeded in a hired car along the motorway which the Greeks have called the Via Egnatia to Kastoria, a beautiful town set on a peninsula in a lake. It has seventy churches, some of them very old, and about five thousand icons. Fortified by Justinian it played a prominent part in Byzantine history. Between Kastoria and Prespa in the year 976 an incident occurred, resulting in the death of the brother of the Bulgarian or Macedonian emperor Samuel at the hands of Vlach highwaymen. This is the first mention of the Vlachs in history. In the nineteenth century under the Ottoman Empire Kastoria was a prosperous town with rich merchants in the fur trade, Greek, Vlach and Jewish, building beautiful houses, some of which have survived. The Jews did not survive the Second World War, and I found no Vlachs, although people seemed interested in my interest in them. There was not much information in Kastoria for the average tourist, heading for Classical sites and sunnier shores, but it is well worth a visit, and the Byzantine churches are well recorded in the museum, where the custodian has their keys.

Leaving Kastoria we quickly got lost in an almost totally deserted wilderness of fine oak trees, the name of the place where Samuel’s brother lost his life. With difficulty we found the main road, and then bravely ventured down another side road to Krystallopygi, a Vlach village on the Albanian border. In 1991 we had made a similar journey at a time when visitors to Albania were almost unknown. Now there was a massive collection of cars and lorries. Apparently there was a strike by the customs authorities. I discovered this by asking a friendly Albanian, His Greek was worse than mine, and at one stage we communicated in Vlach.

Disappointed by this frontier we proceeded to Lake Prespa, shared between Greece, Macedonia and Albania, but unfortunately with no official frontier crossing between any of these countries. We had booked rooms in Ayios Germanos, which has two impressive churches, some Vlachs, but little in the way of entertainment as most of the restaurants and cafes were closed. Our hotel appeared in a list of picturesque hotels, but had a slightly monastic air about it and indeed, though we had booked for three nights we were told we could only stay for two, as the hotel had been booked by a conference of monks. Soon notices appeared on bedroom doors advertising the impending arrival of characters with names like Holy Moses.

In spite of almost incessant rain we spent a happy two days visiting local villages. I have recorded previous journeys to Psarades, largely Slav speaking, and Pili, largely Vlach speaking, in The Vlachs. This time we went even further to Vronderon, a village right on the Albanian border, inhabited entirely by Vlachs. Or so a nice man in Vronderon’s one café informed me, although he was talking Greek to his neighbour, and was more interested in English football than ethnology. Near Ayios Germanos there is an impressive display in English and Greek of the national park in the area, advertising the flora and fauna and talking of cooperation with the Macedonian and Albanian authorities who have similar parks across the border. These seem less prominent, and I did not see much evidence of any cooperation, although it is clearly in the interest of all the governments to preserve the ecology of the area and the many historic churches.

We saw something of both natural and architectural treasures when we walked across a ramshackle wooden bridge to the island of Saint Achilles. This has a few houses, a hotel and café, both closed, and a number of churches including a building as large as a cathedral, although ruined, dedicated to Saint Achilles by Samuel the Bulgarian emperor. We also noted impressive flocks of birds including a beautiful white pelican. No other tourist seemed interested in this remote part of Greece. Greeks are not very interested in Samuel, and Prespa is a long way from Bulgaria who claim Samuel as one of their medieval rulers. So do the Macedonians, although others have said that Samuel was Armenian or even Vlach. Unlike Alexander the Great, claimed by all and sundry, Samuel was eventually defeated, and this is perhaps another reason why Prespa, his capital, is ruined, melancholy and deserted. According to some sources it was at Prespa that Samuel was met by his blinded army led by a few people with one eye whom Basil the Bulgar slayer had spared total blindness. A grisly story, matched by grim stories in the risings against the Ottomans a hundred years ago and the Greek Civil War sixty years ago. The area of great lakes is a natural crossroads and in the past was much frequented by Vlachs, but modern boundaries have put a stop to this kind of traffic. There are Vlach villages near the lakes in all these countries, those in Albania and
Macedonia of long standing, but the Vlachs in villages like Ayios Germanos appear to have been wandering Vlachs given fixed abodes when the borders began to close.

We left Ayios Germanos intending to spend the night in one of the five guest houses in the Vlach village of Pisoderi advertised in a local guide. But the village appeared almost totally deserted, its houses opening only in summer or in the depths of winter. It houses the corpse of Pavlos Melas, a Greek fighter for Macedonia, and is a well known Vlach village. One of its inhabitants, S. Liakos, claimed its position on a pass between Florina and the Prespa lakes was a proof of the Vlachs’ ancient origins, descendants of Roman legionaries stationed there to guard the pass, but it seems likely that such legionaries even if they were stationed there would have abandoned their posts like the modern inhabitants of Pisoderi.

From Pisoderi we proceeded to Florina, dismissed by our guidebook as a graceless town. In fact it has some pretty old houses along the river Lingos which flows north to join the Crna which again flows north to join the Vardar which briskly flows south to Salonica. The river we met in Florina waters an extensive plain stretching from Bitola to south of Florina, the obvious invasion route for countless enemies of Greece. The Germans came through in 1941, and fifteen hundred years before Slav invaders poured southwards, possibly dislodging Roman legionaries in Pisoderi. The excellent archaeological museum was full of information about this area. It stressed the prosperity of sites along the Via Egnatia passing through Bitola and Florina, and of sites just off it, as Pisoderi may have been. The inscriptions we saw showing this prosperity were in Greek not in Latin. They were not of course in any Slav language as the Slavs did not arrive until the sixth century or learn to write until the ninth.

Slavs, however, are likely to have formed the preponderant element in the population near Florina from the sixth century until the modern period. Even today in spite of assimilation, emigration and strenuous efforts by the Greek government to deny their presence there are still Slav speakers on the Greek side of the border. We learnt this from a kindly Greek speaking goat farmer with Slav speaking parents who drove us from the frontier post to the outskirts of Bitola where she was busy buying peppers. Twenty years ago this border was easier to cross and more often crossed. There was a very slow train between Florina and Bitola which I took on my first visit to the Vlachs of the Pindus in 1974 and frequently took on other occasions. People used this train to visit relatives or look for bargains on the other side of the frontier. Sadly the train is no more. There are battered engines and shattered coaches at Bitola station to remind us of its existence. Sadly relations between Greece and Slav Macedonia became so bad in the 1990s that cross border traffic almost ceased. Even today the car park where we deposited our hired car under the kindly eye of a Greek guard was not exactly full, and we were lucky to meet the goat farmer as we dragged our suitcases across the border.

The political situation in this area is still tense. We met with no difficulties whatsoever. Other enquirers into minorities have been less lucky. Minorities apart from Greeks and Slavs like Vlachs, Turks and speakers of Pontic Greek, refugees from the Asia Minor disaster of 1923, are an added complication. So too is the fact that the Slav dialect still spoken in villages like Psarades and others near Florina is not the same as standard Macedonian, since this standard language was subtly altered after the Second World War to differentiate it from Bulgarian. It is difficult to explain those subtleties to the average English or American citizen.

Nor is it easy to explain the status of the country into which the kindly goat farmer drove us. I shall call it defiantly, as it calls itself, Macedonia. The Greeks insist that they have prior rights to this name, rights going back through Philip and Alexander for a thousand years before the arrival of the upstart Slavs. They call Macedonia either Skopia after its capital, or Fyrom, an acronym of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. I learnt in the cowardly  fashion of the ethnologist, anxious to establish the truth by softening up potential informants, to make the right noises about Skopia and Fyrom. In the Macedonia that was not Greek I made different noises.

In Bitola we were dropped at the Hotel Epinal, behind which there used to be a Vlach church. This has now moved to a new site which I visited on Good Friday this year, but in September it seemed closed even on Sunday. The Epinal was full of delegates attending what was called the Manaki film conference, although it did not seem to have much to do with the famous Vlach brothers. Instead we stayed very cheaply in a sinisterly opulent hotel where our enormous bedroom was decorated with frescoes of Alexander the Great. Bitola is a rather sad town, its old houses and streets disfigured by garish new shops and bars. Most of the inhabitants of what is Macedonia’s second city live in featureless high rise blocks which stretch for miles along the road which I used to walk to visit the Vlach villages of Mount Pelister. On a bus to Ohrid we dimly saw through mist and rain Megarovo and Trnovo, but were unable to discover whether the glacier above Nizopolje had melted through global warming. The weather suddenly improved as we crossed the rugged mountains between Lakes Prespa and Ohrid, and we were able to see the latter stretched out before us like liquid bluebells. Other travellers like Edith Durham and Edward Lear have waxed eloquent about the natural beauties of this district, although they are less polite about its human inhabitants. Both complain about squalor and oppression in the late Ottoman period. Both comment on the variety of languages spoken. Durham is condescending about the dear little Vlachs.

We met neither squalor nor oppression, and felt both lazy and complacent as we took the bus from Ohrid to Sveti Naum along the Macedonian side of the lake. We were punished for our sins. It began to rain as we passed an improbable series of luxury hotels, built at a time when the lake was a holiday destination for the whole of Yugoslavia. Sad notices in indifferent English tried to whip up custom from foreign tourists, advertising ‘The All In Feeling’ for potential visitors to a casino and for gastronomy ‘The Ohrid Troft, Ancestor of Mankind’. Rather sadly the famous Ohrid trout was not available for its human descendants either in Albania or Macedonia as the bad weather had prevented fishing which is now in any case restricted for ecological reasons.

We had come to Sveti Naum to see the famous abbey and to revisit Albania which we had been told was only a short way from the abbey building, now doubling up  as a hotel. Bravely we trudged through the rain with our suitcase for about half a mile to an imposing building which did indeed declare itself to be a hotel. But here came a disappointment. The hotel was advertised in our guidebook as of moderate expense, and hotel prices in Macedonia are generally moderate. But we were asked to pay a hundred dollars for a single room and slightly over two hundred for a double. I may have got the sums wrong, but we felt aggrieved at this monastic spite against the married state. So we decided to ask about the path to Albania where we had been told there were good hotels for sixty dollars. Amazingly the smart receptionist agreed to show us the way, summoning a waiter to drag our suitcase up a muddy path to the Macedonian border post where we arrived simultaneously with the worst thunderstorm I have ever encountered. The building gave some protection against the rain, but not from the thunder and lightning. In between flashes we negotiated in English and Albanian with the frontier guard for a taxi and amazingly after a rather wet hour one arrived to take us and two stray Albanians across no man’s land to the Albanian border post where we negotiated with some difficulty two entrance visas. The taxi, and our new Albanian friends waited patiently. The visas and taxi fares cost us about five dollars, and we paid the same sum for two glasses of Greek brandy in the nice hotel on the Albanian side of the border which was indeed very cheap.

For about fifty years after the War the border crossing I have described would have been totally impossible. I used to hear stories, probably apocryphal, of wandering Vlachs crossing into Albania in pursuit of their errant flocks. I also heard stories, almost certainly true, of agents trained by the Western powers creeping into the land of Hoxha, only to be met by armed defenders in their bunkers who seemed mysteriously to be waiting for them. The famous writer John le Carre has recently revived this difficult subject, maintaining as many do that the failure of these enterprises was due to treachery on the part of the English spy Kim Philby. I have been in correspondence with le Carre, maintaining a contrary view to the effect that it was incompetence rather than treachery which led these Albanian agents astray, as the British foolishly sent them on exactly the same routes which they themselves had taken when in alliance with Hoxha’s men they had infiltrated into Nazi occupied territory. I felt very sorry for both sets of infiltrators in the rain, and was very glad to see the Millennium Hotel rather than a bunker.

Next day it had stopped raining. We took a bus from the border village of Tutemishte to the town of Pogradec. On my first visit to Albania in 1976 fresh from a brief tour of Vlach villages on Mount Pelister I had taken an alternative crossing on the other side of Lake Ohrid, but again had arrived at Pogradec where I was ordered to have my hair cut. I looked in vain for the barber and the smart hotel Tea which I had used as a base for exploring Vlach villages in the hinterland. Presents and postcards were equally hard to find, but people were very friendly in this rough but cheerful town, and we had no difficulty in changing money. Rich with Albanian currency we lashed out on a taxi which took us to the border where surprisingly there was another taxi which went all the way to Ohrid. This town was one of the first jewels in the crown of the Yugoslav tourist industry, rivalling towns on the Adriatic coast like Dubrovnik.

I had first visited Ohrid by bus from Dubrovnik in 1974. The roads have got better, politics worse. The break up of Yugoslavia has diminished Ohrid’s drawing power, but the old town with its many magnificent churches, towering fortress and red roofed mansions is still impressive and fairly popular. We obtained a room with a view in the comfortable Hotel Alexandria where we drank Alexandria wine as we had in Albania. Alexander the Great left a powerful legacy, although it was Tsar Samuel and a Slav ecclesiastical presence which put Ohrid on the map.

Next day it was fine and warm. World news seemed cold and bleak, and we were sorry to have found a television that worked. A visit to the archaeological museum was a similar mixed blessing. Unlike Florina, hardly a tourist Mecca, Ohrid with all its visitors does not make much use of its museum. There were notices attached to each exhibit, but no overall guide to the curious jumble of relics, ranging from Greek and Latin inscriptions on the ground floor to prehistoric artefacts on the first to a collection of nineteenth century furniture on the second. The owner of this furniture had lived in this house. He had been a rich merchant, disappointingly of Slav rather than Vlach origin. The lack of focus in this museum reflects the Slav Macedonian muddle in sharp contrast to the clear, well presented if slightly unfair propaganda of the Florina exhibition.

In spite of this muddle we were sorry to leave Slav Macedonia. The bus bowled along the road from Ohrid to Bitola on or near the path of the old Via Egnatia, but this time it was dirty windows rather than clouds which prevented us from seeing the Vlach villages. From Bitola a very cheap taxi took us to the Greek border along a straight road with snow on the mountains on either side. We dragged our suitcases across the border, thankful that it was not raining or snowing and in our car proceeded to Edhessa, still more or less following the Via Egnatia of Roman times. Edhessa was an important strategic point in Byzantine times, but had a large Slav population under the Ottomans. The Slavs called the town Vodena, Voda meaning water, and the name is a tribute to the many streams which flow through the town and form a magnificent waterfall over the steep cliff on which Edhessa stands (Editor’s note: the Vlachs call it Vudena).

Near Edhessa there are some Vlach villages which I recorded in The Vlachs without having visited them. Now was the time to make up for lost opportunities, but shamefully like a bad baseball player I missed the second chance. We took a road marked Kedhronas and Ano Grammatikon, marked as Vlach villages by me, Thede Kahl and Asterios Koukoudis. Kedhronas seemed deserted, and we passed on aiming for Ano Gramustikon, an exciting village where there had been a Romanian school until 1945 and where Mr Zdru whom I met most improbably in Los Angeles ran into difficulties when he returned to his native haunts. But after Kedhronas the road forked, and we took the wrong turning. Helen at the wheel struggled valiantly with mud and stones. We met nobody except a lizard and some beautiful orchids. Eventually we agreed to turn back. The road not taken, as in Robert Frost’s poem, beckoned, and we should have taken it, as a kindly road mender explained to us. And we could have looked for the track to Paticina which I have wrongly recorded as Patima, another village with pro-Romanian sympathies, of interest to the Society Farsarotul, although reported as deserted by Kahl.

Sitting in the wonderful Varosi hotel in Edhessa I felt a mixture of shame and nostalgia that I had not as in previous ventures either caught a bus or walked to these Vlach villages as I did when I was young and fit, or hired a taxi now that I am old and rich. Out of habit I visited the bus station and discovered that there is a bus to Grammatikon (Ano or Kato was not specified) at 6.30 in the morning, and there is clearly room for a moderately rich middle aged Vlach scholar to do some research here.

Next day it rained solidly, but bravely we went north of Edhessa in search of Meglen Vlachs. As in my visit to Uma in April I found some and even spoke and heard a few phrases in that harsh tongue. Thede Kahl now reports on the Internet that whereas ordinary Vlach is now an endangered language, Meglen Vlach is seriously endangered, and I do not dispute his judgement. The Meglen Vlachs are now widely scattered. Some can be found in Romania, some at Uma and Gevgelja in Macedonia, and some in Turkey where they moved because they had been converted to Islam when the bishop of Notia became a Muslim in the early eighteenth century. There is still a Meglen Vlach presence in Greece. We arrived first in Notia, and were pleased to meet in a bar a mixture of races. Conversing in a mixture of Ancient Greek and German we established that one of our informants was a Vlach, one spoke Pontic Greek, and the third was the son of a Pontic father and Vlach mother. After 1923 in exchange for the Muslim Vlachs moved to villages near Istanbul in Turkey Greece received Orthodox speakers, some of them from distant Trebizond speaking an archaic form of Greek, not totally unlike the Ancient Greek I had learned at the University of Oxford.

We did less well on churches than on languages. Wace and Thompson record a church and monastery at Notia (Vlach Nunti), once the site of a bishopric, but we found no trace of either, not surprisingly after the lapse of nearly two hundred years. We were directed to a monastery at Archangellos, built in 1888 by an architect from the Vlach town of Krusevo. It contained some graphic scenes of a man being dragged down to Hell by demons. I hoped it was not a portrait of the backsliding bishop. In Archangellos we met a courteous waiter who said in English that he was studying Vlach at university. He directed us to Livadhion a village speaking ordinary Vlach as opposed to Meglen Vlach. From this village there was much emigration to Romania between the wars. One family that emigrated was that of Vasil Barba who subsequently went to Germany and organised Vlach conferences and edited a periodical Zborlu Nostru. This like Mr Zdru’s paper Frandza Vlaha has a slightly pro-Romanian stance, but also contains much written Vlach, old and new. Livadhion was a large village showing little sign of life, although some evidence of prosperity including a long line of lampposts leading nowhere.

From Edhessa northwest of Salonica we proceeded to Serres to the northeast. Kahl notes some Vlachs in the town itself, and in nearby villages, although Weigand, Wace and Thompson and Koukoudis do not mark many Vlachs in the area. I did visit in Serres a Sarakatsan museum, showing the beautiful costumes and primitive huts of this nomadic people, often confused with the Vlachs, although different from them in language and culture. The museum did not seem to have many visitors and the exhibits seemed curiously clean and sterile. In 1912 Serres had a large Turkish population and was first burnt and then rebuilt by the Bulgars in 1912. Another Balkan war in 1913 gave Serres to the Greeks. From the Sarakatsan museum one could see a few fine houses on the hill up to the citadel, an important fortification in Byzantine and Ottoman times. The main museum was also disappointing. It was anxious to establish the ancient Greek origins of the area, but did not do so successfully, parading inscriptions written in Greek but containing non-Greek names like Diulos. There were a few Greek cities on the rather inhospitable North Aegean coast, but inland Serres is mentioned by Herodotus not as Greek or even Macedonian but as Paeonian. The centre of the Macedonian kingdom was west of Salonica at Pella and Vergina. Paeonians were certainly non-Greek. In late Byzantine times Serres was usually ruled from Constantinople or nearby Salonica, but was sometimes in Slav hands. Another of Samuel’s brothers was killed there. The musem had little to say about Paeonians or Slavs.

Nor of course did the magnificent archaeological museum in Salonica with its splendid accounts of the Macedonia of Philip and Alexander. This rambling narrative intended as a farewell tribute to the Vlachs has often strayed off the point, and is perhaps making another point about the Greeks which members of the Society Farsarotul may not like. The Society has been extremely kind to me in the thirty five years I have been studying  the Vlachs, as have numerous Greeks in libraries, universities, low bars and bus stations. It may therefore seem ungrateful and provocative to say that the Greeks are not very sympathetic to their minorities. This remark applies to the Vlachs, Slavs, Albanians and even Pontic Greeks. Greek views of Balkan history are presented in a one-sided way. I read a number of books in Greek and English, lavishly illustrated, designed to show the Greekness of Macedonia. Tsar Samuel was hardly mentioned, Vlachs were called Hellenovlachs, and there were rude remarks about Skopia. In contrast the books and pamphlets produced in Macedonia were less well presented without the illustrations or battery of footnotes. The English was poor. Vlachs and Albanians give themselves an even poorer press, occasionally making ludicrous claims about the antiquity of their race. In The Vlachs I tried to be impartial as indeed did Professor Karikasidou, a Greek from a family originating in Turkey who wrote about the ethnic origins of a village near Salonica called Assiros where we dutifully stopped. Professor Karikasidou was vilified in Greece for showing the Slav origins of some of the people in this village, and to their eternal shame Cambridge University Press did not publish her book. I have never had any difficulty with publishing my books and articles, but I am a little nervous about the history of Macedonia that I am trying to write.

The waterfall at Vudena (Edhessa)


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