Did You Know What Others Have to Say about Us?

The Lippovans, about whom so little has been written and whose history it is next to impossible to discover, are to be found along the coast of the Dobrudja, that province of Roumania which touches the Black Sea. The Dobrudja was Turkish until the Treaty of Berlin, in 1878; and even in the southern part of it, until the Balkan War of 1913… The Dobrudja, in fact, especially in this southern part of it, represents a mixture of races that is nearly incredible. The Tartar villagers do not enjoy a high reputation; the Turks, on the contrary, are much respected for their virtues and honesty… This is the place in which to remark that there are 250,000 Roumanians living in Yugoslavia, chiefly along the Danubue and in Macedonia. There are a few thousands, also, in Greece, where the picturesque nomads known as Cutzo-Vlachs, who are not Gypsies, speak a kind of Roumanian dialect. I am, unfortunately, ignorant of their history, or of the date of their arrival in Greece, though I have often seen families of Vlachs upon the road.

Roumanian Journey, by Sacheverell Sitwell (Oxford, 1938)

There are a lot of references to prosperous Orthodox merchants involved in internal, or more often, in external trade, who maintained connections with most European countries and of course, the Levant. These people often lived abroad and they had adopted Western manners and ways of life. They were described as ‘comparatively enlightened’, but only a few travellers seemed to know much about these merchants’ activities or what part they actually played in the trade of the empire. The importance of the Greeks in maritime commerce was more obvious and, therefore, better known. Leake and Pouqueville were also well informed about the remarkable expansion of the commercial concerns of the Vlakhs of Epirus, from their humble beginnings of their carriage trade to the lucrative trade not only within Turkey but also with Russia, Austria, Italy, and Spain and even their ventures into banking.

The Eve of the Greek Revival: British Travellers’ Perceptions of Early Nineteenth- Century Greece, by Helen Angelomatis- Tsougarakis (London and New York, 1990)

Descending on the eastern side of the ridge, the prospect shows the two great branches of the Arachthus, or river of Arta; that on the west coming from the hills of Zagori; that on the east from the mountains of Metsovo. Above, the vast forms of the Pindus range tower amid snow and forests of pine; woods in dense array clothe the hillsides and below the river winds in many a serpentine detour…

…there is ever something pleasing in these moments of repose… you have the rustling plane tree shading the galleried khan, around whose steps a host of kids are sleeping, nightingales singing on all sides, purple-winged dragon flies gleaming in the sun, and unseen shepherds pouring forth a pleasing melody from rustic pipes…

Meanwhile the scenery was becoming more alpine and tremendous in character as we advanced into the darker gorges of the ravine… while crossing from one ford to another, the long lines of soldiers dashing through the stream added great life to the picture.

… After much labour and hurry over roads which skirt the edge of precipes overhanging the torrent, we reached Anilio…, a large town divided into two portions by the ravine, and presenting no very picturesque appearance. Here we arrived at half past seven o’clock, after a harder day’s work than I had contemplated.

Guards were stationed at the public khans, to prevent any one taking rooms in them… Andrea, however, soon procured a lodging in one of the houses of the village–a great contrast to those of the ordinary Greek peasant, being, although very small, perfectly neat and clean.

Metsovo is inhabited by Vlakhi or Vlakhiotes — a people of Wallachian descent …distinguished for their industrious and quiet habits of life.

There is much that is interesting and pleasant in this elevated town. The houses stand mostly detached among the gardens, rocks, beech and ilex trees, and a thousand pictures of pastoral mountain life might be chosen, though the general scenery is too large a character for the pencil. The people seem simple and sociable in manners; while I am drawing many of them bring me bunches of narciuss and cowslips and endeavour to converse. All have a robust and healthful appearance, very different to the people of the plains.

Journals of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania, by Edward Lear (London, 1851)

In Macedonia, the food tends to be spicer and the local palate honed on the bite of hot red peppers, endemic to all of the Balkans. Vinegar, brine, yogurt, walnuts, sweet red peppers and hot peppers are all flavours that appear in abundance in the cooking of Macedonia.

…The Macedonian table is one of Greece’s richest and most diverse. The cuisine has absorbed the flavours of all the different groups who to this day call this region home.

Further to the west, on the other side of the Pindus mountains in Epirus, the food becomes noticeably simpler. The land is poor and mountainous with only sheep and goat and wild greens to stock the pots and cupboards. The region is most famous for its homemade phyllo and savory pies (peetes in Greek). There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of pies, including savory and sweet milk pies, 20-layered cheese pies, cabbage and onion pies, leek pies, meat and rice pies, even lentel pies. Besides pies, corn is another area staple, and it appears in many guises in the Epirote kitchen… The region’s best known dish is bobota, or cornbread. It is prepared in both sweet and savory versions. Another corn-based specialty is the bolia, a dish of corn kernels and walnuts simmered together and sometimes sweetened with raisins. One of the regions most luscious plates is a pie known as pispilita, made of wild greens topped with a crisp cornmeal crust.

The Greek Wine Guide, by Nico Manessis (New Jersey, 1995)

The Epirotes are masters of phyllo and cornmeal pies.

One Epirote cook inflated her chest and began to take deep breaths, when I asked her to explain the secrets of a great pie. “Yes,” she told me, “our mothers are all wonderful cooks, but I can’t believe an American would want to eat such things. Our pies are so poor, so humble, so rough, with nettles, orach, leaf amaranth, bitter chicory, and other kinds of greens and weeds. Well, of course, our wild-green pies are more complex-tasting than the spinach pies made in the cities. And, yes, they really are awfully good… “

In Epirus, making phyllo dough is not only a culinary art but also an important part of one’s social life. In the village of Metsovo, I met Maria, a blue-eyed Vlach woman with a long braid down her back, who offered to teach me how to make several local pittas.

As she began her demonstration, I was stunned when she paused and began to pray to her ball of dough not to let her down. When I inquired about this, she told me that it was only the second time in her life she had actually “spoken” to a ball of phyllo. The first time, she explained, was just after she had married, when her mother-in-law stopped by to see how well she cooked. She was trembling, she told me with a grin, and so begged her phyllo dough to behave itself. Then her father-in-law entered the kitchen, saw her shaking, and ordered his wife to stop terrorizing her. “We have had peace in the family ever since,” she said.

The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean: 215 Healthy, Vibrant, and Inspired Recipes, by Paula Wolfert (New York, 1994)

…I heard hooves trotting smartly behind me, and a minute or two later a man riding a mule pulled up at my side. He was wearing a cap too large for him, pulled down so as almost to cover the back of his head. Black hair curled round his nape, and the wide jutting peak of the cap shadowed a young dark triangular face with high cheekbones, a neat moustache, a round chin smoothshaven, brilliant teeth and an expression sharper than is common among country Greeks…

…”Boas, Manoli,” he said, in Greek fashion giving his surname first…. He walked with a dogged stride, leading the mule and leaning against the rain and the slope of the road. I should have liked to make a better pace, for by now some obstinacy had made me decide to let the afternoon bus go when it overtook me and walk all the way to Metsovo. But I was committed to my company. Slowly we beat our way uphill.

…We stopped to drink a coffee, for which Manoli refused to let me pay. I was the less able to insist since his talk with the man who served us was in a language I could not understand; I only caught one single word which I took to mean Englishwoman.

“What language is that you are speaking?”

“It is Vlach. I am not Greek, I am a Vlach, and my cousin the same.”

We walked up the road to a house where a woman with flatcheeked, smiling face was waiting on the steps: “My cousin.” Struggling with my impatience to be away, I shook hands with the cousin, her husband, a friend, and a boy of about ten…

“How many languages do you speak?” said the boy when we came out.

A little startled, I reflected. “Let us say three,” I answered. “I speak French and a little Greek, and of course English; and,” I added vaingloriously, “I used to know a little German, but I have forgotten it.”

“That is four languages,” said the boy. “Languages are good. We,” he went on, as one not wishing to boast, “we have two languages.”

“At home,” I asked Manoli as we walked on, “do you speak Greek?”

“No, we speak Vlach. Greek I learned at school.”

“From whence dost thou come, from what place?”

“From Metsovo. We are many, we Vlachs, in these parts.”

…it was past six o’clock and almost dark, and I was beginning to doubt at last if I should ever see Metsovo.

“There it appears,” called Manoli. It was only then, staring downhill in the dusk at a grey huddle of houses like dark wet feathers lining a nest, that I remembered Metsovo would not be a cheerful modern town with bright streets and hot baths…

But at least it would have walls and roofs against the wind and the rain…

With rat-tail hair dripping under the hood of my mackintosh I must have given the passable impersonation of a witch, and thinking back I am not surprised that two children, catching sight of my socks coated with yellow mud, my cotton skirt clinging to bare legs purple with cold, should have pointed and burst into screams of laughter. At the moment I was too wretched to see the joke… Scowling and muttering, I went on. And once again I was made to feel ashamed of my ill-temper when a village policeman first showed me the way to the cafeneion… and then when my rucksack, object of so much planning was found safe and waiting, carried it for me across the plateia to the inn.

I was made ashamed, too, of my doubts of Metsovo itself.

“From Jannina you have come, from Jannina?” You have walked?” cried the woman in the inn. “But why did you not take the bus? You are wet to the bones!” There was a hospitable bustle which had an echo of eighteenth century travel: hot water was fetched, an extra towel to rub my feet, a pair of slippers lent me. I tore off my cold glutinous clothes. But my teeth were still chattering when, in a dry dress and sweater, I went to ask for food. The woman was cooking in the kitchen, in the Greek taverna manner, opened out of the restaurant with its stained table-clothes on bare, splintered wooden tables.

“Come and warm yourself by the fire, see, I will bring you a chair. I am glad you have come.”…

…The wheat and cheese soup warmed me a little, but it was all I could eat… I drank a glass of the local red wine, which I found excellent, and dragged myself to bed. My head was stuffed with hot cottonwool and buckshot, my feet were ice-cold, and I still intermittently shivered. What a place, I said to myself furiously, what a place to get pneumonia in; and fell asleep.

A lemony sun woke me at half-past six. I had never felt better.

An Affair of the Heart, by Dilys Powell (New Jersey 1983).

The village homes to which these wandering traders and mechanics return, are… chiefly in the mountains or hidden in hollows in the tops of hills, where they are comparatively free from Turkish oppression. Yet even in these high altitudes the thrift and industry of the Vlachs are conspicuous. Cornfields and vineyards clothe the hillsides, and the terraced and well-irrigated gardens produce an abundance of fruits and vegetables. The houses are for the most part small, and, like those of Greek mountain villages, roofed with broad limestone slabs, which, in addition to their other fastenings, heavy stones to keep them from being displaced by the furious winds to which these elevated regions are exposed. Snugly furnished, according to Oriental ideas of comfort, are many of these mountain homes. Tables and chairs there are certainly none, but the floors are covered with thick, richly coloured rugs, the handiwork of the household; and along the walls on either side of the hearth a range of comfortable cushions, covered with home-woven tissues, do duty for seats. The whole of the wall opposite the fireplace is occupied by an artistically designed and elaborately carved wardrobe, from which the additional rugs, quilts, mattresses are produced at night for “spreading the beds.”

The frequent and long-protracted absence from home of the men of the family naturally throws great responsibility and various duties on the women, and at the same time confers on them a degree of social independence and influence not enjoyed, as a rule, by their Greek neighbours. Far away as the men of the family may be, the field, vineyard, or garden attached to each cottage or homestead must be cultivated, its harvest reaped, and the produce converted into winter provisions; the domestic animals are tended, the sheep shorn, and the wool prepared for the loom, which occupies a corner of every dwelling. The daughters are from an early age accustomed to both domestic and outdoor labour, and a Vlachopoúla may often be seen returning from the fountain or riverbed, bearing on her back, besides a keg of water, the load of wet linen she has washed, a metal basin poised on her head, and her untiring hands busy with the spindle. Nor does she lack time to embroider, in bright wools and silks dyed with her own hands, her picturesque native costume, or to knit and decorate in coloured cross-stich the socks she sells to the shepherds, the proceeds of her industry being invested in coarse silver ornaments with which she decks her comely person on Sundays and feast-days. It requires, indeed, a strong frame to support the weight of the heavily embroidered and braided gala dress when complete with belt, collar, bracelets, and headgear of this alloyed metal; but such a frame is characteristic of these hardy daughters of the mountain, who are tall, well-knit, well-poised, and incapable of fatigue…

Although the Vlach communities in Thessaly and Macedonia maintain various social relations with the Greeks, they do not to any great extent intermarry with them. Indeed, it is said that while Vlach men occasionally take Greek brides, no Vlach girl ever marries outside her own community. Nor do the wedding ceremonies of these people–with the exception of the religious rite, which they observe as members of the Orthodox Church–resemble at all those of the Greeks, but rather those of the ancient Romans.

Turkish Life in Town and Country, by Lucy M.J. Garnett [from the series Our European Neighbours] (New York and London, 1904)

The transhumance of the Aromâni, and the seasonality of the Romanian shepherd were not merely, and perhaps not even primarily, economic mechanisms “determined” by the ecology of the northern Mediterranean and Carpathian lands, or by the requirements of ovicaprine husbandry and the exploitation of the highland zone. This transhumance was a seasonally recapitulated activity-in-common, which both defined and ratified the solidarity of the group. Pouqueville’s vivid description of Vlah transhumance during the nineteenth century is consistent with this view [eg., Pouqueville 1820]. Such scenes were also recorded by nineteenth century artists such as Edward Lear. The very act of travelling, from childhood onwards, between highland and lowland with the group, reinforced social cohesion. Like other such activities it would become embedded in the rituals of the society. An example from Samarina will illustrate this.

The Aromân village of Samarina, at 1700 metres on Mount Smolikas, is certainly among the highest in the Balkans. The muleteer or kiradji Costas Tahikas is a respected senior figure in the village, and repository of a wealth of knowledge about its traditions, and about the way of life so ably recorded there by Wace and Thompson [1914], all of which will die with him and never be revived.

Costas had often provided me not merely with the mule transport to enable me to establish camp on the pastures of Smolikas, but with that total care for the traveller which lies in the ancient traditions of the kiradji or dragoman, unfolding as we rode the ecology of the Pindus and the uses of its plants, pointing out the lairs and habits of its animals, its bears, wild pig, and wolves, and the routes on foot and on horseback through it, guiding the horses calmly through the territorial attacks of the sheep dogs; and finally setting up camp at the end of the day in localities which could not have been better chosen by a Roman Centurion. Even if it rained he slept out, wrapped in the woollen kappa cloak, woven for him by his wife and felted in the water mills of Samarina. It was men like this who carried Alexander to fame in Asia, whom Justinian chose for service in the granite desert of Sinai. As a Greek General once confided to me, he chose Vlahs in preference for paratroops in the Greek army, men able to march over mountains, sleep on the ground, and eat anything.

In 1990 I was present one evening to hear Costas Tahikas reminiscing, together with an old Vlah lady of the village. Together they recalled an occasion, near the beginning of this century. Costas with his train of mules had escorted her party when, dressed as a young bride, she had ridden in procession all the way from Thessaly up to Samarina with her dowry to be married. All the men were in Vlah costume, and the journey took a week. Every evening they built a fire and camped on a meadow beside the turbulent rivers which they were following up into the Pindus, as they were used to do during the stages of their transhumance. In this way they brought the bride to Samarina.

Costas Tahikas and the men sang Aromân ballads as they rode. Like most aspects of Aromân culture these were not written down, but in Aromân as in Celtic society a large body of knowledge was transmitted orally. The Aromân were far from illiterate, indeed they were the most assiduous publishers in the Balkans, and the tradition of producing news sheets still continues. The revolutionary literature of Rhigas of Velestinon, who was himself Vlah, issued from the Vlah-owned printing presses of the Pugliu brothers of Vienna. There were probably several printing presses in the Aromân town of Moshopolje when it attracted the jealous attention of Ali Pasha, and was destroyed in 1769 and again in 1788, putting a violent end to incipient urbanism among the Balkan Vlahs.

…The approved criterion for dress among the Vlahs was restraint. They favored a sober decoration of black or dark navy blue on black. Other groups may have been more flamboyant, but this would have been frowned on by the Vlahs. Byron as an expression of his philhellenism naturally adopted the most ostentatious Albanian costume he could find, thus helping to perpetuate it as the Greek national costume, but it is notable that for his sea voyage on the Adriatic he opted for the more practical dark warm kappa or cloak of the Aromân shepherd which he was wearing when shipwrecked off the Epirus. The fustanella of the Greek evzones is an attenuated formalization of the Tosk, Aromân, Romanian and ultimately Thracian over-shirt; while the bobbles on their footwear betray an origin in the same sheep-rearing and Vlah cultures. So does the “Greek” flokati rug, which is in fact another aspect of Vlah technology shared with and documenting a realtionship with the Maramure_ [a province of modern Romania].

…Aromân is one of the few remaining unwritten languages of Europe, although the culture itself is both highly literate and multi-lingual. This originated in part from the Vlah role as merchants, travelling widely in south-eastern Europe. It is also in part because they were driven to mimesis and concealment by lack of acknowledgement of their cultural rights to exist, and as a protective device against social victimization…

The Enduring Identity, Social Being, and Material Culture of South-East European Latinity, by John Nandri_ FSA, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, UK.

On the steep, precipitous escarpment of the western sides of the Pindos mountains, the small town of Kalarrytes crouches on sharp and wild rocks, thus making access extremely difficult and dangerous. On the opposite side lies Syrrako and in between the deep ravine of Skala, washed by the Kalarrytinos, the violent tributary river of Arachthos.

Pouqueville, the French Consul to the court of Ali Pasha, after his visit to the inaccessible small town in 1815 was dazzled by the wilderness of the landscape, and wrote that the place was meant for hawks and eagles and not peaceful people, lovers of art.

In Ali’s time, the small town of Kalarrytes consisted of 525 families of Vlachs, who … ransomed their autonomy by paying a yearly tax to the Valide Sultana.

In winter, when Pindos was cut off from the rest of the world by snow, the people of Kalarrytes, basically shepherds, came down to the valley of Thessaly and earned their living by trading their milk products. Those who could not make a living by cattle raising, turned to trade and craftsmanship. The main objects of these activities were cotton wool of Macedonia and Thessaly, silk of Aya, thick woollen textiles for the capes of the Albanians and the sailors of Adriatica, untreated skins, furs and gold embroidered cloths. The result was financial prosperity for the Kalarrytes’ population and the establishment of markets in the principal commercial cities of the time, such as Naples, Genoa, Sardenia, Venice, Trieste, Vienna, Constantinople and Moscow. The financial prosperity was inevitably followed by the intellectual flourishing of this town of Epirus. When visited by Pouqueville the people of Kalarrytes were fluent in foreign languages and possessed libraries with literature of both foreign and Greek classical works.

… the most famous silverware of contemporary Greece was created in Kalarrytes’ workshops by native craftsmen.

In 1821, during the conflict between the armies of Hoursit and Ali, when the Turks conquered and uprooted the people of Kalarrytes, the most famous silver craftsmen took refuge in the peaceful Eptanesa (the Ionian Islands), where they continued their art and become world famous particularly because of their ecclesiastical pieces of art. Tzemoures, Bafas, Papamoschos, Papageorghiou, Polychronides, are some of the names of the great silversmiths of Kalarrytes, whose memory was to be respected by countless generations of Greeks. It is said that Demetrios Papageorghiou was paid a golden sovereign for each stroke of his chisel. Among the orders placed by well-to-do ladies of Eptanesa with Spyridon Papamoschos it was one for a gold trimmed wine mug, mastrapas as it was called, which they offered to Lady Douglas, wife of the British High Commissioner, before her departure from Corfu in 1841.

Today, the world famous jewellery shop “Bulgari” of Rome, has its origins in the old goldsmith generation of Kalarrytes.

Dyo Megaloi Mastori tou Asemiou (Two Great Silversmiths): Athanasios Tzemoures [kai] Georgios Diamantes Mpaphas, by Pope Zora. (Athens, 1972)


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