The road to Voskopojë climbs through sparse groves of cedar, deforested by timber smugglers after the fall of the regime. The half-muffled Mercedes labors upward, swerving around the largest rocks in the roadway, pitching and yawing like an overloaded barge in the ruts. Then as we top a rise, a green valley bisected by a meandering stream spreads out before us. Koço points to heaps of stone, cyclopean ruins strewn on the hillsides: these used to be churches. Further off lay the remains of the great sheep farms that brought the region its prosperity when, at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, Voskopojë flourished as the intellectual, commercial and cultural capital of the southern Balkans.
At its pinnacle, the city boasted Greek schools–for Greek was the language of the Orthodox Church that itself enjoyed protected status and exclusive privilege in the Ottoman millet system–printing presses that produced great number of books, and a library. But though it also contained an admixture… who contrived to live in multi-ethnic harmony for the better part of a century, Voskopojë was, above all, a Vlach city.
…This may have been because, in Voskopojë, the collusion between the Ottoman authorities and their Orthodox vassals was both particularly acute and fecund. Voskopojë’s Vlachs… whose vast flocks produced much of the empire’s wool and cheese, enjoyed the direct protection of the Validé Sultan, the sultan’s mother, and later of a firman issued by the Sublime Porte granting the city mercantile and religious prerogatives unique in the Ottoman State. Vlach caravans made up of hundreds of pack-horses traveled the length and breadth of the peninsula, Vlach traders established wealthy mercantile houses in Budapest and Vienna. Come the end of the century, they all but controlled Balkan trade.
Early that same century the city’s population had soared to between 40,000 and 60,000 souls. Their largesse notwithstanding, the Ottomans refused to recognize or permit the use of the Vlach and Albanian tongues. Greek was the language of the Rum Millet–and the Orthodox patriarchy willingly complied. Pupils in the church -run schools of Voskopojë were, as a Greek source delicately put it, “allophones”–that is, non-Greek speakers who were to be assimilated, via the Greek language, into the emergent Greek national body…
At its zenith Voskopojë counted 28 churches… . On our left lies the shell of the town’s House of Culture, now occupied by a gaggle of free-range geese…
…We turn into the courtyard of Saint Nicholas’s church, the largest of five which still stand in Voskopojë. Beneath a wooden gallery, the outside wall of the church is adorned with frescos defaced not by the Turks, but by a generation of Albanian atheists. Inside, far from the wan spring sunlight, the cold is bone-chilling. From the darkness, a pope materializes, and lights several large tapers. Then, leading us over to the wall, he shows us the secret cache where the faithful concealed the accoutrements–the chalices and the chasubles–of the divine liturgy during the 25 years of atheist repression.
“Look here,” whispers Koço with a note of urgent excitement in his voice as he snaps on a cigarette lighter. The flickering flame casts an unsteady light on a darkly luminous wall painting. “This is the fresco I restored; it was painted by master Onufri, in the seventeenth century. There is nothing like it in the whole Balkans. Here, in the corner, you can see a peasant tilling the fields. And over here, look, the benefactor standing in front of the church he built.”
SALONICA TERMINUS, by Fred A. Reed (Burnaby, Canada, 1996)
A visit to the hilltown of Voskopoja (21km) should be part of every visit to Korça, although the road to the place is not very good and unless the arduous journey is undertaken in dry weather, a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
Voskopoja, or Voskopolis as it was known in Greek, is one of the most evocative and atmospheric places in this part of the Balkans, with Orthodox churches of the highest architectural and historic interest, remarkable fresco paintings, and the remains of a small urban settlement that until the mid-18C was one of the most flourishing and prosperous cities in the region. It was destroyed by internecine wars between the feudal beys, and has declined to a small village and centre of pastoral agriculture that is largely inhabited by Vlach shepherds….
The visitor entering Voskopoja immediately notices what appears to be incongruously well-paved Ottoman streets running between run-down farm building and small churches in the village. In the centre of the village is the Church of Shenkolle, the finest Orthodox church in this part of Albania, and also often the only church in the village it is possible to visit… Most of the inhabitants of the place today are Vlachs, and one of the many pleasures of a visit is to experience the culture of this minority people and to hear their ancient language spoken. At the far end of the village is a very small taverna, with exquisite raki made from local plums, where you can be sure of a warm welcome.
BLUE GUIDE: ALBANIA, by James Pettifer (London, 1994)
Epirus is the cloud-covered crown of Greece, west of the Ionian Sea, and the islands of Corfu, Paxi and tiny Antipaxi, and east of the long, rocky spine of the towering Pindos mountain range, the region’s natural frontier of Thessaly. To the north is Albania, inhospitable and inscrutable behind an uneasy border frequently violated by the region’s hardy Vlach and Sarakatsan shepherds and their flocks…
Individualistic and fierce, Epirotes have always been people of the mountain, shifting between highland pastures and lowland dwellings according to the season…
…In the dramatically beautiful region of Zagori, or Zagoria, high in the Pindus mountains, intrepid visitors still find vast, untouched Mediterranean forests. Above the timber line, sub-alpine grasses alone thrive in the cold, thin soils on bare, snow-dotted peaks. Fir and oak forests give way to sweeping alpine meadows, heavily grazed by flocks of goats and sheep. Away from the herds, beech forests thrive and, near the Aspropotamos River, mixed forests of beech, fir and black pine flourish. Here, on the Voďthomatis River, which cuts through the Vikos Gorge in a fierce flood of turquoise, plane trees and saplings shade the forest floor…
Voďthomatis, or ‘Ox-eyed One’ River rushes past the foot of the Vikos Gorge cliff face… Here, cherry trees blossom in spring. In summer their fruit tempts the European brown bear to descend from higher ground. The chamois and wolf are also infrequent visitors. The Sus scrofa, or wild boar, is sighted more often, and the Egyptian vulture soars in the clear air above the deep chasam…
VANISHING GREECE, by Clay Perry (New York, 1992)
Elbasani once boasted the most beautiful of settings, nestled in the deep green of its cypresses, but now from either approach the first view of the city is its gigantic steel mill, still working fitfully though most of its chimneys stand bleak and smokeless. The pollution from the steel mill, trapped in the valley, has done considerable damage to the health of the local populace.
The area was settled by Illyrians; finds, especially ceramics, in nearby Pazhok date from the 11th to the 5th century BC. Elbasani is built on the site of the 1st century Roman Skampa that grew up during the construction of the Via Egnatia. The first documentation is the tombstone of a soldier who served in the Roman 11th Legion and who died in AD 168, ‘in Skampa, where he was born’…
The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I constructed a fortress in the 6th century when the city, the seat of a bishopric, was called Neon Kastron (New Citadel). The Bulgarians razed it in 1230, but in 1466 Sultan Mehmet II rebuilt the fortress as a base from which to launch his attacks on Kruja, naming it El-basan (Fortress). Later, Ali Pashë Tepelena used it in his campaigns. An engraving of the city in 1609 shows a skyline of minarets.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Elbasani became a trading centre… but the city was noted especially for its silver, woodwork, leather and silk. The houses within the old fortress walls date from the 19 century. After an uprising by the local feudal lords in 1832, the Turks destroyed most of the walls; only a section to the south with eight towers and one gate remains.
The fortress gate, flanked by fountains (now dry) on either side, stands opposite the Hotel Skampa. Inside, above the gate, is a marble inscription in old Turkish script. The old town within the walls… –a jumble of low whitewashed stone houses in the Turkish style and a few two-storey villas, all with carefully tended courtyards. The cobbled streets are original. A couple of copper and silver workshops remain in the old stone buildings…
Although Elbasani is staunchly Muslim, minorities of Orthodox, Vlachs and Gypsies live here. Shën Kollit (St. Nicholas), the parish church of the Vlachs, was razed during the crackdown on religion in 1967; it is said that the stones were taken to Korça for the church there; the elaborate woodcarved 17th century iconostasis is in Tirana being restored. The Vlachs themselves have been to a great extent assimilated into the population.
ALBANIA: A GUIDE AND ILLUSTRATED JOURNAL, by P. Dawson, A. Dawson, and L. White (Old Saybrook, CT, 1995)
June 29 – The Day of Apostles Peter and Paul. … Because this holiday honours the greatest of the Apostles, those who are named Apostolos celebrate it as their name-day, as in Kalomira.
In Cyprus, this day is called the Lent of Stars, because they collect fodder for the animals from the vineyards and mountains.
On this day many do not work as in Epirus.
In the morning engaged couples go to the old village of Godosvada near Kalambaka to collect cherries and amuse themselves all day long. While they are collecting the cherries they sing the song called the Vlachs and Vlachopoules:
May I have a thousand sheep and five hundred goats
May I have my sheepfold on the mountain slope beyond
to perceive from afar the vales and high peaks
the ravines to be cooled by the young men with the Vlach girls
A TRAVELOGUE IN GREECE AND A FOLKLORE CALENDAR, by Sofia Constantinidou-Partheniadou (Athens, 1992)
Paleoséli has a couple of simple stores and cafés, but these observe a strict siesta…
The locals claim that before WW II all of the Kutsovlach villages of the Aóös valley, from Eléfthero to Vovúsa equaled or exceeded those of the central-western Zagoria in grandeur; with an abundance of local timber for long spans and carved interiors, the mansions here were huge and sumptuous. They were all burnt by the Germans in a one-week period in the winter of 1943-44, and the civil war completed the humbling of the district. When reconstruction finally occurred, it was in the jerrybuilt tin-roofed style of the depressed 1950s.
Paleoséli was additionally famous for its vineyards, which flourished on sunny, south-facing slopes down by the Aóös, but with the population gone the forest has closed in on the old terraces… The climate has become cooler and damper, and the local grapes now ripen with difficulty.
Another peculiarity of the Rumaniká-speaking communities of the Aóös basin is the prolongation of the nationwide 15 August festival until 19 August–the so-called Vlachopanayiá celebration. Don’t expect a free bed anywhere after the 21st and don’t expect to stay sober (the villagers coax a very lethal red wine out of the remaining vines).
TREKKING IN GREECE, by Marc Dubin (London 1993)
What seems to have been crucial in this process was not simply that the occupation authorities should be seen by the population as enemies–even in peacetime the state simply meant the tax-collector and the gendarme so far as most farmers were concerned–but that they should have been acting on an increasingly arbitrary and violent way. While allowing some regions to starve, they were roaming through others, levying taxes in kind at the point of a gun. Thessaly offered the clearest example of this, for the local Italian commanders there had tried to exploit ethnic tensions by arming the Vlach minority and forming them into a ‘Roman Legion’ to help enforce order. In fact, the Legion became extremely unpopular even among Vlachs for its arbitrary pillaging and its assaults on local merchants. Cattle breeders lost the right to sell their cattle if they did not support the Legionnaires, and manual labor workers were thrown out of work if they refused to join up. Not surprisingly, the Legion formed the target of the very first armed bands to appear in the region, who would convincingly argue that when the so-called authorities were condoning extortion and pillaging, it was up to individuals to restore order themselves.
INSIDE HITLER’S GREECE: The Experience of Occupation 1941-44, by Mark Mazower (New Haven & London, 1993)
The last section of this route is across heavily forested country, cut by two enormous ravines–Vikos and Aoos–and dominated by three of Greece’s highest mountains, Gamila (2497), Smolikas (2637) and Gramos (2520m). Much of it is Vlach territory, both the villages and mountain pastures, though there is–or, rather, was–an important Sarakatsan enclave in the Zagori, the area round the southern slopes of Mt. Gamila…
The area used to be more prosperous than it is now, as you can see from the suprisingly grand houses in villages like Tsepelevo, Monodendri and Papingo and the churches in Samarina and Laista. Like Metsovo, they enjoyed various tax privileges under the Turks, until the rapacious and semi-independent Ali Pasha became ruler of Epirus in the late 18th century and grabbed everything for himself. He died in a hail of bullets on the little island in the lake at Yannina, his capital, after a life of brutality and depravity. One of his most famous deeds was drowning a gaggle of Greek girls in the lake, sewn up in sacks smeared with sugar, so legend has it, to make death sweeter. He also took a fancy to the young Lord Byron who visited his court in 1809, on account of his small ears!
The region suffered further through the second half of the 19th century, when it found itself on the wrong–i.e. Turkish–side of the northern frontier of the new Greek state and was consequently a frequent target of Greek nationalist raiding parties, for which the Turks took fierce reprisals. Local brigands did their share of damage too… Then, in this generation, war, civil war, and the general modernization of Greece have all but completed the job of killing off these colourful and ancient communities.
Notwithstanding the sadness of this, what is left is still very interesting, indeed unique in Europe. The scenery is superb, especially the Aoos gorge. There are still a few bears. The shepherds see them occasionally. Wolves are relatively common, though a walker is not likely to see one. You might see a wild boar. Some friends witnessed the amazing sight of a lammergeier lifting a tortoise into the air and dropping it on the road to break its shell. Flowers abound in June and July especially–butterflies too. Gamila and Smolikas are noted botanical hunting grounds–Smolikas, in particular, because of its rock is serpentine rather than the usual limestone.
THE MOUNTAINS OF GREECE by Tim Salmon (UK, 1986)
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