Do You Know What Others Have to Say about Us?

Each stall-holder has something special to tempt the difficult customers. Some tsouknides (nettles) that are boiled and given to those with upset stomachs; roka (rocket) or Vlach herb and mixes of horta (wild greens) called moschucite for using in pies. A man with a wheelbarrow of giant and baby leeks and spring onions, blocks the road, anxious to sell as quickly as possible. There are live carp and trout on their sides in baking trays of water, gulping at the surface, the fisherman stroking them affectionately. At lunchtime, the mountain women bring out their frugal picnics of alethropita (flour and cheese pie) and galatopita (sweet egg and milk pies), laughing at the man on the red bicycle wobbling along the road with his leeks tied to his back…

The Vlachs, noble and proud they may be, but their determination to survive causes moral dilemmas somewhere. Where once they roamed with their flocks across the Balkans they now drive their new pick-up trucks to permanent pastures in the lowlands around Ioannina… Their dialect is a lilting romance language like Romanian that seems to give them the advantage in numerous private discussions in the shops, but has a mesmerizing effect on the listener.

–A Taste of the Aegean: Greek Cooking and Culture, by Andy Harris with photographs by Terry Harris, New York, NY (1992).

The company had to deal, of course, with the troubles of brigands in old days, a problem which they solved effectively by making most of the men concerned into watchmen; and they also have to keep a working understanding with the Vlachs. This very interesting people are not Greek at all–though they are presumably Greek subjects now… Though gipsy-like, they are shepherds by business, and their tribal name has become a sort of synonym for that ancient profession… Some of them have taken and are taking to village life in these days. Generally, they are a people kindly as they are picturesque, patriarchally hospitable and good sportsmen, as many an English Consul knows, and by no means ill favoured.

–Hellenic Travel, A.A. Wigram, Glasgow (1951)

Whatever their origins, the Vlahis have clung fiercely together, despite sporadic attacks on their culture by more nationalistic Greek governments…

…Organized tourist buses stop in Metsovo daily during the summer and the souvenir shops around the main platia are kept busy, leading some to claim that Metsovo practices “tradition for tourism’s sake.” This is hardly a fair accusation, as anyone who arrives outside the summer months will see, but there are many facilities for tourists…

…Several shops sell Metsovo cheese, an absolute must for anyone who likes their cheese hard and tasty… honey is also a popular buy. Note the carpentry workshops where the old Vlahi art of woodcarving is still practiced. Some of the work is superb…

Other places of interest …include an art gallery featuring the works of contemporary Greek artists and, besides the clock tower, the fifteenth century church of Agai Paraskevi…

A 15 minute walk down the hillside leads to the small and serene monastery of Agios Nikolaos. Ring the bell for the caretaker who is happy to open the chapel to allow visitors to see the beautiful post-Byzantine frescoes painted there.

–Off the Beaten Track: Greece, by Geoffrey Brown, U.K. (1991)

In this same period [early 17th century], many people settled down on the outskirts of Thessalonica in Asvestochorion (Kirets-Kioi) to the south of a church beside the rill known as Vlachikos Lakkos. Apparently they still spoke Vlach. They were craftsmen–tailors, dyers, jewellers, shoemakers, and so on. They were also more civilized than the local inhabitants, to whom they referred disparagingly as “peasants.”

The people of the Agrafa …moved to the east across the Sea of Marmara and colonized villages along the coast of Asia Minor. Others went north and settled in Philippopolis (now Plovdiv) where there were also Greek immigrants from Epirus, Moschopolis (the exodus from this city was occasioned by its destruction), Rhodes, and the district of Stenemachos. However, most of the migrants from the Agrafa went even further north to the Danubian principalities, where their Latin dialect apparently facilitated intercourse with the indigenous peoples of those lands. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as evidence of their prosperity, these expatriates built handsome homes and beautiful churches in the Agrafa, the Aspropotamos, and generally throughout the Pindus and its spurs. These churches still serve as reminders of the close relationships between the Greeks from the Agrafa and the countries to which they migrated, notably Rumania.

–The Greek Nation: 1453-1669, Apostolos E. Vacalopoulos, New Jersey (1976)

I asked him what the name Sarakatsan meant, saying that I heard it was really Karakatchani, a Turkish word meaning “the black ones who depart” or “the black departers.” He shut his eyes and flung back his head, clicking his head in the negative, “Tk, tk! That’s not right. We don’t know, but some people say we get our name from the village of Syrako, in Epirus. They say Ali Pasha burnt the place down and drove us away and left us wandering ever since.” I said Syrako was a Koutzovlach village. (It is, in fact, the birthplace of Kolettis, the War of Independence hero, and one of the early Prime Ministers of Greece… also the poets Krystallis and Zalacosta. It is a large Vlach village on the Acheloos–Aspropotamo or ‘white river’ in demotic. The inhabitants are known as tzintzari… In winter their huts are scattered inland from Preveza by the hundred.)

Uncle Petro testily stabbed the butt of his crook into the matt several times. “I don’t know anything about that! We are Greeks. Nothing to do with the Koutzovlachs. Who knows where they come from? You can’t understand what they say when they are talking among themselves. People are always getting us mixed up, because we both wear black and graze flocks. We keep clear of them. You’ll never get a Sarakatsan marrying a Koutzovlach. Let alone a Karagouni! Po, po, po!” At the mention of these Black-Capes, who are alternatively called Arvanitovlachi … he caught the hem of his jacket between finger and thumb in a pan-hellenic gesture of squeamish disdain, and shook it lightly to and fro as though to rid it of dust and vermin.

–Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece, Patrick Leigh Fermor, London (1966)

Metsovo is no exception to the spirit of revenge in Greek politics. The main street marked the dividing line in the civil war, with the communist andartes on the high ground above, and the artillery of the government commander Zervas across the valley below. Looking across the rooftops after the 1985 election, I saw half the village flying the colours of the conservatives and half those of the Pasok socialists: the blue and the green, the colours of the brawling factions of Byzantium…

Metsovo is exceptional among mountain villages of the northern Mediterranean in its cultural diversity and well-being, and freedom from the symptoms of neglect and abandon prevalent in such regions. Unlike the rocky survivors of Calabria and Sicily, wealth and longevity in Metsovo are not the gift of corrupt political patrons or the families of organised crime.

–The Inner Sea: The Mediterranean and Its People, Robert Fox, New York (1993)

Plans for revolt were not confined to the Greeks. There were two competing impulses at work in the Balkan territories of the Ottoman Empire: one purely nationalist, aiming at the liberation of Greeks, Serbs, Albanians or Rumanians, as such; the other aiming at a Balkan federation of autonomous states, not necessarily severed from Turkish suzerainty. Rhigas Pheraios (who was by birth a Vlakh) was as a supporter of the latter aim. He wanted a multi-national Balkan State in which Greek would be the language of administration and the Church–a replica in minature of the Byzantine Empire. That such dreams were shared by many potential leaders of the several peoples should not be forgotten, even though nationalism eventually prevailed and made the word “Balkan” a by-word for petty chauvinism.

–Modern Greece: A Short History, C.M. Woodhouse, London (1968)

[Text accompanying old photograph of Dilessi brigands:] Members of the band of brigands who, in April 1870, kidnapped and subsequently murdered at Dilessi in Boeotia a party of English aristocrats. The outrage provoked a crisis in relations with Britain, led to the downfall of the government and focused international attention on the endemic lawlessness of much of rural Greece, including the neighborhood of the capital, in the ninetheenth century… negotiations were bungled and opposition politicians, in the hope of bringing down the government, encouraged the brigand leaders to hold out for an amnesty which the king, under the 1864 constitution, was not empowered to grant… Much obloquy was heaped on Greece, particularly by the British press. Greeks of all parties rallied in defense of the national honour and attempts were made to pin the blame on the Albanians and Vlachs. Throughout the nineteenth century brigandage, which had its roots in the pre-revolutionary period, was a major social problem. The irregulars who had made such an important military contribution to the war for independence proved difficult to assimilate into the regular army that was created by King Otto and they enjoyed an uneasy toleration by politicians who found their services useful whenever there was a need to stir up trouble across the Turkish frontier in pursuit of irredentist activities… Moreover, politicians were not averse to exploiting brigandage for their own ends. In the 1894 trial of a deputy from Thessaly it emerged that the pickings of one brigand band had been shared with the Church and the deputy and his brothers.

–A Concise History of Greece, Richard Clogg, New York (1992)

…But I have been unlucky with strange animals in Greece. Most of my contacts have been at one remove. I have never seen a wolf in Greece, though I arrived in Grevena years ago just after a party of Gipsies, trudging across the snow to play at a wedding, had been eaten to a man, little remaining except their boots and a hand clutching the neck of a fiddle with which its owner had obviously been laying about him as a weapon of defense. I once saw a wild boar on the Albanian border, one or two deer in the Pindus, a bear never, though a few years ago, just after the civil war, an old Vlach shepherd in Samarina said to me: “Last year, when the hard fighting was going on up there,” he pointed to the surrounding peaks, “the bears all moved down into the valleys and villages. You met them everywhere. They couldn’t stand the noise, and I don’t blame them.”

–MANI: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, Patrick Leigh Fermor, New York (1958)

…he [Croat leader Stefan Raditch] had stern race theories, which made him despise many of the inhabitants of southern Yugoslavia and reproach the Serbs bitterly for admitting to Government posts of Yugoslavia such people as Vlachs…he had learned to accept the Serbians, but the remoter peoples of wilder Yugolsavia were hardly better than Negroes seen through the eyes of Southerners. He used the word “Tsintsar” as an insult, as if it meant a kind of human mongrel, although the “Tsintsari” are a race of shepherds who have gone respectably about their business on the Macedonian uplands since the days of Byzantium. He was completely insensible to the poetry of the Yugoslavian idea, to the charity that inspired it in spite of its blunders and brutalities. It meant nothing to him that people had been rescued from the power of Islam and were restored to Christian civilization in the shelter of this state.

–Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West, New York (1941)

There is a central ambiguity in Greece about Vlach culture now. Officially, as there are no recognized ethnic minorities in Greece, Vlach is not used in schools…

There is a sense of unease when talking to Vlachs about their efforts to preserve their culture and traditions in the face of official indifference verging on hostility. Most Vlachs feel they have never done anything to rock the Greek political boat, in terms of separatist or nationalist ambitions, and they should get a better deal. But in Athens there is little response and many independent observers feel that the whole issue shows the over-centralized and inherently authoritarian Greek education and cultural establishment at its worst. It would cost very little to satisfy the extremely modest ambitions of most Vlachs which, in terms of the formal educational system, extend only to the introduction of a certain amount of Vlach language-teaching for small children and some help with publications. The Athens establishment will have itself to blame if, in a time of increasing demands for cultural autonomy in the Balkans, the present very moderate and responsible leaders of Vlach opinion are replaced by more militant and difficult figures. …It is not easy to postulate how government action of any kind can help them and so preserve Greek cultural diversity and richness. But it would not be too controversial, say, for a Greek government to change aspects of its education policy to improve the status of the Vlach language. There are only perhaps forty or fifty thousand Vlachs and despite their general unpopularity their patriotism is not, nor has ever been, in question.

–The Greeks: The Land and the People Since the Last War, James Pettifer, 1993, London.

The Ottoman occupation of Ioannina lasted 482 years, during which time the city’s famous guilds flourished, and Christians and Jews, respected by the Moslems as monotheistic “People of the Book,” organized according to profession or trade. Even now, Ioannina retains some of this atmosphere of a guild town. The main commercial street is lined with silversmiths, for Ioannina was once famous for its filigree and niello work, and the tradition persists. The capital and Epirot villages, in the Pindos such as Syrako and Kalarites, became known for their master jewellers.

Working in Iagara, the purest silver, the jewellers of Ioannina created for Epirot ladies massive three-piece buckles, intricate bodice ornaments and heavy, jewelled headpieces worn on scarves at the temples. In these communities so dependent on flocks of sheep and goats, St. George, patron saint of shepherds, was a frequent motif, as were the Virgin Mary and Christ. In Ioannina, niello work was most characteristic. Called savati in Greek, it is a technique that involves the filling of carved intaglio designs on silver or gold pieces with a mixture of powdered silver and lead… When a piece is fired, a glossy black design on a silver base results. Savati and filigree work were sought-after additions to the doweries of Epirot brides from all over the region up through the nineteenth century. The old techniques have not died out and traditional designs are enjoying a renaissance, though orders for dowry pieces are long a thing of the past.

In Epirus, as throughout Greece, traditional culture, and all its time-tested forms, is disappearing faster than modern culture can find values, rituals and an alternative system of belief to replace the old, complex fabric of being. But the Greeks have a lively, informed sense of their ancestral ways, and there is a determined scholarly community of Greek and foreign archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, musicologists, folklorists and lay people stepping into the breach to capture, on film, in museums, and in academic and popular literature, a way of life marked for extinction.

–Vanishing Greece, Photographs by Clay Perry; Introduction by Patrick Leigh Fermor, London (1991)

However Vlach language and culture received little encouragement in the inter-war years. Protests about their poor treatment were largely confined to scholars such as Capidan. We have seen odd survivals of the reforms of Apostol Margarit, like the Romanian school at Ano Grammatikon, which lasted until 1945, but this was exceptional. Census figures suggest a decline in the number of Vlachs or the determination of both Yugoslav and Greek governments to keep the minority figures low. Both processes were going on at the same time, although visits now to Vlach villages where those over 50 still speak Vlach suggest that Vlach still stubbornly refused to yeild much ground between the wars.

During the Second World War and the Civil War which followed it, Vlach territory was again fought over, though this time in guerilla campaigns rather than on a regular basis. In the Italian campaign of 1940 the Italians got as far as Vovousa [Baieasa], but were then thrown back into Albania, so that some of the Albanian Vlachs became briefly part of Greece again…Still less of an impression was made by the almost comic efforts of the Italians to rouse their fellow Latin-speakers into supporting the cause of the Axis…

The war was a tragedy for most Balkan mountain villages. They were lucky if they were only burnt once. Vlach hospitality, like Greek and Slav hospitality, is a wonderful thing; but even today one is nervous about visiting an unknown village. It may have been burned down by the Germans or by the communists during the Civil War, and as a representative of a race that fought the Germans and the communists one feels one is vaguely acceptable. But the Germans may have burnt down the village for harbouring a British soldier, and the village may have been on the side of the andartes. Tact and Vlach friendliness usually smooth over any rough edges.

–The Vlachs: History of a Balkan People, Tom J. Winnifrith, New York (1987)

…The passing migratory shepherd could be made to supplement the income of all those thriving on irridentism, brigandage, and the suppression of frontier outlawry. An instance of such disposession is indicative of the ways in which the passing migratory shepherd was made to suffer. In May 1886, 17 shepherds from Metsovo, who used to spend the winter months in Thessaly with their flocks and were returning to their summer mountain pastures, were first delayed at Malakasi near the border by Greek customs officials, who took, in addition to an illegal duty, a number of animals from each flock. Even more exacting proved a captain of Greek frontier guards, who had the shepherds beaten and locked up in an inn, so that his men could choose and lead away the best animals from each flock. The disposessed shepherds wrote to the Greek consul at Giannina [Ioannina] to complain and claim back the stolen sheep and goats. Four months later they had made no progress at all.

–Brigands With A Cause: Brigandage & Irredentism in Modern Greece 1821 – 1912, John Koliopoulos, New York (1987)


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *