In the Realm of the Last Golden Fleece

A Review

by Tim Salmon, Lycabettus Press, Athens (1995)

Put aside for the moment Odysseus’ arduous journey, involving battles with the vengeful Neptune and optically challenged Cyclops; and ignore Jason and the Argonauts’ harrowing voyage in search of the Golden Fleece. Instead, devour immediately this wonderful book, which deserves a place of honor among modern travelogues, and — more importantly — which holds exceptional poignancy for our readers.

In The Unwritten Places, philhellene and author Tim Salmon was not out to find the mythological Golden Fleece, but something just as magical and perhaps of greater worth: sheep — in truth, a whole flock of them — which play a key part in this book’s remarkable exploration of a vanishing Balkan mountain society. For the heart of this enjoyable book lies in the author’s friendship over the years with one of the most noble and, sadly, probably one of the last representatives of Vlach sheepherding families.

The initial setting is Northern Greece’s isolated Ta Agrapha, AThe Unwritten Places of the title. This little-known, remote, and undeveloped mountainous region toward the northwest of Greece was so inaccessible under Turkish rule that it was excluded from Ottoman tax records, hence its appellation. Here, secret schools kept alive Christianity, Hellenism, and the spirit of freedom in a chain of mountain communities. Hidden within the scenic, serpentine folds of the Pindus Mountains, these aristocratic villages of strong stone houses thrived under near-autonomy, while in the hot plains below their fellow Christians languished under oppressive Turkish rule. Tim Salmon respectfully, yet candidly, illuminates a dying world crucial to understanding the development of modern Greek, Vlach, and Balkan history.

Salmon is both soothed and energized by this primal land far removed from most tourist itineraries. Here, pristine forests and mist-shrouded vales are crossed by hidden paths and gracefully arched Turkish bridges; wolves and bears still prowl; and majestic, unforgiving mountains shield the last of the Vlach and Sarakatsan shepherds who cling almost clandestinely to their ever more fragile premodern way of life.

Salmon, an Englishman and the author of several travel guides including the hiking guide The Mountains of Greece, has had a love affair with the country from his youth. He is fluent in Greek and Greece’s history, has traversed the land on foot for several decades, and thus is exceptionally qualified to introduce us to the still wild and inaccessible regions of the Agrapha and Pindus. Not only did his youthful passion for Greece lead him to return, live and teach as well as travel there extensively, but he also married a Greek woman. Despairing from what he perceived as the unbridled westernization and decay of the true spirit of Greece, Salmon undertook an odyssey to the forgotten communities of the northern mountains, believing them to hold the key to a more authentic and soulful Greece.

For this reviewer, not only do Salmon’s candid, perceptive recollections succeed in capturing the essence of these lords of the mountains, especially the Vlach shepherds, it also imbues them with a certain nobility, Homeric virtue, and endearing down-to-earth humanity. He unabashedly celebrates the lives of the transhumant shepherds he befriends as simple, purposeful and complete, and not to be abandoned or sold out for the sophistication, crassness, and anonymity associated with life in the mushrooming mega-cities. This is a stance some might denounce as naively romantic, atavistic, or no longer relevant; it takes a certain courage to write admiringly of this way of life in the 1990s, and Salmon clearly has it.

Salmon sensitively and intelligently conveys the fragility and remoteness of life in these eagle-haunted lands: “There is a sadness in these pathside encounters and partings. The life of each person you meet in such faraway places is so local, their experience so intimately interwoven with the detail of one locality, that you feel yourself all the time to be entering and leaving whole worlds, not simply crossing the path of another life broadly similar to your own. And the parting is sad, for you know you are saying goodbye to that intricate particular world as well as the person, and you sense that the people themselves are reminded of the imminent death of their worlds by your farewell, as if your departure were yet another rejection, another abandonment.”

To be sure, the author addresses early on the dangers of romanticizing life in these mountain communities. Village social mores still dictate conformity, although not as strongly as in the past when they were as unyielding as the surrounding snow-capped peaks. Firmly established cultural paradigms ensured family prestige, as well as village survival and cohesion. But Salmon has chosen to champion the uncomprised virtues still manifested here: the shepherd’s respectful co-habitation with nature, his self-reliance, hard-headed faith, and aristocratic integrity.

The book consists of two parts. Our readers will especially enjoy the second, which relates Salmon’s experiences in Vlach territory, especially the once famous village of Samarina, where his growing friendship with the memorable shepherd Tsiógas culminates in Salmon’s participation in a traditional dhiava (the pre-winter transhumant return to the plains that is the miniature Balkan version of America’s cattle drive). This mountain trek is a true test of one’s endurance and fortitude — the dhiava was conducted on foot for thousands of years before cars and trucks took much of the hardship and romance out of it some 60 years ago,

At times, this reviewer wished the author demonstrated the richer historical imagination of a Barbara Tuchman, Lawrence Durrell, or Patrick Leigh Fermor. For example, Salmon comes across a dhiava camping ground — a crossroads of sorts for all the Pindus Vlachs — and Tsiógas tells him of an actual battle that took place there in 1880, when dozens of shepherd families found themselves under fierce assault by brigands. Here, the opportunity to vividly bring to life a historical event that was to have serious repercussions for the Vlachs is unfortunately missed.

Surprisingly, Metsovo — the self-proclaimed “capital of the Vlachs” — is mentioned in name only. Does Metsovo’s obvious prosperity and tourist-friendly amenities rob it of nobility in Salmon’s view? Modern Metsovo is characterized by active foundations, an industrious spirit, and intelligent efforts to balance preservation and development. The town is making an active effort to provide an ecologically sensitive tourism that will reach out to, and revitalize, all of the Pindus villages. Does this bode well or ill for those villages? Clearly, Salmon finds it a privilege and a joy to still be able to find lands that are relatively free of the mayhem brought by bulldozers and concrete. But by addressing the existence of Metsovo’s regional philanthropy, Salmon might have offered the reader valuable insight into both the successes and pitfalls of Greek attempts at regional activism and preservation.

Although change must come — and in many instances is welcome — it need not obliterate the natural beauty of these villages and their surroundings, or sacrifice the stoic integrity of their citizens’ lives for the mindset of modern, disconnected urban existence. Can such virtues and independent spirit survive in the new world order, or is this tattered noble cloak — this final Golden Fleece — to be discarded into the mists of modern Greek mythology?

The Unwritten Places takes us on a strange and thought-provoking journey back to the summits of a harsher day. For some readers, it will prove a welcome return home, and for others, a way of life abandoned and best left in the shrouded mists of memory. Tim Salmon has created a worthy, well-written, and honorable testament to a lost, more authentic Greece and a valuable introduction to the heart of Vlach identity — the lives of its shepherds. Some Vlachs whose ancestors come from prominent, urbanized families with the advantages of wealth and education — a lifestyle far removed from sheepherding — may chafe at the ignorance or coarseness of some of these shepherds, dismissing them as “ignorant.” This would be a shame, for a great deal of humanity emerges from these vignettes, and every Vlach family can eventually trace its roots back to these harsh, yet resourceful, unwritten lives. Others will recognize men and women from their own lives and smile at both their forthright opinions as well as their boisterous esprit de corps. Delightfully, the shepherd Tsiogos is revealed as a remarkably sensitive and opinionated man to be admired for his professionalism, tact, humor, and prudence. If only Tsiógas had the time and education to write in his mother tongue, what a soulful contribution might have been made to Aromanian literature!

Shi eara, tsi nu sh’eara.” (“And there was what there was not”). Thus reads the Genesis-like introduction to many a Vlach folktale. Sad to say, the epitaph for these unwritten places will most likely be a transposition of that ancient preface.

Most assuredly, a place of honor awaits The Unwritten Places in the Society Farsarotul’s library. Aromanians and Greeks alike owe Tim Salmon a debt of graditude for recording this vanishing world far beyond the stereotypical advertisements of sun-drenched islands, whitewashed houses, and classical monuments. He has cast a critical eye upon the changing way of life in modern Greece and described it in a clean, clear, poetic narrative style. The result is a journey worth experiencing time and again.

The international symbol of the Vlachs: an intricately carved shepherd’s staff
(photo by James Prineas)


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