I close my eyes and picture Zagori in my mind: Everything must be in full bloom by now. The mushrooms will have sprung up and the plane trees will be in leaf; the landscape covered in green.
Soon, Elli will exit her house, basket in hand like little Red Riding Hood, to collect morels, wild garlic and wild strawberries, no longer having to worry about any lockdown restrictions. She will make her sweets and liqueurs for the Sterna café and gift shop, and the aromas coming out of her house will spread through the whole village of Papigo.
She will also pick lemon balm, spearmint, elderflower and sage – these precious herbs growing in the rich land of the Zagori region. She will get together with her family and they will all go picking wild herbs while Kyria Elena, her mother-in-law, bakes incredible pies under a view of the “towers” – the mountain peaks of Astraka.
In the village of Kapesovo, her parents and her sister Yianna will be performing the exact same tasks at Thoukididis Guesthouse. I have no doubt that Thoukididis Papageorgiou, the owner, will be nodding his head with wisdom, talking about how people in previous generations knew how to how make provisions for the future, how it was their way of life.
He might note that the very word “economy” is derived from the ancient Greek “oikos” (house) and “nemein” (to manage). Thus the Greek “oikonomia” literally means “household management” – making provisions, in other words, as Papageorgiou would say. I can almost hear the words coming out of his mouth.
I remember one spring, when he showed me around his vineyard, beaming with pride, and spoke to me about Zagori’s agricultural economy. Despite living in poverty and being isolated from the rest of the world, Zagorians helped each other and took care of everything themselves.
They produced wine and tsipouro (pomace brandy) on their own, they picked fruit, cultivated tiny plots of land, and when they slaughtered cattle, they exploited the meat in every possible way. Even their pies, which have become famous all over the country, were born from necessity, to make sure that nothing was thrown away, and that all the fruits of the earth were utilized to the fullest.
To a large degree self-sufficient, the Papageorgiou family still operates in this way: “In the old days, people got by with what was available inside their region. You needed to harvest your own produce. Especially here, where the land is poor, we had to enter this struggle from a young age: we sowed, we fed the animals, we harvested fruits, we filled the cellar and made sure the supplies were sufficient – that’s why they say that we are stingy!” he told me. During the lockdown I realized that the people who went “harvesting” in the supermarkets were driven by the same need.
A recent chat with him on the phone disarmed me. “So, I’m looking at a batsaria [a type of spinach pie] with herbs from the garden and feta cheese from the in-laws. Everything has turned green here. The vines, the vegetable gardens, the hills. It looks like heaven. Hurry up and come for a stroll when they let us loose,” he said. And with that he had me.
Lockdown by choice
“You nearly missed me. I’m traveling to the mountains tomorrow for a few days. I’m going to isolate myself even more!,” Konstantinos Vasilakis tells me over the phone, almost as if to challenge me. He realized at the age of 35 that life in Athens was not for him. A civil engineer in the midst of a recession, he decided to build a house in Kapesovo, which he was fond of, and has been living in the village for the past seven years.
In the summer, we would meet at Mezaria, his kafeneio on the village square, where he would tell me about rural life as we sat under the plane tree, drinking local tsipouro and eating pies baked by his mother.
As well as being an engineer, Vasilakis is a photographer: He spends his days between the kafenio and nature, and also organizes photography workshops from time to time. Every day, he wakes up to the mysterious morning fog; he sees every change brought on by the seasons, he falls asleep to the lullaby of the nightingale, or to the sound of twigs softly cracking as a bear moves through the undergrowth. He hears the sounds of nature clearer than anyone else, as his house is at the edge of the village, next to the woods.
“There is still snow on the mountain, but the wildflowers have blossomed amid all this white,” he explains, as I hear him packing his things. He’s referring to Mt Tymfi, which comprises dozens of peaks that all exceed 2,000 meters in elevation. It is home to the magical Drakolimni Lake, next to which I suppose he will set up his tent.
“Aren’t you too isolated?,” I had asked him in the summer, and he laughed. Now, laughing again, he tells me: “That’s the point. I didn’t feel the lockdown due the virus; my days remained the same. I kept walking around the mountain with Oursa [his dog] and I kept taking photographs. The only thing that changed is the fact that I closed the kafeneio.” People in Zagori have always lived in isolation.
The area is rough, difficult to reach; it comprises steep mountains, rushing rivers and endless gorges severely hindering movements in the winter. This is why, in the 18th and 19th centuries, people built the area’s famed bridges and paved pathways.
Many locals left to work as merchants, coming back for holidays, celebrations and, eventually, to grow old in their stone-built villages – there are 45 in total, each more beautiful than the next. Tourism may change the scene during weekends, but the rest of the time in the winter, nature rules. After all, there is a reason that the region is listed among UNESCO’s Geoparks.
Elli tells me: “In any case, we are in a constant regional lockdown. Most people don’t move around much, and only a few go to Ioannina to shop. The baker comes two or three times a week, and helps us with other tasks. There definitely is some solidarity. This whole thing is unprecedented and the younger generations have never experienced anything like it. As most of us now work in the tourism industry, and are involved particularly with the Israeli market, the crisis will hurt our jobs, but I personally remain optimistic; we are just waiting for the consequences of this crisis.
“There is also a bright side: You could say that we were able to enjoy Easter properly for the first time, as in other years were always too busy catering to tourists. In any case, we are more relaxed here, we don’t feel threatened; truth is, we haven’t gone into full lockdown. We still walk around in nature, we open our windows and see the mountains, and the simplest walk for us consists in going to Kolimbithres.”
How I wish I was at Kolimbithres right now, to see these river pools located just below Papigo, and dive off the rocks; or walking along the Vradeto Steps – this masterpiece that was the only path that connected the villages of Kapesovo and Vradeto until 1974 – counting one by one the 1,100 steps that were built with such skill.
I also wish I was sitting at Beloi, from which you get the most beautiful view of the Vikos Gorge – one of the deepest in the world. The setting sun would be casting long shadows within the gorge. I would gaze at the bridges, which would still be a little mossy as nobody has been walking on them, I would see the river swollen from melting snow, and I would hear the birds happily chirping.
I wonder what the rest are doing: did the pupils studying handicrafts at Monodendri’s Rizarios School stay in their accommodations? Have the countless stone-built guesthouses managed to survive? Are the aged ladies who sit at the kafeneio in the evening still out and about? Or did they have to suspend their favorite pastimes?
After all this time in isolation, I wonder will the Voidomatis River seem as cold to me, or would I immediately dive into its waters without giving it a second thought? Will the food at the Astra taverna taste better? Will the tsipouro at Mesochori restaurant in Kato Pedina seem more potent?
If it is true that nature blooms in the absence of humankind, I can’t even begin to imagine what must be going on right now at the Vikos-Aoos National Park. Maybe the mountains have gotten taller. The bears that roam around the villages in winter may have taken up rooms in people’s houses. As for the plane trees, with their giant roots jutting out of the ground like claws, they may have started walking, like JRR Tolkien’s Ents from Middle-earth.