Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Travelling out West - Black-out in Konitsa

Last year I only travelled, alone, through Konitsa. This time I wanted to visit the city with my wife. I had read much about Konitsa when reading about the Greek civil war. To me, one of the milestones took place there because if ELAS had succeeded in taking the city around year-end 1948, things might have turned out differently. ELAS had never managed to get control of a city as a place for a shadow government. Konitsa seemed, to me, to have been their best chance. 'General Markos' (Markos Vafiadis), to me the brain behind ELAS, had gathered around 2.000 fighters on the hills surrounding Konitsa. Why they would not have succeeded in taking the then village, launching a surprise attack between Christmas and New Year's, was a mystery to me.

The trip from Ioannina to Konitsa was eventful only in the sense that I was running low on gas. I have the habit of never refilling the tank too early. Quite frequently, this leads to a situation where I face the risk of finding a gas station too late. This time would be different because I calculated that I would easily make it to Kalpaki where I would fill up the tank.

I passed through Kalpaki and found a somewhat deserted small gas station on the way out of town. That was the place where I would stop because, I felt, they would appreciate the business. An old man, stumbling a bit due to a stiff leg, made his way to the pump. It didn't work. 'No electricity', he said. 'That figures', I said to my wife; 'he probably didn't pay his last bill'. A few Km further on there was a large Shell station. I figured they would have paid their last electricity bill. And yet, they had no electricity, either.

Now, blood pressure started rising. If this was some kind of a regional black-out, would I still make it to Konitsa to fill up the tank there? What if we ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere? Well, we made it to Konitsa but there was no electricity at the gas station there, either; neither in the whole city!

I ask the owner of the station how long he has been out of electricity and he says about half an hour. I ask when electricity will come back and he says in about half an hour. What would he tell me in half an hour if electricity had not come back? He says he would tell me to wait another half an hour.

To make a long story short, it took another 2-1/2 hours for electricity to return to Konitsa. That literally forced us to get to know the city. What an interesting place! An obviously very, very old city where most of the buildings in the center have been rebuilt in their original character. However, there are buildings here or there which look like they haven't changed since the civil war.

A bustling little place. Small shops, cafes, people moving around, etc. I am looking around and wonder why no one seems excited about the fact that the town is out of electricity. Life goes on as though nothing happened. Am I, the retiree/tourist without time pressure, the only one who feels under time pressure? I keep asking people for exact predictions when electricity will come back. They all seem to be convinced that it will take 'another half an hour'.

We follow the signs leading to the ruins of a former Turkish mansion. By golly, Turkish rulers seem to have known how to live well and how to build their mansions in the most attractive locations!

In the cafe, I order an ouzo and am surprised that they serve it with fresh ice cubes. How can that be when the electricity has been down for some time? My wife expresses concern that all the ice cream in the freezer will melt. She is told not to worry about that. The nearby supermarket is dark but somehow people are still shopping there and paying for their purchases. Life is unbelievably normal despite the black-out.

My wife strikes up a conversation with a Greek sitting at the table next to us who is nursing a beer. He is 68 and retired. He has worked 45 years as a mechanic in a factory and was promised that his pension would be 1.650 Euros/month. It's now a little less than half that amount. The economic situation in the area is terrible. They have to use part of their pension to support their children. He says there is no money left for beer after the 15th of the month (well, maybe not quite because we are already past the 15th of the month...).

He says that the farmers in the region are being taken advantage of. They have to sell all their production to traders without knowing what the price would be. They only find out afterwards what the price was; and it is far too low. Why is it that way? That's obvious; 'because of the politicians!'

I ask him about the battle of Konitsa. He points me to the hills where the most brutal parts of the battle took place. He says that some of the figthers were burned alive. I ask who burned whom. His answer: 'brother against brother'.

At a nearby photo shop, the owner shows me pictures of Konitsa in the 1940s. Seemingly not much more than a hamlet. And yet, around 2.000 fighters could not take the city fighting from the top. Quite unbelievable!

Electricity returned; I filled up the tank and we drove on to the Zagorochoria. Aristi was the place I wanted to see again because of the beautiful Mountain Resort there. If one didn't know that it was located in the mountains of Epirus, one could have guessed that it was in Gstaad. Everything close to distinguished perfection!

A young man welcomes us and shows us around. He comes across as extremely well trained: he handles himself like a gentleman; well mannered; noticeably well educated. He tells me that an uncle of his has a large Greek restaurant near the State Opera in Vienna. My wife is hungry and orders something to eat. He organizes everything and serves the food. It couldn't look better (and my wife says that it couldn't taste better; something which she doesn't always say...).

While my wife is eating, she carries on the conversation with the young gentleman. He explains that he is a University-educated civil engineer who couldn't find a job. He has taken the job at the Mountain Resort because he cannot expect his parents to support him. Life will eventually get better.

Through the villages of the Zagorochoria we drove back to Ioannina. Our hotel there, the Gran Serai, has got to be one of the nicest hotels I know in Greece. The very pleasant staff was the same as the year before. Except, the year before, the hotel seemed very busy. This time around, there seemed to be only few other guests.

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