Thursday, April 25, 2013

Travelling out West - Epirus' most famous hamlet

It is mandatory when we are out West to visit Lia, northwest of Ionnina near the Albanian border; once referred to as 'Epirus' most famous hamlet' in a newspaper article.

Some of my favorite readings are epic novels set against the background of a civil war. I guess the favorites are Gone with the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Dr. Shivago and Eleni. If I had to pick one of them as the super-favorite, I would pick Eleni.

As one leaves the Ioannina-Igoumenitsa road and crosses the river towards the North, one enters a different world. It is a world of more or less isolated (and now partially deserted) mountain villages connected by an asphalt road and electricity poles where only a few decades ago life was like in the Middle Ages. Lia is close the Albanian border; somewhat 'close to the end of the world'.

The village appears almost unpopulated today but if one has read the book, one can easily picture a few hundred villagers populating perhaps 100 or more stone huts and communicating via mountain paths. The vertical distance between the upper and lower village is such that the villagers must have covered the height of Mt. Everest every few months. The nearest road was almost 40 Km away.

We drive up the Eleni Gatzoyiannis Road to the house where the family had lived and which was rebuilt by Eleni's granddaugther 10 years ago. Not a soul to be seen. Everything extremely peaceful. A marvellous sight across the valley towards the mountain ranges. 70 years ago, this had been the place of brutal happenings. One is awed to think of that in the presence of today's peace.

We do find an old man a couple of houses away. He is 80 and one can tell his age. He remembers Eleni from his childhood and he has visited his childhood friend Nicolas Gage three or four times in America. Only last January had he returned from the US. Nicolas Gage had invited him to live with them but he preferred to come back to Lia. My wife asks him why he would have come back here where he is all alone and up to himself. He tells my wife 'because it's my home'.

A few men are sitting outside the small hotel and drinking coffee. There seem to be no guests at the hotel but the lady who runs it is as friendly as ever. Once again, a quick look at all the memorabilia of Eleni which are exhibited in the hotel and then on to Igoumenitsa.

The narrow road is winding through the mountains. One gets an eerie feeling driving through totally unpopulated areas without a building or anything else in sight. About 40 Km later we get to Filiates. That was the place where the road ended back in Eleni's days. That's how far the villagers had to walk if they wanted to get to the next closest city.

Once at Filiates, the 'different world' of the mountain villages is behind us.

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