Exploring the Wild West of Northern Greece
By Penny Turner
In the spring of 2006 I had enough money to set off on our first expedition after my 1,000-mile journey. I decided to go up to Greece’s Wild West, Western Macedonia, an area I know well, having lived there for many years. Puffed up with conceit after the success of the 1,000-mile ride, I thought a month travelling through an area I knew well, visiting friends would be easy. “A piece of piss,” I thought, full of hubris.
Well that’s not how it turned out, at all. No, my visit to Western Macedonia was often quite unnecessarily exciting.
When George and I set off from Katerini for Western Macedonia, there was still plenty of snow on Olympos the mountainsides were still frosty at midday, and the trees hadn't quite dared to come into leaf.
For the first few days of a ride, I normally walk a lot of the time to give George a chance to get used to being on the road again. I take the place of the boss mare – she who makes all the everyday decisions about herd life – to make him feel safer. He always feels a bit insecure at first, setting off for goodness knows where.
I always mean to get fit before we go on a long ride, but somehow I never do. So, for a couple of days I get that fantastic adrenaline buzz and the euphoria brought on by the freezing mountain air, the gorgeous flowers, the feeling of freedom combined with the light-headedness brought on by going for the burn; there's nothing like it. But there is a downside.
This time it was the third morning that I woke up at dawn feeling as rotten as compost. The symptoms were familiar from my five previous trips: a vile headache and acute nausea. I dizzily checked George; he was contentedly grazing and didn't want any water, so I ate a headache pill, got back in my bivvy bag and crashed in a Brufen-induced stupor. I woke up later to find George gone. Not only gone, but gone wearing his bridle, which he hadn't been wearing.
Stolen, that is to say. George's dusty hoof prints led down the road towards Velvendo, the nearest village. There were a few watery droppings on the road. George had obviously been nervous about leaving with this new friend.
I ran as fast as my pounding head would allow down the hill towards the village. I stopped a passing car. Had they seen a horse, a person with a horse, a big red horse? Yes, they had. In the centre. “You can't miss it, just keep going straight.”
I kept on running towards the village. I met an elderly lady with Gestapo blue eyes. "Is this the way to the centre?" I asked her.
"Did you see anyone go by with a horse?"
"I lost my horse."
"Oh," she said, with an air of satisfaction. "He'll have been stolen. The people here are famous for stealing horses. Didn't you know that?"
Well no, actually.
With a sinking heart I saw that George was indeed not in the centre. There was a taxi though. I got in it. I had to get to the nearest police station, which was at Servia, the local town. In my panic I hadn't thought to bring my passport for identification, so first we had to go back to my camp to get it. I had left it with the rest of my valuables. My valuables! Aaaagh!
After the seemingly endless journey back to my camp (did I really run all that way with a headache and no coffee?), we picked up my stuff (still there, whew!) and set off for Servia. On the way, I told my troubles to the taxi driver. After a while he said laconically, "There's a red horse over there. Is that it?"
George wasn't pleased to see me. He was tied in a very grassy field. The mystery as to who took him and why, and why they dumped him, was actually solved later. At the time, all I cared about was that there he was, safe and sound.
|After George was stolen, Penny discovered him grazing quietly outside a nearby village. The mystery of who took him and why was later revealed.|
In the afternoon I gradually felt better. I pottered about looking at small-scale nature. I couldn't face anything very spectacular. I found a most remarkable insect crawling over a stone. If it had not been on dry land, I would have thought it was a caddis fly larva. It was some kind of grub carrying its home, which it had made out of bits of dried grass. I had found one of these creatures once before, in the Mani, but it disappeared before I could photograph it. Even in my weakened state, I was a match for this one and photographed it from every angle.
When I got home I looked it up everywhere. One book claims that it rejoices in the unromantic name of "bagworm". Others say it is a land caddis. Some authorities maintain that the members of the order Trichoptera (caddis flies) are exclusively aquatic, while other experts organise hunts in Wiltshire woodlands to find the rare, but obviously non-aquatic land caddis. I choose to think of it as a bagworm
Servia’s Stone Huts
In the evening I rode down to the village to see the celebrated church of Agios Nikolaos, which was the reason I had come to Velvendo in the first place. It is thoroughly painted inside and out, wherever a reasonably athletic person could possibly apply a brush and paint pictures of his favourite stories from Christian mythology.
Some very kind ladies opened the church for me to see. All the precious icons have been stolen, some rumoured to be in Switzerland. Nicking the frescoes, which would involve dismantling the entire building, has proved, until the time of writing at least, beyond the capabilities of thieves, even those from a village that openly rejoices in its horse-stealing prowess. The ladies were sure God wouldn't mind me going in the church in my travelling gear, so I went inside. Fantastic.
The next morning we set off early so as not to get too hot on the steep uphill climb over a shoulder of Mount Pieria on our route to Servia. This mountain is pretty wild. We got lost lots of times. The map says there is a track to follow. Villagers and shepherds disagreed. But I was stubborn.
And that's why, Kala na pathe (serves her right) as the villagers no doubt muttered, I found myself, after a lot of doubling back, dead ends, impassable river beds and so on, scrambling up a rocky cliff face with George gamely following, grunting ostentatiously with the effort.
At the top of this cliff we found ourselves in lovely meadows. And in one meadow was a perfect circular stone hut with a thatched roof. It was new. I went inside and saw that it was being used as a barn. It was just like the huts they reconstruct so painstakingly for visitors to Stone Age sites. Servia is one of the sites listed in The Early Neolithic in Greece by Professor Catherine Perlès. Professor Perlès writes that most villages in the area were built of mud bricks at that time, if there was mud. Otherwise, they used materials that were to hand, like stones.
|One of the prehistoric-style stone huts which Penny saw in Servia.|
So if anyone is thinking of building some Neolithic huts for a museum or something, let them go to Pieria, between Servia and Velvendo There's someone up there who still knows how to do it.
Sleeping near Graveyards
George and I got trapped on an asphalt road near Aiani because I couldn't find the track I was looking for. I velcroed George into some racing blinkers I had got for him. George is a city boy, so he isn't afraid of traffic. He likes it. But he is afraid of plastic bags which can cause him to fling himself in terror into the path of a passing pantechnikon. Various villagers who have witnessed this suicidal behaviour have advised me to get blinkers for George. I agreed with the principle, but couldn't really think how to fix them until my friend Niko said, "What about those blinkers that racehorses wear?" Of course.
|To avoid being distracted by deadly plastic bags, Penny created blinkers for George to wear temporarily.|
So that's how George came to be wearing the rogue's badge as we struggled (calmly) along the asphalt towards Chromio, which we reached just before dark.
Very often, if I have to stop near a village, I camp near the graveyard. There are very good reasons for this: There is almost always water because people need it for looking after graves. There is normally a lot of grass as shepherds and others don't feel comfortable in the environs of the graveyard and don’t graze their flocks there. However, the main reason is that no one at all feels comfortable near the graveyard after dark. Experience has taught me that if there is a strange villager (the type who, for some reason, always seem to wear his trousers rather high at the ankle and insecurely fastened at the fly), then this person is the one who is attracted like a magnet by my arrival. But not even the most confused person in the village will ever come near the graveyard after dark.
So that's why I was at the graveyard in Chromio, and that's how I came to see the horseman's grave. It is the grave of Nikos Siampanopoulos. Nothing but his name, the date of his death and his picture appear on the gravestone. There he is, a handsome man sitting proudly on his horse. And the horse is a beauty. I put some flowers there. I hope to meet him in Trapalanda, horse heaven, when my time comes.
The Horseman’s Grave.
Actually, this part of Greece is a kind of Trapalanda. For example: I might be riding along a quiet track minding my own business, when suddenly, with a squeal of tires and a cloud of dust, an ancient Mercedes would overtake me, jam on its brakes and, before I could even start to swear about the driver upsetting George, a great, fat, villainous-looking tough would have snatched up a photo from his dashboard, jumped out of the car and have begun flashing it under my nose. Not his girlfriend, not his kid, but his horse!
"Look!" he would say proudly while I struggled to find my glasses so I could pay proper attention. "That's my horse." He'd be stroking George and giving him a handful of raisins while I studied the photo, anxiously waiting for my approving comments, which were easy to give: lovely, tough, bold, characterful little chargers.
I had never been to mounts Siniatsiko, or Askio, as the locals call it, but I had always been attracted by it. For years I had seen it every day looming huge over Nymfaio where I used to live. It seemed a magical mountain, especially in winter. The snow would thaw on a warm day, and the water thus released would freeze at night, and so the mountain would seem to be made of glass. And this glass reflected the pink and red of the sunset, and at night seemed to glow in the moonlight.
Above Siatista, the main town of the area, the mountain is unbelievably barren, rocky and unwelcoming, with no natural water at all. We stopped for lunch at a manmade water hole. A large area had been cemented over and made into a kind of giant funnel which directed rainwater into a huge tank. All the life of the area seemed to be concentrated in the damp area surrounding this tank. Birds, butterflies, a small viper, flowers, grass for George. An oasis, no less.
While I was eating my lunch, I heard a tiny rustling in a bush beside me. At first I couldn't see the whole creature but only parts of a small lithe body with fur of the most soft and luxurious kind, pale beige in colour. As it moved I saw the pure white of the belly fur. Close enough to touch. And how I wanted to touch it, to feel that unimaginable softness. It was a weasel, hunting. The god, Shredni Vashtar, himself. I haven't seen anything more lovely than this perfect, bloodthirsty little predator.
Where Wolves Sing and Frogs Laugh
Refreshed by our lunch break at this little oasis, George and I continued through the stony landscape, climbing and climbing towards the snow-capped summit of Mount Siniatsiko. We rounded a steep shoulder of rocky boulders, and then we were in paradise. Crystal streams cascaded through little alpine meadows, birds were singing their bedtime songs in the woods and … thud, crunch, f***! That was me, bruised, dazed and swearing, having parted company with George when he shied violently at something innocuous at the trackside.
I continued on foot, as I have noticed that after falls everything tends to seize up if you don't walk to keep the circulation going. We were very close to the summit, so there was snow everywhere, but the view as the light faded made me forget my bruises and my murderous intentions towards George.
I decided that it would be better to travel downhill to get out of the snow. There was a path that appeared to go down, so we took it. In the dusk we came to what a hand-painted sign told us was the refuge of the Ptolemaida Alpine Club. It was just great. There was water and lots of grass as well as a variety of small buildings, a little church, a hostel and a pagoda. There were trees, lovingly planted. The best thing about them was that they were all local species; not a Leylandii or anything else inappropriate to be seen.
There were notices saying to please keep the place tidy and clean – not huge notices that are eyesores in themselves, but homemade, small-scale ones. Hanging round the place there was a young dog. After I had tethered George and he was grazing, I ate my dinner and gave the remains to the poor little dog, which then unaccountably bolted off into the gloom.
George started doing what he does when he is convinced he is surrounded by deadly enemies. He rushed to the end of his tether to stare. Then he trotted back towards me with his ears pricked and his eyes out on stalks. I was still giving him the silent treatment about the fall earlier, but I irritably shouted at him to stop being so bloody stupid, “It's only a dog, bloody well eat your dinner and shut up!” But George persisted in his horrified snorting and running about.
Then the wolves began to sing. It was a brief chorus, joyous and sociable – pre-hunt greetings probably. It lasted only a moment, but a moment that will bring me happiness for the rest of my life.
George gave me such a look. Only a dog, ha! And no wonder the little dog made a break for it. Wolves are quite partial to a meal of small dog if they can get it.
Between Siniatsiko and Vitsi there is a valley with a river. We followed it the next day for several kilometres. The noise along the river was incredible because it was sufficiently unpolluted to support a large and frenetic population of frogs. Their Latin name is Pelophylax ridibundus or Laughing frog. I like this name better than their boring English name, Marsh frog. They live in marshes, it's true, but the great thing about them is the ridiculous noise they make, which is what their Latin name refers to.
|Penny has made many extensive mounted journeys through various parts of Greece. During these rides she has observed the nation’s diverse wildlife, such as these “laughing frogs.” In addition, she has documented how the Greek countryside is being damaged by ruthless exploitation. Thanks to her untiring efforts, Penny recently won the prestigious John Muir Conserver Award.|
They were in full spring activity, so they didn't even notice me. At first I thought that this frenzy of activity was because the males were trying to attract females. What was actually going on was a man's thing. The males were floating on the surface absurdly blowing out their cheeks like bubble gum. That's how they make that daft noise. It is taken as a very serious challenge by other males. There is a lot of shoving and pushing. Frog women are not permitted much input. You see one gloomily swimming about with a suitor firmly clasped to her back. That's when the real fun starts if you are a male frog. What you have to do is knock the incumbent male frog off and take his place for as long as you can. Nobody asks her which she prefers. She probably doesn't like any of them much. Courting seems to be uncomfortable, if not actually hazardous for her.
It had been a while since I had seen such a large group of frogs all together, as they are sadly being wiped out by a mysterious virus (all over the world), which may or may not be connected with the increased use of fertilisers, insecticides and so forth. In addition, there is a new and deadly disease caused by Chytrid fungus, which is exterminating amphibians everywhere. Of course, their habitat is being destroyed, too. As if this were not enough, it is getting trendy to eat them at pretentious restaurants.
By the evening we had reached Polykerasa a grassy, charming, more or less deserted village, although the bourgeoisie is moving in to make holiday homes, with predictable increases in cement and non-native trees and decreases in natural vegetation.
An elderly shepherd, surviving bastion of the old ways, came to see if I intended to set fire to the church or wreak other destruction. When he realised I was harmless, he started to warn me of the dangers of travelling alone by day or night over the mountains. Since I had lived alone in a hut in these very same mountains for seven years, I thought I knew everything about them. I listened politely but with my eyes glazed over.
The next morning, bright and early, I stood on the ridge above Polykerasa to photograph Mt Askio. Then we set off along the exact path that the shepherd had warned me not to follow. That's where I saw the gun. A pistol. My blood ran cold. "It must be a kid’s toy," I thought, trying to fool myself. "But what's it doing up here miles from anywhere?"
I turned George and took another look. Nope, it was real, alright. I absolved the shepherd of all my previous charges of being a silly old git. People don't carry pistols to shoot birds. They carry them to shoot people. Or because they think people will shoot them.
The Pig and the Poisonous Dragon
I made my way to Nymfaio which has changed a lot since I lived there and not necessarily for the better. There is an old Albanian joke that sums up what is happening in Nymfaio.
The joke concerns a farmer who had a most fabulous pig. Among other things it had found a crock of gold for its owner and it had woken the family when fire broke out in the farmhouse and saved their lives. A journalist was interviewing the farmer about this wondrous animal. "But just one last thing," he said, "why has the pig only got three legs?"
"Do you think I'm stupid?" answered the farmer. "If you had a pig as clever as that, would you eat him all at once?"
But the mountains around the village are still gorgeous. As it so often is, it was raining when I went for a walk in my old haunts. Every moment a joy: the flowers, the blossom, the pale green shoots, the damp smell of spring starting to burgeon, the salamanders setting off to woo the second they emerge, many still covered in mud, from their burrows.
After being entertained royally for a few days in Nymfaio, we set off for Prespa, travelling over Mount Vitsi. We stopped for lunch in a clearing where the flowers were astounding: narcissi, geum, kingcups, and wild garlic and comfrey – lovely.
A black woodpecker had excavated a nest in a beech tree trunk. What I particularly liked was the use that had been made of the bracket fungus. Art might imitate nature, but you don't expect nature to imitate Disney cartoons.
That night I sheltered under a porch, too. Mine was that of a rather splendid church in an abandoned village. I woke in the morning to find a fabulous view from the window.
While I was trying to dry my stuff, I saw a small green dragon scuttle into his lair. I knew he would have to come out again soon. He needed the morning sun like I need coffee; the body doesn't function without it. So I just waited, and sure enough, in a couple of minutes he was out basking again.
These enormous green lizards – there are two species in Greece, the Green lizard ( Lacerta viridis) and the Balkan Green lizard, (Lacerta trilineata) which often has a blue throat, were common enough a few years ago but are becoming quite rare. They are persecuted in the villages. I found out about this some time ago because one day while the blacksmith was shoeing a horse at our stables at home, he chucked his hammer with uncanny accuracy and killed one of these lovely creatures. I asked him why, and he told me you have to kill them because they are poisonous. They aren't, of course.
|The “green dragon” observed during the journey. Penny is the author of “Six Antidotes to Technology.”|
George Battles an Allergic Reaction
We had a pretty scary experience as we were climbing Sfika, the mountain you cross to get to Prespa. When we seemed to be near the top of the pass, there was a lovely little brook, where I dismounted to let George drink. I continued on foot as I normally do before we stop for lunch to let George cool off. George kept nudging me, which is an annoying habit he has, so I didn't take much notice. But when we stopped and I started to untack him, I realised to my horror that he had been trying to tell me something. He was totally covered in spots. Then, as I watched, he started to swell up. In no time his head was like a balloon, with his head collar biting into his skin. His eyes closed up, and his nose became hard. I phoned my dear vet. He knows me of old and recognised my controlled hysteria.
"Oh, I often get dogs in with that," he said. "Not one has died, but the symptoms are alarming."
He could say that again. By that time George was down, groaning and wheezing.
"But after a short while they often spontaneously disappear."
|George suffering from a severe allergic reaction.|
Which is exactly what they did. After a while George stood up, gave himself a shake and indicated that a drink of water would be nice. He had a good, long drink and started to graze. His head was still like a hippopotamus, and his eyes still closed up, but he seemed comfortable.
I decided that the way to reduce swelling is movement, and so I tacked him up and we set off. George's head was still too swollen to put his bridle on, but his head collar fitted, if snugly.
After a few minutes George stopped for a pee. The swelling subsided, the spots disappeared. Just like that. As if they had never been.
Horse Rustling on Sfika
As we crossed over Sfika, a large flotilla of pelicans, stately and elegant, flew overhead, cream and black against the azure sky.
The reason there are still any pelicans in Prespa is because “The Society for the Protection of Prespa” has saved them. By stubbornly refusing to bow to the inevitable, in a way that is an inspiration and example to us all, Myrsini Malakou and her doughty band have made sure that not only are the birds still there, enchanting the place, but there are lots of them and more every year. Yes, they are thriving and increasing.
I stayed in Prespa for a few days so that George could recover from his allergic attack on the ascent, and then, when he had had a good break, we set off up Varnous. Varnous is on the border with FYROM. Its lower slopes were being grazed down to the stone by an unsustainable number of cattle and a few scrawny ponies. Sfika, on the other hand, which borders Albania, was very grassy indeed.
Why? A woman who brings cattle up to Prespa in the summer, Kyria Maria, explained:
As a girl she and her family had walked the cattle up from Elassona, where they lived in the winter, to their traditional summer grazing on Sfika. They took about fifteen days to do it.
"We grazed the animals on Sfika. We'd take them up there and then leave them more or less to themselves till it was time to go back to Elassona. It is all changed now. We can't leave any animals up on Sfika; they just get stolen. And we daren't stay up there to guard them; it's too dangerous. So we all have to have our cattle on Varnous. The Skopje people, well, they are good people, so it is safe there."
But that means that everyone grazes Varnous, and nobody grazes Sfika. It also means that the pasture lands on Sfika are being ploughed up in ill-advised attempts to grow barley, which can't be stolen in border raids. Chemicals are rashly applied (this may be what George was allergic to), and ecosystems aeons old are being destroyed.
Grazing by horses, sheep and cattle over the millennia has created the spectacular flora that is part of the magic of Prespa. Recently, cattle and horse rustling has become a frightening and uncontrollable factor of life on the borders. As well as changing the life of the local people, who are afraid and feel under siege all the time, it is changing the natural environment. The flora of the area is changing, with Varnous being overgrazed, Sfika under grazed, or under plough, and the local horses no longer grazing at all.
Myrsini and her husband, Haris, used to keep 15 of the local breed of horses. Until last year, these horses roamed free on the mountains in the summer, and in the winter were fed in the traditional animal pens that you can see in Agios Germanos. These are just corrals, really, with a shelter at one end.
But last year, among the other horses that disappeared from the Prespa area were eight of their fifteen, including Haris' beloved mare. He had had her all her life. She was devoted to him, and Haris can't bear to think about what her life is like now; she was old and getting frail.
Things have changed, and Myrsini, no shrinking violet, as any of her friends will testify, (this is, after all, the woman who provided much of the grit, determination and courage needed to get the governments of the three countries that share the lakes to sign an agreement making them a gift to the world) says that she no longer dares to go riding up in the hills alone or with her little daughter. In fact, everybody I met thought I was taking insane risks travelling alone in these areas.
I ignored their advice, and we started the steady climb up Varnous. After a while we came to deep snow drifts that blocked our way, but the higher slopes were free of snow, so I decided that we would have to scale the mountainside and then travel along the ridge. Since the sides were extremely steep and, at that place, stony, I decided to walk, so it would be easier for George.
I jumped down in my usual athletic style, plummeted through the snow onto a stone, twisted my ankle and fell heavily right under George. He, ever reliable in a crisis, stood like a statue while I swore and writhed about in agony trying to get upright again. By the time we got to the ridge, my foot and ankle were hugely swollen, and I really couldn't do much but hop.
A couple of days later we were camped near Agios Antonios. Back on Mt Vitsi, which I persisted in believing I knew like the back of my hand, we set off bright and early, intending to cross over to Kleisoura by paths over the mountain. As dusk fell, we were still wandering about in the mist and rain and were not anywhere near where I had hoped we would be. In fact, I had no idea where we were at all, but I stubbornly carried on looking for somewhere that I recognised, some landmark, something.
There were hoof prints everywhere because woodcutters were working in the forest. "That's odd," I thought idly, "someone has got a biggish horse, and what's more he's got him shod like a riding horse …" Of course, the only person with a biggish riding horse in the area was me. Yes, I was looking at George's hoof prints, which meant that we had spent about eleven hours describing a big circle, and were now retracing our steps. In a few hours we would be back where we started from.
It was growing dark. I was hobbling along on the downhill as I wanted to save George the effort of carrying me. The stars came out and the moon rose. In the darkness I heard people shouting. They were obviously signalling among themselves to meet up after hiding out in the forest during the day. Illegal immigrants start to travel as it grows dark, and at any moment they would be on my path, in what, as I could hear from the shouting, was rather large numbers.
Probably illogically I found the echoing signals and shouts very alarming. But in my defence, I had spent three weeks hearing nothing but warnings from people who really knew the mountains, and I had found the pistol. And I had constantly met groups of people who were obviously illegally entering Greece, about four or five people every single day. I was not close to the main thoroughfare south, had avoided Mt Grammos, the centre of border trafficking, and I was on the move during the day when the majority of illegal immigrants hide up. Even given all that, I had still met with lots of them. I think we can take it that there is a very considerable problem at the borders.
|This desolate area is on one of the main routes used by Albanians who enter Greece illegally and travel South to Athens looking for work.|
The number of people who came out onto the paths on Vitsi at nightfall is further proof of this. I had thought that things would be different now that it is easier for Albanians to get green cards and work in Greece legally. But, actually, things are worse in some ways. There must be some deeply unpleasant complicit agreement between the type of Greek who prefers to employ Albanians on the black to save money and to make it easy to cheat them, and the kind of Albanians who come here illegally, determined to make sure, by whatever means, that it is not they who lose out in the illegal arrangements that they are here to collude in.
Dog eat Dog
The people I had been meeting for the last two weeks were very different from the poor wretched people who constantly passed by my hut near Nymfaio ten years ago. To escape the terrible conditions then current in Albania, those poor refugees used to walk through the snow in the middle of the ferocious winters that you get up there.
All of the Albanians I met on this trip could speak Greek. In the old days, maybe one member of a group would be able to ask, haltingly, the way to Athens. Nowadays they know the way. I was even greeted in English. They are better clad and mostly wear good shoes: I saw no footprints of people walking over the mountains wearing two left shoes of different sizes, obviously pilfered from outside a shoe stall; no footprints left by barefooted children.
The people I met are taller, healthier and, by all accounts, better armed than they used to be. So, I really didn't want to be on my feet when we met this group of what could well be desperadoes, armed to the teeth.
With my leg hurting like it was from my fall, I couldn't manage to climb onto George without a mounting block of some kind. I felt something near to panic as I failed to see anything I might be able to use. "Shit, shit, shit," I thought, clutching at my Mace spray, my heart thumping in my breast, the voices coming ever closer.
Fear is a wonderful stimulus. With the next echoing signal I found I was able to ignore the considerable pain in my ankle and make an adrenaline-fuelled scramble into the saddle, from which vantage place I was able to squeak "Kali nixta kalo taxidi" (good night, safe journey) with, if not insouciance, at least courtesy.
Life in Limbo
After our adventures in Vitsi, we travelled over splendid countryside and reached Siniatsiko in record time. I stopped for the night at the refuge, hoping to hear the wolves again. I didn't, but I did meet some members of the Alpine club. They did their level best to persuade me not to take my intended route, which on the map looked like tracks and small country roads leading to Agioi Theodoroi, where I planned to cross the main road from Kozani to Thessaloniki.
|During her travels, the British Long Rider has seen the glory that is Greece, such as this Spring time view of beautiful Mount Olympus.|
They, with the benefit of local knowledge, said that it wasn't like that at all. They tried to persuade me to go home the way I had come, via Siatista. But would I listen? Of course not … I had a map, didn't I? Why take any notice of local knowledge?
And that's how I came to visit what is without doubt the worst place in Greece and quite high on the list of dreadful places worldwide. Things started off well enough, but soon the roads and the map failed to correspond in any way at all. I was on a quiet asphalt road … somewhere.
Eventually, I found someone. "Oh, don't go that way … You'll get lost in the Public Power Corporation (PPC)," they said. I was being warned again, but I still didn't get it. I began to understand when I crossed a bridge that led on to the road that they told me was the only one that went to Agioi Theodoroi. On this country back road I was surprised to find there was a constant stream of lorries travelling at an insane speed. There was no other traffic.
Well, it was obvious that George and I couldn't travel along this road, except there was no other road or path, or way to get off this one now that we were on it. Just then a factory siren sounded and the number of lorries immediately let up. By chance we had reached the road just as the day's work came to an end. Thank goodness. Things were bad enough without them.
We kept walking. Great pools of black sludge from the lignite mines were everywhere along the road, draining into various unfortunate streams and rivers. Soon, on either side of the road there were massive, deafening, clanking conveyer belts full of lignite. Huge and terrifying. In some places we were forced to go down tunnels between whole spaghetti junctions of conveyer belts. George was gloomily hysterical. He trembled and stuck close to me.
After we had gone a good many kilometres along a whole public road which has been appropriated by the PPC (did they ask us if it was OK to make a public road unusable? Did they explain what would happen if you tried to travel towards Agios Dimitrios along this road? Did they warn us what it would be like? Ha!), we found an exit. We crossed a ravine and set off across a barren grey landscape populated by monstrous unidentifiable rusting metal things. We got to a village, but there seemed to be no one there. Then a lady, who said her name was Maria, called to me. "We saw you coming," she said. "You will eat with us."
And that's how I got to know about what is happening in Cleitos. And what is happening in Cleitos is awful. It's not just the physical dreadfulness of the surroundings – unstable-looking slagheaps looming above the village, views of chimneys belching deadly smoke, nothing beautiful anywhere –, it is also the appalling conditions of daily life. Although Cleitos is some distance from the conveyer belts, their ceaseless clanking kept George neurotically running about all night.
"Oh, we got used to the noise," said Maria. "Your eyes are watering. Do they sting?"
"Yes," I said.
"It's the smoke and dust," she said. "We are used to it, but visitors always get runny eyes."
George was in a place that seemed to be full of grass, and in the dusk I couldn't see any problem with it. He just wouldn't settle and graze. In the morning I saw why. All of the grass, indeed all of everything, was coated with a sticky grey, tarry smelly substance. Disgusting.
I assumed that the villagers must be workers for the PPC and that's why they lived there. This was not so. Some were, but most were farmers. Except nothing really grows and the stock doesn't prosper. I'm not surprised.
Why was the village almost abandoned? About 15 years before, the villagers had been informed that the lignite below their houses and fields was needed by the PPC. They were given compensation then and told that they would be given a new site for their village. This new site is only now (2005) available. Some people have already gone there. Some have gone elsewhere. Many, according to Maria, cannot move to the new Cleitos because the compensation they were given 15 years ago has somehow got spent in the meantime, and they have no money to build on the site they have now finally been given.
The emotional stress of a life in this kind of limbo must be considerable. Maria, her daughter Anthoula and Anthoula’s boyfriend were glad to be going – at last.
"It is much healthier where we are going, and we have got a lovely new house," Maria said. Grandma was not so sure, but accepted that there was no choice.
In the early morning, I went to photograph the hell that George and I had passed through the previous evening. Some gentleman from the PPC told me that it was forbidden to take photos. I forcibly expressed surprise about this. I had seen no signs anywhere, nothing on the map. But I can see why they might not want photos taken.
I walked back across the desolate wasteland that had once been the village grazing grounds. Cleitos doesn't exactly get light in the morning – it just gradually stops being dark. The dust and the smoke form a constant pall of murk. It is like being in Mexico City, without the amenities.
George and I were both coated in the same revolting gunk as the grass. Cold water and soap had no effect on it., What must the lungs of the people who live there all the time be like?
Penny has also documented the dark underbelly of the country, such as the monstrous unidentifiable metal structures which desecrate the landscape near the polluted village of Cleitos.
Anthoula volunteered to show me the way to get onto a smaller road without going back onto the death trap of the public road I came in on. I led George through the crumbling remains of the once fine village of Cleitos. A little old lady asked Anthoula to stop so she could talk to me.
"I wanted to say," she said, "that you mustn't judge us from the state of our village. When we came here, we made it so pretty with flowers and trees. But we've known for so long that we have to leave; there seemed no point. So we've let it go. We came as refugees you know. And now we are refugees again."
"At least," I said to Anthoula, "the old people will be with their friends in the new village. A community all together."
"Well no," she said. "You see there is a lottery for the plots, to make it fairer. And people who are not from Cleitos have bought some of the plots. And the new Cleitos covers a very big area."
"And do people get counselling, psychological help?" I asked Anthoula. She gave me a look. Silly question really.
By now, early 2007, all the people who lived in Klitos will have moved from the village. The new Klitos was already marked on the map in 2005 when I visited, though the old Cleitos was marked, too. In the next edition of the map, the old Cleitos will not be marked. This has already happened to the other villages in the area which have been similarly removed. In this way the state can pretend that these places and the people who lived in them never existed. The village of Cleitos that I saw and the whole history of the people who lived there will have been obliterated.
A Mystery Solved
George and I travelled on and reached the dam on the Aliakmon near velvendo that same day. It was dark by the time we got there. George could smell home, and he wasn't stopping for anything. I walked with him across the dam because I didn't know if he would be afraid. We were accosted by Tom, the guard at the dam.
"Hello," he said holding out his hand in a friendly way. "I know who you are. You are Penny."
I was so tired and cross that I really wasn't in the mood for chat. George was pulling like a train and absolutely refused to stand still. I couldn't hold him except by jabbing him violently in the mouth. Tom strode along beside us as George dragged me along the road.
"You'd have thought," Tom said, "that that kid would have had the sense to check if that horse belonged to anyone in the village before he took him away from where you were camped." This made me pay attention.
Tom continued, "Yes, it was someone from the village, stupid guy. He saw your horse, but he didn’t see you. So he thought that the horse must have escaped from the village. So he thought the best thing to do would be to take the horse back to the village. But, when he got there he found that no one had lost a horse. You'd think the guy would have put him back when he realised he’d made a mistake, but I expect he felt embarrassed."
The next night we were home. I talked with a friend who had been brooding over the theft of George. I had phoned at the time of George’s disappearance to make sure he hadn't gone home. "When I heard that the horse had been stolen, I knew you had to be at Velvendo. They are famous for stealing horses."
"How did they get that reputation?" I asked.
"Well, you know, after the war we were all very poor, and a horse was a valuable thing then. And those people from Velvento, they survived like that. I must say it's a pity they keep doing it, now that there's no need … I suppose it has got to be habit with them. But perhaps," he added kindly, "it was a mistake, and they didn't really mean to steal him."
To learn more about Penny’s various mounted adventures in Greece, visit her informative blog
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