Going Places, Near & Far: Open Mind for the Off-Road in Greece

Karen Rubin

(Our eight-day Tripology Adventures off-road journey from Athens to Pindos by 4×4 continues from the 7/10, 7/17, 7/24, 7/31, 8/7 columns.)

There are two kinds of people who will love Tripology Adventures’ “Athens to Pindos” off-road journey – and they can be both in a single person: people who love challenging driving (not fast driving, but technical and thrilling, not afraid of rocks or ridges) and those who are explorers, seeking out extraordinary scenes, interesting people, gaining new knowledge about communities, society, history, and themselves. I am not a car-person, but an explorer, and am grateful that I am in a car in our five-car caravan, with two people who love to drive and two of us who love to shoot photos.

It’s May Day in Greece, and a Friday, making for a rare three-day weekend. It is the custom for people to return to their home villages, or go off on a family outing. Everyone is on the road traveling (people put a flower on their windshield to mark the special occasion).

The Hotel Montana is now filling up as we head out, reveling in the view of the “Switzerland of Greece” one last time.

We are enroute to a place called Agrafa, which means “Unmapped Area.”

As we set out for our fifth day off-roading through the central Greece, Yoav continues relating Greece’s history which sets the stage for what we will see, but also is very revealing in terms of understanding the crisis unfolding today.

He begins with the Ottoman occupation of Hellas, imposed punishing taxes and how that spurred the flight to these mountain villages.

The Ottomans only realized that Greeks were leaving the cities in droves when their tax collections dwindled.

In the Ottoman Empire, he says, Muslims looked down on commerce and business which were considered inferior professions. The people who engaged in commerce were Greeks – later, the Jews.

After the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella evicted Jews from Spain, the Ottoman sultan invited Jews to settle in the Ottoman Empire, appreciating the Jews’ skill in languages, banking, accounting.

“The Jews were loyal to the sultan but later on paid price for it – the Greeks saw them as traitors,” he says.

The biggest center for Jewish settlement in the Ottoman Empire was Thessaloniki – it came to be called the Jerusalem of the Balkans. Founded in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon, the city was strongly influenced by Jews: the language spoken was Ladino, a Jewish version of Spanish; the port was run by Jews and closed on Saturday.

The Greeks went along for commercial purposes, but were being exposed to other ideas outside Ottoman empire, and slowly started thinking about nationalistic ideas, their right to freedom and independence.

Until then, the Ottomans refrained from going after the Greeks who had re-settled in the mountains, and had limited military forces. They realized if they moved troops from one area it would weaken another. But the main reason was this area was “incognita” – unmapped – and the Ottomans didn’t know their way around. Then, in the mid-18th century, the Ottomans realized they had to do something, not just because of lost tax revenues, but to tamp down this notion of Greek independence.

When the Ottomans realized the sheer numbers of Greeks who occupied the mountain villages, they realized there could be an uprising. And they were right. The nationalist Greeks living in Pindos started started preparing themselves. This goes on for decades.

Meanwhile, the Russians wanted the Greeks to pick on the Ottomans in the western front because they had issues with them on the Black Sea in the east. The Russians started to send the Greeks weapons.

At this point, I am thinking, OMG, this is the same thing over and over again (and the concern if Greece leaves the European Union is that it will fall back into the embrace of Russia, just as Greece did after World War II).

The Greeks began to raid Ottoman base camps, steal weapons. When the Ottomans started thinking of moving their forces into Pindos, they weren’t prepared, didn’t know the topography, did not anticipate the readiness of local mountain people for armed conflict.

They walk at the base of the mountain along the riverbeds and can’t find the hidden houses in the trees in the mountains. They lose their way, get beaten up, massacred by local Greeks. Those who survive, retreat south and go report to commanders back to bases.

The leaders of the Greek rebel forces were the same as those leading the institutions of education and religion – the priests. The Ottomans realized that to deal with the situation, they needed to go after the brave, charismatic Monk who was leading them, organizing the Greeks not just in defense but being proactive and raiding the Ottoman weapons warehouses. The Ottomans put a price on his head and someone betrays him for the bounty. He is captured and taken to the village where he was born in the mountains, and in front of the Greek village people, given the choice to defect or die.

He is burned to death in front of the villagers, which breaks the spirit of people. The Ottomans move from south to north and take over south Pindos, including Karpenisi (the town where we had just stayed) and reinstate tax collections. The people started paying the taxes but knew it wouldn’t last because once they felt the taste of freedom, they were not going to be oppressed by OIttomans for long

Ottomans move north, reaching Agrafa – the tiny mountain village where we are headed – which remained unconquered by Ottomans. That’s how difficult the topography is and the villages there are scattered, spread over large areas.

It’s the 18th century – it is no coincidence that revolutionios were sweeping America and France

Over the next 30 years, the Greeks prepare again. These are small groups rather than one central organization. The war for independence starts and spreads quickly – Ithaca, Athens, the mountains, all the way to Karpenisi.

“It’s a hell of a bloody war. Greeks and Ottomans massacring each other – anger and humiliation. During 400 years of oppression, the Ottomans had moved their own people to live in Greece and took the land of the Greeks. Now the Greeks started massacring these people. The Ottomans retaliated, killing thousands of Greeks, mostly in Little Asia, where there was a large Greek population that had been under Ottoman control.”

The Ottomans get support from Egypt which sends a fleet but is sunk by the British fleet supporting the Greeks. That settles the war in the Peloponnese – the Greeks win and liberate the Peloponnese.

“But if you think it brings a better time for Greeks,” Yoav continues, “you are mistaken. Instead of uniting forces, the leaders in the Peloponnese start fighting among themselves over who will lead Greece. So, the English and French decide that after 400 years of oppression, the Greeks are not ready for self rule.”

(Sounds like Iraq, and the European Union today.)

The Europeans decide to bring in an external ruler and shop for candidates, until they find a young Bavarian prince, Otto who agrees to rule Greece. The Europeans make promises to support his rule with money, administrative support and send 10,000 people to help him build country from scratch.

Yoav’s history is interrupted when we are stopped at a police check point who ask for the international drivers’ licenses for our drivers.

On our way again, Yoav continues: Prince Otto, a Bavarian, is a different cultural background from Greeks, which presented difficulties for him to reach the people. He wanted to be liked and administratively, he was building from nothing, all the infrastructure. “He never found his way to the people’s hearts, though he really wanted to.”

Otto brings up a “Big Idea” that Greece includes Little Asia – and most important, that the capital of Greece should be Constantinople.

Again, sounding like a plot ripped from today’s headlines, “To remain strong, Otto had to play the interests of each of the Great Powers’ Greek supporters against the others, while not aggravating the Great Powers.” But Otto’s standing among the Greeks suffered; there was an assassination attempt on the Queen and finally, in 1862, Otto was deposed. He died in exile in Bavaria in 1867.”

A new king, Yorgos (George I) from Denmark takes over. He integrates more Greeks into his administration.

But Greece remains a poor country throughout the 19th century and (again echoing today), byt the 1890s was virtually bankrupt. The only thing that eased the situation was the emigration of thousands of Greeks to the United States. (In what may be a repeat today, that could explain why these villages seem so vacant – after all, with 25% unemployment, where is everybody?)

Still, Greeks were united in their determination to liberate the Greek-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire, especially in Crete.

On Crete, there a young politician, Eleftherios Venizelos, emerges as a leader and declares Enosis (Union with Greece).

Venizelos becomes Prime Minister in October 1910, dominating Greek politics for the next 25 years. He initiates major reforms, in public administration, education and economy and a more liberal constitution. He clashes with King Constantine I.

Venizelos (for whom the international airport in Athens is named) picks up where King Otto left off by bringing up the Big Idea’ of great Greece. He builds up the Greek military, liberates northern Greece, evicts the Ottoman population back to Little Asia.

One of those evicted families is Kamal, whose son, Mustafa Kamal, born in Thessaloniki, goes to Constantinople and enlists in the Ottoman military.

Greeks are euphoric after their victory and Venizelos is hailed the greatest leader in Greek history,

Venizelos now tries to dethrone King Constantine but instead, Venizelos is sent into exile. When WWI breaks out, the superpowers ask Greece to join them, but the Greeks set as a condition that at the end of war will get back Little Asia and Istanbul. The allies say “okay Little Asia but we’ll see about Istanbul.”

The end of World War I brings the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Greeks move into Little Asia – there is no Ottoman army, and the Greeks take over.

They believe they are about to complete their Big Idea – but have yet to get back Constantinople.

“While celebrating victory and being delusional about the Megila Greece idea and possibility of taking over Istanbul,” Yoav says in his imitable way, the Greeks fail to see that Mustafa Kamal, who now head sthe military, has taken control of Constantinople. He founds the country of Turkey, and takes the name Attaturk.

Attaturk, whose forces are powerful enough to cross the Caspian Sea and invade Greece, declares, ‘There will be no more territorial demands west of the Aegean Sea, the current borders agreed on now and forever, but we demand an exchange of population.’

He demands that all the Greeks get out of new Turkey and all the Ottomans who moved into Greece during the Ottoman Empire move back to Turkey. (Payback for what his family went through.)

“In Greek history, this is the ‘Great Catastrophe’ because Greece was beaten badly by the Turks, they have no army, no economy, the economic situation really bad,” Yoav explains. “They are a country of only 4 million people and they are forced to exchange population: they have to accept 2 million refugees from Little Asia (Greeks who have been living in the Ottoman empire for generations), while Turkey, at the time with a population of 35 million, only had to absorb 400,000.

“In 1923, the Turks were pushing out Greeks from Little Asia – beating, killing, raping, putting them on boats with literally only their underwear. Books have been written about this.”

If you have to figure a single point in time for Greece’s economic problems today, you can go back to this period of history.

“The Greeks don’t know what to do, so they call Venizelos back from exile and save them, and he does. He nationalizes the land that used to belong to the Orthodox church, and distributes the land to the refugees who just came from Little Asia. But they aren’t rural people, agriculture not their expertise. They were originally urban, and don’t know what to do with the land. The locals have their own difficult economic situation so they can’t help the refugees either. The refugees would like to use their urban professions so they sell the land cheap and move to cities and turn the outskirts of the cities into slums.”

“And because they lived among the Ottomans, absorbed their culture, they are different from the local Greeks – their language has integrated Turkish. The original Greeks look at them differently, even mocking them, and everybody – refugees, old Greeks – is really poor. They all find it hard to make ends meet. A new culture starts to develop in the slums outside the big cities of Athens and Thessaloniki – a punk culture – rebetiko music. (It would be like jazz or more recently, rap, in the way it was disparaged by larger society).

“They can’t get help from locals because the locals can’t help themselves. The only jobs they get are dirty jobs. They feel humiliated. They had a much better life in Little Asia. And they are blamed by locals for the situation because the refugees made things more difficult. The country has no resources- they are looking for way to regain dignity and have their own culture, and to be happy.

Solace in Rebetiko Music

“They brought their own music from Little Asia – rhythm with a 7/8 beat, played on the bouzouki – and started gatherings in the night in little neighborhood clubs.

“The whole idea to the music is ‘In our life now, we are miserable, humiliated and frustrated but in our house, we are kings.” That is expressed with symbolic, flamboyant gestures that are made to emphasize that point, ‘We are kings’ (at least in dance).”

The dance is for a single man – the only women who could dance were prostitutes. When a man stands up and starts dancing, he is usually drunk.

“People around go down on one knee and clap – and gesture. The gestures are to remind that he is the king, he gets the ultimate respect, honor. He may put down a glass of alcohol and dance around it, as if to say ‘The axis my world revolves around.’ Honor is important. That another man gets up and joins the circle without being invited to replace original dancer, is a severe offense to the original dancer’s respect. It could lead to a fight, a stabbing, even killing. Respect is very important – not to offend somebody. When a dancer done, he invites someone to replace him.”

He might also take a bottle (like champagne or more likely colored soda water) and pour a little in one glass and throw it away to show he can afford to (even if he can’t).

And again, I think this is at the heart of the standoff in the stalemate in Greece’s economic crisis.

The authorities declare rebetiko music illegal – it’s illegal, even, to use the ‘beats’ that characterized the form of music. So people performed the music in private apartments, spreading the location by word of mouth.

The boycott only created curiosity and interest among urban bourgeoisie.

Then, with World War II and occupation by the Nazis, the rebellious rebetiko music was adopted by the underground and it was viewed as challenging the Nazi rule, a paean to Greek independence. So, in every corner of Greece, rebetiko becomes national music even though it is still, technically, illegal.

It’s fascinating to me how Yoav’s commentary about Greece’s long history and rich culture follows a natural trajectory – from mythology, to ancient history, to contemporary, up to the present day, and follows the course of the roads we are traveling.

But what I take from this, is how tax avoidance is part of the cultural fabric of a country that has been occupied by one ruler or another for most of its existence, and is a large part of the economic crisis befalling the nation now.

Agrafa: ‘The Unmapped Area’

We arrive at Agafa, which is little more than a sign at a bridge (the village is actually up a mountain road which was washed away in storms, isolating the village for 15 days). Even the taverna we stop at for our lunch beside the river, was rubble only weeks before.

Taverna Neromyaos is named for the Water Mill it used to be, and inside, we see the remnants from those days. We are also treated to a bit of a cooking demonstration before we get to eat the lushious burgers and fresh fish.

Neromyaos, set along side a rushing river, used to be flour mill– just weeks ago suffered a massive flood which destroyed its fish farm, did major damage to the restaurant, and closed roads. People who lived in the village higher up on the mountain were stuck there 15 days when they had to make due on their own, isolated.

The cook gives us a bit of a cooking demonstration, showing how she prepares chopped meat for a burger – – she shows how she prepares the meat (just like my mother used to make!) – onions, chopped egg, parsley, salt and pepper, bread soaked in water, mustard, ground meat.

We enjoy a marvelous lunch at tables set beside the river – eggplant and cheese, a delectable goat milk cheese, freshly baked bread, fresh fish, the burgers, a local pasta.

After lunch, we continue to drive up the mountain road into the village of Agafa, and keep going, up and up and up. This road was only opened again only a few days ago. Around us are snow-capped peaks.

It’s extraordinary to realize that these are the roads people use, not just for scenic purpose.

We cross 1000 meters elevation, then 1100 – bouncing around, over the rocks, rolling over the narrow road looking down at the steep, straight descent on the right side. We see where rocks have slid. Now 1200 meters, 1300, 1450 (we’re above the tree line now), 1500.

Now 1600 meters high and we see some patches of snow. We are at the summit of Niala, stopping to revel in the glorious view.

We get through the pass and are on our way down – in the distance we can see an actual town:

Kalambaka, the locale for the World Heritage site of Meteora, monasteries built atop sandstone pillars up to 600 meters high.

We pull up to our hotel, the Famissi Eden, right under the rock formations of Meteora, right beneath the monasteries, and there is even a small church on the grounds, as well as a lovely garden, a delightful verandah and an outdoor pool. The setting is perfection.

So is our dinner at the Meteoron Panorama Restaurant, right at the base of the rock pillars, overlooking the city. We have drinks on the terrace – it is magical – before sitting down at a splendid meal.

Next: Our Tripology Athens-Pindos 4×4 Adventure continues: the Monasteries of Meteora

Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080 , 720-316-6353.


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