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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Vlasti Earth-Festival

Amy, her friend Jess, and I took off early on a Thursday morning, catching a ride to the border from Gjirokastёr’s crowded national road. At the border Amy sweet-talked us a lift from two elderly xhaixhai [“uncles”, an endearing term we like to use a lot] on their way to Athens. The men, dressed smartly in their woolen suits and newsboy hats, happily dropped us off in Ioannina, where we passed the morning exploring the downtown castle/ lake area. This was the town where the infamous Albanian tyrant, Ali Pasha of Tepelene, actually resided— before modern borders. What remains is an old city wall encompassing a labyrinth of aging stone and modern homes, a Byzantine mosque, an Orthodox church, Pasha’s tomb, and various other ruins. The Old City is set against the lake, separated by a nicely paved biking/jogging path and promenade, with one end stretching out to a street of large, plush cafes.

Panoramic of the lakefront; Amy and Jess sitting on bench at left, nut-seller's stand on right

Sweets shop in Ioannina-- look at all that baklava! So enticing with various shapes, sizes, and stuffings... definitely my guilty pleasure!

Discarded Byzantine-era tombstone

We wandered around the outer castle walls, under the shade of the trees, and enjoyed the breeze blowing over the water. Inside the walls I played photographer and made some wax rubbings of discarded tombstones on my handmade paper, some of beautifully carved Arabic script and others of delicate Byzantine tulips and motifs. Afterward we sat for lunch on an open street where Amy and Jess split some souvlaki (meat skewers) and I sipped a watermelon smoothie, and we happened to catch the attention of a young Greek man at the next table. He wondered if we were couch surfers and what we were up to, when we mentioned that we want to get to Meteora he offered to drive us out to the new autostrad. Free lift? Of course! Just had to grab some ice cream to cool down on such a hot day while he finished his food, then we were off.

Former mosque during Ali Pasha's reign, now Byzantine Museum

Amy and Jess "Yiamas!"-ing with local wine (that's "to our health!")

We made our way into the mountains (and I mean literally INTO, because the new road is a super highway filled with tunnels, some that stretch as far as 5 km!) via a string of friendly drivers, one including a truck driver who simply could not comprehend my attempt at speaking Greek. Finally he pointed his thumb to his chest and bellowed “Turqishte!” Ohhh, Turkish… hmm… I looked over at Amy and said “we know some Turkish don’t we?” after which she exclaimed (shoulder shake and all) Marshallah! Kizmet! And a string of random words used through the once-Ottoman region. We all laughed at such silliness, an instant friendship was born.

Eventually we arrived at Meteora and settled comfortably in a simply-built family camp ground with full facilities. Not what I was expecting because of the complete normalness—really I’ve forgotten what developed countries have available. The grounds were small but cozy, with a shaded, grassy area for tents and campers, a tiny restaurant/café in a courtyard covered in grapevines, showers, a cooking/eating space with grills, and a swimming pool. I actually have no desire to swim in man-made chemical pools, but the sheer novelty of it and surrounding scenery made it too tempting to pass up. So we took a dip—under the towering pillars of the Meteora and surrounded by multilingual European families. After showers, we somehow met up with a neighboring Englishman—Bill—who we ended up spending the next 36 hours with.

Shady restaurant/cafe at the campground

Despite my hatred for cats, this one was pretty silly and softened my cold black heart... I only sort-of wanted it to fall in...

Bill is a Grekophile. To the max.

We decided this immediately—not based on his endless stories of Greek vacations, nor his adoration for Greek food, life, history, etc., but in fact due to his constant references to the things Greece has given to the world.

For example, “I studied anthropology” “Oh! That’s a Greek word you know! Anthro, meaning MAN.”

“In Albania they sing polyphony-“ “ Oh! From the Greek, Poli, meaning MANY!”

I could go on but it would be easier for you to imagine the father in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, only replace the heavy-set, black-haired actor with a crinkly-faced, chipper bloke from Old Blighty. Needless to say Bill is pretty eccentric, and quite a talker. He liked to point out the obvious, simply noticing them and commenting out loud. “Oh look, trees.” But he is also super sweet and carefree and desperately wanted to be our friend. Luckily, Bill travels by motorcycle (*fantastic* way to make friends with 20-something year-old ladies!) and generously toured us around the mountains on the back of his bike. I think it we all enjoyed this equally; he played the suave aficionado zipping us up and down the hills, stopping to show us his favorite special viewpoints, while we soaked up the panoramic views and the wind whipping our faces.

Our Brit friend Bill, chauffeuring us around the Meteora

Perhaps I should step back and explain what IS the Meteora?
Meteora refers to the unique mountains formations that jutted up from the seabed millions of years ago as the plates were cooling and shifting. The immense pressure has caused giant pillars to project upwards, which now lay uncovered in an open valley in the Western Macedonian region of Northern Greece. However, tourists don’t come here to look at the mountains. They come to see the beautiful and ornate monasteries built in the tips of the pillars, thousands of feet in the air. Dubbed the “Hanging Monasteries”, they were built in the 1700’s by Catholic priests trying to escape Islamic persecution. Originally the clergy worshiped inside caves in the mountains (circa 16th century), it was later that they upgraded to stone structures, which could be accessed only by lowering a rope with a basket down from above. One of the monasteries striking beauty has earned international fame, getting featured in a James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (I am told) as the evil nemesis’s secret lair….

Beautifully manicured gardens inside the monastery (there's a nun hiding from my camera behind the left wall)

Presently, two small villages [Kastraki and Kalambaki] straddle the foothills of the mountains, with enough small hotels and restaurants to accommodate the millions of tourists who pass through each year. The monasteries are impressively well-maintained and still used by an order of nuns, housing landscaped gardens, walkways, and museums. Since we had our own transportation we could wait and watch waves of tour groups flood in and out; sometimes the clatter of indecipherable languages would grow loud and then suddenly disappear leaving us with a hollow breeze.

Amy, Jess, and me, perched on the rocks, overlooking Kalambaki

One of the big monasteries

This was the evil hideout in For Your Eyes Only

Greek pride!

In the afternoon we backtracked about 40 km to the highway for Thessaloniki, en route to an eco-fest organized by a Greek environmental NGO Ecotopia. Once again meeting a string of kind drivers, we pieced together lifts from the big city (Kozani) to a small town (Ptolemeida) to the village (Vlasti) to our camp site up in the mountain. Upon arrival we set our tent up amidst the already present clusters, then explored the grounds and began meeting friends. Except for a Canadian volunteer, we were the only non-Europeans present, with virtually everyone else being Greeks, specifically from nearby Thessaloniki.

Daily percussion ensemble at the festival

The festival turned out to be less environmentally-conscious/awareness-raising than I had expected, but all of the elements that I was hoping for were provided in the end so I’m very happy. Meaning, at first I was disappointed to see people carelessly littering the *disposable* food tins/wrappers (!), and there was a definite lack of organized spoken word / info sessions about how to be more eco-friendly… However, I really wanted to meet cool people [ check ], eat tasty organic vegetarian foods [ check! ], hear some awesome music [ double check], and discuss at least some environmental concerns with other interested persons [late coming, but check nonetheless—thanks Zoi!]

Each night around 9:30 the village filled with people from the upper campground to listen/dance/mosh to the bands. Night one we stayed uphill getting to know people and just chill out. Night two there was an amazing Greek percussion group that opened for Kulture Shock, a (quote) “gypsy, Balkan, punk-rock band”—they put on a good performance full of energy, but it was waaay too heavy-metal for my taste. I wouldn’t say punk at all. They must be transitioning to another genre with that reputation trailing. I will say, though, their violinist (from Tucson AZ!) is a super-cute fem that rocked the stage and had every guy (and girl!) drooling.

The final night opened with a hilariously terrible Greek rock band of sorts—something pitifully reminiscent of a 70’s wedding band. We’re pretty sure the singer was the heart-throb straight out of Empire Records (Cory Feldman?). I was entirely blown away by the next group, Rupa and the April Fishes, a San Fran based collection of Indian-born/French-American singer, super chill accordionist, cellist—a very unique sound! Listen to their samples on their site:

During the day we hung out mostly at the campground, talking with people circled around a morning fire (sipping cardamom-spiced coffee and sage tea), or in the grass soaking up the sunshine. One of the groups we befriended was a group of Israeli and German hippies, currently roaming across Europe in their junker van, selling homemade vegetarian creations—hummus salad wraps, chickpeas or lentils in chapatti bread, tahini and jam wraps, etc. They have a colorful poster announcing “Falafel Family” and appropriately decked out with butterflies and mushroom clouds. Hehe!

Amy contemplating the delicious creations at the Falafel Family stand

General Hippie-ness. Note the hammock, hand-sewn leather bags, and gallons of organic taxhini for sale (in the white jugs). Oh yeah and the guys busting out the musical tunes...

Another "Yiamas!", this one in honor of Olga's Saint's Day

Greek hippies. They were the loud ones next to our tent.

Kulture Shock

Rupa and the April Fishes

So all in all well worth the trip, I’d love to go back next year.

We ended up taking a bus back out to a nearby city and from there hitching our way back to Ioannia. Along the way we met several Jorgo’s, “call me George!”, who ironically all seemed to speak German. Jorge Number Two was so excited to meet us and absolutely appalled to hear we live in Albania (still a very big stereotype of Albanians as wild, violent people—- absolutely the wild west of the Balkans) that he took us out for a coffee at a hotel whose pool/café area looks like it was built for MTV Cribs. It was there that we discussed his upcoming trip to the States; he’ll be singing with his Greek band in NYC in December.

After a series of expressways and drivers we found ourselves waiting at a ringroad outside Ioannina, searching for Albanian license plates. Several cars and semi's passed us by, shaking their fingers at us to indicate "No, you don't want me. I'm going to Albania." with us desperately crying "Yes! That's where we want to go! Ne jemi per Shqiperia!"

Eventually we talked two very skeptical Albanian semi drivers that we wanted a lift, and in fact we live in Gjirokaster. They didn't believe us, which is weird because I was speaking in Shqip to them and NO ONE speaks Shqip unless they have a darn good reason to. Trying to call my bluff they asked what neighborhood I'm in. Then what family I'm staying with. When I replied the Hashorva's they shook their heads and asked "Do you know Ermal or Alma?" [that's my landlord's son and his wife]

Well of course. Turns out they are Ermal's friend and Alma's uncle. ;)
So that was it! We jumped into the passenger seats and cruised to the border. Kizmet fare...

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