By Dinos Kiousis
I first visited Thesprotia in the region of Epirus several years ago, but it was a brief trip that had, however, left a good impression. And, as pennyroyal and wild mint continue to grow there, I packed up the car and headed to Greece’s northwestern coast on a cold winter’s morning with photographer Nikos Exarchopoulos.
The quickest route to Thesprotia is via Rio and from there via Amfilochia, Preveza and Igoumenitsa. But, because I can’t stand the Corinth-Patra national highway, we decided instead to travel through Lamia, Trikala and Grevena, taking the Egnatia Highway to Ioannina and Igoumenitsa, and then on to Filiates, the region’s northernmost and largest municipality, and the central destination of our visit.
After several stops and many, many kilometers we arrived at Filiates at dusk, stopping for some food at a taverna in the village’s entrance. After a fill of excellent lamb chops, it was time for bed, before a military style wake-up at 6 a.m. the following day. Over my morning coffee, I perused some of the literature on the area I had brought along.
Thesprotia is the northernmost end of Epirus, and the entire region, with Igoumenitsa as its capital, covers an area of 1,515 square kilometers and has a population of around 46,000. The western slopes of the Pindos range strech through Thesprotia toward the sea, forming long, narrow valleys and small plateaus on the coast, where the Kalamas and Acheronda rivers empty into the sea. The climate is very mild, especially on the coast.
Agriculture is the local economy’s mainstay, with citrus trees, corn, clover, rice and kiwi fruits grown in abundance near the river deltas. There are livestock farms further up the mountain, while in the past few years, tourism, commerce and transportation have gained a good deal of ground, employing around 30 percent of the region’s work force.
We began our day with an amble around Filiates, which has broad streets, as well as cobbled paths, a smattering of interesting buildings, a lovely sense of hustle and bustle, and a very strong police presence as it is very near the border with Albania.
We then headed for the mountain villages further north in an area known as Mourgana. Six kilometers from Filiates, on Farmakovouni Hill, is Finiki, a picturesque village that is considered one of the best preserved in the area. Giromeri is located 8 kilometers from Filiates and is striking for its stone houses. Every year on Easter Monday, the locals take a folk band to the graves of their families and friends to play their loved ones’ favorite songs. On the way we meet Father Yiannis, who saw the cameras around Nikos’s neck.
“Hey guys,” he shouted out to us. “If you’re journalists, write a thing or two about this place, which is constantly being deserted.”
“We’ll do our best,” I responded.
We headed for the nearby Giromeri Monastery, an important ecclesiastical monument that was founded in the early 14th century, before traveling closer to Albania to pass through the village of Ambelonas on the way to Kamitsiani and Tsamanta.
Kamitsiani is a hamlet, built above the Xantho River, which used to boast a large monastery. All that is left of the Monastery of Aghios Georgios, which was founded in 1613, is the church and its wonderful wall paintings dating to the late 18th century. The abbot between 1898 and 1927 of the monastery, Damianos Peschos, is a historical figure as he played a pivotal role in the fact that all 16 villages in the Mourgana cluster remained Greek.
A few kilometers further north, Tsamanta is a small, almost deserted village that has no more than 60 residents today, though there is something very special about the atmosphere here.
Heading back south, Vavouri is another deserted village, but here the atmosphere is crushing. In contrast, Lia is a very picturesque village that registered a population of 814 in 1928, mostly farmers. The village emptied as the population sought jobs in nearby cities, making a reputation for themselves as traveling metal platers. It is most famous, however, as the setting of Nicholas Gage’s historical novel “Eleni.” The home in which the heroine and the author’s mother once lived has been restored, while there is also a lodge named after her, which is the only one in the area.
Kefalovryso and Lista are two more villages in the area, which are peculiar because they appear scattered along small ridges on the mountain. Apparently the villages were built around 1700 by persecuted Christians who did not want to convert to Islam. Each family would find a protected ridge and build its home there, gradually forming villages with a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area. The Lagavitsa River down below is perfect for trout fishing.
As the sun starts to disappear, we head back to Filiates, passing through Kokkino Lithari, a lovely village with an impressive little church that seems to hang off a large red rock.
We returned the following day and lit a candle in the Church of Aghios Minas before heading down to the coast, to Sagiada, with its beautiful beaches, picturesque port and the Kalamas River delta.
It is a lovely fishing village, which, I dare say, has the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen in Greece from Skaloma beach. There is also a small lagoon in the area whose mud is considered to have curative properties. The residents here work mostly in fishing, fish farming and more recently, tourism. In the Kalamas delta we managed to get photographs of a few birds before learning that this is a popular spot with poachers. Great.
By then it was midday and time for a meal of fresh fish before getting back on the road to Athens.
**** From Kathimerini