Tourists to climb up to Vitsi, a site of civil war strife

Who would have believed that more than 50 years after the end of the civil war, haunted locations on Grammos and Vitsi, the mountain range of northwest Greece where fraternal blood flowed knee deep, would become tourist attractions? And what would Thrasyvoulos Tsakalotos and Nikos Zachariadis have thought to see Greek and foreign visitors – unaware of and indifferent to the drama that was acted out on those beautiful slopes of Epirus and Macedonia – taking pictures of each other in the dugouts of Mali Madi and Kamenik, where thousands of their fighters fell for what each side thought of as a «free Greece»? Such a prospect is opened up by a new study recently approved by the regional government of Western Macedonia as part of the Third Community Support Framework. The survey highlights the headquarters of the communist Democratic Army (DSE), its hospital in Prespes, and three of the many villages that were demolished during the civil war. Architects Giorgos Koliopoulos and Georgia Gianetaki and surveyor Panayiotis Karamoschos led the team that carried out the «diagnostic study to highlight and utilize natural resources and the cultural heritage in the area of Prespes» on behalf of the regional government. The study recommends making minor changes to the caves which once housed the DSE’s headquarters at Pyli, Prespes, and the hospital it ran near Vrontero from September 1948 to June 1949, when the civil war was being fought on Vitsi. Also included are provisions for the villages of Agathoto, Dasari and Kranies, all destroyed during military operations on Vitsi. These efforts will inevitably be extended to the Prespes area in general, which is one of exceptional natural beauty and yet has remained peripheral, as has most of the Grammos range, which contains the most important but most underrated forests in the country. People who live on the border of Epirus and Western Macedonia are hoping for some tourist development of the range that for so many years was cloaked in the pall of the fratricidal war, a terra incognita at a time when the rest of Greece was building the foundations of economic and social progress. Time has effaced many wounds to their spirit, but it cannot wipe out the signs of neglect. More than 50 years later, there are dozens of ghost villages, many more with just a few elderly inhabitants, entire areas blighted, prefectures in decline, and everywhere a lack of prospects. The slopes, ravines and peaks of Grammos, and neighboring Vitsi, the mountain where hatred and discord reached their apogee in 1948-49, harbor extraordinary natural beauty which, if properly utilized, could give life to the devastated frontier. Also hidden among the green woods and bare ridges are relics from some of the most tragic pages of modern Greek history. The gun emplacements where hand-to-hand fighting raged are still there. Tracks leading to underground settlements and natural refuges survive. Clearings in the woods caused by napalm are visible, as are fortifications erected by the DSE on precipitous slopes. The natural beauty and historical overtones suit non-invasive forms of tourism which could attract visitors and summer holidaymakers and help revitalize this remote area which has been laid waste by war and its later side effects. Some years ago an attempt was made to make Grammos better known by opening up the National Reconciliation Park at Kotyli, at an altitude of 1,680 meters. The plan was to construct a small tourist village with hostels and conference rooms, but it never came to completion, though it had support from across the political spectrum. Now the regional administration of Western Macedonia has approved a study which may become a pilot project for highlighting other places of historical interest.