Retaining tradition only hope for future

In Hioniades, at an altitude of 1,120 meters and an hour’s journey from the border, we meet Christos Skourtis. «When winter is heavy, the village empties. Only one Albanian guards stays behind,» said Skourtis, over a drink of «tsipouro.» Old rusted farm vehicles, flowers wilting in the cold, and the barking of hunting dogs are the last impressions one has. Returning to Pyrsoyianni, the road passes through Asimohori, where only the general store is lit. Dimitris Georgakis keeps it open, even if no one else is there in the winter, «for hungry travelers.» His shelves are full of the forgotten products of a bygone age. Nikos and Sotiris, Albanian immigrants who work as village guards in the winter, are his only company. The next day, Kastanea is celebrating its patron saint’s day. The locals say that the first settlers came from the Peloponnese and the islands. People gather at the church where Father Nikolas is holding a service. Men and women sit separately. After the service, the icon is paraded through the village. Lunch is served afterward at the community center, where the food is followed by singing. Radio Kastaniani was set up by Spyros Tsoumanis, who came to the village from Preveza and works in the local guesthouse. Along with Kyriakos Misiagoulis, they talk about the surrounding mountains and their flora and fauna. Locals are furious with the hunters who come from elsewhere and shoot anything that moves. Talking to the residents of Kastanea, one becomes aware of divisive issues. Some want the village to be listed as a historical area so it doesn’t lose its traditional beauty, others fear that the cost of maintaining their homes will be prohibitive and they won’t be able to make repairs without a permit from the town planning authorities. There is a similar problem in Pyrsoyianni and Drosopigi. The more moderate suggest that people should be able to make informed decisions and should realize that by preserving the traditional character of the village, it could become popular with tourists, which is the only hope for its future. That is something everyone is aware of. Another economic activity in the region is woodcutting and carving. Many of the livestock breeders are switching over to organic methods. Most people are aware that economic viability can only come from investing in quality rather than quantity. Some of the villages, particularly Kastanea, Pyrsoyianni and Drosopigi, have retained their traditional character created in the past via the master craftsmen of the region, including stonemasons, the artists and iconographers of Hioniades and the sculptors of Playia. Speaking their own dialect, Koudaritika, and governed by a strict hierarchy, they once traveled all over the Balkans and mainland Greece building schools, monasteries, hammams, mosques, manor houses, lighthouses and mills. The stone bridges, some of which are over 100 years old, are perhaps the most impressive monuments to a craft that has now died out. Emigration that began at the end of the 18th century and peaked during wartime took the craftsmen away to the far ends of the earth in search of a better future. This is one of a series of articles on Greece’s border settlements that appeared in the April 7-8 issue, the result of months of research by staff and associates of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday magazine.