A people with their roots in the mountain ranges of Smolika, Grammos and Tymfi in northern Greece

The highway from Ioannina climbs toward the border, hugging the rocky mountainsides among the three highest peaks in Greece – Smolika, Grammos and Tymphi (also known as Gamila). For the past two centuries, some 13 villages, known collectively as the Mastorohoria, have nestled among these ranges, their origins lost in the uncertain depths of Balkan history, of which traces can be discerned in their names and in the stories told by the elder generation. Konitsa, the nearest town to these villages, has a population of 3,000 who are increasingly dependent on its services, although when the snow begins to fall, many of their residents move to Ioannina for the winter. The further one travels away from the larger towns, the lighter the traffic. Just a few cars and even fewer trucks taking food to Albania or used cars to Bulgaria climb to these heights. Numerous chapels along the route and a single signpost announce the border of the municipality of Mastorohoria, whose villages lie west and east of the Sarantaporo River. They are Kastanea (or Kastaniani), Pyrsoyianni, Vourbiani, Lagada, Asimohori and Hioniades, Plikati, Gorgopotamo, Oxya, Theotokos, Kefalohori, Playia and Drosopigi. Yet even fairly recently, as well as under Ottoman rule, the collective name of Mastorohoria covered other settlements in the surrounding region as well as others now north of the Albanian border. In Pyrsoyianni, which means «sun-drenched,» the few aged residents gather in the village guesthouse, waiting for the postman to bring the mail and local newspapers printed in Ioannina. Giorgos Tsouvalis, the guest-house cook, makes coffee and the talk turns to the winter months when villages like Asimohori and Hioniades empty; the young people having long gone to the cities. Tsouvalis is one of the few who have actually returned to live in the village in recent years after 19 years as an emigrant to New Jersey and then 10 years in Ioannina. «Now that the children have grown up and don’t need us close-by, we decided to come back here. I always wanted to,» he said. Mastorohoria Mayor Cosmas Sdoukos, confirms the trend.«There is a tendency to return, particularly among pensioners, but it is impossible to keep people of a working age here,» he said. The only way to do that is to provide work and recently there have been jobs for some of the women in the municipal Home Help program. Four mornings a week, they visit the aged in two or three of the villages, take their blood pressure and blood sugar count, bring them their shopping, help them around the house and keep them company. «At first people were suspicious,» said Amalia Pappa, »Sometimes they wouldn’t even let us in, but now they welcome us with open arms and won’t let us do anything for them. They just want the company.» When the women arrive in the villages, they are met with gifts of sweets. About 80-90 residents are registered in the Home Help program. The ruins of Zerma Monastery, dating from the 15th century, stand by the road to Playia. Not much is left of it, but there are plans to rebuild it. For emergencies, an ambulance comes from Konitsa but it is sometimes too late. «More than once, we have had to take someone to the hospital,» said Dimitris Koutroubinas, president of Drosopigi, sitting in the village taverna. In Kefalohori is the only school in the region; the kindergarten has eight pupils and the primary school another 17. A taxi has been leased to bring the children from the surrounding villages. The children are given two meals, since they don’t get home till after 4 p.m. «Naturally the children’s needs are paramount. When the time comes for them to go to high school, the families usually move to Konitsa,» says Maria, one of the three teachers, who travels 100 kilometers every day from Kastoria. Half of the pupils are the children of Albanian workers who have settled in the region. Everyone working on the restoration of old stone houses is from Albania – the only ones who still have a knowledge of stonemasonry. Many migrants cross the border, when there is work, via the old footpaths. Late in the afternoon, the landscape looks particularly rugged and the cold is biting, although it hasn’t even snowed yet. 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.