Every evening at dusk, the youngsters of the city of Volos in central Greece dash out into the streets when they hear the familiar sounds of bells and clopping hooves. This is the time that the elegant Italian-designed horse-drawn carriage starts making the rounds, with either Alex, Nefeli or Dolly pulling at the reins.
?The children wait for us to pass by, so they can pat the horses. Sometimes they give us flowers,? Stelios Tsalavetas, the last traditional carriage driver in the coastal port city, told Kathimerini.
After brushing down his three horses every day, he puts on his uniform: black trousers, white shirt, a vest and a hat. No one was surprised when Tsalavetas, now 55, left his job as a furniture maker back in 2002 in order to do the job he really loved: driving the last carriage in the city.
?My grandfather had horses and my father would use them to pull the cart with his fruit and vegetables,? Tsalavetas remembers. ?I have been around horses since I was a baby, and this is why I can predict what they will do and what they need.?
Tsalavetas explains that before he took over driving the carriage professionally, he traveled to cities in Italy and Germany where the tradition still flourishes in order to learn the business.
?There were so many things I admired there that I wanted to bring back here,? he says.
Tsalavetas?s home is adorned with thank-you letters and photographs of happy customers from all around the world.
The carriage driver picks up his customers at Volos?s main port and takes them on a tour of the waterfront and, if requested, into the old quarter of the city. He says the biggest fans of his carriage and horses are children, especially those with mobility problems, while his services are also appreciated by foreign visitors to the city and elderly residents. He rents out his services for weddings and baptisms too.
At the advent of the automobile age, Volos had 75 carriages and 350 professional drivers.
In Tripoli in the Peloponnese, meanwhile, there were 38 carriages in business up until 1960, a number which today has been whittled down to just two, according to Panagiotis Tournikiotis, who drives one of them.
?We do rides inside and outside the town. My 19-year-old son has also learned the craft,? Tournikiotis, a third-generation carriage-driver, says with pride in his voice. ?He speaks English and can talk to tourists.?
However, Tournikiotis concedes, there is no real living to be made in driving a carriage, so the drivers all have other jobs or are pensioners.
The Municipality of Tripoli has launched a campaign to help out its two surviving carriage drivers by supplying them with feed for the horses.
Back in Volos, Tsalavetas would like to see the local authorities doing more to preserve the trade.
?Our work is seasonal and tourism has dropped a lot this year,? he says.
According to folk historian Lina Valassa, a Volos native herself, ?it is important that the carriages survive here, because they are a trademark of the city and they attract visitors.?
Zoe Rapaitou, a researcher with the Folklore Center of the Athens Academy and co-author of a book on the subject, says the horse-drawn carriage business survives in parts of Greece that have more tourism.
?There are still 10 carriages in Kifissia [northern Athens], around the Acropolis, in Thessaloniki, on Aegina, Skopelos and Crete, while recently another appeared in Mesolongi.?
Rapaitou has been fascinated by horse-drawn carriages ever since she was a child.
?I can still see the horse-pulled carts carrying fresh produce from Votanikos to other parts of Athens in my mind?s eye,? she says. ?As one elderly carriage driver once told me, once cars took over, most drivers ended up having to sell their horses for their meat to Italy, at a time when other countries were taking measures to protect the horses, as well as the profession.?