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A road trip from the Greek Hovel to Vlach land

Tom Winnifrith
Thursday 1 July 2021

The pool is getting closer to blue here at the Greek Hovel but needs a couple more chemical dumps before myself and Joshua can use it and so while we wait, it is time to introduce him to the Vlachs: road trip!

The Vlachs, as regular readers will know, are an, originally, nomadic race of folks living in Northern Greece, southern – what was – Yugoslavia and Albania. If you wish to know more, the greatest expert on them was my late father. When my sisters and I were young, our Greek holidays would be to Northern Greece, to the Pindus mountains and to the little village of Anelion, the other side of the valley from Metsovo.

You may remember that four years ago I went to Anelion, walking through the snow to seek out my father’s oldest friend in Greece, Mike the Vlach. I do not know if Mike is still alive. I tried to contact him last October to tell him of my father’s death but could not get through. Mike was a few years younger than my father but is or was, like the late Charles Kennedy, a man who would describe himself as a moderate drinker and smoker.

When Dad used to travel through the Pindus, some villages could, like Anelion, only be accessed by foot. And to get to the start of your journey you travelled on old, rickety buses which used to make my sister T chuck up. It was not fun, I can almost taste the smell of T’s sick as I write. My father recalled that on one winter trip the snow was so deep that the snow poles were covered by the global warming which was still falling heavily as they prepared to go across one high pass.

The passengers on the bus were him and some old ladies, dressed in widows’ black clutching at crucifixes. It was like a scene from a 1970s Dracula movie. The driver asked if folks wanted to go on. My father was desperate to get to wherever he was going in order to get his flight back to London to see his family for Christmas and so said “we go on”. The little old ladies, he claimed, said that if the big one (migalo) goes on so do we.

Dad used to take students with him to study the Vlachs and one of them, who was also a star babysitter for myself and my sisters, D, contacted me the other day with her tale. She was with Dad and a chap called Nick who was the son of my father’s best friend at Warwick University. In the words of D with a tale topical after the recent football:

Funnily enough I was talking about Nick, me and your dad in Greece only this morning over breakfast – saying how everyone in the taverna went absolutely stony faced and silent when Nick walked in with his blonde hair – they thought he was a German!

Your dad pointed out that he was an American and he and I were English. They then said, ‘That girl is not English, she is some sort of half caste like we are!’ They were all Vlachs and were then thrilled to hear that I was half-Israeli!

The Vlachs are an odd lot. Those in Greece do have a sense of being Vlach, not quite Greek, and that will be clear in Metsovo when we arrive. The Greeks also regard the Vlachs as different and, in less enlightened times, took steps to suppress their language and culture. Now that is done for them by TV and by the fact that roads go everywhere and so do people. But the Vlachs will fight hard to retain their identity.

I have explained to Joshua about the Vlachs and I am not sure he understands that but he has twigged that there are bears in that part of the world and, it being summer, we have agreed not to walk in the countryside. We never met a bear when we were young but I don’t fancy meeting one now. When I walked to Anelion in the winter snows, I was comforted that the bears were asleep.

The route up takes us up to Corinth on the Motorway from Kalamata, then along the top of the Peloponnese, across the bridge at Patras and then up the West Coast before heading inland to Arta. There is the famous bridge which the Mrs and I visited many years ago containing the enmured body of the daughter of its builder. Then it is up to Ioannina on a road with signs for trout fishing, a road covered with great leafy green trees. I have talked to the Mrs of that road many times as off it there is a rarely visited entrance to the underworld. Natch Dad had visited it and, on the way back, so might Joshua and I. From Ioannina, it is a quick drive to Metsovo and a hotel with a pool for Joshua.

I am not sure what we will do on the reverse journey. Joshua is keen to see where Great Uncle David Cochrane died near Delphi and I have explained the Oracle to him. There is a portrait of David in the kitchen at the Welsh Hovel and Joshua knows the story well.

Maybe we will take that detour along the North Coast of the Gulf of Corinth and make it a two day return leg. First, it is time to see if Mike the Vlach is still with us, to tell him about Dad or perhaps share grief with his much younger wife who last time gave me a bag of walnuts I took back to England and used in a cake. Who knows?

So as we brace ourselves for six hours of driving, there may be fewer articles from me than usual as the road trip begins.  

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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