Tuesday, June 03, 2008


New York Times

(From the archive of New York Times



Published: October 7, 1984

When the poet Byron, at the beginning of his first visit to Greece, stepped onto the soil of the nearly unknown province of Epirus in 1809, he fell instantly under the spell of its stark mountain scenery, inhabited by nomadic tribes and steeped in history. It was after visiting Ioannina, the province's capital, that Byron began ''Childe Harold,'' which would bring fame both to him and to the isolated province, enticing such notables as Gladstone and Disraeli to venture into its wilderness. Byron contended that no other part of Greece could match these towering peaks and steep ravines where ''roams the wolf, the eagle whets his beak, birds, beasts of prey and wilder men appear.''

I was born in Lia, a mountain village near the Albanian border, in 1939 and nine years later was sent away with three of my sisters in an escape planned by our mother, Eleni. She acted to save us from being abducted with other village children by the Communist guerrillas who had occupied the village during the Greek civil war.

At the last moment, my mother was prevented from going with us. As she embraced us in farewell, she warned us to throw a black stone behind us when we left, a charm to insure that we would never return to a place that had been plagued by famine, war and hardship for a decade. We did as she said, but the vow not to return was one I couldn't keep.

I went back to Lia 14 years later and have gone nearly every year since, although until 1974, Lia was still in a ''forbidden zone'' - so close to Albania that a special pass was needed to enter. Almost half of the Epirus that Byron visited is still inaccessible because it fell inside Albania when the boundary with Greece was arbitrarily set by a commission in 1923. The current rulers of Albania won't let anyone in or out.

Until recently plumbing was unknown in Lia, electricity was a novelty and the single road was unpaved. Today the harshness of life in Epirus is only a memory, although mountain goats still leap the vertiginous cliffs and wild boars roam the high plateaus. In Lia there is not only plumbing but also a small hotel, nearing completion, with a bathroom for each of its 10 rooms.

Civilization, in the form of the great homogenizer television, has invaded the most isolated corners of Epirus, but for the fleeting present the province still offers scenes that would have been familiar to Byron or even Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, who was born there. Mountain pastures dotted with goats and sheep are watched over by grizzled shepherds in the hooded capotes admired by Byron. Black-kerchiefed women spin wool on their hand-carved distaffs or bend nearly double under towering piles of kindling. In Ioannina, storks still nest atop minarets inside the ancient walled city; in the mountain town of Metsovon, bearded men in black kilts gather daily in the square to play backgammon while the women, in bright hand-woven skirts and embroidered aprons, sit chatting at their looms in the front windows.

''Where'er we tread, 'tis haunted, holy ground,'' Byron wrote. Epirus is rich in evidence of all phases of Greece's history. The mystic Acheron of mythology, the river the ancient Greeks believed flowed to the nether world, runs through the region. Dodona, the ancient oracle of Zeus mentioned in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, is 14 miles from Ioannina. Monuments of the powerful Molossian tribes are all over the region. Olympias was a Molossian, as was King Pyrrhus, whose victories over the Romans were so costly they left us the term Pyrrhic victory. The ruins of Nicopolis, built by Octavian, dominate the plain north of the Bay of Actium. Churches and monasteries throughout the area offer a panorama of Byzantine architectural styles. Ioannina is one of the few areas in Greece where evidence of the long Turkish occupation has not been obliterated.

In Lia, scarcely a pinprick on the map of Greece, it's hard to plow a field or dig a cellar without stumbling over the relics of the Hellenes and invaders who have passed this way. When the Germans burned my grandfather's house in 1944, he dug a new foundation and unearthed a Roman sword, which now rests in my office. At the top of the mountain stands a Molossian acropolis from the fourth century B.C. It formed a link in the chain of fortresses stretching from the seaport of Himara (now in Albania) to the ancient site of Dodona to the south. Signal fires could be seen from one acropolis to the next - a pre-Christian telegraph system.

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