Monodrendri and Paraskevi Monastery
Our hosts at the Zadarka Mansion told us that their village's name, Monodrendri, meant Big Tree. According to my basic understanding of Greek it should mean, One Tree, but politeness prevented us from pointing this out. Our confusion was somewhat assuaged when we later discovered that the name did indeed have its origins in a very large tree whose remains still existed there until 1910 .... or was that 1840? Then we tracked down another Monodendri, in fact a nudist beach on the island of Lipsi, and it translated as, One Tree Beach. Ah, the foibles of a foreign language and its folkloric meanderings ... .
In Greece traditional villages nearly always have a big, shady tree in the centre of the square, as well as a public fountain, and a largish church, the absolute essentials of Greek life. The square or plateia is the focus of most of the important things that go on in the village: the markets, the festivals, the public rallies and then of course there are the kafeneons where most of the men will gather to talk and play cards. Old men tend to collect in them during the day, appearing and reappearing in different kafeneons, in different formations, depending on what time it is. The younger men show up later in the evening when work is done and often stay on late into the night. It is often said that these places are their home away from home or as as one wag put it, "this is their home, their home away from home is where they sleep!" Women generally don't go to kafeneons unless they own them or work in the kitchen. They tend to stay within the walls of their homes and gardens or work in the fields until evening when they come out to sit in groups on the street and talk with one another.
In many of the traditional villages in the Zagori the majority of the people are old. Most of the young have left to work or pursue their studies in the bigger cities or overseas. Although many come back regularly for family gatherings or festive occasions, and indeed some return in their old age to retire, the ties that bind families to their ancestral homes lessen with successive generations. In extreme cases villages are eventually abandoned because only a handful of old women are left to stop the inexorable creep of weeds and the tumble of buildings into the enfolding vegetation
Due to its location, Monodendri is one of the fortunate ones, having struck a vein of gold with the tourist industry and flourished. It is located at the southern end of the Vikos gorge so it attracts numerous hikers who walk the 9 km track to the village of Vikos at the top end. Wth a number of stunning views of the gorge close by it also serves as a stopping off point for less enegetic sightseers and those traveling with bus tours.
Monodendri began as an offshoot of the village of Vitsa and over time it gradually spread up the hillside and took on its own identity. The road to the gorge lookout loops around its northern edge with the rest of the village nestling into the slope below. The square, which can be reached by a series of interconnecting, tesselated pathways, is shaded by several widely branching ancient plane trees. Beneath their canopy, staff from the local tavernas spread out their tables on summery days, where tourists and locals pool and mingle in spirited conviviality, the air filled with chatty revelry pierced with bouts of laughter, and redolent with the smell of roasting meat and wood smoke.
From the southwestern corner of the square is the path to the gorge and the beginning of the 9km walk north to Vikos Village. After ascending a broad cobbled pathway past the shiny new Byzantine church the trail winds through gently sloping grassland for a short while before plunging steeply to the Voidomatis River, like an unfurling skein of looping, twisting stones. Once at the bottom, it turns left, whilst still in the trees, and continues through to a lovely, leafy, graded path that parallels the river.
At the northwestern corner of the square a path takes the traveler down a gentler slope on a new kalderimi to the bewitching old abandoned monastery of Agios Pareskevi, clinging like a fragile bird's nest to the sheer walls of the gorge, and it was to here we took the next day's walk.
We ate breakfast in the Zarkada Mansion, served by a young balding fellow in dark green trackie daks and bright yellow novelty t-shirt whose demeanour earned the nickname 'the Doormouse'. When speaking to the blonde "Racing ferret" (see previous blog entry) the next day she told us that he was her 'brrrutha!' Such opposites! "The Doormouse was assisted by an older lady whom we assumed was the mother. She had very little English and while very quick to offer help spent a lot of her time conducting amicable shouting conversations with the woman who ran the taverna on the opposite side of the road. It was a long way so the exchange was very loud, and emphatic and to our unaccustomed ear sounded like an argument but it was probably no more than a bit of local gossip or perhaps a request to cook a few dishes for that night's menu!
Moni Paraskevi was built in 1413 on a rocky edge of the gorge a kilometre from Monodendri. It was lovely walking along the well paved path through light broadleaf woodland and edged with flowering annuals and perennials. Many of the plants were by now familiar favorites, in particular, Campanula spatulata, with its wide-open, upward-facing, pale blue flowers, each petal scored with a set of tiny parallel lines, so exquisite, that look to be made by an engraver's hand. And there is indeed a greater hand at work for these grooves are there to guide the pollinator to the heart of the flower. On the grassy slopes there were scattered groups of the Pyramid Orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis, a widely distributed species, so commonplace to us now that we barely tended to notice it! However we did this time because it was keeping company with a much rarer and sassier orchis, O. boryi, and we wanted to note the differences. We speculate that they associate to maximize pollination opportunites but we could be wrong, there are no hybrids, but maybe there is a well established barrier to such things. They looked from a distance like great pink lollipops growing out of the grass.
As we walked, the path began to fall more quickly untill we eventually met a wall of rock that funnelled us down into the final stretch towards the gorge and the monastery lying within in it. Amongst the slide of rock and rubble sedums clung like delicate sea creatures. Their cushiony mounds of fat fingered leaves, then sometimes needle-like and sharp, and perfect, ecrusted flowers, evoked the delicacy of sea anemones, while others, the precision and finesse of tiny coral plates. We loved them all but two were standouts, the gorgeously gold, Sedum acre, known as the Gold moss stonecrop and the delicately pink or white Sedum hispanica, a far-flung visitor from roof tops of Spain. We even found a soft spot for the rather brash Sedum ochroleucum, which breaks the mould with its stiff, flat, bright yellow flowers.
The cliffs above the monstery are home to a multitude of plants and birds but we were on the hunt for the rare endemic, Centaurea pawlowskii, or Pawlowsksi's knapweed. Did we find it? Well, we don't know, there's such a paucity of visual and descriptive information on the Web and neither of us happened to be carrying the 2 volume set (1.7kg each) of Mountain Flora of Greece in our backpacks. We did however find a number of candidates, none of which quite met the test, it's supposed to have white (read very hairy) leaves, so we have set them out below in order of choice.
Here also grew some great old garden favorites, given a new, refreshing lease of life amongst their native homes and haunts. Chief among them was the Clary Sage, Salvia sclarea with its enormous columns of lilac-blue and pink-tipped flowers rising up out of a mound of large, crinkly, grey-green, spicing the air with its peppery scent. And lighting up the shadows with dense showers of deeply notched, snowy-white, pin wheels, the White Campion, Silene latifolia, was spread throughout the woods.
The small monastery complex itself was mostly in ruins but the tiny church was carefully maintained along with a couple of other small buildings. The whole thing had been built on a small outcrop from the gorge wall so the outside stone walls of the buildings were a continuation of the cliff face. We wondered how on earth they build such places, and how many die in the process, just as we did at the monasteries at Meteora.
The church is quite wonderful, very small, very intimate, simply furnished, with faded, mellow frescoes on all the interior walls. Of course they are all faded and worn but somehow all the more attractive for it. They had endured time, they had given hope and comfort and in return they were imbued both equally with love and suffering.
While we were delighting in these gifts, in our own particular agnostic fashion, a trickle of Greek visitors appeared in the narthex of the church. What surprised us was that they came quickly in, kissed their preferred icon, maybe left a votive offering or lit a taper in the entry room, then left, no gazing at the wonderful wall paintings, no being still in this holy place that had seen so much worship over the centuries. But their business was ritual, a contract they had with god, they had kept faith and moved on. Maybe the luxury of being agnostic is being able to think about it in human terms, the artists painting these frescoes 600 years ago, the people who worshipped and those who came here for safety throughout the years until the monastery was abandoned. On the other hand obviously we "miss" whatever it is they experience.
Growing clean out of the side of the gorge up against the monastery's northern wall is an ancient, primitive Horse chestnut tree, it's great, white, candle-like flowers just going over. It is regarded as a localized native here, though a little far from home, but we speculated that this must be the case because monks would only plant useful trees and this is dangerously toxic in all its parts.
The built terraces higher up behind the monastery were choked with wads of the perennial honesty, Lunaria rediviva. Someone had began to clean up and "taken the knife to them" and they were fallen about like wan Edwardian ladies, their skirts akimbo, their madeup faces turning pale. Amongst the carnage lay the shattered ruins of a plant we had really wanted wanted to see intact, the Balkan Bear's Breech, Acanthus balcanicus, syn. A. hungaricus. Alas, instead of wonderful, densely-packed spikes of richly hued, purple, pink and white "turtleheads" reaching regally towards the sky, they slumbered, dying, amongst their glossy fronds.
That evening we dined at the "Shouting Lady's" restaurant across the road. Greek taverna food is on a par with our counter lunches, is generally limited to various grilled meats served with chips and a mixture of traditional dishes like overcooked stuffed tomatoes and peppers, Mousaka can be good and there are a few salads ....
The traditional Greek salad is usually reliable but anything else with the word salad stuck behind it, well, you could be in for a surprise! I ordered a beetroot salad and that's what I got, a huge, stacked plate of half cooked, coarsely chopped, vinegared beetroot. No extras, no accoutrements, no nothing else! However 'salad' can also be mean a dip, Aubergine salad is usually a mashed aubergine mixed through with tzatziki, and is quite delicious. Once when Susan ordered cheese pie she received a great bowl of cream cheese heavily laced with chili -- ugh!
The art of menu writing in English is almost nonexistant and often a source of great mirth. We regularly come across such literal translations, as "Boiled goat", "Ewe chops" and "Spleen sausage" but our all time favourite, is the compellingly described comestible, "Pieces of viscera wrapped in bowel".
*For those interested in religious iconography and meaning, the circular candle holders are called "manouali" from the latin, candelabrum manuale, which means portable candelubrum. The Greeks, being practical people, only adopted the "portable" bit and dropped the more high flown word "candelabrum". The Greek word for candelabra is "polyeleos", meaning, "a lot of oil" probably because oil as fuel was synonymous with light.