Words and pictures by Peter Papathanasiou
We made it back to town just in time. It was getting dark and the snow was falling more heavily. My brother didn’t want to drive the treacherous mountain roads without snow chains on his tyres. Not that he owned any.
I had spent the day with my brothers exploring the Prespa Lakes shared by Greece, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Pods of enormous Dalmatian pelicans floated past the long yellow reeds, their placid nature broken only by sudden and violent plunges of their orange beaks into the icy grey water. We crossed a long floating bridge to light candles and admire the interior of a thousand-year-old church. The faded frescoes were both spooky and magical in the watery light. It took us longer to find the crumbling Byzantine monuments, and we had built up a sweat by the time we reached the askitaria – the isolated hermitage caves, once sought for their physical solitude, and now preserved for their rock paintings. Georgios told me there were brown bears and horseshoe bats hibernating in other caves nearby.
Taking a shortcut back to the car, we came across a shorthorn cow on a rocky road. It studied us intently, refusing to move for the three strange interlopers. A local farmer and his wife shooed it away and offered us homemade vissino – sour cherry preserves – with yogurt so thick it almost needed a knife. They implored us to stay for a dinner of grilled freshwater fish but the weather was closing in and the light was fading. A variety of raptors circled the sky, eagles and falcons and vultures, their talons poised to strike at the sight of a tiny scurrying rodent or scuttling amphibian.
My brother spun the wheels of his small hatchback as the first flakes of snow were falling. The howls of wolves echoed off the surrounding cliff faces. The snow fell with purpose. I’d not seen such a heavy fall before and drove home with my nose pressed against the glass.
‘Papou never got to see the Prespes,’ Vasilios said.
‘How come?’ I asked. ‘They’re so beautiful.’
‘The borders are sensitive and visitors were only recently allowed to the area,’ Georgios said. ‘There was fierce fighting during the civil war. All the locals left, the people who lived in the little villages up here. To visit the Prespes required permission and you needed to be accompanied by a soldier.’
I saw my life flash before my eyes on every steep mountain curve. My brothers weren’t even wearing seat belts. A seat belt meant you didn’t trust the driver, no matter the conditions. I fastened mine tight and adopted the crash position; I didn’t care what they thought. As soon as we returned to Papou’s house in Florina, I switched my hikers for snow boots. I was going out. Georgios offered me a look of surprise; Vasilios one of query.
‘Walking,’ I told them. I had only one place in mind. ‘See you in the morning.’
They turned on the TV in the cramped kitchen and settled in for a night of coffee and cigarettes and jokes at the expense of their little foreign brother, trudging around in the snow like a madman.
I walked slowly, careful not to slip on the slick roads and icy pavements. My boots let out a satisfying crunch with every step. The town looked brand new, the parked cars and outdoor café tables and wrought iron fences as if dusted with freshly sifted flour. It had not snowed as much as in mountains, up near the lakes. I passed under a small sign ironically directing people: ‘To The Beach’.
I arrived at my destination. The Sakoulevas River was in full flow, surging and rumbling beneath my feet as I crossed a footbridge. Other than the ducks and geese, there wasn’t a soul in sight. It had been a completely different scene the previous night, the twenty-third of December. The annual winter festival had featured bonfires lit across town, the largest in the centre of the plateia, down near the river. It was an ancient custom, ostensibly to warm the world for the arrival of Baby Jesus on the twenty-fifth. There had been music and dancing on the streets till dawn, and fires that shot into the sky, several storeys in height, taller than most of the buildings, towers of thick wooden beams that the young men had been constructing for weeks. The snow would soon put an end to the hot embers, which were still smouldering the next day.
The air was crisp and clean. I opened my arms wide and filled my lungs. Lemony streetlight illuminated the façades of the neoclassical houses on the river’s western side. Behind them was the mountain, leaden with the weight of ten thousand chestnut trees. Georgios said chestnuts produced a better crop when subjected to chill temperatures during the dormant period, so snowfalls were beneficial rather than harmful to the trees. Halfway up the mountain was a half-finished hotel casino, a ruin from a 1970s business deal gone sour. They still lit it up at night. And at the top of the mountain was a large white cross, lit even brighter, and protecting the township below.
I returned my gaze to the river where I finally saw what I came for. In the middle of the river floated a ‘Greek Christmas tree’, traditionally decorated. It was a karavaki – a small boat, illuminated with electric blue lights. Greece was embracing an old custom of decorating boats instead of trees, which were now considered an imported tradition that had entered the country in the luggage of the first king, Otto. By contrast, the karavaki was seen as a quintessential Greek symbol. Seafarers had explored the region for thousands of years and turned Greece into a maritime power. During Christmas, when seamen returned home to their islands after a long time away, families celebrated by decorating small wooden boats. The tradition gradually spread to the mainland and then crept inland, through the Peloponnese, Thessaly and Epirus, all the way north until it finally reached Florina and its own little mountain river.
The snow kept falling. My legs felt cold for the first time. But my heart was warm, thrumming in time with the river. I noticed the bow of the boat on the Sakoulevas was pointing north, away from the sea, according to custom. I walked on, following its course up the river.