Last week, when we drove up the winding mountain road in northern Greece and arrived at Nick’s native village of Lia, just below the Albanian border, we were thrilled to learn that the famous “Yiorti tis Pitas”—or “Festival of Pita Pies” was happening the very next day—Saturday Aug. 22.
The Greek calendar is full of religious holidays—like the August 15 festival of the Virgin Mary, which is second only to Easter in importance—but each village also has its own Saint’s Day (Lia celebrates July 21—the feast day of the Prophet Elias.)
But we had never been lucky enough to be present at the “Festival of Pita Pies” which, as far as I know, is unique to Lia.
Our neighbor in the village—Dina Petsis –was elected Lia’s first female president in 2006 and she brought to the village the Festival of Pita Pies—a kind of harvest festival—now in its third year. Pita pies are the traditional delicacy of this area of northern Greece. The pitas are not desserts, but savory pies with all manner of good things baked between layers of phyllo dough. (But Dina also cooked a sweet apple and cinnamon pita as well—because I asked for it.)
In 2002—when daughter Eleni spent a year living in Lia, rebuilding the ruined family home and writing her travel memoir “North of Ithaka”, Dina introduced her to the secrets of pita making,including a pita made with 13 kinds of wild greens including nettles, and another cheese-y pie called “dish rag pie”. Eleni even learned to make a sweet cake that a single girl can bake and take to church, which she called in her book “Get a Man” pie.
Last Saturday, Dina, who is not only village president but also the finest cook in Lia, let Eleni help her make 5 different kinds of pitas. All the village women from miles around were cooking their specialities. Dina’s contributions included a pita full of various greens, a quiche-like pita featuring zucchini (everything from her garden, of course) another pita with macaroni and cheese in it, and my personal favorite—a pita filled with chicken and rice. (The secret ingredients, Eleni told me, were mint and grated carrots.)
Dina had been so busy getting ready for the Pita Festival that she cheated this time and used store-bought phyllo dough for her pitas, although most of the village women proudly make their own homemade phyllo dough, which is rolled out on a board with a stick that resembles a broom handle.
A large, level area in the village, shaded by plane trees and called the Goura, was strung with lights and Greek flags. The ladies contributing pitas came early. There were 76 pitas in all, cooked by more than 30 women. Notis, who runs the one village store and coffee shop in Lia with his wife Stella, had been roasting lambs on spits all day for those who were not satisfied with pita alone. He and his helpers also sold beer and local wines. Notis would hack meat off the lambs with his cleaver, fill a plate and weigh it to know what to charge.
But the pitas were free. Daughter Eleni and Dina and her helpers cut the pitas into squares and brought each table a plate filled with a variety. There were no prizes—for no one could taste every pita and decide which was the winner. (Our table, however, unofficially awarded first prize to Dina’s Cotopita—the chicken pie.)
Then Dina, in her role as president, gave a speech of welcome and the orchestra began to play. The clarinet player, as usual, was the star, assisted by a fiddler, a bouzouki player, a singer and a young boy on the tamborine.
Our village priest, Father Procopi, along with Dina, started the dancing and the lady cantor from the church joined in. (In the photos Dina is wearing a black and white blouse and Eleni a turquoise dress.) Then, as the high spirits (kefi) increased, more pita-baking women and exuberant young people joined in the dance. The older men mostly watched and drank and devoured the 76 pitas donated by the expert cooks.
We went to bed around midnight, but Dina and her husband Andreas didn’t stop dancing until 2:30 in the morning.
We’ve already marked next year’s calendar for August 22-- the fourth annual Yiorti tis Pitas in Lia.
On our first evening back in Greece, last week, a stroll down the main street of Ioannina took us past reminders of the cataclysms that have racked this area for the past 200 years. The entire population of the city seemed to be outside, enjoying the perfect weather. Ioannina (also spelled Yannina) is the provincial capital of Epiros and the stepping-off place for my husband Nick’s village—about an hour’s drive farther north on a mountain just below the Albanian border.
I often remind myself, when I’m in Greece, that any Greek my age—old enough to remember World War II—is a survivor of the Italian and Nazi occupations, the terrible starvation that followed, and the bloody Civil War that rent the country after that. The Civil War still splits the populace along political lines when you bring up stories like that of my mother-in-law Eleni Gatzoyiannis, who was imprisoned, tortured and killed in 1948 for engineering her children’s’ escape from their occupied village. She began planning the escape when the Communist guerrillas started collecting children to send to re-education camps behind the Iron Curtain. (This was called the pedomasoma, and while many claim it never happened—like Holocaust deniers— in fact 28,000 children were taken from their parents and reared in communist countries.)
In Ioannina, as elsewhere, Greeks traditionally take an evening stroll—the peripato-- families walking together, pushing baby strollers, the youth checking each other’s fashion statements. Everyone eventually sits at an outdoor cafe to enjoy an iced coffee or a glass of wine or ouzo and watch the passing parade. (Dinner doesn’t start until ten p.m.). The peripato is especially popular in towns on the sea or on a lakeside harbor like Ioannina.
Tourists have not yet discovered this city, which is little changed from the days when Lord Byron visited the notorious tyrant Ali Pasha in the walled Turkish Kastro which still stands—its walls intact, its minarets and palaces now turned into museums.
In Ioannina we stayed in the new Grand Serai hotel, ornately decorated with marble, crystal chandeliers and copies of paintings showing Lord Byron and Ali Pasha—the Albanian vizier who tried to seize control of the area from the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople.
Ali Pasha had 300 women in his harem and 300 boys in his seraglio, so they say in Ioannina. Most of them were kidnapped from the neighboring Greek villages—pretty girls for the harem, promising boys to be trained as soldiers in the Janissary corps. Turkish rule ended in Northern Greece in 1913, but even after that, village women like Nick’s mother Eleni, warned their daughters to cover their faces with their kerchiefs to avoid being kidnapped for their beauty. Nick’s father, who was born in 1891, wasn’t sure of his exact birth date because his mother, like everyone else, lied about the age of the boys, making them younger so they wouldn’t be taken as Turkish soldiers.
Ali Pasha had a habit of drowning individuals who displeased him by sealing them in sacks weighted with stones and dropping them into the bottomless Lake Pamvotis below the walls of the Turkish Kastro. They say that in the morning mists over the lake you can see the ghosts of the women who died there, including Kyria Efrosini, the lover of one of Ali Pasha’s sons, who tried to sell her expensive ring in the marketplace. A famous painting portrays her and her maids, who were drowned with her, being rowed to their death by grinning evil Turks.
Today the lakefront is the scene of excellent restaurants and nightclubs which are filled to overflowing with the youth of the city, partying late into the night. Even at midnight, families are out, dining al fresco as children enjoy a Lunar Park of carnival rides and outdoor shows of traditional Greek shadow puppets. There are the gypsies, selling everything from mixed nuts to cheap Chinese electronics, and the little ferryboats, chugging to and from the island in the middle of the lake. Day or night the lakeside is a happening scene,
Ali Pasha was assassinated in 1822 in his summer home on the large island in the middle of the lake (which has many tavernas featuring freshwater fish like trout, plus eels and frogs legs.)
Ali’s wife was Kyria Vassiliki, who was kidnapped (if I remember correctly) from her village of Plessio at the age of 15. The old man trusted the lovely Vassiliki, but she learned of his plan to torch Greek villages and she abetted assassins sent by the Sultan in Constantinople—giving a signal which allowed the killers entrance to Ali Pasha’s island home, where they shot him from the floor below.
The Turks cut off Ali Pasha’s head and carted it to the Sultan in Constantinople, along with Vassilki as a witness—to prove that the tyrant was dead. His headless body was buried under an elaborate wrought- iron cage in Ioannina, still standing near the mosque that is now a museum.
In gratitude for saving her fellow Greeks, Kyria Vassiliki was returned to her village and became the first Greek woman to receive social security.
As we walked down the main street--Averoff— toward the lake front, we passed the entrance to the Turkish Kastro, and a shrine to two local Greek warriors who were hanged by the Turks from a nearby plane tree. They are now saints.
Then we passed a monument to the Jews of Ioannina, who lived mostly within the Kastro—near the ancient synagogue which still survives (although there are rarely enough men to make a minion.) A sign says in both Greek and English, “In memory of our 1,850 Jewish cohabitants who were arrested on March 25th, 1944, and executed in the Nazi concentration camps”. That is another story in Ioannina’s bloody history and one that is still being written about.
As we approached the lake, we passed a warren of shops featuring wares of hammered copper and brass as well as silver filigree: traditional handicrafts of Ioannina. Some of the objects are made from mortar shells left from the war.
Then we reached the lakeside, where the music was blaring and the populace was eating and drinking and admiring the view. Aside from some lakeside statues of veiled women, representing the victims of Ali Pasha, there was no sign of the city’s tragic history, only merriment and music on a balmy summer night.
After 40 years as a journalist, I turned 60 and decided to return to my first love--painting. I’ve exhibited watercolors and photographs in Massachusetts and have a slide show of paintings below. My photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” can be purchased by clicking on the cover below.
I collect way too many things, but my great passion is antique photographs, from the earliest—daguerreotypes (circa 1840) up to 1900 (cabinet cards, tintypes.) I approach each one as a mystery to solve, and in unlocking their secrets have met some fascinating historic figures. For some of the stories, check the list of “The Story Behind the Photograph”.
My husband Nick and I live in Grafton, MA and recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. We have 3 children, now amazing adults. And on Aug. 26, 2011, we greeted our first grandchild, Amalía-- world’s cutest baby. But this blog isn’t about grandparenting (although photos of the grandkid sneak in). As it says up top, it’s about travel, art, photography and life after sixty. And crone power.