Monday, 9 September 2013

the life of a village

"It's the vineyards that have helped keep this village going.  Everyone has a little land with vines.  The local wine is quite well known."  We are looking out over the village of Zitsa in the Epiros region of northern Greece.  It's night time and in the valleys below us we can see clusters of lights from many many villages.  Zitsa is one of the biggest and we are staying here with Kostas and Anna.  Kostas is the baker. When we arrived in the village we asked an old man who was outside his house for bread.  We didn't know how to ask in Greek for the bakery.  The ride from Gjirokaster in Albania had been very comfortable on a large and quiet road through the morning.  But after our siesta we hit the small back roads of Greece and experienced what we call 'Yorkshire gradients' - steep roads that made even our ears sweat.  We were very happy to reach Zitsa but the village is set on a hillside and we were suddenly faced with a junction of five narrow roads and no road signs.  The old man pointed us along the right road and another kindly local took us to the door of the bakery where Kostas' mum was serving.

Late afternoon and the village is reawakening after the midday break.  Shops reopening, people emerging onto the shady streets.  Anna takes us up to their flat above the bakery - we leave the bikes outside, unlocked, unattended.  It seems discomfiting to me.  Kostas is still resting - he starts work around 4.30 am so catches up on sleep in the afternoon.  We chatter away with Anna and ask them about their Couch Surfing experience.  It turns out that Kostas has been hosting for many years and this is how he met Anna, who's from the States.  They married two years ago and although she helps in the bakery, she has just received an EU start-up grant for a bookshop in the village, so her mind is running away with all the work needed to get that going.  

Kostas explains later to us how his family became bakers. Kostas’ father decided to start the bakery when the old village baker announced his retirement.  They opened the day after the old bakery closed.  It sounds like an ambitious but ultimately successful move.  The bakery is thriving and producing bread not just for Zitsa but delivering to the surrounding villages.   It turns out their busiest period is August when family return from the cities or from abroad to spend the holidays at the ancestral home.  In addition there are church and monastery feast days.  Kostas is fully committed to his profession and to living in the village.  But he and Anna want to live in their own house, instead of a flat above the bakery, and there lies a problem.  Greece has Europe’s highest rate of home-ownership.   There is no tradition to sell family homes.  When parents die, the house is kept and perhaps visited at holiday times.  It is unusual to rent out the house.  So this makes it hard for new families or incomers to find a place.  Greece is covered in villages.  It seems that you either live in a city or a village – there are not a huge number of middling towns.  But how can the villages survive?  Kostas’s dad also applied for an EU grant made available to help sustain farming communities in order to open a café, which Kostas’ brother and his wife now run.

We have been invited to visit Kostas at work one morning and so, on a Saturday when a double quantity of bread is required for the weekend, we go downstairs to see how he and his assistant prepare the dough, measuring and dividing it into the tins for proving and then baking in the huge oil-fired oven which takes up a large space in both the backroom and shop front.  Kostas’s mum is always around helping and serving with Anna, and most of the locals appear from 8ish onwards to purchase the weekend supplies.  Also on offer are a tempting supply of savoury breads made with cheese, ham or sun-dried tomatoes and sweet biscuits.  All is displayed on a new wooden counter and shelves.  Mouth-watering aromas abound.  We are invited constantly to sample the goods – irresistible.  A cyclist in a bakery is a heart-warming and blissful vision.  I am minded of meeting Andrea and Gerhard, two German cyclists, in the small town of Xiahe in China and walking down the main street with them.  Andrea had been there only a day and knew exactly where you could buy the best freshly-baked biscuits.  (Later on when we sought her advice about cycling she warned us with a grin about “biker’s belly”.)

Byron, a local hero for his support for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, passed through Zitsa on his travels and sought shelter from a storm at the hilltop monastery.  Later he penned some rather complimentary words about the village, some of which are now displayed at the monastery.  These words bring curious visitors to the village and if Kostas and Anna see them they often invite them in to stay.  It's a wonderful introduction to Greece for us.

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