We were now heading into the Grammos mountains, beyond the well-established villages on the tarred road. The peaks ahead were streaked with snow, and below on our right were the red roofs of an Albanian village.
By the time we reached the tiny village of Slimnitsa, the storm clouds were gathering. As we pitched our tents below the church, the wind grew stronger, threatening to blow them away. Alan and Veryan went off to look for a more sheltered spot. There was a covered area below, next to a house with a pick-up parked outside. They knocked on the door, to be greeted by two elderly men, Pavlos and Panagiotis, and a tiny dog. “Oh, but there’s no need to camp, ” they exclaimed. “You can stay in the guesthouse!”
There were only two of them living in the village throughout the summer, and they each had permanent homes and families elsewhere. But on 15th August, the feast day of the Virgin Mary, patron saint of the village church, over a hundred of the previous residents and their families would descend upon the village for the celebrations. They had joined together to build a guesthouse: a substantial building, with a large common area, kitchen, bedrooms, bathroom and covered area with barbecue outside. On the walls were photos from the days before the war. There was even a gas cooker where we could finish cooking our supper. The only downside was the somewhat unsavoury toilet.
Later that evening, over a glass of tsipouro, the local spirit, they told us more about the history of the village, where four hundred families used to live. Panagiotis had been four years old when it was occupied by the Italians. They played the guitar and weren’t too bad – so Captain Corelli’s mandolin wasn’t pure fiction! But then came the German occupation. The villagers saw the flames as the nearby village of Monopilo was burnt down, and fled. One old lady remained to plead with the Germans and offer them chickens and livestock. Slimnitsa was spared and only one house was burnt.
The real destruction came during the civil war: the population fled, the village was bombed and the church destroyed, four minefields were laid all around and the area became forbidden territory. Panagiotis was ten years old when the children were evacuated to Albania, accompanied by the school teacher. His wife was only eight when she left with her sister, and didn’t see her mother again for over twenty years. From Albania, the children scattered to other eastern European countries. Panagiotis went to Romania and then Czechoslovakia. He became an engineer, while Pavlos became a vet. Panagiotis managed to return to Greece in 1973, helped by the fact that his wife was a doctor, but Pavlos didn’t return till the 1990s.
Both were now retired and spent most of the summer in Slimnitsa. The villagers had paid for the road to be bulldozed, before they persuaded the government to take on the responsibility. There was now electricity and running water too. The biggest problem were the Albanians: Panagiotis house had been broken into fifteen times, with the culprits disappearing off quickly back across the border a mile or two away. An army border post had been set up that summer to control the situation, with half a dozen conscripts garrisoned there.
The route: Tarred to Kali Vrisi, then dirt forestry tracks. Partly in shade, fairly easy walking but this is off any known walking route and there are no waymarks. Road sign at Kali Vrisi. Confusingly, Slimnitsa has two names. Slimnitsa was the original one, but then it was re-christened Trilofo after the civil war. Plenty of water from streams and the river. Springs at Kali Vrisi (below the road to the left) and Slimnitsa. Kilometres: 23.4. Ascent: 602m Descent: 402m. Map: Anavasi 3.3. Gramos Smolikas Voio Vasilitsa. Digital edition only. The paper map does not cover the area north of Gramos village.
Facilities: None. It’s important to stock up at the Dipotamia shops, since there is no reliable all-year round food until the Aetomilitsa guesthouse. It may be possible to stay at the Slimnitsa guesthouse, so long as somebody is there with the key. Ask at Panagiotis’ house below.