A gorgeous mountainous village
Vrysochori is a mountainous village, built in a green landscape with lush vegetation, running waters and immense forests, now part of the North Pindos National Park. The village is the western border of the area of Zagori where even today the Aromanian is spoken.
Originally it belonged to the vlach villages of Aoos Valley (Konitsa). However, from a historical point of view, it joined Zagori and in the meantime also differentiated in terms of its characteristics. So today it is part of the cultural and historical unity of Central Zagori.
HISTORY AND INFORMATION
Vrysochori is located 75 km N of Ioannina and 30 km SE of Konitsa. It is one of the most secluded villages in Zagori. Not to mention it is also among the most beautiful ones as its setting is one of the finest balconies of Greece. The nothern wall of Gamilla stands on the opposite side of the village with its steep slopes of hundreds of meters, the grooves, the slots, and its impressive peak Tsuka Rossa seeming inaccessible. Tsuka Rossa in Vlach means Red Top. Its name apparently comes because at the sunrise the peak is bathed with the first red color of the dawn. Climbing Tsuka Rossa is considered difficult and that is why it is the dream of every mountaineer and climber.
Below are vast forests of coniferous and deciduous trees and beautiful alpine meadows. The mountains receive a lot of snow and the climate is especially rainy in the area. Therefore, abundant waters rise from the earth forming springs, streams, tributaries that flow into Aoos River. The village, thanks to its many running waters, boasts rich flora and fauna, pastures, gardens, fruit trees and green forests. It has a perfect water supply network from rich sources with abundant and crystal clear waters.
It is one of the few places in Greece where one can see snow 365 days a year. Also, at the foot of Tsuka Rossa there are large pieces of glaciers that don’t melt, not even in the summer heat waves. Just a few kilometers from the village and to the north, the waters of River Aoos are rapidly flowing. Due to the very rich flora and fauna, the University of Cambridge in England had been sending scientists to study it, since the 1970s.
The exact date of founding of the settlement is unknown. According to tradition, before Vrysochori was developed into a village, several genres had settled in the village. The first settlements were founded during the king Pyrrhus and were those of “Baiasa” and “Skarvena”. With the passage of time and the increase of the population, a number of inhabitants moved creating the two new settlements “Manoli” and “Priskos”.
During the Byzantine times, the chapels were rebuilt with the first one of Agios Athanasios. When the settlements later collapsed and the current village was created, it was named Agios Athanasios. The final unification of the settlements took place probably during the 8th AD. century in the framework of the organization of the Communities of the Byzantine Empire.
In fact, every year on June 30, the village celebrates the unification of the settlements.
Some of the first inhabitants were Albanian-Vlachs, known as a Boii or Boians, derived from the name Buia that had the first chiefs of this tribe who were savages and originally lived in slums. Members of the same tribe as the Boii are also mentioned, who were blonde and fearless. In fact, he mentions that there was a Theodosius who together with his wife Kalo Iskanova donated an ecclesiastical book in 1647 to the church of the Holy Trinity.
Some claim that the Vlachs gave the name Liasinca, which hellenized in Lesinitsa or Lesnitsa (there is still a village in Northern Epirus, next to the Greek-Albanian border, called Lesinitsa and has native Greek inhabitants). Others say that the name was given by the Slavs who inhabited the area, and this comes from the word lesbica that means forest with hazelnut trees and with the use it became Lesinitsa or Lesnitsa.
According to Konstantinos Oikonomou (Toponym of Zagori) it is a place name that is found in three Slavic languages, is evidenced from the second half of the 14th century and comes from the basic type of the substantivized adjective of the noun lëska (hazelnut).
In historical texts the village is mentioned for the first time in a chrysobull of Andronikos II in 1295. (Parenthesis: chrysobull = official public document – a decree bearing a golden stamp on the silk film accompanying it, certifying the authenticity of the decree).
In 1927, in the context of the Hellenization of the names of the villages, the village was renamed Vrysochori from the many fountains that the area had.
Here was born the benefactor Christos Athanasiadis (1835-1915), General Secretary of the Ministry of Finance, George St. Garanis (1895-1978), Stamatia Veneti-Asimakopoulou-Patera (1918-1976), who offered the money for the repair of the MOSB hall, which is why it bears her name, and Nikos K. Pantisis (1907-1997), a lawyer, who always offered his services, and when he died, left money for public works.
In 1970, the Educational Mountaineering Association of Vrysochori was founded, based in Vrysochori, which is still active on many levels (collection of folklore, maintenance of churches, formation of a mountaineering group, preservation of cultural heritage and tourism village and the wider area). In addition, since January 1993, the Association publishes the newspaper “The News of Vrysochori” which is published on a quarterly basis.
The life of the first inhabitants in Vrysochori
The first houses of the village built with dry stones reflected the austerity of the life of the inhabitants of that time. Then, when the current settlement began to be created, the buildings began to gradually improve. The new houses were originally built with mud and wood and the windows had shutters made of planks instead of glass. In the best houses the walls were mud- coated and lime- plastered. Cabinets were built into the walls and weapons hung on them. The house had two rooms one for men and one for women and each had a fireplace for the winter. In the courtyards they had stone mantelpieces.
At that time, robbery attacks and kidnappings prevailed not only in Zagori but also throughout Epirus, spreading terror to the inhabitants. That is why the big houses were secured with the latch which was a square wood quite thick and hard and placed so that any attempt at violation was difficult.
Instead of beds they had mattresses and pillows filled with straw. The furniture of the house was limited to low stools and tables, as well as chests for storing clothes. The utensils were made of clay and they made them themselves in an area where there was red soil.
The older families of the village were patriarchal. The male children stayed with the parents while the girls left after the marriage.
Occupations of the inhabitants – Crops
The terrain with the many hills and the landscaped terraces on their slopes, the small valleys and the flattenings in many areas, provided the inhabitants with large areas of arable land and exploitation in general. The altitude differences from 350-400 m. on the banks of Aoos, up to 2450 m. In Tsouka – Rossa created large and different cultivation zones, but also the production of a wide variety of products. The settlement itself is built at an altitude of 900-950 m. The many waters that create small rivers and cross long distances until they meet the Aoos, enabled in many areas to be irrigated and to yield abundant and excellent quality products. In addition, potatoes, giants, red beans, fruit trees and countless walnuts were grown, which not only met the local needs, but also provided a satisfactory income to the inhabitants from their sale. Around the village and within a radius that was easily accessible on a daily basis were the gardens, where vegetables, horticulture and a wide variety of fruit trees were planted, such as pears, apples, cherries, peaches, apricots, figs and quinces.
At a distance from the village, cereals, lentils, rovi, barley and rye were cultivated. From the rich grasslands, the inhabitants collected the grass that was used for animal feed in winter. After the grain was harvested, herds of goats, sheep, and cows grazed in these areas. At higher altitudes, pines, beeches, and firs provided plenty of forest products such as timber, firewood, and a wide variety of aromatic plants and herbs.
However, when the population of the village increased significantly and numbered around 1600 to 1800 inhabitants (18th – 19th century) the large arable land could not feed and ensure adequacy of goods. The result is the migration of many inhabitants and the search for better living conditions in richer places. The gradual decrease of the population, has, over time, increased the sufficiency of agricultural, livestock and forestry products to such an extent that they are marketed and constitute for many families the main income and for others additional. In difficult times such as 1917-1922 and the German occupation, many residents of neighboring and other villages of Zagori, survived thanks to the products of Vrysochori.
The evolution of technology with the use of new means and the inability of the inhabitants to meet the new requirements resulted in the downward course of the crops. Gradually the flight of most of the inhabitants resulted in the abandonment of the old activities and the destruction of the productive tissue. Today few families cultivate only in the settlement and the products basically cover the needs of these families.
At a lower altitude (approximately 400 – 600 m.) the vineyards were cultivated with rare or common varieties (pink grape debina, musk grape etc.) which yielded plenty of grapes winemaking and table ones. In the courtyards of the houses there were arbors where the grapes were table grapes. The wine was either consumed by the family or sold in taverns and other households in the surrounding villages. Tsipouro was another product that helped the household and improved the income of each family.
In the 1940s many vines were destroyed but after 1950 the inhabitants began to cultivate several vines and in 1955 the community brought vines from America and distributed them to the inhabitants. The effort was crowned with success and in two years the vines bore fruit. The cultivation and care of the vineyard required a lot of time, effort and knowledge. All the care was done manually and along with all these difficulties were the wild birds that destroyed and the passers-by who stole the grapes.
However, despite the time and effort, the work was done in a good mood. The days of the grape harvest were days of celebration with universal participation of the village. The grape harvest took place at the end of September and the date was announced by the village crier and was common to all. Even the school was closed on the first day, as the students also went to the harvest. The first phase of the process (grape harvest-press-must-wine) was followed by the distillation for the production of tsipouro. The distillation of tsipouro was a second celebration with a universal feast of the village.
Wine always accompanied her family’s food. Wine and tsipouro were and are a treat for visitors. Also both the wine and the tsipouro were given as gifts, bottled in nice bottles. Today there are no vineyards since everything has been destroyed. The few vines that exist in some yards and the grapes bought for the wine help to preserve the old customs and to continue the tradition.
The extensive and dense forests around the area of Vrysochori were a refuge for many wild animals and prey. Wild boars, ibex, roe deer, hares and partridges overwintered in these places. From ancient times the inhabitants of the city have been hunting for a long time. In addition to the routes in the forest, they provided, especially in difficult times, plenty of meat for their families. In general, hunting events used to be important events for hunters.
The difficult years of exile and wars in Vrysochori
Exile has always been a timeless issue and intertwined with the fate of the Greek people. Life was the same as the life of the inhabitants of the other villages. Poverty, hardship and the looting raids that filled the picture forced young men to leave their place in search of better fortune for themselves and their families.
So many were forced to emigrate in various places where they succeeded in trade, improved their lives and helped their native town by financing the building of mansions, schools, churches, cobbled streets, stone bridges. Spiritual progress was equally important, as well as school had scientists practicing the profession of doctor. Thus, from the 18th c. and then the village showed great prosperity. The village in its heyday had ten groceries, a cafe, six flour mills, a butcher, a bakery, a shoe store, cooperages, etc.
Then came the Revolution of 1821 and the struggle for liberation. The progress of the village continued with a constant increase in the population. The village in its heyday had ten groceries, a cafe, six flour mills, butcher, bakery, shoe factory, barrel crafts , etc. In 1826 there were 200 families of Vlachs and in 1873 about 1600 inhabitants, while the houses occupied a large area, dividednto three Mahalades (Kato (down), Pano (upper), Pera (beyond). (Mahalades=Turkish word for the neighborhoods). Also in 1895, the Ottoman Statistics (Salmame) of the year refers to 870 inhabitants, mainly Vlachs, who spoke both Vlach and Greek.
Most of the residents were farmers, breeders, craftsmen and traders. The economic situation of the inhabitants was not always the best. There were no roads to transport and distribute goods over long distances. Also, if the weather did not favor and destroyed the production, there was no state concern for the products or for the people. But beyond these difficult economic conditions, there was no prospect of education, professional rehabilitation and improvement of living conditions. So, by necessity the men up to about 1900 but also whole families from the beginning of the 20th century, they emigrated.
The main destinations were Istanbul, Eastern Thrace with the main communities of Redestos, Kesani, Ypsala, Incelik, Sarakina and Silivria, as well as Bulgaria and Bucharest were destinations of the people of Vrysochori. Other destinations were Kavala, Kazaklar (Ampelonas of Larissa), Larissa and the villages of the plain of Imathia. After 1900 the road to America was opened and many of them settled there and never returned. Around 1900 also few families are looking for better working and living conditions in Piraeus and Athens, which over the years became more and more. The main concern was the solution of financial problems and the strengthening of families in the homeland. Common experiences, love and nostalgia for the homeland were the link that united them.The establishment of Brotherhoods and Associations abroad was the way to solve the various problems that arose in the community.The enrichment of some of them signaled the development and prosperity of the village.With the money they sent, large stone houses were built and at the same time they financed public benefit projects. Churches, stone bridges, fountains were built and the social, economic and cultural life of the village was generally upgraded.
The Second World War and the Civil War brought horror when the residents saw their village burn three times: twice by the Nazis (18/10/1943, July 1944) and one during the Civil War (1945-49). In 1940 Vrysochori was transformed into a key center of the Greek forces fighting against the Italians and the participation of the inhabitants was total.
With the Italian attack on Konitsa in October 28, 1940, the Konitsa Battalion retreated, reaching Vrysochori, which was the last line of defense. The defense was organized on the left south bank of Aoos with a radius of action from the Monastery of Stomio to the opposite Distrato. Τhe army burned the wooden bridge of Aoos to prevent the passage of the Italians. A significant military defense force had been established in Vrysochori and in addition a mountain surgery. It is worth noting that in one of the Battalions also served 15 soldiers from Vrysochori. Vrysochori managed to deal with all this movement, human energy, the needs created for food, housing, animal feed and even wood for heating. The inhabitants offered, hosted, treated the wounded, transported ammunition to the remote Corps from passages they knew. The help of all the residents was invaluable. The battle that took place at the beginning of November in the village of Elefthero was the first victory of the Greek Forces, with many Italian prisoners, which revived the morale of the Army and made it difficult for the Italians to advance towards Paliocelli – Distrato and vice versa.
Then followed the German Occupation.The official German accounts of the devastation in these villages are recorded in the book “Bloody Edelweiss” by Hermann Frank Meyer, but according to a comment by the German author, the table cannot be considered complete. According to these data, three people were executed in Vrysochori and 76 houses were set on fire, in Iliochori two people were executed and 18 houses were set on fire, while in Laista 4 people were executed and 80 houses were set on fire. The official Greek sources, based on the Balanos Commission (1945), do not report detailed data on the damage that took place in the villages of Vrysochori, Iliochori and Laista.
The Civil War then became the most tragic confrontation in Greek society, completing the catastrophe. Vrysochori was once again burned during the Civil War. The end of the civil conflict found the country in a miserable economic situation and with the social fabric disintegrated. Desertification of mountainous areas, abandonment of settlements and great poverty. Vrysochori had the same fate as the other villages in the area. The migration of young people to the big cities resulted in the gradual desolation of the village which was completed by the isolation, since until 1996 there was only one manual telephone and the road that connects Vrysochori with Paleoselli was paved in 2009.
The administration of the village during the Turkish occupation
Vrysochori during the period of Ottoman rule there was no feud (tsifliki) and with the special privileges granted to the inhabitants by Sinan Pasha- not without consideration of course – they secured autonomy and self-government in all areas (administrative, financial, judicial). They had a council of elders and a community council, elected by them, which took care of all local affairs, including the collection of taxes.
Education in Vrysochori
The establishment of the first school in the village is not known, but it is speculated that from 1770, if not earlier, a primary school must have operated. This is because when, at the urging of Agios Kosmas, the first Primary Schools in Epirus began to operate, the School of Vrysochori operated with a literacy teacher who taught only reading and writing.
From 1803 the operation of the School was more systematic and the teacher was paid by the Community and later for five years he was paid 15 pounds a year by the “Association for the Dissemination of Greek Letters” founded in Athens in 1869. Then the Elders of the village, for the maintenance of the school, established to contribute the Church and the Monastery from their income.
The new building of the Girl’s School was built in 1867 behind the church of Agios Dimitrios and in 1869 it was moved from the house where it had been operating since 1850. The first attempt to operate it after the passage of Agios Kosmas failed. Many efforts were made by Sophronios, the then Metropolitan of Ioannina, who arrived in the village in 1886 and spoke to his parents, trying to persuade them to send the girls to school.
An important role was played by the teacher Chr. Triantaphyllides, who managed to persuade hesitant parents to allow their daughters to attend school.
Simultaneously with the Girl’s School, in another room of the same building, a Textile School with a sewing department functioned as a supplementary education.
CHURCHES AND MONASTERIES
It is a large and impressive church in the main square of the village. The construction of the church began in 1799 and was completed in 1814, when it was inaugurated by the then Metropolitan of Ioannina Gabriel in September 1814. The expenses for the construction of this majestic Temple which reached 3540 golden pounds of Turkey, a huge amount for that time and the data of the village, were borne entirely by all the inhabitants of Vrysochori (permanent in the village and expatriates). The expatriates offered the most as well as the Monastery of the Holy Trinity from its income. Before the inauguration there was a controversy as to as to which Saint will be honored. Hierarch Gabriel asked for a list to find out which of the inhabitants offered the most and realizing that those who wanted Saint Charalambos to be honored in this Temple had offered the most money, without any hesitation, he opened the door chanting the apology of Saint Charalambos. Since then, this holy temple became the symbol for the village and the reference point for every for every resident of Vrysochori, resident and expatriate.
Simultaneously with the foundation of the church, the construction of the iconostasis began, which was financed by the ubiquitous residents, the monastery of the Holy Trinity and friends. Of the few written records that have survived from the testimonies of earlier and expert technocrats, It is obviously of Russian technology, hand-carved in solid oak and walnut wood, painted and gilded with indelible colors of that time and with many religious representations. He had to be transported from Russia by ship to a port in Epirus (then Preveza) and from there to the village with animals.
The monastery of the Holy Trinity
It is located 13km. from the village and at an altitude of 950m. The monastery dates from the 17th century, according to an engraved inscription in a cell, which mentions the date 1677 and was built by the monks Chrysanthos and Joachim and their sister Stasini, who had lived in Wallachia. He also mentions that there was a Theodosios Boianis who together with his wife Kalo Iskanova donated in 1647 a trio (liturgical book) to the church of the Holy Trinity .The current form of the monastery and the catholic dates back to the end of the 18th century. In 1773 I. Lampridis mentions the renovation of the katholikon and the other buildings of the monastery. The katholikon is one-room and vaulted. It is worth noting the wood-carved iconostasis, one of the most characteristic samples of the folk wood-carving art of the 18th century in Epirus. The iconostasis is decorated with relief Christological and Mother of God representations, as well as full-length saints, saints in medals as well as floral and geometric decorative motifs. The technique followed is that of a low, flat relief, which is the oldest in the Epirotic temples.
The Monastery owned the entire area of Gronitsa which was large in area with pastures, vineyards and irrigated fields. The exploitation of all these brought enough income which the Monastery had for the maintenance of the school, the help of poor families and the hospitality of passing visitors. The Monastery no longer operates but celebrates the day of the Holy Spirit and when the weather allows it becomes a traditional festival with the participation of the inhabitants not only of the village but also of the wider area.
It is the first and oldest church of the village. According to tradition when in the 8th AD century all the settlements in one village were merged, this was named Agios Athanasios. The exact date of the original foundation is unknown. However, it is speculated that Agios Athanasios was erected in the 7th AD century as a chapel.
It is built in the center of the settlement and was first built more than four centuries ago. The current image of the church has nothing to do with its original form which was of Byzantine style. According to the inscription on the door of the women’s quarters, it was built in July 1758. According to tradition, the church was built on the ruins of an older church. The church was damaged over the years and in 1936 it was completely renovated, as a result of which the hagiographies were destroyed.
The church of Kato Panagia
It is dedicated to the Birth of the Virgin. Originally there was an old church that was founded in the early 17th century. It served the church of Kato Mahalas and also served as a cemetery. Agios Kosmas spoke about this church when he visited the village in 1778. It was completely renovated in 1895.
The first chapel built by the ancient inhabitants of the first settlement “Baiasa” – “Ambliamtsa”. Agios Minas is worshiped by hunters and especially by shepherds because it reveals every theft that takes place in their herd.
It was built by the ancient inhabitants of the settlement of “Skarvena” because it is the protector of the farmers and a vigilant guardian of the vineyards.
It was founded for the first time by the first inhabitants of the old settlement “Priskos” because they considered Agios Georgios to be the protector of farmers and shepherds.
According to tradition, it was founded in the 10th century under the supervision of its first ancestor, the Mahala, because Agia Paraskevi cures diseases, mainly of the eyes. In 1872 it was radically renovated at the expense of the inhabitants of beyond Mahala, which at that time had a population of about 285 inhabitants. In 1941 a large stone fell from the mountain causing damage. Today the chapel is well maintained and is located in a place with wonderful views of the peaks of Tymfi and the rest of the area.
It was built at the beginning of the 16th century and was radically renovated in 1869 with the assistance of all the inhabitants of the village.
The church is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and was built in 1808 with fundraisers for travelers because it was in the passage when they left and when they returned from their long journeys. It is celebrated on the 15th of August. In the old days, there was a big festival at “Horostasi”(openness where they set up the dance).
Stone carvings in Vrysochori
Maria Tsoupi – Remou writes about the stone sculptures that are in Vrysochori and that adorn the houses.
More than 100 samples of folk stone sculpture are located in Vrysochori. Stone carving is one of the expressions of traditional handicrafts, such as wood carving, painting, embroidery, weaving, silversmithing, metalworking and ceramics. It is noteworthy that Vrysochori is one of the few villages of Zagori, where one can often find these excellent examples of the art of pelicans – craftsmen of the masonry company. Most arrived in Zagori from the Mastorochoria of Konitsa, during the period of intense construction activity, ie from the end of the 18th century and, mainly, during the 19th century. Most stone carvings have dates, but also names that are indisputable evidence of the history of the building, in terms of the date of construction or renovation, as well as the names of sponsors – donors, owners or craftsmen.
The home was the center of family life, the place of work and production, the place where people lived together and animals.Amulets – deterrent patterns carved on the entrance pillars created the conditions for a symbolic protection, in order to guard the boundaries of private space. But if the home is the sacred sanctuary of privacy, the house of God must be the foremost place cut off from the profane world. For the believer it is the transition to the transcendental space of protection and salvation. Here, always in the outer part, the stone carving will find suitable ground for its application. At the porch of Agios Charalambos, but also at the entrances of the temple and the bell tower, the issues increase. All these stone carvings enhance the sense of liberation from the negative forces of Evil. They are amulet “points” that give way to the metaphysical concerns of man and create conditions for experiencing the divine presence.