The deafening sound of wood smacking into more wood echoes around the room of Monodendri’s Rizarios Handicraft School, the largest such school in Greece. Lambrini, one of the more mature students at the handicraft school, sits at her workstation, demonstrates how – together with up to three others – she is going about the complicated methodology of creating a genuine Zagori carpet.
‘It’s specific, every colour and every row is described on the pattern,’ she states matter-of-factly, drawing my attention to the paper with the finely-drawn carpet design stuck to her loom. Her fingers are a blur, reaching up and pulling woollen strings from the top of the machine, her eyes behind her large-framed glasses darting up and down with each new thread.
After each new row is finished, she bangs down hard on the end with a blunt instrument to seal them all together, quickly cuts them to the right length, then moves onto the new row. ‘Again, from the beginning, the same procedure,’ she instructs herself, deliberately forcing herself to slow down to normal human speed so I can follow her actions. ‘Row by row, the same! First of all this procedure, the knocking down to seal, and then the cut. Again, the same, following the pattern!’ It will take up to three months for her to complete the whole carpet, which will then go on sale for €1,000 or more.
Lambrini is one of around 20 students who are taken on by the school at any one time. Once qualified, the graduates are encouraged to use their new skills to start a business or lead their own courses, anything which helps raise the profile of the culture. Lambrini, now that she has gained her carpet-making skillset, has her sights set on making it her full-time source of income.
The Rizarios Handicraft School enrols local women (only women, in keeping with the traditional gender roles) on two-year courses where they are taught everything from carpet weaving to flower arranging, painting to jewellery making. Established in 1979, funding is provided by the Institution of Rizarios Church School (Rizario Foundation), an organisation founded in 1841 by local benefactors George and Manthos Rizari, with the objective of preserving the region’s traditional arts. Their products, everything from tablecloths to cushions, bags to bookmarks, are a deliberate rebuke to modern, disposable ‘fast fashion’, taking many weeks or even months to produce. They will be sold locally as souvenirs and internationally online.
It’s one visual example of a traditional craft which is increasingly booming, as Zagorisians re-embrace their cultural heritage. Many young people – who in recent decades would have undertaken one-way trips to the nearby city of Ioannina, to Athens, or beyond in search of employment opportunities – are now doing the opposite, a side-effect of the economic downturn which made urban living so much more difficult than it was for previous generations. Other examples of using the region's heritage as a new source of income include shepherding, cheese manufacturing, and – adopting a contemporary twist – cultural tourism...
From the vantage point of Aristi – 650m above sea level – it’s possible to watch the snow-topped peaks illuminate with the morning sun, before bathing the entire valley in its warm glow. The peace and quiet of the valley is quite distinctly apparent. The rambunctious laughter of a villagers a mile or so away, on the opposite side of the expanse, echoes off the surrounding hillsides and rises above the faint sounds of chirping birds and creaking trees which have otherwise filled the void of silence.
More modern than most other villages in the Zagori region in northern Greece, Aristi is an example of how some Zagorisians are adapting to the modern world by turning to tourism. Asphalt roads – even a single traffic light – welcome a cohort of international visitors to the village, which is dominated primarily by the Aristi Mountain Resort & Villas.
Founded by the visionary Vasilis Iosifidis, the luxury resort provides an intimate and authentic base for hikers keen to venture onto the ancient trails, and for lovers of the outdoors who simply wish to soak up the natural environment. As the colour of the landscape changes through the seasons, from pinks-and-purples to reds-and-browns, the resort, with its villas designed to blend naturally into the traditional village architecture, enables visitors to experience the combination of striking geology and rich culture year-long. Perks such as mountain star-gazing and local cooking classes using fresh ingredients from the local greenhouse are an added bonus.
As with rural communities across Greece, Europe, and beyond, Zagorisians – and residents of the wider Epirus region – face multiple challenges from the modern world. Here, however, their remoteness and unique culture is being flipped into a virtue. The natural landscape and cultural heritage increasingly draws curious visitors from around the world, providing opportunities that Aristi, for one, have wholeheartedly embraced. Similarly, that same heritage enables the women of the Rizarios Handicraft School to obtain a skill that opens the door to an independent income stream, one that promotes the region, and emphasises its unique place in the world.