Vafkeri, the forgotten village
We happened to be in Vafkeri by chance.
The season had just ended and it had been really terrible, a bit like the 2020 season for everyone… In August it felt like April on the streets of Nidry.
So we decided to go back to Italy for the winter.
Then Ali, thanks to his social work qualification, found a job as a baby sitter with a British family who needed someone specialised for an autistic child.
So we started to look for a more comfortable house to spend the winter in as Geni’s shack had water through the doors, meaning that when it rained and there was a north wind the water physically seeped through the doors as if they were made of sponge, especially the kitchen door which flooded as a result….
So we found a beautiful cottage.
From the photos it looked nice, the request was not too high and without wasting time we called the number on the advertisement.
A young man answered and fortunately he spoke English. We made an appointment to go and have a look at it.
We arrived at the village early. We pulled into a car park that could only accommodate three cars at the most, but two would be comfortable.
Leaning against a stone wall were two locals who were talking to each other and asked why we were stopping. We could understand what they wanted by gesture because they were speaking nothing but Greek. After several attempts, I think we managed to make them understand that we were waiting for a guy called Vassili.
Then they started calling him on the phone, I don’t know why.
Considering that everyone’s name is Vassili, Dimitri or Vangelis, we didn’t know for sure who they were calling. The fact is that our Vassili called me back a few moments later and said he was on his way.
We tried to understand each other somehow but there was no way. We didn’t speak Greek and they spoke only Greek.
So, to pass the time, we got the dogs out of Gypsy (our van) and started walking down the street trying to figure out which of the countless uninhabited houses Vassili would show us.
There were a couple of isolated ones at the entrance to the village; very nice, a bit too close to the road but detached, made of stone with sloping roofs and a nice chimney to indicate the presence of a fireplace.
As we entered the village the houses became denser, but we were determined to live in a quiet house with no shared walls.
Vafkeri stands on the northern slope of a hill overlooking a beautiful valley that runs from east to west, elongated and narrow.
The two ends of the village are one high in the east with more sparsely spaced houses and one lower in the west with houses clustered together.
Between the two ends there is a difference in height of almost 200 metres.
In the centre, near the car park, is the temple of mountain cuisine: the tavern ‘O Platanos Vafkeri’. Exactly 500 metres above sea level.
At the eastern end of the valley is the island’s main spring, icy-cold and pure gushes flowing from the eastern tip of Vafkeri towards the west, following the bed created by the water that overflows from the spring in the winter season.
In the lower part, the one with the houses attached, there was a tavern no longer in business, of which only the signs remain, a sticker of an award obtained from a tourist guide and many cobwebs among the dust.
Today it is inhabited by a feline colony looked after by my neighbour, the laudable Ann.
We climbed back up in time to meet Vassili.
He greeted us and asked us to follow him in the car… as if we needed a car to get from one point to another in Vafkeri.
We got into the Gypsy and started to drive towards Karya, but after less than 200 meters he put on the left arrow and climbed a stone paved road at a prohibitive slope.
After a bend to the right we began to see a couple of houses.
We came to a crossroads with a tiny but incredibly pretty square. The famous wine square.
Vassili turned right and after ten metres stopped in the shade of a tree in front of which stands a small church, which we later found out was dedicated to St. Marina.
In front of the church is our Devonshire-style cottage… with a fence surrounding the entrance.
A wooden door surmounted by a stone and iron arch with two symmetrical windows in classic Greek blue are framed by a stone wall with a sloping tiled roof.
Beautiful, a fairytale cottage.
Vassili opened the door and a warm and cosy ambience revealed itself to us once the warm lights illuminating the wooden counter roof were switched on.
A sofa, two armchairs, a wood-burning stove and a fireplace are part of the essential and spartan furnishings.
Behind the house there is a garden with a panoramic view of the spring, from which you can hear the roar of the water.
An olive tree grows in the middle of it.
Alina immediately fell in love with it, and so did I.
Ali made a gesture as if asking me to move forward, I had been stuck as soon as I saw the fireplace. I love fireplaces, they remind me of my childhood. I have always lived in houses with fireplaces.
He took me by the hand and we began to explore the cottage.
It was what we were looking for, we both knew it.
Vassili’s girlfriend speaks Italian so I tried not to expose myself too much, but the cottage is so similar to our little house in Cassano delle Murge that we already knew we would say yes, but not before we had adjusted the price a little…
The next day we went to the bakery of Timoteo, Vassili’s father, and a man with a kind, round face, a funny moustache and an affectionate smile greeted us and offered us coffee.
Vassili had informed me that Timothy is madly in love with the Italian language and I artfully used this information.
We agreed in a few minutes, Timoteo left us the keys the same day and almost a week before the first payment was due.
We liked it so much that we slept there from the first day, after doing some cleaning.
We started moving in and the next day or so while unloading Gypsy a lady with an unmistakable British accent stopped at our door and in perfect English asked us:
“Are you moving here?”
“woooow new neighbours!!! Two more people in Vafkeri very good!”
“I’ll introduce you to everyone. There’s another Ann who feeds the cats, her husband’s name is Dave and there’s a German couple who live in a house further up the road! Ah you will love this village!”
Alina and I looked at each other shocked.
We had come from a less than idyllic time considering the expectations and this welcome was exactly what we needed to caulk a season that was economically bad and humanly disappointing.
On the adjacent property lives an elderly gentleman who laughs constantly, goodness itself. He has a wonderful hunting dog called Athena but he can never get her on a leash because he is too old and she is too impetuous.
So as soon as they moved in I offered to take her out and since then our walks have become a threesome.
Bibi and Pepi immediately accepted their new hiking companion, only to regret it a couple of days later when they discovered her impetuous character. An impetuousness due only to the happiness of finally leaving that damned chain for a few minutes a day.
Athena is of a disarming sweetness.
And Vafkeri is a fantastic, beautiful, fairy-tale village.
It stands right in the middle of the island, as if it were its pivot. The streets are all paved in stone, the same material used for the houses. There is no supermarket, no shop, just a tavern. The Platano is housed in a building dating back to 1807 with stone walls and wooden beams that still have the axe marks of the shipwright who shaped them.
There is a cast-iron wood cooker that can also be used as a kitchen if necessary, and hanging on the wall are huge old keys and ancient tools, oil lamps, statuettes and ancient pots called cazzarole, so big that one of them would be enough to cook for the whole village.
Nothing is square, as in the whole village: the walls, the beams, the windows overlooking the valley, the door of the pantry that also serves as a cellar.
The kitchen can be mistaken for that of a house. And just like a house, it produces delicacies from another era.
To be honest, it is a place from another era, with its smoky, warm and cosy atmosphere. It’s like being at a friend’s house, watching something on TV, swearing at a politician’s joke, whistling at some beautiful talk show hostess and eating and drinking with friends.
It is the meeting point of the Vafkerians where the spirit of the ancient Lefkadians still lives on, 100% convinced that they are the true heirs of Ulysses.
Not a few believe that the real Ithaca is actually Lefkada.
There are three certain verses that Sotiris, ‘the manager’, cites as irrefutable proof of this theory.
The son of an Athenian philosopher, he argues like his father that the translation of Homeric texts lends itself to different interpretations.
Homeric Ithaca was the one with 70 waterfalls, just like Lefkada, which has perhaps even more in winter during the rainy season.
On the contrary, in Ithaca desalinators are used to obtain fresh water.
Or the island where Patroclus gets there by walking at low tide or rowing fast from the mainland, which is possible in Lefkada but certainly not in Ithaca.
Other evidence, less powerful in fact, is the view from the south of Ithaca of three islands: one to the east, one to the west and one to the south.
Lefkada certainly has three and more, but it is also true that magically from its southern end, where Sappho committed suicide by jumping from the temple of Apollo, one can see Kefalonia, Atoko and Ithaca.
From the south of Ithaca one can see Kefalonia and perhaps Zakynthos when the Mistral makes the air clear, but none to the west. This theory is as interesting as it is hated by the island’s neighbours, jealous of their indomitable and cunning king and the inheritance that comes from him.
Vafkeri like all mountain villages has a president, a sort of councillor.
He looks after the village and does so with love, getting his hands dirty himself if there is something to be repaired, be it a water pipe or an electricity pole.
He loves the Italian people and Italians, except for our current boss, whom he never fails to call a cuckold… and with good reason, I would say, given what he has done to Greece.
But what he loves most is our language. He likes its musicality.
He always reminds me that his grandparents, who lived in Vafkeri, like many other old people in the mountain villages, spoke fluent Italian, a legacy of the Venetians.
The air in Vafkeri is so pure that it almost hurts your lungs.
It has been wine country for years. In the little square near my house there is a huge old wine press on a buried stone cistern. In ancient times it was used a bit as a social cellar.
Today they use the small press at the entrance to the village and in October the scent of pressed grapes wafts through the lanes of the village, intoxicating our lucky nostrils.
Vafkeri is the ideal place to enjoy and understand the mountainous part of Lefkada, the real thing. In summer it is much cooler than the coast, but in winter it is magical.
Maybe out of season there is not much to do, except for long walks or reading a book in front of the wood stove and then gather clandestinely in the tavern in the evening, where between a tsipuro and a stifado you try to learn a few words in Greek … but see the clouds entering the valley horizontally … the landscape that changes every second … the scent of wood burning in the fireplaces mixed with that of moss and wet grass …
It has something mystical and inexplicable about it.
Around the hill on which Vafkeri stands is a bucolic path that you never tire of walking.
Climbing up to the summit, dubbed the Australian’s Peak, you climb through the bushes and follow a goat track between the karst rock and a small cliff that overlooks a valley planted with vine saplings.
We emerge from the grove and cross a field of saplings again before reaching the tarmac road.
Follow it to reach a beautiful, abandoned monastery.
The ruins are not well maintained except for the small central church, but the place is full of positive energy.
A solitary bench overlooks a well in the middle of a garden surmounted by the shady branches of a huge plane tree.
You can stay there for hours meditating and recharging your soul.
Every time we go there the dogs disappear for a while, recovering their hunter’s instinct, there is no one to disturb us, the silence is total.
There is only the wind whistling gently through the branches of the trees and the scent of the grass and flowers.
Every time we leave the monastery we say goodbye, certain that we will return soon to enjoy the spirituality and the aura of magic that it transmits.
The path continues downhill to the springs.
In winter, it is possible to see the water gushing out of the rock and disappearing into the valley below.
Here, too, two huge plane trees tower over the rocks as guardians of an ancient system of fountains that channel some of the water used in the past to quench the thirst of the island’s countless goats.
From the spring, it’s a short walk up to the cottage with a view of the valley below.
Vafkeri is the kind of village where, as you walk along, you can see an old man carrying a small pile of wood from the forest to his house, where at sunset you can hear the echo of the cowbells on the necks of goats returning from their Podolese pastures in the valley, or where when you go out to fetch wood from the porch you find a family of foxes in the garden drinking from your dogs’ bowls, or where in the fog you hear hoofbeats on the paving stones and see two or three cows walking along the only street in the village.
That’s what Vafkeri is like, a place from another era, hopefully no one will ever repair the clock.