hidden europe 3

Against all odds

by Nicky Gardner


hidden europe checks out two improbable examples of cultural resilience: Estonians in Georgia and Aromanian Vlachs in northern Greece

In hidden europe 1 in March 2005, we featured one of Europe's most resilient ethnic communities, the Albanians who have for over five hundred years lived in the hills of western Sicily. Today they still speak their own Albanian dialect, which is called Arbëreshë. That the people of Piana degli Albanesi and surrounding villages have maintained their own distinctive religion, language and cultural traditions, often with only sparse contact with their Albanian motherland, evidently surprised many hidden europe readers.

But Piana degli Albanesi is not unique. Europe bristles with resilient cultural enclaves, often in isolated rural regions where minorities have, sometimes against all odds, survived for many centuries as recognisably distinct communities. Italy is home to many such groups. One of the most familiar is the Greek speaking minority in the villages on the southern slopes of the Aspromonte hills of Calabria. In this Zona Grecánica, the villagers of Bova, Palizzi and Roccaforte still speak Greek, perpetuating a linguistic tradition that can be traced back for two millennia.

In February this year, we ran across the curious town of Miranda do Douro, in the remote Trás-os-Montes region of north-eastern Portugal. There, close by the Spanish border, and in the surrounding villages, some five thousand people still speak Mirandesa, a language that is neither Spanish nor Portuguese. Here, as in our other examples, geographical isolation has abetted the survival of a culturally distinctive enclave.

So, for this issue of hidden europe, we went in search of two of Europe's most isolated islands of cultural resilience: Estonian villages in a troubled part of the Caucasus, and some Aromanian speaking communities in the mountains of northern Greece.

Estonians in Abkhazia

The coastal highway that runs along the Black Sea littoral of Georgia's secessionist province of Abkhazia is pretty empty nowadays. A few military convoys, and the odd battered bus, but little more. Twenty years ago, the resort towns of Gagra and Bichvint'a attracted many thousands of Russians who would travel south to spend July amid the shade of the citrus groves on Abkhazia's coast. Much earlier, this stretch of coast was Stalin's favoured spot for summer sun.

Few of the Russian summer visitors ventured inland, but those who did would surely have been surprised to find a number of villages tucked away in mountain valleys where the kids have blond hair and names that are unequivocally Estonian. Nowadays, Abkhazia's Black Sea resorts have lost their summer buzz, victims of the political instability that has undermined Abkhazia for the past dozen or more years. For a time last autumn, the border between Russia and Abkhazia was closed, thwarting the plans of the thousands of Abhazians who regularly go to Soci in Russia to sell tangerines and hazelnuts.

Related note

Lamb soup galore

Lamb soup is a staple in some parts of Europe, but utterly unknown elsewhere. In Iceland, lamb soup has the status of a national dish. That lamb soup was once judged to be the perfect remedy for dysentery was new to us.

Related note

The Black Sea Riviera by train

Europe has Rivieras aplenty. For many travellers, the word Riviera evokes images of the French coast from St Raphael to Menton. But we should not forget the Black Sea, which has along its north coast a Riviera style coastline that is surely the match of its Mediterranean namesakes.