Nestled in the mountainous Greek Northwestern region of Epirus lies the quaint village of Kastaniani (Kastanea). Kastaniani is one of the most picturesque and well-preserved villages of the 42 villages under the prefecture of Konitsa, which falls under the larger jurisdiction of Ioannina.Kastaniani has 100 permanent occupants between the spring and the fall seasons, as the rest of the occupants have moved to bigger cities of Greece, and abroad to escape age-old hardships and seek better opportunities.
The village, however, is very active during the summer bringing everyone back and attracting visitors from surrounding villages, who are drawn to its beauty, as well as to its community affairs, gatherings and events held by the new generation. The village boasts about their beautifully well kept homes, 17 churches, cobblestone streets, taverns, coffee shops and bars, all of which are situated with a bewitching mountainous backdrop.
The cobblestone roads pave a maze through the well-kept village, offering a look back into the time of the origins of its stone architecture. The colors blend beautifully with its natural surroundings and the serenity of the village fills one's soul. Sometimes you can hear a faint sound of someone playing the klarina, the traditional music of the area. One can take all this in while sitting under the big old Oak tree over looking the village.
Kastaniani dates back to 600-700 AD. By 1080, due to the constant invasions and destructions by foreign enemies, including the Turkish conquests, it moved to a safer hidden location, where it stands today.
During the Ottoman Occupation, the village endured the same fate as the rest of Greece. One Kastanianiti native, Nikolaos Grammatikos was the secretary for Ali Pasha, as well as a secret member of the Greek Liberation Group, "Filiki Eteria". He is the reason that the village did not become a "Tsifliki," a manor farmed by others for Turkish use, but instead was a Soultaniko land, an area under the Sultan's protection.
In 1910, the Kastaniatites were sent to war in Asia Minor, in a continued campaign to liberate Greece's remaining Ottoman occupied territories. Unfortunately, their sacrifices and efforts were conducted in vain, as Asia Minor was never liberated, and was later incorporated as part of modern day Turkey. By 1913, Kastaniani itself was liberated from Ottoman Occupation, as were other areas in Epirus.
Like the rest of Greece, Kastaniani suffered more hardships during the Great World Wars. In 1916 the First World War broke outand, in 1940, the village endured hard times under the foreign occupation of the Italian and German armies. Following World War 2, Greece went into a civil war, and once again the village saw more fighting and food shortages. By 1967, out of the 835 occupants, only 253 remained. Many families fled to bigger cities, and fled overseas to the new lands of opportunity, America and Australia for a better life, to work and to send money home to the family left behind.
The Greek Civil War brought about not only economic hardships to the villagers, but a big wave of social division. There were the supporters of the Communists, who began to occupy more and more villages in the area, including Kastaniani, and then there were those who remained Royalists. The families of the villagers who went to America to work were accused of being traitors to communism, so they were persecuted against. Some escaped with the help of government forces, along with foreign allies, and were re-united with their loved ones in America. A famed example of this story is of Nicholas Gage's book, Eleni, which later was made into a movie. Another effect of this civil war was the gathering and dispersing of the village's children into other communist Balkan countries. Some have returned when the war ended, but others chose to stay.
The villagers who left Kastaniani over the years, always managed to return, and they make it a point to pass on the village's roots and traditions onto their children. The Kastanianites of the diaspora have always tried to give back to the village throughout time by giving various donations.
This year, the Vailas brothers (the children of Papagiota Darilis) offered a generous donation to construct a soccer field. The current president of the village, Thymios Doukas, is very proactive in keeping the youth close to their roots every summer.
This year, this construction would support this initiative by offering youth sports activities, along with many theatrical, musical productions and parties held every summer.
The Vailas brothers hail from immigrant parents from Epirus who went to the U.S. during the turbulent years of the Greek Civil War. Their mother, Panagiota Darilis Vailas, stayed behind in her native village of Kastanea, but like others, was an object of prey by the communist occupiers, as her husband (who hailed from a neighboring village) worked in America. She heroically escaped and made her way to the United States to join her husband Christos Vailas. Panagiota Darili settled in Manchester, New Hampshire, where she worked hard in the factories as a seamstress and raised five sons, Athanasios (Arthur), Demetrios (James), Nick, John, and Alex. Despite her negative war experience, Panayiota Vailas still held a strong love for her beloved Kastaniani.
The Vailas brothers came back to their mother's roots to offer the donation to help build a soccer field in the name and memory of their mother Panayiota Darili, who passed away over twenty years ago. They not only reunited with the relatives they haven't seen in many years, but got to meet the Kastanianites who are working to maintain and build a better future for the village. They not only saw old memories that they lived through in their mother's tales, but they got to see first hand how Kastaniani has developed as a continued sought after destination for the younger generations of Kastanianites, who still come every summer.
Kastaniani has evolved greatly in attracting the younger generations, but has also simultaneously and strongly held onto and maintained its historical style and heritage that is cherished even by its oldest occupants.
The Greeks hold close ties to their roots and culture and do everything to keep it alive. They lead by example generation to generation.