Pachia Rachi -
Hill village of stone houses
Text by Souzana Raphael
Up until the 1950s, Aegina's mountain village of Pachia Rachi/ Paheia Rahi was the main village on the slopes of Mount Oros, which is located in the center of southernmost Aegina and is the island's highest peak, at 532 metres. It has been officially proclaimed a traditional settlement by the Greek Ministry of Culture, and though neglected for many years and nearly abandoned, many of its houses have been restored during recent decades, with Pachia Rachi now a much-loved destination for visitors year-round, including many hikers.
It is a place that takes one back in time to an older way of life, when bread was baked in the outdoor oven in the courtyard, barley and wheat ground at the local mill, olive-gathering an activity that went on for months, and the horse and donkey the main means of local transportation. Today, one can still come upon herds of animals and old quarries, but also antennas, see stone houses lovingly restored in the old style, but also modern construction, with questionable modern development having found its way even here up on the heights. Still, the place is bewitching, and reveals another Aegina which we find in old black and white postcards - a friendly, human Aegina which calms the mind and quiets the soul.
A little background:
Over the course of centuries people settled in the north and west of Aegina island, where living conditions were best, with more water and flat cultivable land. The inhabitants of the medieval island capital of Paleachora
moved back down to the harbour during the Greek War of Independence, which began in 1821, and during those years the population of Aegina reached 100,000, with many small settlements springing up all around it. In the mountain villages animal husbandry was practiced, and in this the monastery of Panagia tis Chrisoleontissa played a large role. Controlling a large portion of central and south Aegina, it found it advantageous to finance the raising of animals by local inhabitants, who then built houses well adapted to local agricultural life. Of those settlements which are still inhabited, the most visited are Anitseo, Vlachides, Pachia Rachi, Kylindras, Lazarides, Sfendouri (the latter now built up with large villas). The road network constructed in recent decades, which connects the villages with the port city of Aegina, has improved living conditions for the few remaining inhabitants, simultaneously opening them up to visitors previously ignorant of their existence. Though this new interest in these settlements may bring economic relief to some occupants, it also arouses unease in some as to the future of the area - its natural environment and local character.
This settlement was one of four for which evidence of Neolithic habitation is certain, along with Aegina, Alones, and Kamara. Inhabitants came from the Peloponnese, and were involved with agriculture and animals. Excavations have also confirmed human habitation during Mycenean times in many areas of the island. The good volcanic soil of the village and presence of water from wells and rock-lined ponds (known as souvales) provided for successful agriculture. Local legend refers to a cave and to an underground tunnel which began in Marathonas (on the coast far below) and culminated in the village. This legend is connected with mention of an ancient aqueduct that supplied water to the village and the existence of wells, the last public well closed off in 1850, which was located in the agricultural plain of Marathonas.
The first inhabitants of Pachia Rachi had large animal herds, and during Venetian rule of the Aegean, hard black stone was cut from the surrounding area and shipped from Portes (on the east coast of the island) as far as Crete, to be used in the building of palaces/ fortresses. The village was economically and spiritually tied to the Monastery of Panagia Chrisoleontissa, founded in 1614, and which answered to the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. In the 19th century the monastery was the largest spiritual-political-economic entity on the island. It owned much of Aegina as well as land on surrounding islands and in Athens, and it still owns pieces of land in Pachia Rachi.
Many occupants of the village worked on the large estates owned by the monastery, plowing, sowing, harvesting, and managing herds. A local dialect was spoken in the village and in Perdika as well, which differed from the Athenian-Megaritan dialect spoken on the rest of the island, a dialect brought by workers and shepherds from the Peloponnese and from Attic villages where Arvanitika (a medieval Albanian dialect) was spoken. Though this dialect has been lost, and replaced by the one dominant on the island, many of the old village family names hark back to the Arvanitan influx.
Pachia Rachi played an important role during the Greek War of Independence, disseminating the ideas of the Filiki Eteria. In the first years following the war, the village was mentioned in documents of the period as a dynamic settlement. In 1889 there were 284 inhabitants (in 1951 only 157, in 1981, 16, in 1991, 20 and during recent years the numbers have gone up to 28, though not all residents are year-round occupants). The agricultural life of the village during the 19th century included cultivation of olives, almonds, pears, carob, and to a lesser extent figs, apricots, pomegranates, barley and wheat. There were two olive presses near the village and windmills for grinding of the wheat and barley. There were also vineyards and some pulses were grown, such as broad beans, chickpeas (garbanzos) and peas.
At the end of the 19th century, the village had a school with excellent teachers, drawing students from the surrounding villages. Up until the 1950s there were 55 families in Pachia Rachi, and 71 students. One woman teacher walked to the village from Aegina every Monday and returned on Saturdays, also on foot. Some of the teachers were Orthodox priests.
The years of the German Occupation during WWII took a heavy toll in the village, hunger and general poverty causing many to leave for Marathonas, Aegina city, Athens & Piraeus. Poverty in the village continued after the war, with lack of food and clothing and great hardship of all kinds. These days the village bears no resemblance to the Pachia Rachi of 1950 or 1960, what with the restored houses, beautiful gardens, and the asphalt road that leads to it from the coast. Lack of public transport to the village remains a serious problem, however, and there are no kafeneia, stores, or tavernas. Nor is there a medical center in the village. Only time will tell if this beautiful historic village can once more achieve the dynamism of its earlier years.
This article is based and the second paragraph directly translated from the Greek publication entitled Πάχια Ράχη,ο οικισμος, η ιστορία,οι άνθρωποι, οι άγιοι/ Pachia Rachi, the settlement, history, people, saints (2009) by Georgios Bitros, theologian and educator. I thank him for this fine booklet, for permission to summarize from it, and apologize for including none of his accounts of the churches and saints of Pachia Rachi.
Pachia Rachi is also spelled as Paheia Rahi, Paxia Rahi, Pacheia Rachi, Πάχια Ράχη.