The Rugged Rush of the Zagori Experience in Northern Greece
Nestled in the northern Pindus mountain range amid rugged cliffs, rushing waters, lush forests and breath-taking alpine lakes are the tiny stone villages of the Zagori, known as the Zagorochoria. These remote little gems dot the slopes of the Pindus and in their embrace the visitor discovers the secrets of centuries literally carved in stone and carried on through local traditions and hospitality.
by Maria Paravantes
Located in the Epirus region, northwestern Greece, a long winding road connects the 46 Zagorochoria, which offer their guests an unforgettable travel experience: everything from extreme sports like rafting, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking and trekking to horseback riding, mountain climbing and sampling culinary delights of the region.
The snaking ride up to the villages begins from the capital of the region, Ioannina, with Mount Mitsikeli (1,810m) to its southwest, the Aoos River and Mount Tymfi (with Gamila as its highest peak) to the north and the Varda River and Mount Mavrovouni (2,100m) near Metsovo to the southeast.
The 46 villages serve as mini-museums of the region’s traditional architecture mostly dating back to the 18th century. High-ceilinged stone and wood mansions stand on cobbled roads leading to the “mesohori” or “plateia” (central square), which also hosts the village church, the central springs and the ubiquitous “platanos” (or plane tree) under which all of life’s great events take place.
Besides its local cuisine and natural beauty, the Zagorochoria, and the Epirus region in general is also known for its music. Much like its people, who are rugged and reserved, so is the music with a slow slithering rhythm led by a mournful clarinet solo. To enjoy all three aspects of the Zagori experience – nature, food and culture – visit the villages in the summer during the annual “panegyria” – open-air festivals where locals indulge in good food and wine while singing and dancing under the plane tree in the central squares.
Take a walk on the wild side
One of the most rewarding experiences when visiting the Zagori is the trek through the Vikos Gorge via marked footpaths. With an altitude of 1,778 meters, the gorge is located southwest of Gamila and is known for its unique ecosystem which is home to a number of endangered species. Considered to be one of the deepest ravines in world, reaching some 1,000m in depth, it takes approximately six hours to complete the 20km trek that begins from the stone bridge Paliogefyra between the villages of Monodendri and Koukouli, and ends near Vikos. A number of streams and rivers flow along the gorge down into the Voidomatis River.
For those not so keen on a six-hour walk, the best views of the gorge are from the road to Megalo Papigo, from the Monastery of Agia Paraskevi in Monodendri and from Beloi.
Near Mount Smolikas and Mount Tymfi lie the Zagori’s best kept secret: the “drakolimni” (or Dragon Lake): two alpine lakes, the highest at an altitude of 2,050m mirroring the sky and the clouds in which dragons sleep. The dragon, in local lore, is said to represent freedom and emerges when enemies approach its territory. The drakolimni is a five-hour hike uphill from Papigo.
Photo by: www.konitsa.gr, The Zagori’s best kept secret: the “drakolimni”
Like a bridge over troubled waters
The narrow single- or three-arched bridges of the Zagori primarily made of limestone, are mostly in and around the village of Kipi. Today abandoned, they stand as reminders of their central role in the days of old when they served as trade routes for mule caravans in difficult weather conditions. Each bridge retains the name of its donor.
The stone bridges of Kokkoris between Dilofo, Kipi and Koukouli, Kontodimos (in the Mikros Vikos ravine), the 1814 Plakidas or Kalogeriko between Kipi and Koukouli, Klidonia (aka Voidomatis) in Klidonia at the end of the Vikos trek and Milos (near Kipi) are only a few of the bridges adorning the Epirot landscape.
From village to village with a herb in hand
From the 17th to the 19th century, “kombogiannites” also known as “vikogiatroi” would ride from one village to the next to heal the sick with their wondrous herbs. Self-taught shamen mostly from Kapesovo, Monodendri and Papigo, they belonged to a brotherhood of sorts and would pass on the tricks of the trade to their children. Their arrival to the villages was marked by ringing bells and joyful music.
If there’s one thing you’ll want to do after a long trek, rafting or sightseeing, it will be sitting in one of the many local taverns/coffee shops, which serve up the finest comfort foods. From the simple but hearty omelets to the meats and sausages, settle down by the fireplace and watch the meats grill as you sip local red wine. Cheeks are bound to rosy up. The region is mainly known for its famous “pittes” (leek, greens, cheese, pumpkin pies made particularly thin) and its tsipouro, a distilled pomace-based spirit containing 40-45% alcohol.
“I Pitta tis Kikitsas” in Monodendri has since 1958 served up Kiki’s crispiest traditional flour pie (alevropitta). Kiki passed the secret on to her daughter who runs the restaurant today and also offers delicious greens pies, grilled pork chops, tender liver and red wine.
In Ano Pedina, Vassilis Paparounas, known for his kitchen magic in several top-notch Athens venues, operates “Monopatia”, where local products – Paparounas’ personal favorites are the unique-to-the region mushrooms – playfully fuse with tradition to create a delight for the palate.
Further on, housed in a traditional stone dwelling, “Margarites” in Kipi serves up some of the Zagori’s favorite traditional dishes, including delightful sweets. Don’t forget to try “batsaria” – a fragrant pie made of corn meal, local greens and herbs, and milk or yogurt.
Another foodie stop about 1.5km before Mondendri in the village of Vitsa is “Kanela kai Garyfallo”, which also specializes in creative mushroom-based dishes and offers an excellent wine list.
There’s no doubt about it: You can’t get enough of the Zagori in just one go. The tourist experience in Greece is layered. Like most of Greece’s destinations, it has something new to offer every time you visit, with a new layer emerging to reveal something different. So too is the Zagori.
So for the Zagorochoria experience Part 1, take a tour of the villages of Monodendri, the most touristy of the lot at 1,060 meters overlooking the Vikos Gorge with a view to Astraka and Gamila. The 14th-century villages of Megalo and Mikro Papingo (4km from each other) nestled at 980m below the compelling Astraka towers. One of Mt. Tymfi’s highest peaks is Gamila at 2,436 meters, to its north stand the famous twin tower-like cliffs of Astraka which overlook the tiny village of Mikro Papigo.
Between the two settlements of Papigo flows the Rogovo stream. Erosion has created remarkable water-filled hollows known as the “ovires”. In the summer, visitors take a refreshing swim in their waters. And, finally, don’t forget to visit Tsepelovo at 1050m, and take the uphill path towards the Zagori’s highest village, Vradeto at 1,450m.
✓ On the road again… Set off from Athens to Ioannina, approximately a six-hour drive.
✓ Settle down… in one of the luxury resorts or boutique hotels in Aristi, Megalo Papigo, Mikro Papingo.
✓ Indulge in… locally made “pittes” (or pies) and tsipouro.
✓ Don’t forget to buy… spoon sweets, tsipouro, red wine and herbs.
✓ Truth or dare… The Vikos Gorge experience is like no other. Start at daybreak; bring water, chocolate and nuts.