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Zagorohoria

February 2, 2008

By Christopher Deliso

Greece’s most striking landscapes, it may well be argued, are to be found in the mountain fastnesses of Epiros, far in the country’s northwest; here is the fabled Zagorohoria, a group of 46 mountain hamlets attesting to the legacy of a spirited people determined to remain free and cling to their customs over the long centuries of Ottoman rule in Greece.

Although most of the villages are sparsely populated now, with the few lingering locals making a living from tourism, they hold onto their magic and their secrets well; since the traditional Zagori architecture is hewn of stone, the centuries-old bridges, mansion houses and churches have all been built to last.

The Zagorohoria’s unique name comes from the fusion of the old Slavonic za Gora (‘behind the mountain’), and the Greek word for villages (horia). The sprawling area lies in the north of the province of Epiros. The mixed tradition of the region also means that a notable part of the population has Vlach roots; indeed, you can still find the occasional nomadic Vlach shepherd bringing his sheep up and down from the mountains’ high places and meadows in time with the changing seasons.

Most visitors to Zagorohoria, foreigners especially, are firstly looking to ‘get away from it all,’ amidst the tranquility and astonishingly fresh air of the Pindos Mountains’ Vikos-Aoos National Park.

Many of these travelers also come to test their trekking mettle, tramping along steep hiking trails and traversing the 12km length of the Vikos Gorge- said to be the world’s deepest.

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The Zagorohoria is marked by its distinctive stone architecture (photo: Christopher Deliso)

The view into the gorge is particularly awesome from above. The whole area is rich in wild things (endemic fish, foxes, hawks, otters and bears, to name a few) and wildflowers, most abundant in spring, which bathe the inner valleys in a kaleidoscope of color. After a hot summer’s day of hiking, the hardiest visitors might seek the ultimate cathartic refreshment- a dip in one of the park’s two glacial ‘Dragon Lakes.’

The Zagorohoria is undeniably photogenic. Constantly shifting light plays across starkly variegated terrain, and the seasons, from blossoming summer to a long whitewashed winter, pass abruptly and always with a sense of loss. But through it all the stone houses with their long slate roofs remain, as do the gracefully arching bridges that dot the interior, both nearby civilization and sometimes, it would seem, precisely in the middle of nowhere, under a craggy cliff or off over a stream in a thicket.

Until the relatively recent creation of modern roads, these bridges were indispensable means of connection between the isolated villages. Even after wave upon wave of Ottoman invaders settled across Greece and the Balkans, the Sultan was never able to take real control of the Zagorohoria and its proud inhabitants. The Pindos range preserved them in a sort of natural fortress, and it was usually too much trouble (and too dangerous) for Turkish troops to make the ascent. And so, during times of trouble elsewhere, the Zagorohoria became a sanctuary for Greeks; in 1204, when the Latin Crusaders sacked Constantinople, and again in 1453, when the forces of Sultan Mehmet II overran the imperial city and destroyed the Byzantine Empire, wealthy Byzantine families undertook the long and dangerous journey to the safety of Epiros, where they could find shelter from the turbulence gripping their own homeland.

As a result, the Zagori villages came to be endowed with the largesse of wealthy arrivals, most evident in the lavish and sumptuously decorated stone churches they endowed. This patronage was considerably enhanced in later Ottoman centuries, when villagers left to make their fortunes abroad, usually in cities with sizable Greek emigrant populations such as Bucharest, Odessaor Alexandriain Egypt.balkanalysisvikosgorge600.jpg

The dizzying view from above: Vikos Gorge at dusk (photo: Christopher Deliso)

The names and gifts of these patrons can still be found intact in the churches of Zagorohoria, whose vivid wall-to-wall frescoes and hand-carved wood iconostases have fared far better, thanks to their mountainous isolation, than have many churches in low-lying parts of Greece and other former Ottoman possessions.

What to see, where to stay

The Zagori villages are spread along the west and east of the Vikos Gorge, many being easily accessible by car. To give proper treatment to each one would mean a lengthy article indeed; here, therefore, are just a few of the most popular, which stretch along the west side of the gorge.

Long-haul hikers in the park have an assortment of mountain huts spread along the well-marked trail system to choose from. Even if you’sre not planning to go on extensive hikes, however, nothing beats the Zagorohoria for its utter tranquility (especially out of high season), wildlife and sense of being lost in another time. And there are an increasing number of places to stay. Over the past few years, numerous residents and former residents who’sve hung on to their ancestral homes in Zagori have gone into the B&B business, opening up guesthouses (xenones) full of charm and centuries-old character. The most impressive of these, the mansions (in Greek, arhontika), stand as the epic reminders to the wealthiest of the Zagorohorian families of yesteryear.

One of the best such places for serene escapism and marveling at old arhontika is the village of Dilofo, 32km from Epiros’s capital city of Ioannina. Located just before the entrance to the Vikos Gorge, Dilofo has taken much longer to get into the tourism game than the larger villages, meaning that it still has less than a handful of guest houses and restaurants concealed amidst its jumbled, slate-roofed houses, now mostly empty, though some former residents and their families do come back for summer idylls.

As in many other wisely situated Greek villages, an enormous, 400-year-old plane tree – for town planners of old, always the most dependable sign that a water source could be found nearby – stands in the middle of the village’s small central square, which also has a card telephone and taverna. In the upper part of town stands the Church of Koimisis Theotokou (Church of the Dormition of the Virgin) a thick stone structure with impressive icons and a hand-carved wooden iconostasis.

balkanalysiszagorohoriarooftops600.jpg Slate rooftops predominate in the Zagorohoria (photo: Christopher Deliso)

The best place to stay here is the Arhontiko Dilofo, tucked unassumingly into a laneway leading up to the church. A double room including breakfast here will set you back 65 euros. This 475-year-old mansion, lovingly restored by owner Giorgos Kontaxis, features unique rooms, all traditional but all slightly different, including one with a glass floor, under which can be seen original implements discovered during renovation. Other rooms are marked out by their traditional bedspreads, lovely rows of windows with painted shutters, and rustic furnishings. Giorgos is a mine of information on the house, its secrets and on Dilofo in and Epiros in general. If you stay, be sure to see his vast collection of nature photographs he’s taken in Zagorohoria over the years.

Further to the northwest are the most famous Zagori villages: Monodendri, Megalo Papingo and Mikro Papingo. The former is fairly heavily visited, thanks to its identity as the most popular starting point for the Vikos Gorge hike, and thus has more services for those needing slightly more civilization. The village lies 38km north of Ioannina, accessible from the main south-north Ioannina-Konitsa road. It boasts two churches worth seeing: the Monastery of Agias Paraskevis, a 15th-century structure built to celebrate a divine miracle, and the Church of Agiou Minas, near the square. From the former church there are awe-inspiring views down into the Vikos Gorge.

The ascent to Megalo Papingo and Mikro Papingo, further north, is one of most travelers’s most memorable Zagorohoria experiences: it involves navigating a succession of fifteen hairpin turns up and up, towards stark Mt Astraka, which looms over the Papingo villages. Excellent views of the Vikos Gorge down below can be had along the way. Megalo (‘Big,’ in Greek) Papingo is a larger-than-life sort of place, backed by the ‘towers’- grand, almost anthropomorphic stone formations. Off of the short road connecting Megalo Papingo to Mikro (‘Small’) Papingo, you will find several rock pools ideal for taking a quick swim on a hot day. In the latter village, which gets fewer visitors than its big brother, you will also find, in the former schoolhouse, a WWF information center that presents the park’s unique wildlife and fauna.

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Rustic guest houses, such as the Arhontiko in Dilofo, pictured here, have driven and distinguished the area’s appeal for travelers (photo: Christopher Deliso)

Monodendri and the Papingo villages have a wider offering of places to stay. In Monodendri, the best budget accommodation can be found at the Archontiko Zarkada, where single rooms go for 25 euros, and doubles for 35 euros. Rooms have balconies with views overlooking the gorge, and some even have rejuvenating spa baths.

Slightly more expensive, but with a central location near the lower village square and only 400m from the Vikos Gorge is the Xenos Vikos(+30 26530 71370), a well-kept guesthouse with a relaxing, leafy courtyard. Here, double rooms go from 45-60 euros.

In Megalo Papingo, the Hotel Agriogido is set in a well-restored old Zagori family mansion, and maintains its atmospheric quality. Even more rustic is the recently opened Xenonas Mikro Papingo 1700 (+30 26530 41179) a small (only five rooms), but very appealing place loaded with traditional character. Rooms here range from 45 euros for a single to 60 euros for a double.

There are many other guesthouses to choose from which you will find in these villages and nearby ones such as Aristi and Ano Pedina; a useful website which contains listings of numerous places with photos and prices, as well as general Zagori information, is the official Agrotravel.gr website’s Zagorohoria page.

Travelers also seeking to head out to Greece this spring and summer, and looking to tackle the Zagorohoria, can order Lonely Planet’s guide to Greece to get all the necessary info on the best places to go and best things to see, with all of the usual logistical and historical detail that goes with it.

balkanalysiszagorohoriafrescoesnegades600.jpg Rare frescoes and a gilded iconostasis greet the visitor at the Church of Agios Giorgos in Negades (photo: Christopher Deliso)

Getting to the Zagorohoria

As with other places offering Europe’s most scenic drives, going by car through Zagorohoria is the best way to see the huge area, offering freedom of movement and a chance to see places well off the beaten track. Visiting most of the area is not difficult, as all of the main roads are paved; however, if you want to get out into nature and visit some of the more outlying areas, it makes sense to rent a Jeep, Land Rover or other dependable four-wheel drive car.

Most travelers will at least be passing through Ioannina to get to the Zagori villages, as its the major city in Epiros and lies on the soon-to-be-called Egnatia Odos (liking Turkey with the Ionian Sea port of Igoumenitsa). However, Ioannina is an evocative and lively town in its own right, with a large student population and plenty of history, and well worth a few days’ sojourn.

If you will have to rely on public transport to reach the Zagorohoria, fear not, as buses are, if not frequent, at least regular, and the journey from Ioannina is not difficult. From Ioannina, buses ply the 1.5 hour route to Dilofo at 5.30am and 3.15pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Buses from Ioannina serve Megalo and Mikro Papingo twice daily on the same days, leaving at 6am and 3pm; the cost is 4.90 euros, and the trip takes about two hours. All buses return to Ioannina immediately. Alternatively, you can take a taxi: the trip from Ioannina to Monodendri, for example, costs approximately 25-30 euros.

balkanalysiszagorohoriabridge600.jpg One of the Zagorohoria’s celebrated stone bridges peeks through spring foliage (photo: Christopher Deliso)

Useful Links

Greek National Tourist Organization

The GNTO website- first stop for travelers looking for official tourism info in Greece

Pindos Trek

The best website for those interested in serious hikes, run by experienced guide Alex Danelas

Trekking Hellas

Another of the several companies offering tours and information for hikers

Anavasi

This leading Greek mapmaker’s Zagori 1:50,000 is the map you’ll want for the trip

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