My husband and I visited the area of Zagori in the spring when the snow and the ice had melted and the treacherous uphill roads were a pleasure to drive on without distractions, except maybe the frantic clicks of the camera from my enthused husband by my side. As soon as we parked at Monodentri and stepped out to find ourselves before a maze of cobbled stoned lanes, we thought we might as well have exited Doc’s Delorean from “Back to the Future”. This place felt like it had come out of a fairytale. We had visited this village to walk up to the Monastery of Agia Kyriaki quite early in the day, having set off from the city of Ioannina after a very early breakfast at our hotel. There were not many tourists around and we thought that at any moment, we’d see a flock of sheep or the odd mule walk up the cobbled lane past us, right through the middle of the path where special stonework had been laid for the animals’ passage back in the old days.
Zagori (or Zagorochoria) is a complex of 45 quaint villages in the prefecture of Epirus in the northwest of Greece. Some of these villages are situated at high altitude offering magnificent views of the Pindus mountaintops. Often, as the visitor travels around the villages, they feel compelled to stop and marvel at the weathered stone bridges that are scattered all over this area. Found in deserted landscapes more often than not, they look rather forlorn but nonetheless, they remain unique landmarks of astounding beauty. The word Zagori derives from the Slavic words “za” that means “behind” and “gora” that means “mountain”. The ancient Greek name “Paroraioi” has exactly the same meaning, i.e. “The people who live behind the mountains”. The villages of Zagori are a feast to the eyes made of earth and stone and they have been exquisitely preserved through time, ever since their heyday during the country’s occupation by Turkish rule. This period of Greek history has been recorded as particularly bleak, lasting for 400 years until the Greek Revolution in 1821. Despite the devastation that had plagued the country at the time, somehow Zagori managed to become a focal point of commercial activity. Many villagers prospered and as a result, a series of magnificent bridges were erected all across the area to facilitate the passage of merchants.
Today, the area of Zagori is a popular holiday destination throughout the year. Hikers often return to this area to explore the mountains or to walk along the paths of the famous Vikos gorge. As well as offering a serene setting for a walk or a picnic, the river Voidomatis (named oddly ‘ox eye’) also provides the enjoyment of rafting expeditions. Visitors can often come across the unexpected opportunity to even swim while hiking across the countryside. For example, the natural bathtubs of Ovires (or Kolybithres) that are situated between Papigo and Mikro Papigo are popular among local youths who love to cool off here on a hot summer’s day.
And that is not all. Just walking around the villages is a unique delight in itself. The remarkably preserved buildings and paths are a joy to photograph and to pose by. And when you sample the local meats and pies at the local tavernas, you will be more than satisfied. There is a series of local organic meats, cheeses and wines on offer here as well as the famous Zagori herbs, syrup sweets, jam and honey.
Although my husband Andy and I visited quite a few Zagori villages, only two stand out significantly among the rest. The first one is Dilofo. I count myself lucky to have been tipped off by a friend to seek out that specific village because it is not mentioned in the guidebooks and it’s hardly ever highlighted on the internet. Once we got there, we realized immediately that we were in for a rare treat. From the municipal car park, we took an alluring cobbled path and wound up in a spacious square where we sat to eat at a taverna under a huge plane tree. There, quite unexpectedly, we sampled more than the fantastic local cuisine. We sampled a taste of the past too, a world where time stands still for you. It is a place where you suddenly forget that you own a mobile or a camera. Suddenly you find yourself whispering while you chat, as if afraid of breaking the spell of the moment. It feels somewhat foreign to step back in time and at the same time, tremendously familiar, as if you become privy to the life of the people who lived here a long time before you were even born. In an eerie kind of way, it felt like the echoes from the hoofs of the horses were only now dying down, like the area’s renowned builders had only recently laid the tiles on the village house roofs. Dilofo is such a pleasure to discover and to me it is by far, Zagori’s hidden gem. It is a place that is bound to enthuse and mystify the visitor no matter how many times they’ve been there before.
Papigo on the other hand is quite well known and also highly popular among tourists. We chose this enchanting village for two overnight stays in a traditional inn called “Astraka”, named after one of the mountains that towered above it. Papigo stands on the top of a mountain itself, at the end of a treacherous road that snakes endlessly uphill in a way that makes someone wonder how the locals travel during the cold, icy months of winter. Papigo is tiny but the beauty of it is indescribable. Anywhere you look, you feel the unstoppable urge to press the camera button. One of the hiking paths that starts here, ends high up in the mountains where hikers can visit the lake Drakolimni (dragon lake) near the summit of mountain Gamila (camel).
Papigo is situated within easy reach from the river Voidomatis, the village of Aristi, the village of Vikos with its breathtaking view to the gorge as well as the Monastery of Panagia Spileotissa where the short walk through the forest by the river will remain forever indelible in the traveler’s mind.
The first thing that the visitor is likely to notice about the people of Zagori is that they are uniquely lovely and hospitable. I will mention here the kindly owner at the inn who upon handing us the key to our lovely room, spent a good minute speaking highly of the local water supply, suggesting it makes washing oneself a whole new experience. I took her boasting with a pinch of salt I must admit but I wound up really impressed very soon after all when after a hot shower, I found out that I suddenly had the silkiest hair and skin ever. People around the restaurants and in the streets all over Zagori were equally eager to direct us and to talk but among them all, one particular local stands out in my memory simply because he was a special delight to talk to. He was an elderly man, an inhabitant of the village of Aristi. When we visited there, taking in the generous views of the snowcapped mountains in the distance, he approached us and offered a kindly greeting. He was very friendly and chatty and he introduced himself as a retired teacher. He took it upon himself to inform us about the sites and the area and he was particularly boastful of Voidomatis river, saying that its water is pure and that the locals still drink it without any qualms. Then he stretched out his hand and pointed to the hills towering over Aristi, saying that back at the War, the locals took the hill in a battle against the enemy, thus stopping them from taking the village. Having realized at once that he meant WWII and eager to learn more, I then questioned him: “Which enemy is that?” To my surprise, he remained silent and fixed me with a curious stare that lasted a while, finally responding quite oddly: “What education do you have?” I was quite taken aback as you realize! “I am a university graduate,” I replied politely and matter-of-factly. “I am surprised then,” he said, “you should know we were fighting the Germans in the War!” to which I laughed and explained that I had only meant to ask him to clarify if he was referring to the Germans or their allies, the Italians. I knew only too well that the Greeks were also fighting off the Italians around Epirus at the time and we were in the heart of Epirus after all. This seemed to make sense to him and he finally relaxed in our presence again, restoring his good spirits. I thought it was hilarious, that he should think me that ignorant and for the whole day, Andy and I would pose the question to each other: “What education do you have?” – only to burst into the most uncontrollable giggles afterwards.
In all, our three day excursion around Zagori in the spring has been a sheer delight for all the senses and one of the most unforgettable travels I have ever had. It goes without saying that we only saw a fracture of what’s out there to see and that a return there is as desirable as it is inevitable in the years to come.