Zagori, the mountainous area north of the town of Ioannina in Epirus is one of the highlights on the Greek mainland. It offers an unbeatable combination of sophisticated tradition, natural beauty and wonderful traditional hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs. When I visited for the first time, I expected to find Alpine scenery with steep fir-covered mountain slopes and white peaks. For a moment I was almost disappointed when it turned out to be different, but then I opened my eyes properly and I came under the spell of the towering rock formations, fast streaming rivers, deep gorges, mountain lakes and rock pools, dense forests and peaceful meadows. I found scenery offering an unequalled variety and discovered something new with every corner I turned.
This wild beauty of nature and mountains, however, is not the main reason why visitors come to Zagori. The area is most known, famous and loved for its traditional villages, the (almost 50!) so-called Zagorohoria. They are about a thousand years old, and feature beautiful stone houses – many of which have been immaculately restored – cobbled alleyways, small churches and shady little squares. Some are very small and have only a handful of year-round residents, and others are more developed and attract quite a few visitors, occasionally even by the busload. Don’t let that put you off; there are enough villages to choose from, and I recommend you take your time to visit more than just a few. Which ones? I wouldn’t worry too much; they are all beautiful… Go wherever the mood takes you!
Megalo Papigo is perhaps the most captivating of the Zagorohoria. Situated at the end of a 12 km long mountain road, with a series of impossibly sharp turns (at least for buses!), it enjoys a dramatic with great views of the rocks of Mount Gamilla. Instead of having been spoilt by tourism, this village has been revived by it. While a few decades ago there were no more than a couple of kafenions, you now find several nice little cafés and places to eat, and the atmosphere, while still quiet and laid-back, has become just pleasantly lively.
Situated on a plateau at an altitude of nearly 1000 m, Ano Pedina has more of a rural ambience. This village is not the most typical of the Zagorohoria, but it is unquestionably pretty with its distinctive 18th and 19th century houses made of natural stone and slate roofs. Just outside the village you can visit the monastery of Evagelistria (built in 1786) and the monastery of Agia Paraskevi (dating from 1750).
The village of Dilofo is only about ten kilometres from Ano Pedina, but it is a again a different proposition. It lies hidden amongst the trees on the mountainside, and houses are tightly clustered together. As much as a cliché this may sound, in Dilofo you really get the sense that time has long stood still. If you arrive by car you will have to leave it on a small parking at the entrance of the village, and continue on foot over uneven stone paths, past the large school building (dating from 1860) to the village with just a little kafenion. Most of the year you have the whole village practically to yourself – except if it is a long weekend, when understandably there are a few more people around.
And more villages
Other villages I recommend you go and see include, Kipi, Kapesovo, Elati and Koukouli, but this list is by no means exclusive! Monodendri is very beautiful as well, but on weekends it can get busy.
Hiking in the mountains of Epirus
The Zagorohoria are actually connected by a network of beautiful cobbled paths and centuries-old arched stone bridges, so if you have the time (and energy), do some of the exploring on foot. Take a good pair of walking shoes with you anyway, because even the laziest person will be tempted to go for a walk or two. The area is great for walking, anything from a short stroll so see some of the arched bridges (there are many near Kipi), to serious hikes. The Vikos Gorge is a must – if you want to do the entire traverse (between Vikos and Monodendri) you should count a full day and arrange for pick-up transport. If you are not an experienced hiker, consider going with a local guide. Another serious, and beautiful, hike is to the Dragon Lakes (Drakolimni) on Mount Gamila – the fastest way (four hours or so) to get there is from Mikro Papigo.
Active holidays in the Zagorohoria
If you are in for some adventure sports, the area offers plenty of opportunities as well; several companies organise outdoor activities such as rafting, kayaking, caving, rock climbing. There are also some great possibilities for mountain biking. No need to bring your own bike even, Trekking Hellas offers a fantastic biking tour (on and off-road) starting in the village of Elati.
If you’re more interested in history and culture, you can explore monasteries, pop into frescoed chapels and visit small museums. If you’re into food and cooking, you could go fishing, collect mushrooms (if you know what you’re doing, please!), and take a course in traditional cooking at Guesthouse Porfyron in Ano Pedina. And finally, if a swim in the rock pools near Papigo is not enough for you and you’re longing for some time on the beach as well, consider a combined holiday – spend a week in the mountains of Zagori, and another week on Corfu or Lefkada.
Small hotels and other special places to stay in the Zagorohoria