Inside Greece’s Mountain Kingdom

In Zagorochoria, witness one of the world’s deepest gorges, a precariously perched clifftop monastery, and lakes built by dragons.  
Inside Greece’s Mountain Kingdom
A hike to Megalo Papingo leads to spectacular views of Zagori’s limestone rockfaces. Photo By: Costas Zissis

In the northwest of Greece lies a gorgeous mountain destination, one of the coastal nation’s best-kept secrets: 48 villages surrounded by some of Greece’s highest peaks, Zagorochoria. The Slavic term zagori means “behind the mountain” and the Greek word for villages is choria, but the region is simply referred to as Zagori. The montane area nestled amidst the Pindus mountain range between Greece, Albania and Macedonia is a unique mix of the landscape and history of these regions.

 

A Lay of the Land

Water cutting limestone for centuries formed this region of towering stone forest of rock mountains, and stunning pools and gorges. Nomadic pastoralists and hunter-gatherers crossed these lands for centuries and over time sleepy fairy-tale villages found a home between the cliffs.

The settlements usually have a consistent layout: winding stone roads and alleyways leading to homes with sloping roofs, built using stones naturally found in the region. A plane tree stands in the central square or mesochori as the archetype landmark of the village, as do a central church and fountain. It draws a quaint medieval image.

Completing the image are stone bridges that connect the various villages, fostering an impression of a single large community that existed in older days, rather than the distinct settlements of the present. Most of the bridges are now redundant, except the single-arched bridge of Klidonia, and the triple-arched Kalogeriko bridge near Kipoi village—two of Zagori’s recognisable features. These slender, arched structures have a surprising steepness only gauged when you attempt to cross one, advisably with the nimbleness of a ballerina, to avoid toppling into the gushing waters below.

Modern highways built after the 1950s now connect Zagori’s many villages, and driving along the winding, precipitous roads can be equal parts daunting and interesting, especially when most of the traffic is meandering flocks of sheep or cows.

 

Going Back in Time

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The turquoise rock pools of Papingo are a favourite with most visitors. Photo By: Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock

The region of Zagori finds mention in records of Byzantine emperors. It is said that the analytical catalogue of the villages first appears in 13th- and 14th-century Ottoman texts. The history of Zagori, however, goes back to a time much before the kings.

It is supposed that Zagorochoria was inhabited by Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer groups, during the end of the last global glacial age and for millennia after. The melting ice sheets during that time created the gorges, pumping volumes of water into the Vikos-Voidomatis-Aoos river system. Archaeological evidence puts this time period to between 17,000 and 10,000 years ago. Trails along the Vikos-Aoos National Park, which include the very accessible Boila rock shelter, offer an insight into the Zagori of that time, while excavations between the villages of Monodendri and Vitsa reveal a settlement dating between the ninth and fourth centuries B.C.

Active excavation sites still dot these mountains and according to PhD student Faidon Moudopoulos, who is “reading history from a montane archaeological landscape, the case of early modern Zagori,” local archaeologists have uncovered cist graves—pit-like graves built of stone—from about 1190-900 B.C. near the village of Skamnelli. “You can also find the remains of fort walls, possibly from the Hellenistic era (323-30 B.C.), in Skamnelli. However they can only be reached through a trek in the woods,” he adds.

 

Mountain of Myths

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The winding stone streets of Zagorochoria, and its quaint stone homes with sloping roofs (top) lend a medieval, fairy-tale like quality to the villages; Of the many stone bridges that once connected the region’s settlements only a few remain, such as the single-arched bridge of Klidonia (bottom left); An arduous hike up the 8,650-foot Smolikas (bottom right), leads to the dragon lakes. Photos By: Stamatios Manousis/Shutterstock (Village), Pantazis Toufidis (Bridge), Costas Zissis (Trekking)

Embedded into the natural stone, and affording jawdropping views of the Vikos gorge, are the Vradeto stairs. This cobbled trail snakes its way up from the village of Kapesovo to Vradeto, one of Zagori’s highest villages. Until the new road was built in the 1970s, this arduous climb was the only way to Vradeto and navigated by both human and animal residents. Towering over this part of the region is Mount Tymfi and Smoilkas, the Pindus’s highest peaks, which are also home to the Drakolimni or dragon lakes of Greece.

The Pindus mountain range extends down from the northern Dinaric and is often referred to as the Spine of Greece. The 8,650-foot-tall Smolikas is its crowning glory, and also Greece’s second highest peak. It also shelters
of the country’s favourite myths—the tale of dragons who carved out lakes. Legend has it that two dragons resided on Tymfi and Smolikas. The fighting pair threw stones at each other creating a white and a black lake. It is believed that the dragons can still be found hiding beneath the lake waters.

The fairly difficult six- to seven-hour hike from Vradeto via the Astraka refuge takes you to Drakolimni, the last stretch across a thin blanket of snow. There may not be dragons along the way, but one can definitely spot the 12-centimetre-long blue-grey alpine newt deftly swimming through the water—though without the fierceness
of its mystical ancestors.

 

A View from the Top

In Monodendri, a spectacular view of the Vikos gorge awaits visitors at the 15th-century monastery of Agia Paraskevi. Reaching about 3,000 feet at its deepest, Vikos is the result of the Voidomatis river’s geological transformation and known as one of the deepest gorges in the world.

Only a 20-minute walk from Monodendri square, the clifftop monastery opens to vistas of jagged rockfaces of Vikos. For the more adventurous souls, a trek takes you to the top of the gorge itself. Keeping you company on this journey through an untouched landscape, are mountains of the Oxia stone forest that resemble concrete blocks stacked together and slightly worn with time. Part of the Vikos-Aoos National Park, the path also gives you a chance to see a diverse range of flora and fauna. Elusive and endangered brown bears, various amphibian species, and over a 100 species of birds reside within the park. The best time to undertake this journey is summer or early fall, before snow makes navigation difficult.

The gushing waters of the gorge are also a site for canoeing, kayaking and other adventure sports. But for those looking to bask in the views and mountain air will particularly enjoy the end of the trek at Papingo. Divided into Megalo (big) and Mikro (small) Papingo, this has been officially recognised as one of the best preserved traditional villages of Zagori. It’s most known feature however, are the shallow pools of water within the limestone rocks. Swimming in the turquoise water is a ritual for many, and one of the best ways to soak in the historical and geological wonder that is Zagori.

Essentials

The best way to get to Zagori is by road from Athens. A 5-hr bus ride from Athens will take you to the capital of Epirus, Ioaninna. From Ioaninna, local buses leave for Monodendri early every morning and take about 2.5 hr. There are flights to Ioaninna but they are expensive. It is best to hire a car or have an updated bus schedule when navigating Zagori. Hotels usually start from about €35/Rs2,850 per night.

  • Reema Islam focuses on food and the heritage that surrounds it. Having lived in several countries, she remains footloose, eating her way through different cultures.

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