Explore The central mainland
Few parts of Greece are more surprising or more beguiling than the part of the Píndhos mountains known as ZAGÓRI. A wild, thinly populated region, it lies just to the north of Ioánnina. The beauty of its landscape is unquestionable: dense forest and rugged mountains are furrowed by foaming rivers and dotted with traditional villages (the Zagorohória), many sporting grand stone houses or arhondiká, dating from the late eighteenth century. Here, also, you can seek out evocative ancient monasteries set in improbably remote spots. Wildlife is impressive too: there’s good birdwatching, increasing numbers of wolves, plus legally protected brown bears.
The best way to enjoy the countryside is by hiking the numerous paths connecting the villages. The most accessible and rewarding target is the magnificent UNESCO-protected Víkos Gorge, while mounts Gamíla and Smólikas provide several days of serious trekking. Even if you don’t plan on hiking, the area deserves some time. Its remoteness, traditional architecture and scenery all constitute a very different Greece to the popular tourist stereotype and, despite growing popularity, the area remains relatively unspoilt.
Near the south end of the gorge, at 1150m elevation, stands handsome MONODHÉNDHRI, the main accommodation base in the area. The village survived World War II more or less intact – though it’s now slightly spoilt by tourist shops and parked coaches. Just before the flagstoned platía with its giant tree, the seventeenth-century church of Áyios Minás is locked, but the narthex, with fine eighteenth-century frescoes, is open. The wide, artlessly modern kalderími leading from the far end of the platía reaches, after 900m (not “600m” as signed) the eagle’s-nest monastery of Ayía Paraskeví (built 1412), teetering on the brink of the gorge (there’s a small viewing platform just behind) and now empty, though left open. If you’re extremely sure-footed and have a head for heights, continue around the adjacent cliff face along an exceedingly narrow and dangerous path to a stair-trail climbing to Megáli Spiliá, a secluded cave where villagers once barricaded themselves in times of danger. The views over the gorge en route are spectacular from a natural balcony, with all of Víkos spread vertiginously at your feet.
The Pápingo villages
MEGÁLO PÁPINGO is the larger of the two paired Pápingo villages, comprising two distinct quarters of 25 or so houses each along a tributary of the Voïdhomátis. It has served as the location for Jonathan Nossiter’s 2000 film Signs and Wonders, starring Charlotte Rampling, plus countless Greek advertising shoots. Even before this, Megálo was a haunt of wealthy, trendy Greeks, making it a dubious target in peak season, though it is still delightful at other times. The fact that large coaches can’t scale the steep hairpin road from the Voïdhomátis valley has made all the difference between here and Monodhéndhri; in peak season you must leave cars at the outskirts.
Megálo Pápingo is linked to its smaller namesake, Mikró Pápingo, by a 3km surfaced road; walkers should take the marked path off the road, via a historic bridge, which short-cuts the journey to half an hour. If you do take the road, just before the bend – at an obvious spot adorned by low masoned walls – you can detour to some natural swimming pools. Just below the church, in Mikró Pápingo, the WWF maintains an information centre (Mon, Tues, Thurs & Sun 10.30am–5.30pm; Fri, Sat & hols 11am–6pm; free) with worthwhile exhibits on the human and natural history of Pápingo and environs.
Vítsa and the Skála Vítsas
VÍTSA (Vezítsa), 2km below Monodhéndhri, is to many tastes less claustrophobic and more attractive than Monodhéndhri. There’s also access to the gorge via the signposted Skála Vítsas, a half-hour’s gentle descent from the platía along the Z9 – mostly on engineered stair-path – to the handsome single-arched Misíou bridge; from there one can continue upstream to Kípi village via the O3 path, or downstream along the heart of the gorge.
From either Vítsa or the Misíou bridge, the Z15 leads south to DHÍLOFO, one of the most handsome Zagorian villages. The village has road access (though cars must be left at the outskirts). Alternatively it makes for a rewarding hike. The path-start in Vítsa is trickier to find than the branch leading from the bridge, but once done it’s a twenty-minute descent to a stream bed, where the Misíou branch links up, then a climb along a crumbled kalderími which peters out in flysch badlands. After another stream crossing, the path resumes before becoming a track to the outskirts of Dhílofo, just over an hour along.
The village of ELÁTI (Boúltzi) is rather distant from the gorge, but there are fine views north to the peaks of Gamíla. From Dhílofo, walkers can continue down to Áyios Minás chapel on the main road and thence to Eláti on the Z24, but nearly half the way (90min) is along asphalt or bulldozer track, so you may as well come by car.
Dhíkorfo and the Kaloutás bridge
DHÍKORFO (Tzódhila) proves a beauty with its grand houses and unusual, minaret-like belfry of Áyios Minás church. Beyond the village the chief attraction is the enormous triple-arched bridge below Kaloutás, about 250m off the paved road by dirt track. All villages past Kaloutás were destroyed during World War II, but the road continues paved to Miliotádhes and thence the old Ioánnina–Métsovo highway – a useful short cut.
ÁNO PEDHINÁ (Soudhená), 3km west of Vítsa and Monodhéndhri, offers a few places with rooms and some superior hotels. At the base of the village stands the restored convent of Evangelístria, currently untenanted. Should you gain admission, you’ll see the katholikón’s magnificent carved témblon and vivid, cleaned frescoes from 1793, though the structure is much older. Nearby Káto Pedhiná is headquarters for worthwhile activity organizer
Hiking the Víkos Gorge
Hiking the Víkos Gorge
The Víkos Gorge cuts right through the limestone uplands of Mount Gamíla for 20km, separating the villages of western and central Zagóri. With walls almost 1000m high in places, it’s quite equal to the famous Samarian gorge in Crete, and a hike through or around it is probably the highlight of a visit to the Zagóri.
Despite the gorge’s popularity with hikers, and periodic bouts of trail maintenance, it’s worth emphasizing that it is not a Sunday stroll. Bring proper, over-the-ankle boots and a leak-proof water container and walking poles or a stick (also useful for warding off guard dogs and belligerent cows). The best maps for the region are produced by Anavasi Editions . Check conditions in advance of setting out. During April or early May, snowmelt often makes the Monodhéndhri end impassable, and during a rainstorm the sides of the gorge are prone to landslides.
The most-used path down to the gorge begins beside the Áyios Athanásios church in Monodhéndhri; a sign promises fairly accurate walking times of four-and-a-half hours to Víkos village, six hours to either of the Pápingo villages. Once past Monodhéndhri’s municipal amphitheatre, the path is cobbled for most of the forty minutes down to the riverbed, whose stony course you follow for another few minutes before shifting up the west (true left) bank, reaching the best viewpoint at a saddle ninety minutes from the village.
The entire route is waymarked, sometimes faintly, by red-paint dots and white-on-red stencilled metal diamonds with the legend “O3”. This refers to a long-distance path, which begins south of Kípi at Lynkiádhes on Mount Mitsikéli, traverses Mount Gamíla and ends beyond Mount Smólikas. However, the surface underfoot is arduous, with some boulder-hopping in the gorge bed, metal or felled-branch ladders getting you over tricky bits on the bank, plus slippery, land-slid patches.
About two hours out of Monodhéndhri you draw even with the Mégas Lákkos ravine, the only major breach in the east wall of the gorge; a spring here has been piped to make it more usable in summer. Another thirty minutes’ level walking takes you past the small, white shrine of Ayía Triádha; a further half-hour (around 3hr from Monodhéndhri) sees the gorge begin to open out and the sheer walls recede.
As the gorge widens you must make a choice. Continuing straight, the best-defined path takes you past the side trail to beautifully set eighteenth-century Kímisis Theotókou chapel (unlocked; excellent frescoes well worth the 15min round-trip detour). Beyond here, the route becomes a well-paved kalderími, climbing up and left to Víkos (Vitsikó; 870m elevation), four-plus hours from Monodhéndhri and also accessible by a 5km paved road from Arísti. This underrated village has two inns, and up on the square, with its exceptionally handsome church of Áyios Trýfon, a good restaurant.
Most walkers, however, prefer to follow the marked O3 route to the two Pápingo villages, crossing the gorge bed at the Voïdhomátis springs, some three-and-a-half hours from Monodhéndhri. It’s about two hours’ walk from the springs up to Mikró Pápingo, slightly less to Megálo, with the divide in the trail nearly ninety minutes above the riverbed crossing. After an initial steep climb, there’s a fine view down into the gorge near some weathered, tooth-like pinnacles, before the trail traverses a stable rockslide to the fork. Should you be reversing this route, the path-start in Mikró Pápingo village is signposted bilingually, and marked by a fancy stone archway in Megálo Pápingo.
The oak tree oracle
The oak tree oracle
“Wintry Dodona” was mentioned by Homer, and religious activities here appear to have begun with the first Hellenic tribes who arrived in Epirus around 1900 BC. Herodotus records that the oracle was founded after the mythic arrival of a peleiae (either “dove” or “old woman” in ancient Greek) from Egypt, said to have alighted on an oak tree. In any case, the oak tree was certainly central to the cult with the oracle speaking through the rustling of its leaves, amplified by copper vessels suspended from its branches. These sounds would then be interpreted by frenzied priestesses and/or priests, who allegedly slept on the ground and never washed their feet.
Many oracular inscriptions were found when the site was first systematically dug in 1952, demonstrating not only the oracle’s lingering influence even after its eclipse by Delphi, but also the fears and inadequacies motivating pilgrims of the era in such questions as: “Am I her children’s father?” and “Has Peistos stolen the wool from the mattress?”