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