Escape to the Zagori Mountain Villages

Escape to the Zagori Mountain Villages

Every once in a while it feels good to take a break from boat life – to travel along roads, live in a house that sits firmly on the ground, sleep in a bed that doesn’t rock from side to side. Before Christmas we decided to run away from the marina for a week, and headed to a region very different from the usual “Greek Holiday Destination”. Clearly these few months that we have spent in Greece are just a scratch of the surface: this country has so many facets, and so many stories hidden amongst its thousands of years of history. This blog post is not about sailing or the sea, this time we escape into the mountains!

We rented a tiny car from the marina, and headed north from Mesolonghi. After about a hundred kilometres we saw the Ambracian Gulf behind the hills in the distance. North of the gulf starts Epirus, a region in the northwestern Greece next to the Albanian border. The regional capital is Ioannina. We drove past it and continued another half an hour or so into the Pindus National Park. As we were nearing our lodgings, the roads grew narrower, the bends tighter, and the hills steeper. By the time we found our guesthouse at the top of a scary steep hill, it was already dark, so we would have to wait until the next morning to see what the surroundings of our holiday hideaway looked like. But the beautiful stone house and its friendly hostess welcomed us in, and we enjoyed a lovely dinner of steaming vegetable broth and delicious trout, received tips and maps for our tour, and soon retired into a soft bed in a pretty bedroom at the top of a creaky wooden staircase.

Zagori is a mountainous area of over a thousand square kilometres (400 square miles), consisting of 46 old stone villages, churches, monasteries, endless stone paved roads and footpaths and beautiful stone bridges. The highest mountain peak is Tymfi at 2497 metres (8192 ft). The best known landscape is the Vikos Gorge, a long, deep canyon with vertical walls towering above the Voidomatis River. This huge area only has about 4000 inhabitants, but wildlife abounds: there are brown bears, wolves, lynx, deer, otter and chamoix – that’s a mountain goat. As the meeting point of the Balkan and Mediterranean climates, it’s very rich in flora and fauna.

Zagori is a Slavic word meaning “the place beyond the mountains”. The region has been inhabited since the ancient times. From the Mycenaean period Epirus was a part of the Molossian Kingdom – the most famous Molossian was probably Olympias, Alexander the Great’s mother. On the high plains lived nomadic people called the Sarakatsani, whose cultural heritage is still celebrated during a yearly summer festival. Rome conquered Epirus in 167 BC, and it was part of the Byzantine Empire until it fell under the Ottoman rule in 1430 AD. The people of Zagori were able to negotiate a special treaty that proved very advantageous for them – they kept their autonomy, their freedom to travel, and even their own cavalry. The Turks were not allowed inside their borders. Centuries of seclusion created a unique environment and village life.

Aristi

Because of these special conditions the economy and culture of Zagori prospered. Many scholars of the Greek Enlightenment found a free atmosphere and shelter from the Ottoman oppression in Zagori. The rough environment must have fostered resourcefulness and enterprise, as many Zagori tradesmen travelled abroad and made their fortunes in Egypt, Romania, Ukraine, Russia and Constantinople. These expatriate merchants funded great projects in their home region, building paved roads and 160 stone bridges, most of which still remain. Many bridges are named after their sponsors. They also built churches, watermills and schools – from the 18th century onward even girls could attend school. Thanks to the schools, the Greek language survived in the region, even though the Ottoman rule continued in Epirus while the rest of Greece became independent in 1821. Epirus was finally united with Greece in 1913, during the Balkan Wars. After the union, the population of Zagori plummeted, as many people moved to the Greek cities in search of work. Epirus suffered badly in the Greek-Italian war in 1940-41. During the Second World War the villages were badly damaged in battles between the partisans and the German forces, and many were burned down. Finally, the area was nearly abandoned during the Greek Civil War in 1946-1949.

Memorial of Zagori women, who carried ammunitions and provisions to the front line in the Greek-Italian war in 1940.

The only connection between the villages were stone paved roads and footpaths with vaulted stone bridges. Modern roads were built in the area in the 1950’s.

A reconstructed road leads to the Plakidas Bridge. On every step, it has a protruding row of stones that probably acts as a break when going downhill, or when it gets slippery with the winter snow. I can imagine how uncomfortable it would be to drive a carriage on this kind of road. Perhaps people walked or rode on donkeys or horses – just like the ones below! Seeing these beasts of burden in the bush, waiting for their driver, was a sight so totally from another century, I didn’t realise the horses were real at first. They stood so quietly they might as well have been carved out of wood.

The sun was shining as we woke up the first morning in the great stone house in Ano Pedina. Through our little window we could see the paved courtyard of our guesthouse, and outside the gate a happy cluster of slate roofs, and blue hills beyond. First, we decided to peep into the Vikos Gorge from one of the numerous viewpoints. Then, we wanted to see the picturesque stone villages and bridges, mountains dressed in their autumn colours, serpentine roads and all the exciting things we might find along the way. We happened to be the only guests in the house for the next few days, which made our holiday very special: we could really make ourselves at home in this 250-year-old stone house, as we were allowed to use the restaurant kitchen to cook our own meals! More stories and pictures will follow in the next post!

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