I woke on the first morning to the smell of woodsmoke from my fireplace, and to the view of brittle sunlight hitting the rocky mass of the Astraka Towers. Outside, the air was crisp. Birds twittered, darting among the pines, and lights from the tiny villages dotting Mount Tymphi twinkled across the valley.
Wrapped in a blanket, I breakfasted on the terrace – yogurt and thyme honey, tea of mountain herbs, fresh local cheeses and home-made pastries – under the hopeful eye of the local cats. By 7am, with Dimitri as my guide, we were driving along narrow, twisting mountain roads – our progress periodically halted by bleating sheep and mooing cows, bells merrily clanging, oblivious to the highway code.
The Zagorohoria – a composite word from the Slavic “beyond the mountains” and the Greek for “villages” – is one of those idyllic throwbacks to the 1800s: 46 villages with a permanent population of some 2,000 souls, whose way of life remains largely untouched by time.
Located in Epirus, in north-west Greece, and connected by a network of rugged shepherds’ trails and characteristic stone arched bridges (see below), they are many worlds from the country’s traditional hot spots of luminous islands and Homeric ruins. Of the 46 villages, 35 are protected by strict planning laws, and 2,000 square kms of designated national parkland – whose core is the dramatic limestone features of the Unesco-listed Vikos-Aoos Geopark – ensures the preservation of the natural and cultural environment. It is one of the most authentic areas of Greece, and hopefully will remain so after this week becoming the country’s newest World Heritage Site.
This craggy land of precipitous mountains, gorges, valleys and rivers, as I would discover, makes the region a year-round haven for hikers and thrill-seekers – which, by definition, means foreigners. “Greeks with houses here tend to visit in the summer months, while other domestic tourists come in winter to gaze out through the windows,” Vassily Katsoupas told me over lunch in his restaurant, Kanela & Garyfallo, where we feasted on dishes made from 30 varieties of local wild mushroom and sipped rare Greek wines. Along with the owner of my hotel, the lovely Aristi Mountain Resort, Katsoupas co-founded the Zagori Excellence Network (Zen) in the dark year of 2008. “The aim was to extend the season by promoting outdoor activities to an international market.” he explained. “Foreign tourism began to take off properly in 2010”.
Activities centre around the Vikos Gorge – at over 2,590ft, the deepest in the world, relative to its width, according to Guinness World Records – and the beautiful, nine-mile-long (15km) Voidomatis river. You can go riding, follow numerous shepherds’ trails through the wilderness, ascend to the ethereal Dragon Lake, go river trekking, rock climbing, or hike the gorge from Monodendri to Vikos – a strenuous five and a half miles (12km). I spent one restful day at a farm, whose owners taught me to make wool yarn, showed me evidence of wild boar excavating their cabbages, and introduced me to their spike-collared sheepdogs, trained to attack marauding bears and wolves. They are plentiful, hereabouts.
“Don’t worry”, my guide assured me, as we hiked along a beautiful trail, dense with vegetation and fragrant with medicinal herbs for which the Zagori is famed. “They are afraid of humans”.
But on this morning, Dimitri and I were heading for the village of Vikos, for a muscle-crunching, 45-minute walk (including frequent stops to gasp at the scenery) down 500-year-old stone steps to the source of the Voidomatis.
We had the valley to ourselves as we descended through thick forest of beech, juniper and moss-covered oak, the sun gradually burning the mist from the mountains to reveal pointillist splashes of autumnal red, gold and green. At the bottom, we found a tiny church, by waters of the clearest turquoise.
“It is the cleanest river in all Europe,” Dimitri informed me, as I hesitated to drink from the spring. The water was icy – and delicious; the silence total, but for the sounds of nature.
As it happens, Balkan trout appreciate what is not only the cleanest, but also the coldest river in Greece. I had lessons in the intricacies of fly-fishing with Pantazis Toufidis, infinitely patient as I deftly hooked nests in the surrounding trees, but little in the specified element. Later, I was rafting upstream with Christos, a river-guide of gaunt, El Greco looks. A golden eagle soared high overhead as we negotiated rocks and fallen plane trees, rounded bends, passed deep, limpid pools, and emerged between the walls of the Voidomatis Canyon. Only Christos’s expertly barked instructions prevented a Greek-style baptism as we nosedived down a weir to an exhilarating journey’s end.
The culture of the Zagori is as unique as its landscape. Due to its inaccessibility within the Pindus Mountains, it is one of the few regions in Greece that was never conquered by the Ottomans. Instead, these hardy people signed a treaty with the Turks, which granted them autonomy and privileges – such as free passage through Ottoman lands – in return for a period of service in the Sultan’s army. The Zagorisians thus grew rich from trade, and returned to their homeland to build the massive grey stone mansions that still stand.
Villages surround a main square with a plane tree, church, fountain and café – where, during this hunting season, mustachioed men in camouflage gear sit arguing about politics. From remote Vradeto to vibrant Tsepelovo, from wealthy Papingo to untouched Dilofo, all retain a distinct character. And, in the absence of bakeries, all are served by a van delivering daily bread.
An important feature of the local culture is the many monasteries that, though mostly abandoned today, were once celebrated centres of learning. We picnicked above a ravine at Rogovo monastery and, along with the resident bats, admired the still-intact 17th-century frescoes at the labyrinthine Panaghia Spiliotissa, hewn into the cliffs above the Voidomatis. But it is the astonishing Aghia Paraskevi which receives the most visitors. Built in 1412 high above Vikos Gorge at Monodendri, it is as much self-contained fortress as monastery, invisible from outside, and leading to a complex of cliff caves offering refuge in the event of attack. The views from it are breathtaking.
For all that, tourism remains a relative concept, and you are more likely to encounter cattle than cars on the road. I was happy to see that little had changed in the 18 years since my first visit. Old Antigone – a cross between Madame Defarge and the Ancient Mariner, who used to sit knitting on the cobbled streets of Papingo – is no longer with us; roads are less treacherous; and lip-service to the very un-Greek notion of “elf ’n’ safety” has arrived. It takes the form of a parapet along the 18-in ledge of the Oxia viewpoint, that plunges 2,536ft to beautiful oblivion in the gorge, below. They must think foreigners are soft.
The stone bridge of the Zagori
Long before roads were built here, the 46 villages of this mountainous region were connected by shepherds’ paths, stone steps and bridges spanning streams, rivers and torrents. In the 18th and 19th centuries, bridges of local schist rock were built to replace the wooden originals – and named after the benefactor who financed them.
They came in all sizes – single, double and even triple-arched – but all had a distinctive steep hump, low side walls (dangerous for pedestrians in fierce winds) and lateral stone struts to prevent pack animals slipping beneath their loads. These bridges not only provided access to pastures and the water mills where wheat was ground, but to trade routes connecting local merchants to markets beyond the Zagori – key to the region’s social, economic and cultural growth.
Building these structures was lucrative work for master masons. They came from the nearby Mastorohoria of Epirus, travelling in family groups that worked as a team. The least able members carried the stones, the brightest cut them, and everyone else worked on the construction, securing the stones with a mortar-like mixture of sand, egg-white and goat hair, and communicating in code to protect the secrets of their craft from onlookers. The most important element was the keystone, cut and placed only by the “chief technician” who had also designed the bridge. Legend has it that he would stand beneath the completed arch when the wooden frame was removed, to show confidence in its integrity.
Some 108 bridges still stand in the Zagori. One of the most impressive is the 184ft-long, three-arched bridge beneath Kipi, which was begun in 1814. Initially financed by a monk, it was destroyed by a flood and rebuilt by a Mr Plakidas, after whom it is now named.
How to do it
Aristi Mountain Resort & Villas (00 30 26530 41330; aristi.eu/en) offers doubles from £140.
Trekking Hellas (trekking.gr/en) offers outdoor activities with expert guides.