“If you live here in the winter, you become either a painter or a poet,” Polikarpos tells us as we chat in front of the warmth of fireplace in his guesthouse in Ano Chora. In the villages of the mountains of Nafpaktia, located in the southwest of mainland Greece, you walk hearing only the sound of running water, you relish meals of game and freshly-picked vegetables , you drink mountain tea and sleep well. Time flows very differently. From one tolling of the church bell to the next, you feel as if three Athenian hours have passed. In short, you can go for three days and return feeling refreshed as if you have been away for a week. As we drive along twisting roads, the view out of the windscreen resembles an oil painting that would not look out of place in one’s grandmother’s living room: fir tree forests reach up to the tallest peaks, and in many places small villages are enveloped in the clouds. Indeed it is very likely that you will encounter fog on the road, or a herd of placid cows, their bells clanging gently, as they move unhurriedly along the asphalt.
It is advisable to fill up with gas and withdraw cash in the town of Nafpaktos, before heading into the mountains. In the 55 villages that collectively make up the region’s hinterland (Oreini Nafpaktia in Greek, a smaller grouping is known as Kravara) there are no gas stations, ATMs or large supermarkets, only small general stores. Most permanent residents live in Platanos which, together with Ano Chora, was the main village in the area during the period of Ottoman rule. Today its residents number about 80, while the other villages are inhabited by no more than a handful of people. “The locals are a family. One group gets together in the kafeneio, and another in the taverna,” says Dimitris Rambaounis, an inhabitant of Platanos in his late thirties. Arriving in the villages of Nafpaktia for a winter weekend getaway with friends, one feels the same – that when visitors come, this ‘family’ grows in size. Below are 7 reasons to get there yourself.
1. The stews at Hani tis Reresis
Hani tis Reresis, the first stop after three hours of driving from Athens, constitutes the notional boundary between town and countryside. Outside of the taverna which you will find easily on the main road, there is a cage with peacocks with a rope of garlic hanging from it. The interior is decorated with stuffed mammals and birds from the area – a 35-year-old collection we will later learn – and one can either sit at a table or on one of the sofas covered with shag blankets. Handmade sausages hang from the wooden ceiling and the television is tuned to a small local channel.
On seeing us, Tzeni, the granddaughter of the taverna’s first owner – which was opened in 1940 and served as an inn and rest stop for travelers with animals – places some thick slices of bread on the grill in the fireplace. Tzeni’s mother, Nitsa Tetorou, with her small blue eyes and plump cheeks, is the cook as well as something of a grandmother to all. She has been living and working here since she was seven and, if the taverna is not too busy, she will sit with you and tell stories about the inn, which was open 24/7 and sold everything from food to shoes. “Up until 1970 there wasn’t a lock on the door; we would stay open all night. My father had his bed next to the heater; we would sleep further down with our mother. When he would hear a voice he would get up in the middle of the night in a woolen shirt and prepare bean soup or an omelette,” she tells us. From September to January is hunting season when you will eat delicious wild boar, venison, hare as well as fantastics desserts like walnut pie and ravani (semolina cake).
Hani tis Reresis, Reresi Bridge, tel. +30 26340-52333.
2. Hikes through the chestnut forest
On reaching the first and most touristy villages of the mountains of Nafpaktia – Ano Chora at an elevation of 1,060m, the scent of wood smoke is in the air. There are eight guesthouses here – the most you’ll find in any one spot – as well as four tavernas, three cafes, a general store and a small clubhouse dedicated to the Greek singer Stelios Kazantzidis, created by a Greek American who had met him in person.
In Ano Chora you will wake up early, eat a breakfast of tiganites (a traditional treat similar to a fried doughnut) with cheese and honey in the guesthouse Ta Petrina with a view of the mountain, and ask co-owner Dimitris Papadimitriou about the signposted hiking and mountain bike trails that he himself created. Every weekend he organizes hikes. Even if you have never hiked in a forest before, follow the ‘five paths’: a circular route around the mountain that begins and ends in Ano Chora, and features dirt roads lined with chestnut trees, oaks and firs, bridges, churches and springs, and reaches an elevation of 1,450m. The route, which is easy enough for beginners, takes about 5 hours. Alternatively a beautiful and simple half-hour route takes you to the Tsourna waterfalls. But the most exciting (and challenging) trail is the old path that connects Ano Chora with the village of Ambelakiotissa and reaches Kakkavou Gorge (2 hours).
Ta Petrina, Ano Chora, tel. +30 26340-41101.
3. The Miracles of Ambelakiotissa
Father Polykarpos, the leader (hegumen) of the Monastery of Panaghia Ambelakiotissa is a good conversationalist with a sense of humor and an open mind. He will give you a tour of the monastery that was founded in 1455 when an icon of the Panaghia (Virgin Mary) was lost in the river during the looting of the village by the Ottomans, shortly after the fall of Constantinople. Some years later the icon was found in the branches of an oak tree at the site now occupied by a church. The church features a wonderful wood carved icon screen from 1870 and an Epitaphios (an icon depicting the dead body of Christ) decorated with gold embroidery – the work of Mariora, a renowned craftsman from Constantinople. For the record, the oak tree still lives. Father Polykarpos told us that since the icon was found, the tree has undergone two remarkable changes: it stopped growing, and its branches won’t burn. Indeed he likes to perform a demonstration for visitors with a small twig and a lighter.
Monastery of Panaghia Ambelakiotissa (tel. +30 26340-41207) is about 17km from Ano Chora.
4. Fairytale Platanos
An elderly woman walks hurriedly towards the square, following the sound of clarinet music. This is the rather melodious method employed by Giorgos, a greengrocer who brings fresh vegetables from Agrinio, in order to inform the local residents of his arrival. The fishmonger and baker do the same. Platanos, once an important commercial center in the region, is one of the prettiest villages of the mountains of Nafpaktia; stone-paved and with stone-built houses, it resembles something out of a fairytale. The aging but impressive tree after which it is named (platanos meaning plane tree in Greek) stands in the middle of the square with a small inscription on its trunk: “Elevation 875m, climate healthy”.
At the kafeneion in the evening people play cards and warm tsipouro with honey is served. Here, as in most of the mountain villages of Nafpaktia, everyone has a relative who emigrated to America. No one can say for certain when the waves of emigration began, but most date them to the 19th century. People from the region developed a reputation for being canny merchants. “You won’t find a place in Greece that doesn’t have someone from [the region of] Aitoloakarnania operating a goldsmiths or clothes shop,” someone tells me.
At the same time, many returned to their homeland on retiring. Today they may wear blue jeans that they bought in New York and carry a traditional shepherd’s staff. In the US the community of immigrants from Platanos even have their own newspaper, “O Apodimos Plataniotis”. The local hospital was a gift from the Nafpactian Brotherhood of New York. At the village’s folk history museum, next to the loom and sheep shears you will see an American barber’s chair from 1900 as well as a collection of transistor radios and typewriters – more evidence of the US connection. Don’t miss going into the small, colorful house with a sign saying ‘Archive Center’ at the village’s entrance in order to see rare footage of festivals in the 1950s. The church of Aghios Nikolas (1846) is also worth a visit; it is pretty with a white ceiling and minimalist décor. In the center of the church you will see an icon of the saint whose eyes ‘follow’ you wherever you stand in the space.
Platanos is 40 km from Ano Chora.
5. The Views of Lake Evinos
One can enjoy views of the impressive man-made lake of Evinos, which was created in 2002 to supply Attica with water, from the villages of Perdikovrisi, Arachova and Kryoneria. The villages are sparesly populated and in their empty squares the fallen leaves from the plane trees create a thick carpet in red and yellow hues. In Perdikovrisi enjoy goat at Maria’s Taverna (tel. +30 26340.48311), in Arachova sip mountain tea at the cafe in the square and in Kryoneria walk to Pergari: the dirt trail that begins in the village winds through the fir forest, ending at a stone-built observation point up in the clouds. If the atmosphere is clear (and visibility can change from minute to minute) you will see the Evinos River twisting through the mountains and the golden ‘highlights’ in the deep green slopes created by the leaves of the plane trees.
Perdikovrysi, Arachova and Kryoneria are 28 km, 40 km and 15 km from Ano Chora respectively.
6. Rafting on the Evinos
One doesn’t need prior experience to get into a rubber raft and travel down the Evinos River spotting ducks, cormorants and otters; the area is part of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites. You can rent equipment from the Rafting House near the Bania Bridge where certified guides will take you under their wing. The route is satisfying, stretching 9km, a distance that takes about 1.5 hours to cover. Alternatively you can go kayaking or take archery lessons. All that outdoor activity will create a healthy appetite so afterwards take a seat at Hani Bania for cockerel and country pasta, chickpeas and more.
Rafting House, Bania Bridge, tel. +30 26340.26435, 6936.746764
7. The farm with a difference
Fondas Michos lives in an eyrie-like spot in the village of Lalika, with a view of the Vardousia mountain range. Here he has created a farm and purchases nothing from the super market. Locals call him ‘the Indian’ because he grew up in a humble family of animal raisers who had a nomadic existence and dressed in boots and waistcoats sent to them by an uncle in Texas. His love for other cultures has never waned, and his home, which also operates as a guest house, is a small shrine to multiculturalism with decorative and other items which people have brought him from all over the world. Michos himself is a font of knowledge about the natural environment which he is always happy to share. You can follow him on mushroom gathering trips (over 300 kinds grow in the area), ride the horses, see baby deer up close and have discussions that might just shift how you look at the world. And of course you can’t leave without trying his cooking. Even the tomatoes here taste like flowers. If he takes a liking to you, he may even offer you a gift: a bottle of his homemade St. John’s wort oil.