Forests, mountains, flowing waters, and cool fresh air. The answer to the crowds and the scorching heat of the coasts comes from the mountains, where visitors can opt for an alternative Greek summer. On the list of activities includes swimming in rivers, hiking along deep gorges, activities in nature, exceptional food under the plane trees where a light jacket is de rigueur, festivals and traditional feasts with clarinets, as well as the most touching image of mountainous Greece: squares that only come alive in August, thanks to the kids who come from the city to the village to visit their grandparents, their “pappou” and “yiayia.”
Zagori boasts some 46 stone built villages and around 100 stone bridges, both of which offer genuine lessons in architecture. The mansions and the humbler houses, the churches; everything is made of pieces of stones chiseled into place, usually without mortar, and the roofs are layered plates of slate. These features are evidence of the great skills possessed by the craftsmen from Epirus in the 18th and 19th centuries, as are the cobblestone streets that follow the natural incline of the terrain – the famed Skales.
Megalo Papigo, Aristi, Monodendri are just some of the more touristy villages in the region, while Dilofo, Koukouli and Kapesovo preserve a more genuine charm. Regarding the bridges, the most accessible is the Noutsou bridge (also known as Kokkoris or Kokkoros), on the road from Dilofo to Koukouli and one of the most special is Kalogeriko, or Plakidas, with its three arches at the entrance of Kipi village.
Beaches, hydromassage and pools
Yes, you can find all of these in the mountains, and in their natural form. Beaches come in the form of sand on the river banks, and hydromassage “services” are offered by the natural waterfalls, while the rock pools are your swimming pools. Of course, the water is freezing, but this rarely perturbs visitors. The most famous beach is Aristi, on Voidomatis river, next to the Aristi-Papigo bridge in the plane tree forest.
Ovires (or Kolimbithres) are just as popular, between the villages Megalo and Mikro Papigo: smooth rocks for sunbathing and large pools with natural dams that retain the waters of the Rogovos stream.
The Balta di Stringa waterfalls at Hliohori, on the other hand, have drawn attention only in recent years: three rock pools, and three waterfalls, the largest some 20 meters in height. You can get there via a 30-minute hike following a footpath from the village.
All three of these sites attract quite a lot of people around the August 15th. There are plenty of other rock pools and beaches, but these are secrets nature offers only to hikers.
Hiking in the cool
Some of the most beautiful footpaths in Greece are located in Zagori, shorter or longer, some more historical than others. The two best ones are traversing the Vikos Gorge, and climbing to the Dragon Lake at Tymfi. The gorge is known internationally for its proportions and is the core of the Vikos-Aoos National Park and UNESCO Global Geopark. The hike takes about 5-7 hours and the classic route begins from Monodendri and finishes at Vikos village, or vice versa (there are other versions as well).
Either way, you will have to arrange your return to the starting point in advance. The path to the Dragon Lake begins at Mikro Papigo and leads hikers to the wild, enchanting landscape of Tymfi in about 5 hours (the return is slightly less). However, you may choose to continue to the peaks or spend the night at the Astrakas refuge (Tel. (+30) 6973.223.100). The renowned Skales (stone steps) also offer very interesting walking experiences, as these ornate pathways once connected the villages and had traffic lanes with width restrictions, so that animals could make the turns safely while carrying their loads. The skales at Vitsa and Vradetos stand out, but head out early to avoid the scorching sun.
Lahanopita (cabbage pie), alevropita (flour pie), makaronopita (pasta pie), xinogalopita (buttermilk pie), fakopita (lentil pie), blatsaria (wild greens with no filo pastry), kasata or meat pie – the original savory pies of Zagori are the result of necessity, as the Epirus imagination during poverty and hard times had to “play” with the simplest ingredients at hand while not letting anything go to waste. The ever wise lessons of home economics are also a reason to visit today – you will have the opportunity to taste these delicacies at homes or restaurants, as well as exceptional local meats and cheeses.
Zagori preserves old-school nomadic stock breeding, which is perceptible in the food’s special flavors. The region’s wild mushrooms and famed herbs also enrich the recipes. Have dinner at “Astra” (Megalo Papigo, Tel. (+30) 26530.421.08), “Thucydides” (Kapesovo, Tel. (+30) 6979.983.798), “Lithos” (Dilofos, Tel. (+30) 26530.226.00), “Dias” (Mikro Papigo, Tel. (+30) 26530.412.57) and “Rodia” (Kipi, Tel. (+30) 26530.716.95).
Meet in the square
Is there a lovelier summer scene than the square of a mountain village? With the plane trees rustling, the cool breeze coming down from the mountain, and the villagers striking up all manner of conservations? Take a seat at one of the kafenia (traditional coffee shops), engage with the locals and try the delicious meze prepared on the spot, accompanied by local tsipouro and beverages with mountain herbs.
Our favorite is the renovated “Mezaria” in Kapesovo, but the old school “Vikogiatros” in Koukouli is also particularly interesting, as this is where Nikos Kontodimos will speak to you about the famed therapeutic qualities of the Vikos herbs, as well as the kafenion in Vradeto village. You will find a livelier setting at “Mesohori” in Kato Pedina, while at the modern “Sterna” in Megalo Papigo you’ll discover great beverages, delicious handmade desserts and jams to take home.
The area is a National Park and a UNESCO Global Geopark, so do not cut the flowers and herbs, and do not leave any rubbish behind.
In deserted areas and mainly in the mountains, keep an eye out for sheepdogs. Before heading out, ask the locals whether there are herds in the area you intend to explore. Also, you should also beware of the bears in the Vikos gorge and generally in the forests.
Even in Zagori you cannot escape the crowds during the August 15th period. Head to the rock pools and beaches early in the morning and avoid the more popular villages, such as Megalo Papigo and Monodendri, during peak times.
Do not miss the traditional festivals. The most famous one takes place in Vitsa on August 15th, which lasts three days and follows special ceremonies. At Kapesovo, the festival of Profitis Ilias seems like a huge family celebration.
On July 23-24 the famous Zagori mountain running race will take place, which means that availability at hotels will be limited. Further north, the Munti musical festival is organized from August 12-14, an interesting cultural option in the area.