Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Zagorohoria – Other Side of Greece (Part 4)

Despite the lingering effects of our multi-day bug, we were bursting to get out of Ioannina. Chris, the boys and I jumped into the car and headed out of town in the general direction of big mountains.  

Before long we were climbing up a steep, precarious, valley side. The road zig-zagged back and forth, offering ever better views of the land we had left behind. Up onto the top and we were on the edge of the Zagorohoria. A famed region in Greece, made up of a series of small mountain villages scattered over 1000 square kilometres of the Pindos mountains. There have never been many people here (I understand that the permanent population is currently under 4000!), but for those that have called it their home, the harsh geographical setting have provided much protection against the coming and going of overseers.
You can spend weeks exploring the nooks and crannies of this region, but we were lucky that the part closest to Ioannina contains some of the most spectacular scenery. Across a small section of upland plateau and the land before us suddenly fell away in dramatic fashion. A real Roritania moment, as we parked up on what felt like the edge of the world.
To our right, the higher land was wrought in two by the Vikos Gorge, falling hundreds of meters down shere cliffs to the torrent of the Voidomatis river. Moving to the centre of the vista, the gorge widened out into a more curvaceous valley, backed by snow-capped mountains and riveted by smaller hills in between. To the left, the mountains on each side abruptly halted, creating twin gates to the flat, fertile land which lay beyond.
Over this remarkable scenery were scattered small groupings of traditional stone houses, linked by age-old mountain paths. We jumped back in the car and took the snaking road down into the midst of the valley. We passed a couple of these hamlets on our way down to the bottom, where the land was green with forest and thicket. After crossing the light blue-green waters of the Voidomatis, we climbed back up the fast rising far side of the valley towards Papingo.
Papingo is one of the larger villages of the region, parked a fair way up the increasingly steep slopes of a mountain. As well as being home to many beautiful buildings, an old bell-tower and, as we were delighted to discover, fantastic local dishes, it provided as magnificent views as one could hope for. Further into the mountains than our first vantage point, the Vikos Gorge dominated to the front, rising up on both sides, before corrugating off into the distance. It resembled the Grand Canyon, but with foliage. It excited me to think that brown bears still lolloped out in those wilds. The views behind were much worse, as large bulk-heads of granite burst out the top of the mountain, clung to by the remains of the winter snow.
Stopping as often as possible to take in the surroundings from different angles, we drove back down the mountain to the river floor, before heading up the other side by a different road that took us to the east and further into the Zagorohoria. Far too soon, we were back into the uplands, leaving the splendid, frictional destruction of the Voiomatis river behind.
As the road and land calmed, we passed more hamlets, flanked by orchards and populated mainly by goats. In the middle of a field to our right, I noticed a large but low stone building, topped with tiles and a small dome. Stopping off to take a closer look, we discovered a centuries old Orthodox Church and a wizened old man. He produced a large key and let us into a treasure. Stooping through the low door, we entered a dark world of pristine saintly icons. Passing through and looking up to the dome, every surface was detailed with intricate frescoes, telling dozens of tales. Faded by goodness knows how many years, the richness of artwork was still clear to behold and had their intended impact.
Limited by the daylight, we headed back to Ioannina, descending from the heights of the Zagorohoria via another twisting, precipitous road. We had caught a narrow snapshot of the region, but had seen more than enough to understand why the Greeks hold it so dear. One to venture back to with much more time, a stick and some sturdy trekking boots.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Ups and Downs in Epirus - Other Side of Greece (Part 3)

I immediately liked the feel of Ioannina. The modern part of the town seemed much like any other, but the narrow old streets leading down to the medieval castle walls had a pleasant buzz, old style charm meets student energy – Ioannina is a major university city. This was our base for the coming few days, from which we planned to explore the wider and wilder region.
After our trip to Drymades (see previous post -, we set out on a wide circuit through the surrounding valleys. As the mists cleared, we saw chunky mountains boxing in sharp narrow valleys. It is one of those rare regions where every turn brings a new marvellous view. A joy to drive on small windy roads, past the occasional goat herd impediment complete with accompanying shaggy shepherd.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in an old stone house at the foot of the mountains.  Nikolaki charmed the waitress and Niko senior complimented the tasty local dishes. I felt the initial symptoms of a bug coming on, but did my best to shrug it off with a paracetamol and some local wine.
We drove on a short distance, before parking up at a sudden break in the mountains. This was the entry to the famous Vikos Gorge. By some estimates the deepest gorge in the world, measuring at points half a kilometre deep. This was another level of beauty. Ahead and rising sharply up above were a parallel set of green-clad cliffs, split by the cobalt blue rushing waters of the Voidomatis river. There is nothing quite so refreshing as the sight, feel and taste of fast flowing mountain streams. I just wanted to dive in. Instead, I climbed atop a traditional stone foot-bridge which crossed the river at the opening of the gorge. The region is famed for these precariously curvaceous, arched bridges, which have an air of Rivendell. Gazing up the gorge, a couple of rainbows set off the scene.
Moving on, we passed along another wider valley and up to the town of Konitsa. A pretty town nestled into a mountainside and giving great views of the cultivated river valley that spreads out beneath. It is also a centre for adventure sports. My big tip for those looking to climb, white-water-raft or take on other similar adrenaline activities in a stunning out-of-the-way place, is come to Konitsa in Epirus. With its setting and natural resources, it really could be the Queenstown of the Balkans.
As we set off for the final leg of our journey back to Ioannina, Epirus gave a gift. Driving down the winding road from Konitsa, I caught a glimpse of a huge bird circling. I ground the car to a halt, jumped out and stared in wonder. Crossing in front of me was as big a bird of prey as I had ever seen, golden-brown in colour. It was a Golden Eagle, a bird I had wanted to see ever since reading animal books as a small kid. It soared above the valley beneath us, swooping further and then nearer, passing right in front of us. A fantastic sighting.

Completing the circuitous route, we headed back to Ioannina along a high ridge road, providing magnificent views of the valleys and ravines below. Just for effect, double inverted rainbows crossed the landscape. Not a bad end to the route.


With traveling you have to take the rough with the smooth. The next three days in Ioannina were rough. Soon after arriving back from our big day on the road, I spiked a temperature and flu came on with a vengeance. I could barely leave my sweat-ridden bed for the next 48 hours. Not an ideal situation when you are travelling with an 8 month year old and a 22 month year old. In a word, it sucked.

Fortunately, the others were still fine the next day and did another big drive through the mountains of the Tzoumerka region to the south of Ioannina. From the rave reports from the trip and resulting photos, I can confidently say it is well worth a trip. High mountains dropping to isolated valleys, populated with a light scattering of age-old villages and a host of wild and semi-wild animals. It was great to see Nikos senior so excited. He had wished to visit Tzoumerka for years.
By the time they arrived back, little Alexi was ill, then Christina, then Vasilia, then Nikolaki. Great times. Instead of adventures in the mountains, we were quarantined in a small hotel room with 2 small ill children. The few times we did get outside we were caught in a constant cold drizzle reminiscent of England in the worst of February. Miserable.

Nola made the sensible decision to drive Nikos senior and Vasilia back to Athens before Nikos caught the flu, leaving Christina and me and the kids to salvage what we could of our holiday.


After a full three days, we had mended sufficiently to take a few tentative walks around old Ioannina. Thankfully, the weather had also turned. Winter was giving way to the gentle sunshine of early spring, which helped our spirits.
We walked along the shores of the lake beneath the high medieval walls of the castle. In the daytime there were many birds, at dusk thousands of bats flapping around over the water (and overhead as Chris found out on our first night when one pooed in her hair!). Through high gates, we entered the old castle. Via winding alleys, we made it to each of the two citadels which sit at opposite ends of the castle. These retain remnants of the Ottomans, who ruled the region for nearly 500 years right up until 1913. The Greeks have destroyed most traces of their over bearers, but thankfully, the castle of Ioannina still contains the Fethiye Mosque and Aslan Pasha Mosque, now housing museums. 

Visiting these buildings gave a glimpse of a time so purposefully forgotten. A time of despotism, but also enlightenment and learning. Where now there is predominantly Greek homogeneity, there were once Turks, Greeks, Jews and Slavs living not as equals, but in relative calm.

Looking out from the top of the citadel walls over the lake to the mountains beyond, I was struck that Ali Pasha would have stood in the same spot, looking over a domain that once encompassed most of Albania and North-West Greece. Now it is a pretty back-water.

Largely back in the game, our next stop was the famed Zagorohoria...