Greece's Zagorohória: Tradition amid Mountain Grandeur
by Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller
Ask your friends to describe Greece and they will conjure up a vision of islands dotted with cubic villages and endless beaches lapped by blue seas. Few would ever consider venturing beyond this iconic Aegean paradise. Yet there is another Greece, a Greece cloaked in green and winter white, with jagged mountains and dense forests, deep gorges and rushing rivers. This Greece is never crowded and always in season, its rugged landscape marked by centuries-old stone houses and arched bridges, a place of time-honored traditions and mournful folk music. It is called the Zagorohória, a swath of 46 pristine villages that dot the Pindus Mountains of Epirus, the majestic northwest corner of the country.

Less known to tourists, Greece's northwest corner is marked by jagged mountains and dense forests, deep gorges and 46 stone villages.
It's 1993 and my husband and I are in Greece again for what seems like the umpteenth time. We have been luxuriating in Platamónas, a sleepy beach town on the eastern coast of Thessaly that serves as a summer getaway for residents of Lárissa and Lamía. Our gracious hostess, Thelma Zitonoulis, the director of the Lýkeion Ellinídon of Larissa who recently brought her folk dance troupe to Los Angeles for special performances, has been showering us with non-stop filoxenía (hospitality) and we have explored several coastal villages near the foothills of Mount Olympus together. "Thelma, where do you think we should we go from here?" we ask her. She considers our query for a moment, erupting into a big smile: "Lipón (well), if you want to discover a side of Greece that very few foreigners know about, you must go to the Zagorohória!"

Soaring above the Thessalian plain, Metéora's pinnacles once supported 24 monasteries, but only six still operate today. Pictured is Roussanou dating from around 1560.

Armed with maps and guidebooks, we start out early the next morning in the direction of Ioánnina, capital of Epirus. Our northwesterly route begins at Metéora, one of Greece's most unique sites. It has been on our bucket list for years. Near the town of Kalambáka, Metéora is an otherworldly place dotted with massive rocks that soar above the Thessalian plain and whose aerie-like pinnacles once supported 24 monasteries. The name "Metéora" literally means suspended in mid-air. Local lore claims that St. Athanasius the Meteorite, the founder of the very first and largest hermitage in the early 1300s, gained access to the summit of a monolith on the back of an eagle. In reality each monastery was painstakingly built using an elaborate system of ropes, nets, baskets and pulleys that hauled building materials to each crest. Today only four monasteries and two nunneries are still functioning. Rising 2,000 feet above sea level, the largest one, the Megálo Metéoro, is easily approachable by a zigzag staircase. Although our time is short, we ascend to the main cathedral to encounter an array of 16th century Byzantine frescoes. The adjoining refectory displays unusual icons, codices and rare manuscripts. I am impressed that the refectory still retains its original tables. "Check out the kitchen," says my husband. "The walls are black with soot and you can see the original bread oven. Maybe they still use it?"

The countryside grows steeper and wilder, the road more precarious as we climb toward Métsovo and Ioánnina. There are jagged peaks, sharp switchbacks and a few daredevil Greek drivers who practice the art of fearless passing. "Oh my goodness," I gulp as I gaze down a couple of yawning gullies where rusty, skeletal cars bear witness to some of these kamikaze drivers. This magnificent terrain was once the domain of Kutsovlach shepherd tribes who made annual migrations with thousands of sheep to the gentler slopes near Métsovo. In time, many of them settled in the town, built on the terraced hills of Mt. Zygós, separated from the surrounding mountains by deep ravines. Here, amid dense forests of pine and beech, endangered brown bears and wolves thrive and rare birds of prey with enormous wing spans swoop overhead. I roll down the window. The air is bracing. A sign, Katára Pass, marks the elevation at 5594 feet, the highest mountain pass in Greece, separating the north and south Pindus ranges. Popular lore claims the pass got its name after a local bishop who was heading on foot toward Thessaly encountered a blizzard and died in the snow. As he took his last breath, he cursed the spot, (katára means curse) and the name stuck. "Let's stay here for a couple of days!" I implore my husband who is visibly excited as we make the final bend toward Métsovo, a town considered to be a living museum.

The Vlach town of Métsovo is regarded as the "Mýkonos of the North." A tourist magnet the year around, it has been blessed by several generous benefactors.

Métsovo is divided into two sections separated by a bridge. The sunnier part of town is called Prosílio, the other Anílio (where the local ski resort is located). In every direction, immaculate stone houses exude an air of prosperity. Well-maintained cobbled streets are lined with inns, restaurants, bars and shops displaying wooden walking sticks, colorful weavings, locally-produced cheeses and wines. Over the centuries Métsovo gained special privileges from the ruling Ottomans and several of its merchants amassed huge fortunes plying their wares throughout Europe and even Russia. Their new-found wealth spurred an era of remarkable philanthropy which resulted in the founding of schools, museums, and public spaces. The town is sometimes described as the "Mýkonos of the North," having leveraged its local charm to bring in tourism. I glance at a group mustachioed old men seated on a bench wearing baggy trousers and tsaroúhia (shoes with pom poms). They are speaking Vlach, the original local language similar to Rumanian, although they are undoubtedly bi-lingual. Two women in traditional black dresses and embroidered aprons chatter in front of a busy gift shop, adding to the overall ambiance. We head to the Apollonion Hotel, an old-style hostelry, its public spaces crammed with upholstered benches covered with traditional Balkan weavings. "This place is oozing with-local charm," says my happy husband. "It's just what I had in mind."

Near the central square, the tantalizing aroma of grilled sausages wafts from a crowded restaurant. A waiter invites us in to watch the owner's wife make hortópita, a large savory pastry filled with leafy greens gleaned from the hillsides, feta cheese and fresh herbs. Near the kitchen, this accomplished lady stands behind a round table holding a long, skinny dowel. She grabs a chunk of dough from a bowl and throws it on the floured table. Without missing a beat, she quickly rolls the dowel over the dough every which way, soon lifting a huge circle of filo onto a prepared round pan. She repeats the process a few times more, stirs in the cheese and greens mixture, tops the pita with another layer of thin dough plus additional crinkled rounds, crimps the edges and dabs it with olive oil, finally slipping it into a wood-fired oven. "Would you like to have some of the pita when it's ready?" asks the waiter. "Bebaíos (certainly)," we reply, "plus an order of sausages and a horiátiki salad, please." The meal is a culinary triumph, even more delectable when accompanied by bottle of oak-aged Katogi Averoff, the popular local red wine. "You like?" asks the waiter as we leave. "Katapliktikó (amazing)!" I respond.

A chill breeze drifts down from the mountains into our room that night, but we are warm and cozy under our woolen blankets. Mid-morning, refreshed by steaming coffee and a chunk of cinnamon-tinged bougátsa from a tiny bakery, we venture out to explore Métsovo on foot. Back at the main square, the beautiful church of Agía Paraskeví is famed for its elaborate 18th century iconostasis. We continue to the recently-built Averoff Gallery, named for its benefactor, Evangelos Averoff who was also a renowned politician, winemaker and art collector. Among its cache of modern and contemporary paintings, I recognize works by Tsaroúhis and Fassianós, two popular Greek artists with international followings. The gallery also has a sizable collection of icons dating from the 15th to the early 20th centuries. I step outside to admire the surrounding scenery. In the distance, perched above the gorge of the Metsovítikos River, are two old monasteries. Goat and cow bells reverberate somewhere in a hidden meadow and a gentle breeze ripples through a thick stand of horse chestnuts. We remain lost in the moment. "Let's keep going," I finally nudge my husband. "Everyone raves about the Tosítsa Mansion. It is filled with treasures that depict life in Métsovo in centuries past."

Métsovo's three-story Tosítsa Mansion showcases a wide array of traditional weavings, costumes and furniture.                                                                                                                                                   

Serving as the town's museum of popular art, the mansion is a magnificent three-story stone building with multiple chimneys and projecting balconies (koultoúkia). Dating from 1661, it showcases ten rooms loaded with locally made furnishings and accessories. There is much to admire -- from colorful carpets and tapestries, swords and rifles, hand-carved furniture, donkey saddles, folk costumes and jewelry, to crockery, braziers for heating coal and even narghilés (hookahs). A strong Ottoman influence is present throughout. On the third floor, the sun-filled office of Baron Tosítsa has been recreated, complete with many family photographs, manuscripts and books. A nearby room displays the family's prized collection of icons. I find myself overwhelmed by this jewel of a museum. "If only other towns in Greece could have such generous benefactors," I remark to our English-speaking guide who has been shepherding us through the collections. She nods vigorously. "We are so blessed here in Métsovo! We teach our children from an early age to value our history and keep our traditions."

Back on the square, a crowded cheese shop invites us in to taste their pale yellow Metsovone cheese, a delicately smoked cow and sheep milk product that is similar to the Italian Provolone. We sample a couple of chunks with some country bread. The attendant points out some of their other offerings: "Metsovela is a semi-hard cylinder that is a good table cheese, she explains. Our goat cheese is encrusted in coarse pepper and comes in a flattened cylinder." She launches into a description of their processes and we are bowled over by her English. "This lady sure is well-practiced," I comment. "The cheese factory began operations in 1958 through the largesse of the Averoff-Tositsa family. These days the dairy produces about 170 tons of Metsovone that are sold throughout the world," she brags as we exit the store.

Colorfully-clad Albanian Gypsies are about to enjoy a picnic breakfast of poached eggs, tomatoes and onions.

Just after sunrise, we start out toward Ioánnina. Alongside the serpentine highway, several Albanian Gypsy families are camped out, waving vigorously as we pass. One group has gathered around a pan of sizzling onions, tomatoes and eggs, ready to devour their hearty morning meal. Minutes later, we zoom past a sign for the Zagóri town of Pétra and I am flooded with memories of a previous trip we made there in 1981. It was our seventh time in Greece and we were making a quick ascent to Epirus from Athens with three Athenians in their ramshackle Volvo. Yianni, a Greek-American friend who lives in Society Hill in Philadelphia, had invited us and several members of my Philadelphia dance troupe, Theseus, to gather at his ancestral home in Pétra for their annual July panegýri (saint day celebration) of the Prophet Elijah. It was a rough and tumble journey in the Volvo. Each time we needed to roll down a window, we had to pass a solitary handle around. When a burst of rain appeared and the window wipers were loose and inoperable, our resourceful driver used a wad of chewing gum to keep them in place until the rain stopped. Somehow, we made it to Petra in one piece. Yianni was thrilled to see us and carried our luggage in. The only problem was that there were ten other guests already staying in the house, without a bed or corner to spare. But we were much younger then, and cheerfully camped under the dining room table for two nights, with blankets, sheets and pillows supplied by Yianni's doting grandmother.

Petra was your typical Zagóri town with grey stone and slate houses and a central plateía where musicians would be playing non-stop for the next three days. Before long the other members of my dance troupe arrived to join in the festivities. Pétra's rarified atmosphere was magical and I was astounded to watch its elder citizens bound up and down steep kalderímia (cobbled lanes) with absolutely no effort. It was one of those iconic Greek towns where people seem to live forever, simply refusing to die. "It has to be the mountain air," I suggested to my husband. "Just take a look at the size of the zucchinis and eggplants growing here!" I attributed their robustness to the rich earth, fresh air and pure water that gushed from the mountainsides.

At the July panegýri of Profitis Ilias, residents of Pétra gather to worship before commencing three days of feasting and dancing.
By evening, the panegýri began in full force. The local priest officiated at a tiny hillside church surrounded by the townspeople. Near the plateía, long tables were being readied as lamb souvláki and other meats sizzled over hot coals. A serving table was laden with bowls of fresh salad, platters of village cheese and chunks of leek pita. Several musicians began tuning up. "You don't have to be from Epirus to appreciate this music," I remarked to my Philadelphia friends. "Its mournful sound will touch your soul." The claríno (clarinet) wailed, accompanied by a laoúto (lute) and a défi (drum). The violinist poured his heart into his playing, unleashing both sorrow and joy. For the locals, this music is always extremely emotional, alternately filling them with jubilation and despair, nostalgia and hope. As the night wore on, music from other parts of Greece were played and we joined the circle of dancers repeatedly. In the wee hours we took a short hike up a hill above the town under a starlit sky. A few stray sheep were out wandering too, their copper bells tinkling in the chill night air.

Petra residents and their Athenian and American friends savor the moment at the panegýri.
"Hey, are you watching?" shouts my husband, disrupting my reverie. "We are about to enter Ioánnina!" And so we are. The capital of Epirus sprawls next to Lake Pamvótis, the largest in the region, fed by streams from Mount Mitsikéli and the surrounding peaks. This beautiful body of water defines the climate and character of the city. The historic heart of Ioannina lies in its old section and its massive kástro. It is the oldest Byzantine fortress in Greece and has greatly impacted the history of the town which developed around it. "No one personifies Ioánnina more than Ali Pasha, the Albanian Muslim who ruled over the town with an iron fist for decades," I inform my husband who greatly appreciates historical details. Apparently, Ali Pasha was a notorious but clever brigand who methodically gained control over much of western and northern Greece and was ultimately given the title of Pasha by the Sultan. He got the support of many Greeks because he gave them a lot of autonomy, adopted Greek as the official language and allowed Greek schools to be built. He also gained the loyalty of local Jews by permitting them to administer their own religious affairs. Even the British and French courted him and he was paid a visit by Lord Byron. But Ali was reviled for many atrocities such as the drowning of Kyra Frosini and 16 of her friends who were tied up in weighted burlap bags and tossed into the lake. To this very day, Ali's cruel deed is the subject of a popular folk song. "But he finally got his due," I emphasize as we approach our hotel. "In 1822 the Sultan, who resented Ali's autonomy, sent a huge army to Ioannina and Ali Pasha was shot. They chopped off his head and took it back to Istanbul for all the Turks to see. As for the rest of his body, it was buried in a mausoleum housed in the Fethiye Mosque in the kástro. We could go see it tomorrow."

Ioannina’s Lake Pamvótis defines the climate and character of the Epirot capital.

Ioannina's Plateía Averof, the People's Square, is the busy hub of the city, lined with shops and sidewalk cafes where old men spend hours playing távli. Groups of women on shopping expeditions walk arm in arm, chattering non-stop. On its north end the city's archaeological museum is chock full of treasures from nearby Dodóna, the site of one of Greece's ancient theaters and its oldest oracle. We continue on Odós Averof toward the lake, where the walled kástro commands a promontory that juts out into the water. Encircling the lake is a shady promenade teeming with bikers and joggers. We arrive just as an excursion boat is about to make the 15-minute crossing to the islet. "Now that's a lovely view," says my husband as he aims his camera back at the city. Only 250 people live permanently on the pine-covered islet, the site of seven monasteries that make up the largest enclave outside of Mount Athos. It was here that Ali Pasha spent his final years in hiding, his autonomy and brutality having become an increasing irritant to the Sultan. We browse through the collections of a small house where he had lived, filled with many of his personal items, including a walking stick, daggers and pistols. Nearby, souvenir shops and restaurants line the town's tiny whitewashed alleys and business is brisk. All the eateries feature locally caught eels, frogs and trout. "We have a table for you right by the water," hypes a waiter at Propodes. "Óxi, efharistó, (no, thank you)." I tell him, having some doubts about the cleanliness of the lake water.

A gentle breeze is blowing off the lake the next day. On our way to the kástro; we sample Ioánnina's morning street foods: sweet bougátsa chased by a salty kouloúra (ring), an unlikely combination. Just outside the kástro walls, the former Jewish quarter is a warren of narrow lanes crammed with stalls selling hand-made silver jewelry, hammered copperware and Anatolian antiques. Inside the main gate on Giustiniani Street, the city's historic Romaniote synagogue, Kehila Kedosha, is shuttered up. "Too bad," I complain. Fortunately, we have seen photos of its interior lined with marble plaques listing the names of those who perished during the Holocaust. In 1944 Ioannina's entire Jewish community was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau: Out of 1,832 who were captured by the Nazis, only 118 survived. Today, its ancient Romaniote community is but a shadow of its former self, the synagogue opened only on special occasions.

Ioánnina's Aslan Pasha Mosque houses a rich folk collection culled from the city's diverse religious communities.
Abutting the lake is the southeastern section of the kástro known as the "Its Kale," where Ali's crumbling palace is being transformed into a silversmithing museum. Nearby, the Fethiye Mosque is closed, but Ali's tomb is on view, covered by elaborate iron lattice work. The kástro's other mosque, the Aslan Pasha, dates from the early 17th century and functions as Ioánnina's ethnographic museum with an impressive collection of folk costumes, decorative porcelain, jewelry and other items culled from the city's various religious communities. This mosque is a bit rundown, and I wonder if its slender minaret could withstand a major windstorm. The kastro's narrow lanes are dotted with tiny eateries and tsipourádika (bars serving rakí and mezes), but it's a bit early to eat so we head to the lakefront, blending into swarms of locals taking their daily vólta (promenade). "Are you hungry yet?" asks my husband after the sun sets, anxious to sample the local cuisine. "You should try Fysa Roufa," our hotel clerk had told us earlier. "It's reliable and always crowded." Situated on Averof, the restaurant never closes and is famed for its huge menu of homestyle Greek dishes. "Our food is cooked with love," the waiter explains. "It's our secret ingredient!" We zero in on their stuffed tomatoes and baked fish with oven potatoes, mopping up every morsel. The waiter flashes a satisfied smile when he sees our empty plates, motioning to the chef in the kitchen who is waving at us.

A highway map north of Ioánnina identifies the villages of central Zagóri.
An unexpected mist hangs in the morning air as we head north to the heart of the Zagorhória. Forested mountains stretch far into the horizon. Near the highway, hillsides are covered with wild garlic, sage, oregano and smatterings of vermillion poppies. We veer off to the right toward Monodéndri, a town that could have stepped off the pages of a Grimm's fairy tale. It serves as a hub for trekkers due to its commanding views of the Vikos Gorge which, according to the Guinness Book of Records, is the steepest in the world in relation to its width. At some spots, the 12-kilometer-long gorge plunges more than 900 meters and its narrowest point is just over a meter wide. We approach the village plateía, a lively spot crowded with hikers comparing notes of their journeys and locals immersed in their newspapers. A sign points to the 15th century Monastery of Agía Paraskeví, a 10 minute walk away. Sited on the very edge of the gorge, it is famous for its beautifully restored frescoes, but even more for its vertiginous views of the chasm. "Wow, the outer wall of the monastery merges right into the gorge rock face," notices my husband, "better to keep a safe distance away!" Instead, we make a two-kilometer drive to another lookout at Oxiá. Here a viewing platform is the Kodak picture spot of the gorge in all its grandeur, a vista of massive limestone cliffs carved over the millennia by the winding Voidomátis River below. "Wunderbar," yells an excited German hiker as he charges ahead of me toward the edge of the abyss!

The Vikos Gorge is the jewel of the Vikos Aoos National Park. According to the Guinness Book of
Records, it is the deepest in the world in relation to its width, plunging more than 900 meters.
On a detour to the town of Kípi, we stop to admire its famous triple-arched stone bridge, Plakídas, dating from 1814 and part of an elaborate network of cobblestone trails and bridges that linked the villages of the Zagóri region. Resembling a moving caterpillar with cogged edges, Plakídas was built by itinerant engineers. In centuries past, many Zagóri merchants amassed sizable fortunes through lucrative trade routes in the Balkans, having received a degree of autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. Their wealth is reflected not only in their stone houses, some of them veritable mansions, but also in their bridges which have stood the test of time, their engineering details a secret to this very day. After the ravages of World War II and the Greek Civil War, the region plunged into rapid decline, its villages virtually abandoned. But in recent years a growing interest in ecotourism and adventure travel has fueled a rebirth in Zagóri. To accommodate a growing influx of tourists, many village houses are being converted into upscale guesthouses and family-run tavernas specializing in regional cooking. "This area is going to change a lot in the next twenty years," posits my husband.

The 19th century Plakídas Bridge near Kípi resembles a moving caterpillar. Built by itinerant engineers, its construction secrets remain unknown.

Among the most popular villages in the region are Megálo and Mikró Pápingo, located in the Vikos Aoos National Park. We head toward the twin hamlets, turning west near Arísti, sited at a crossing point of the Voidomátis. Already a burgeoning tourist magnet, this charming village attracts scores of kayakers, rafters and hikers who use the town as a launching pad for their activities. Arísti is also distinguished by the beautiful Agía Maria Spiliótissa monastery, so named for its dramatic location on a rock face at the entrance of a large cave by the river. We linger at the village plateía abutting shady alleyways lined with souvenir shops and stalls of fresh vegetables from backyard gardens. Jars of homemade spoon sweets, ready to be tasted, are stacked on tables. "Let's come back here someday," I propose as we envy the laid-back clientele lounging in front of an upscale guesthouse.

It is early evening by the time we arrive at Megálo Pápingo. Soaring over the town, the limestone peaks of Astráka are tinged in orange and lavender as the sun sinks behind them. Famished, we stop at a family-run taverna near the center and feast on a huge bowl of gígantes (giant beans smothered in tomatoes, onions and herbs), perhaps the best dish we have ever tasted in Greece, followed by creamy rice pudding laced with cinnamon. The owner recommends a small guest house at the edge of town, run by his relatives and offering comfortable rooms, all with fireplaces and views of the imposing peaks. In the brisk night air, we stroll by moonlight on Pápingo's narrow kalderímia, now glistening with dew, finally settling in for the night in our toasty room.

A traditional guesthouse in Pápingo is framed by the limestone peaks of Astráka, an extension of Mount Tymfí.

Megálo Pápingo, at 3,143 feet, is a trekker's mecca. We take the advice of desk lady and head out early toward its sister village, Mikró Pápingo, veering left toward two lovely rock pools. Also known as kolymbíthres (swimming holes), the pools were formed by the action of the Rogóvo, a stream that erupts from the western slopes of Mount Tymfí. The water gushes through natural cavities (fonts) in the limestone, with one pool spilling into the next via a small waterfall, a magnificent sight. Wearing ordinary sneakers, I tread carefully around the slippery pool area, opting not to actually test the water. "Mountain water remains frigid, even in summer," they had warned us at the guesthouse. Today, only a few seasoned Scandinavian trekkers are splashing in the pools and I can tell by their shivering that the water is much colder than they had expected.

Back in Pápingo, several trekkers have just returned from a short hike in the gorge that began at the town of Víkos. "We had to go down many stairs," they explain. "The steep limestone cliffs were totally covered with pines and many other trees. We saw swarms of butterflies and we picked figs off low-slung trees that were clinging to the edge of the gorge." Two other hikers describe a five-hour climb they had made to Drakolímni, the "Dragon Lake" near Mount Tymfí, formed 10,000 years ago when the glaciers melted. Popular lore claims that the lake was once inhabited by dragons who used to toss rocks around, creating the stone massifs. "Sounds fantastic," says my husband. I take it all in, sensing the grandeur of it all through their eyes. Vikos is considered the most beautiful national park in Europe. Yet this fissure in the Pindus somehow reminds me of the tablelands of the American Southwest, albeit in a different color palette.

At our village taverna that evening, we devour platefuls of hilopítes (hand-cut rustic noodles) topped with an aromatic sauce of wild mushrooms and local truffles. "Who knew that Greece even had truffles," I remark, licking up every drop. Happy to see how much we appreciate his cooking, the chef brings out huge slices of portokalópita, a rich cake dense with oranges and syrup, followed by his own version of rakí. It's a fitting finale to our visit to the Zagorohória, the magical land beyond the mountains!