Greece beyond Athens and its islands: why Zagori deserves to be discovered | The traveler

At the end of a road that looks more like a single-lane continuous curve, stands Vradeto, one of the 45 villages of Zagori, a region of northwestern Greece, in the heart of Epirus. Being the highest of all -it is located at 1,340 meters above sea level-, Vradeto offers an unnamed tavern in the square next to the church where everything from garden tomato salad to chicken empanada , has a taste of glory before or after enjoying spectacular views of Vikos Gorge from the nearby Beloi lookout.

The group of villages of Zagori or Zagorochoria, as the region is commonly called in Greek, is located in the Pindus National Park, not far from the border with Albania. The nearest airport is in the town of Yanina, less than 90 minutes away by car. The cities of the western zone, better communicated, are the most visited. The houses climb almost vertically on the slope and, seen from the road, seem to cling to the mountain so as not to fall into the Vikos canyon. The stone and slate dwellings contrast with their dark gray the intense green of the oak and fir forests. The many details of its construction, such as its large size, its chimneys and its sculpted arcades, give clues to a flourishing past. Zagori enjoyed a special autonomous status during the Ottoman Empire and many merchants from major Balkan capitals and high officials of the Sultan of Istanbul hailed from the region. The careful architecture of many houses, the quality materials, the nascent sewage system, the cobbled streets and the existence of old schools and public fountains indicate that the successful prodigal sons did not forget and invested in their family towns. In the 20th century, wars and mass emigration to the United States guided the territory’s economic and demographic decline. In the summer, however, their cities are filled with returnees, and it’s common to hear Boston or New York accents mixed in with Greek from their children and grandchildren.

The central axis of the western part of Zagori is the Vikos Canyon, which marks the landscape and the life of the inhabitants and visitors with its indentation. With a length of about 30 kilometers, and a depth that varies from 120 to 1,350 meters, it is a paradise for hiking enthusiasts. Ironically, the car will be essential to move between cities and be able to make itineraries. The starting point to cross the gorge is the town of Monodendri, if the route is from south to north, or Papingo if it is the reverse. It is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the deepest canyon in the world and it is recommended to join a guided group to explore it. But, for those who think twice about the descent (and subsequent ascent) of around 500 meters bordering another precipice, there are less demanding alternatives.

One of the most beautiful routes is the road that connects Vradeto with neighboring Kapesovo via the Vradeto Stairs, a 17th-century stone path (about an hour one way). Until the construction of the road in the sixties of the last century – which surrounds the canyon and connects the roads that go to the port of Igoumenitsa and the Balkans – the inhabitants of Zagori moved on foot or on the back of mules along along roads and bridges. of stone that connected the cities.

Using Kipoi Town as a base to hike some of these stone bridges is another good option. During a walk along the shoulder of the road that lasts no more than 1.5 hours, the Ottoman-style bridges of Petsioni, Mylos, Kalogeriko – impressive with their three arches over the water basins transparent emerald – and Kokoris appear. The bravest can continue a few kilometers towards the town of Vitsa and arrive, venturing along a dirt road parallel to the river, to the Kukulíu bridge and then to the Misius bridge. The route between Kipoi and Vitsa is simple, but it is important to take into account the strength of each hiker and the hours of daylight because you will have to do the route in the opposite direction. In Zagori there are no regular buses connecting the towns and taxis can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

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Without being one of the most touristic towns, Kipoi has several small family hotels, such as the Rodia, where one struggles for the visitor, and a roadside tavern, that of Mijális, the center of social life. Zagori’s gastronomy is based on powerful mountain products: meat stews, beans, sausages, blackberry and raspberry desserts and, above all, homemade empanadas. If in the Vradeto tavern the chicken was worth mentioning, in Mijális it is the mushroom pie or manitaropita. Another gastronomic clue: if you visit this Greek region in autumn, a stop at Kanella & Garyfallo, in Vitsa, is almost obligatory. The entire restaurant menu is based on mushrooms.

For those looking for more entertainment —and this is relative since it is one of the least populated regions of Greece— the best thing is to go to the town of Papingo, where the tourist offer and visitors. It is not only the northern gateway for excursions into the bowels of the Vikos Canyon, it is also the starting point for exploring the peaks of Mount Timfi and Lake Drakolimni. As always, there are options for those unwilling or unable to mountaineer. Papingo has a “little brother”: Mikro Papingo. A small town a kilometer upstream from which you can admire the view without much effort and with a surprise halfway: natural pools where you can — watch out! Only in the summer and thinking about it a lot, since the water descends freezing cold from the snow-capped peaks, take a dip.

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