Tours in Greece


Epirus, Pindos and Zagoria

Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, 21 km.(13 miles) northeast of Dodone on Lake Pambotis, may have been in existence as early as the 6th century AD, but the city came into its own only with the occupation of Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium by the Crusaders or Frank in 1204. Henceforth, Ioannina, or the city of St John, would be a centre of continued Greek resistance, an independent Byzantine state. Michael I Comnenos Ducat of Epirus founded the state of Epirus, whose governmental seat was Arta, and ceeded Ioannina to Byzantine refugees. The city and its island became a thriving Christian centre, which held out against the Ottoman Turks until 1430.

The Ottoman occupation of Ioannina lasted 482 years, during which time the city's famous guilds flourished, and Christians and Jews, respected by the Moslems as monotheistic "People of the Book", were organized according to profession or trade. Even now, Ioannina retains some of this atmosphere of a guild town. The main commercial street is still lined with silversmiths, for Ioannina was once famous for its filigree and niello work and the tradition persists. The capital and Epirus villages in the Pindus such as Syraco and Kalarites, became known for their master jewelers.
On the little island in the lake Pambotis, restaurants now vie for customers who are ferried over from Ioannina by motor launch. Live trout, eels crayfish and frogs swim in tanks from which visitors may select their dinners, then sit by the waters of the lake, feeding ducks and swans that glide in the tiny harbor full of working watercraft. Primitive boat-building works still operate on the island, lone masters bending plans over fires to temper the wood. The humble monastery of Aghios Panteleimonas, on the tiny island of Ioannina in lake Pambotis, seems an unlikely place for the mighty Ali Pasha  to have met his death.
But in the upper gallery, now a small ketch museum, guards are happy to show visitors the holes in the floorboards where bullets tore through, ending the life of Ali. It was in January of 1822, along with a dozen of his faithful followers, and Vassiliki," the coiner's daughter of Plichivitza" who became his Christian wife, retired to the island. They were fleeing Khurchid Pasha ,who was demanding Ali's unconditional surrender. The Sultan hoped that, with Ali's death, the Greek resistance movement would also die out, and the beleaguered ruler displayed Ali's head in Constantinople to prove without doubt that the Epirus insurrection was over.

Metsovo 56 km (35 miles) northeast of Ioannina is one of the most traditional villages of Greece. Located beneath the Katara Pass, on the route between Meteora and western Epirus, this has long been an important site for shepherds and has been made rich by wealth derived from the flocks. While the old fellows on the square are happy to direct visitors to the stunning Tositsa family mansion, now a museum of Epirus life, art forms and the thriving Metsovo Folk Cooperative, which still produces the famous Metsovitico wood carvings, embroideries, weavings and brass work, they will also caution you about wolves down in the valley near the 14th century monastery of Aghios Nikolaos.

In the main square of Metsovo few of the elderly gentlemen sitting in the sun outside the kafeneia and souvlaki shops still wear the old hobnailed and black pompomed tsarouchia , part of the age - old Vlach and Saracatsan costume. The best known shoes in Greece are the tsarouchia. The original name of these shoes was pinges, the sole studded with nails and a large pompom on the upturned fore part. The shoe endures as a national symbol and the heavy, hobnailed slippers are still worn by the honorary evzone guard outside the presidential palace in Athens.
The older residents of Metsovo and environs may be difficult to understand, as Vlachika, their language, is not Greek at all , but a romance language, Latin - based and reminiscent of Romanian. The Vlachs were a pastoral people who lived mainly in Pindos.
The Epirotes-Vlachs, several of whom used to be rich lords in their regions, have an interesting cuisine that reflects their pastoral tradition. They are famous for their delicious pites that are baked in large round pans. Those thin pies, filled with all sorts of seasonal vegetables and cheese, and wrapped in thin, homemade filo pastry, are served in all the restaurants of the area. In the morning, women with large families to cook for, arrive with their tapsia, huge round or rectangular baking tins, full of lamb and potatoes or pastitsio.
 This large mountain range, with its many elevations, suited their lifestyle: to find food for their livestock they had to move to lower levels in the winter, when snow covered the mountains and the temperatures fell; in the summer, when the snow melted, they would move back to higher, cooler and greener areas.

Epirus is the cloud -covered crown of Greece, west of the Ionian sea, and the islands of Corfu, Paxi and tiny Antipaxi and east of the long, rocky spine of the towering Pindus mountain range, the region's natural frontier with Thessaly. To the north is Albania, inhospitable and inscrutable behind an uneasy border frequently violated by the region's hardy Vlach and Sarakatsan shepherds and their flocks. Going from Epirus to Mt Pelion, east of the Pindos, or to western Macedonia, but also traveling through the neighboring Balkan countries, one notices striking similarities in architectural style. The builders and stonemasons of Epirus were famous in the old days. Originating from the villages north of Aoos river, they traveled all over the area, undertaking constructions in distant places. They built private homes and public buildings, churches, monasteries and bridges. Epirus, along with northwestern Macedonia, has numerous beautiful, arched stone bridges, some of which are still in use. As there are lots of rivers and streams, there are bridges everywhere; most of them built during the Ottoman period.

Unfortunately, today there are very few skilled stonemasons to continue the tradition. Individualistic and fierce, Epirotes have always been people of the mountain, shifting between highland pastures and lowland dwellings according to the season. This rugged and , until very recent times, remote province, its mountain villages often inaccessible in winter, was home to Olympia, the indomitable mother of Alexander the Great to Ali Pasha, to the Souliotwomen, who chose death before dishonor for themselves and their children in 1803; and not last in a long list of controversial giants of history, to General Aris commander of the Greek resistance's guerilla army, who fought the Germans in the stormy 1940. It is no accident that to call someone an "Epirot head" in Greece is to label him intractable, stubborn and proud. Even now, in the mountains, life is hard. Men are still termed "palikaria" (brave young warriors) and women "leventisses" the female equivalent.

Pindos mountains, with their lush forests, rivers and gorges, the habitat of rare birds and animals, illustrates yet another very different and lesser-known aspect of the varied Greek landscape. There is more rain in Epirus - the northwestern district of Greece occupied mainly by Pindos - than in the eastern regions. The mountains are covered with snow from November through to May. When the snow melts, the tallest peaks tower over the lush vegetation at lower levels. Rivers, at the feet of the tall mountains, carry the waters to the sea through small valleys and narrow gorges. Like a web of blue arteries, rivers and streams spring from the centre of Pindos and flow in all directions.

In the dramatically beautiful region of Zagori in Epirus, high in the Pindus mountains, intrepid visitors will still find vast, untouched Mediterranean forests. Away from the herds, beech forests thrive and near the Aspropotamos River, mixed forests of beech , fir and black pine flourish. Here, on the Voithomatis River, which cuts through the Vikos Gorge in a fierce flood of turquoise, plane trees and saplings shade the forest floor. Up in the villages around Vikos there is a plethora of stores that sell local medicinal herbs. Although these local herbs may not provide a cure for everything, the idea of the plants coming from such a beautiful region already makes one feel better, especially if one has spent time in that serene environment, surrounded by the age-old trees and the fragrant herbs, while listening to the mesmerizing song of the birds and the babbling of the streams... Epirus Tour

Zagorohoria. Epirus's traditional villages and the traditional way of life mirrored in the arrangement of their structures, the activities and beliefs of their inhabitants, are fast becoming the stuff of legend, the stock of museums. Fortunately, keeping pace with the demise of villages and village life, with the development of communities, is an acute awareness on the part of the Epirotes, scholars and lay people alike, of their tremendous cultural value. As the straight flute of floyera, becomes an anachronism it and its music, are being documented and preserved for prosperity. As villagers leave the Zagorohoria for the last time, descending to the warm lowlands that promise an easier life, the Greek government is going in and creating living museums out of the stone and hewn-oak houses. In fact, one plan has been proposed that would make the entire of zagori a sort of rustic theme park, to which admission would be charged. One of the most beautiful sites on Valia Calda is the Drakolimnes-Dragon Lakes, which are small lakes on the mountains above the valley, remnants of the ice age. According to the folk tradition, they were homes of fierce dragons, large monsters in animal or human form, which fought each another by throwing large rocks or tree trunks from lake to lake and from mountain to mountain. Not far from Valia Calda, there is yet another larger lake, artificially created at the springs of Aoos river, near the picturesque village of Metsovo.  Voidomatis, a large tributary of Aoos, is a river of great beauty. It runs through the spectacular Vikos Gorge. Trees of all kinds are abundant on both slopes of the gorge, depending on the elevation.

The Voithomatis river rushes past the foot of the Vikos Gorge cliff face. Attached like a stylize atop the rock perches the little monastery of Aristi Spiliotissa, the Exalted Virgin of the Cave. Here cherry trees blossom in spring. In summer their fruit tempts the European brown bear to descend from higher ground. The chamois and wolf are also infrequent visitors . The lynx is another of Europe's endangered species, living today only in Spain, and perhaps in this gorge. The Sus scrofa, or wild boar, is sighted more often and the Egyptian vulture soars in the clear air above the deep chasm.

Monasteries here such as Aghia Paraskevi and Aghios Athanasios, are being lovingly renovated in authentic Zagorian style and the villages of the Zagorohoria are coming alive again after a century of decline as the sons and daughters of Zagorians come to realize they have a unique cultural heritage worthy of preservation.

Traveling through the 40-odd villages lying between Ioannina, Konitsa and the Albanian border, one traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. In fact according to mountaineer Konstantinos Vassiliou, the Vikos Gorge is the largest in Europe and Sheep's Gulf, where the Vikos Gorge bisects the Gamila massif, with its absolute vertical of over 400 metres (1,312feet), is the world's second highest sheer drop. Valia Calda is surrounded by mountains, and the river Arkoudorema, the Stream of the Bears, which crosses the little valley. The river s name is not accidental, and indeed this is one of the few places in Greece still inhabited by bears. The dense, protected forest is still a good habitat for this most rare, beautiful and strong of creatures. In the nearby rivers and streams, where wild trout still swim in the cold waters, there are also small packs of otters, another rare species. Several kinds of mushrooms, often brightly-colored, spring through the rotting leaves under the dense trees. The rhythmic pecking sound of the woodpecker can also be heard coming from somewhere within the lush forest.

Apart from the natural beauty of the region, some of most wonderful villages of Greece are scattered here. The Zagoria are remnants of a flourishing culture of the past. The area was at its zenith in the 17th century, having gained some sort of advanced autonomy from the Ottoman rulers. Many Zagorgiani emigrated overseas, mostly to Russia and Romania, where they prospered greatly. Others traded in the Balkans, and accumulated large fortunes. Thus, with their contributions, they helped their homeland and the war of Greek Independence. Education was greatly encouraged in Zagoria, and women studied along with men.

Villages like Papingo provided a himathia, or winter refuge, for the shepherds and settled Sarakatsani, the former Skinites, or tent-dwellers. Today, the villages of Megalo and Mikro Papingo, on the slopes of Mount Timfri, lie with in the territory of the protected Vikos - Aoos National Park.

The area may be depopulated today, but the beautiful large private homes and public buildings are a testament to the flourishing past. Their grey, heavy stone roofs rise over the thick vegetation. Stone-paved streets cross the villages. The houses are built with stones and wood, and their walls are thick to withstand the harsh weather conditions and the winter snow. Stone-built walls surround the yards, which are guarded by beautiful, heavy, wooden gates. Fortunately, many of these buildings now have been restored and modernized properly, and several have been turned into hotels and pensions, retaining the traditional style. What is more important is that the area has kept its serenity and is rarely crowded with people

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