Escape to Zagori
It’s remarkable, given Zagori’s mountainous beauty, how relatively few travelers the region receives. Here, traditional Greece is very much alive. You see it in the sleepy thousand-year-old hamlets and villages tucked below the pine-clad Pindos Mountains. UNESCO-protected Vikos Gorge cuts through the range, making it, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the deepest canyon in the world. The gorge lies at the heart of two national parks that provide a haven for endangered flora and fauna.
Zagori is also a hiker's nirvana. Orchid-lined trails wind through the region, linking its 40 or so villages via ancient staircases and stone bridges. Kayaking, whitewater rafting, and skiing in winter add further appeal, and Ioannina, a relaxed lakeside town, has plenty to hold your attention too. There's a hilltop castle, museums, and restaurants serving herb-infused cuisine and the best local wines around. Allow one day to explore Ioannina and three days for the gorge and the rest of Zagori.
Ioannina, the provincial capital, is a logical base for exploring Zagori. A charming and relaxed university town on the west shores of Lake Pamvotida, its historic center still stands behind fortified walls. Ioannina’s rich Byzantine and Ottoman heritage comes alive in the well-preserved Kastro (castle). Initiated in 528 CE by Emperor Justinian (making it Greece’s oldest castle), it attained its zenith during the Ottoman Empire with the addition of a harem and the Fethiye Mosque. The erstwhile mosque today hosts the Municipal Ethnographic Museum of Ioannina, displaying a miscellany of historical artifacts that honor the Islamic and, intriguingly, Jewish heritage of the town. Don’t miss the tomb of regional ruler Ali Pasha (1740-1822), also within the Kastro precincts.
A five-minute walk southwest of the old town brings you to the must-see Archaeological Museum of Ioannina, with displays spanning the eons from Neolithic times to the late Roman period. During ancient times, the road linking Rome and Constantinople (the "Egnatia") ran through Ioannina, lending the city great import.
Ioannina’s other draw is the lake, especially in spring when wildflowers bloom and the forests become a vibrant green. Stroll the lakefront promenade, or take a water-taxi to Ioannina Island, home to no less than seven monasteries, including Moni Strategopoulos, home to impressive frescoes.
Ioannina is endowed with plenty of excellent restaurants. Sample local delicacies at cozy tavernas and mezedopoleia—small eateries serving savory tapas-like treats (like frog’s legs) and accompanied by local wine. Maybe pay a visit to Domaine Glinavos, a winery making dry whites, sparkling wines, and tsipouro brandy using local grapes. It’s 10 miles northwest of town, outside the hillside village of Zitsa.
When talk turns to Greek clifftop monasteries, Meteora is often the first place that springs to mind. But the Moni Kipinas monastery, in the rugged Tzoumerka mountains 15 miles southeast of Ioannina, offers just as dramatic a location. Clinging to the rock face like a bees’ nest, this simple stone-and-wood monastery was built in 1212 CE. It features a wooden drawbridge that served to protect the ascetic monks from raids during the Ottoman period, and its chapel is adorned with frescoes. It’s easily accessed via a cobbled path that leads from the parking lot (where you pick up the key to the monastery at a kiosk), one mile east of the hamlet of Mistras.
If Guinness is to be believed, this plunging gorge cutting the Pindos Mountains to the north of Ioannina is the world’s deepest canyon based on a width-to-depth ratio. Carved by the Voidomatis River, this seven-mile gorge on the southern slopes of Mount Tymfi descends half a mile and at any point is no wider than 400 yards. The gorge is the star of Vikos-Aoös National Park, a natural haven for endangered species like the chamois mountain goat, European wildcat, brown bear, and lynx. Near its southern end, the Oxya Viewpoint (on the west rim) and Beloi Viewpoint (on the east rim), offer panoramic views, with the latter the more impressive. You can drive to Oxya; the Beloi lookout requires a one-mile hike from the end of the road above the hamlet of Vradeto.
A rocky and at times indistinct trail follows the tree-shaded waterway beneath the gorge, linking the clifftop village of Monodendri, at its southern end, to the hamlet of Vikos, in the north. Allow at least four hours for the challenging trek, which involves a steep descent from Monodendri and an equally steep switchback ascent to Vikos, where you'll be happy for a hearty meal (perhaps wild boar stew) and a refreshing beer in a taverna.
The hike is basically in three sections, with the Monodendri-Vikos route the core. From Vikos you can hike uphill to three lovely mountain hamlets, known as the "Papingo villages." Papingo (the uppermost village) is famous for its rock pools set amid striated limestone cliffs. South of Monodendri, the Vikos gorge broadens. You can follow a trail (allow four hours), or drive, to the village of Kipi, with its half-dozen arched stone bridges (see Zagori Villages & Stone Bridges, below). You can also survey the gorge from the abandoned Moni Agia Paraskevi monastery, located at the end of a narrow cobbled road leading half a mile uphill east from Monodendri.
If you intend to hike the gorge, wear sturdy hiking shoes and bring bottled water (the only water is at Klima Spring, halfway along the gorge). Check the weather forecast before setting out to avoid rain, and inform your guesthouse of your planned route and anticipated return time. Also, as public transport is more miss than hit, have your guesthouse arrange for a local to pick you up at the end of your hike.
And if your passion is hiking gorges, consider visiting the White Mountains of Crete and embarking on a Samaria Gorge adventure.
Zagori Villages & Stone Bridges
Speckled throughout one of the least densely populated regions of Greece are 40-plus settlements known as the Zagori villages. Declared a national historical monument, these humble villages of stone cottages with mossy slate roofs were once connected by kalderimi (cobbled footpaths), switchback staircases, and stone bridges arching over the Voidomatis River. Some homes have ceilings adorned with wood carvings; others have frescoes. Hiking between these villages is one of the best excursions in Greece.
The 18th-century bridges, called gefiri, are concentrated around the village of Kipi, three miles southeast of Monodendri (longer if you straighten out the kinks in the road snaking down into the valley). The gefiri are named by local families who financed the projects: the single-arch Gefiri Kokkori leaps the river beneath a rock column 1.5 miles west of Kipi, and the double-arch Gefiri Milos is 400 yards south of Kipi. The most spectacular is Gefiri Plakida, a triple-arched bridge 600 yards downstream (southwest) of Kipi. There are many more.
For a strenuous hike with views, follow the famous Vradeto staircase—a 17th-century stone switchback staircase hugging a cliff-face and linking the hamlets of Vradeto and Kapesovo.
Come winter, the Pindos Mountains are blanketed in snow. Within remote Northern Pindos National Park, you'll find the second highest mountain in Greece: Mount Smolikas (8,652 feet). To the south, you'll see the peaks of the Tymfi massif. In summer it’s a superb hiking destination, but December through April is the time to hit the slopes. The most important of a handful of small ski resorts is state-owned Vasilitsa, with seven ski lifts, some 13 miles of groomed downhill runs, and endless miles of backcountry trails.
Further south, the town of Metsovo, about 25 miles east of Ioannina, is also a center for skiing and snowboarding. It features three small ski areas that double as centers for alpine hiking in summer when the snows melt.