The Greeks simply love the collection of mountain villages in the country’s northwest called Zagarohoria, or more easily known as Zagori. Yet the enchanting area remains largely unknown to visitors from abroad. If you really want to discover a spectacular region for enjoying nature and hiking, you’ll be rewarded by what Zagoria has to offer. The area rises above the lake of Ioannina city, includes the Aoos (pronounced Awos) river, the North Pindos National Park and the Valia Calda National Park as well. The important thing is that all these fabulous attractions are now closer to Athens by car, thanks to the new Olimpia Odos highway. You’ll reach Ioannina in a bit over 4 hours, and then go on to explore Zagori which begins just half an hour beyond Ioannina.
The name Zagori actually derives from the Slavic Za Gora, which means “beyond the mountain”, referring to what’s behind the Mitsikeli Mountain towering over Ioannina. Cross the mountain and you’ll be stunned by a collection of 52 traditional villages with astounding architectural, cultural and historical significance. The masons of this area are known to combine wood and stone in traditional ways, and in harmony with nature. Old stone-built schools, churches, bell towers, village squares, cobblestone roads and bridges will take you to the wonders of past centuries. On the wilder side, you’ll come across deep gorges, high mountain peaks, rushing rivers, thick forests and magical waterfalls.
While most roads are now asphalted, the many curves mean that you’re better off driving slowly and making several stops to enjoy different nature spots and landmarks. The landscape is dotted with very cozy guesthouses and traditional restaurants (tavernas) that will feed you well, especially since most of the visitors here are Greeks who demand quality in their gastronomy. No need to worry about getting tourist-level food in this region of Greece.
As you hike through this area you’ll find rich biodiversity that includes wildflowers, aromatic and therapeutic plants, conifers, plane trees, pines, black pines, fir trees, chestnut trees, and much more. Butterflies, birds, and a host of small animals scurry about, while in the Valia Calda area you might even spot a brown bear or two. In terms of extreme sports (eco of course) you’ll be impressed by the mountain climbing opportunities in the Drakolimni area, as well as rock climbing, kayaking and of course skiing in winter.
The historic monasteries such as Rogovou, Panagia and Spiliotissa, Moni Voutsas and Agia Paraskevi in Monodendri are definitely worth admiring, while a visit to the Nature Information Centre in Papingo is a must. Keep in mind that there are no banks but there are bank machines and only one gas station near the village of Aspraggeloi. Lastly, you’ll be happily surprised that many villages such as Dilofo, Koukouli, Kapesovo and Mikro Papingo (not to be confused with the larger Papingo) are paved with cobblestones, so you’ll have to park outside in designated parking spots to enjoy their unspoiled beauty. Just fill your gas tank in Ioannina, reserve a cozy room in the fine traditional guesthouses and get going! This will be an unforgettable trip for sure.