Epirus, the northeast province of Greece, is a hidden gem. The Pindus mountain range is responsible for its rugged beauty as well its remoteness. Stepping away from the university town of Ioannina, “me ta papoutsia panena,” (the Dalaras song always pops into my head at its name), your sense of awe is deepened with the majestic peaks of the Tymphi mountain range, giants baptized with names such as Gkamila, Astraka, Tsouka Rosa. The necklace of mountain villages that surround the mountain canyons are known as Zachorochoria, or the villages of the canyon. Places such as Vikos, Papigo Megalo and Mikro, Klidonia, Aristi. These are some of the most darling of jewels to drape the neck of these mountains.
Epirus is the northwest corner of the province. It is a nature lover’s dream. Especially because the famous Vikos Gorge can be found there. The mountains of those ranges, Smolikas, Grammos, Vasilitsa, Nemerstsika, Tymphi and the Vikos National Park have been collected into a natural reserve belonging to the European network of protected areas known as Natura 2000. They have joined to produce the largest protected area ever established in Greece, the National Park of Northern Pindos. Additionally, the Vikos-Aoos region has been officially relegated as a “geopark.” A geopark contains a certain number of geological heritage sites of all categories and geotopes. (It’s good to take this trip with a geologist; otherwise every rock looks like any other).
The Vikos-Aoos park garnered the award of UNESCO Global Geoparks status in 2010. What makes this region incredible is its rich variety of geological and natural features, making it a natural outdoor sculpture park. Tower-like structures stand like primitive sculptures chiseled by the wind made by the erosion of dolomite rock. There’s an egg-like structure made of chert inside the limestones of Gamila plateau. There are faults and folds, fluvial terraces, rock shelters, and even prehistoric paths traveled by Ice Age hunters in the Voidomatis river.
And if that wasn’t enough, then there is Vikos Gorge. The entire canyon is a set of geotopes. It has evolved into its own ecosystem renowned for its medicinal herbs. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Zagorogiatri, or doctors of the canyon as they were termed, brought their knowledge of local botany to all of Europe. They even collected themselves like medieval guilds passing their knowledge of medicinal plants and remedies from one generation to the other. From the view of the steep canyon drop from the village of Vikos you can still witness the sprouting of wild mint, lime flowers blooming, Melissa Hypericum perforateuon, and the wild dance of hundreds of species of butterflies. WOW! WOW! and WOW! There are no words to describe the experience you have to stand there yourself.
The journey through the Pindus mountains, however, is not for the light of heart or the sensitive of stomach. Lynchpin curves give way to vistas of valleys of Ioannina and Konitsa. The panorama of Konitsa, a picturesque village built on the slopes of Mt Trapezitisa, is out of a fairy tale. Clay tiled traditional homes leaning into the crisp mountain air with the meandering Aoos River shimmering silver below. Konitsa is famous for three things: Ali Pasha’s mother, Elder Paissios, and stone bridges. Elder Paissios, recently canonized a saint, was born in Konitsa and served in the remote monastery of Stomio before moving to Mt Athos. The monastery of Molivodoskepasti is even older, dating back to the 7th century. Hamko, the mother of the infamous Ali Pasha was born in Konitsa; her house is a mansion you can walk through. The region of Konitsa is known for its well-constructed stone bridges that arc like a grey rainbow through the landscape. Hands have placed stone upon stone delicately but sturdily to create these wonders of engineering.
Did I mention that the area has curative baths, in other words, girls, a natural spa? The mineral baths are a secret that few know about. The steam baths of Amarantos, about 35 km from Konitsa, are warm so you can even bring your bikini in the snowy winter and enjoy them (OK exaggerating, they are only open from June to October.) The mud or sulphuric baths of Kavasila (16.5 km away from Konitsa) might stink a bit but they are good for rejuvenating the collagen in your skin cells.
I could have ended my mountain journey by stopping for respite in Konitsa. But this intrepid explorer was not content with the luxury available in this town. Four even 5 star hotels, (Konitsa Mountain Resort Hotel for example) could be found there for under 100 Euros a night during the off-season. OXI! I took the road less traveled and ventured around more winding cliffs, for close to another 45 minutes, a feat that the 8-year-old in the back did not lurch through all that maneuvering. I had to admit, traveling at dusk with a small child through dizzying heights on mountain roads some unpaved, without GPS service , the imposing mountains glaring down at you, puts the fear of God/Nature/the Great Being or nature into you.
Thank goodness for the light of the full moon–a raging orange sphere– and we reached the village of Pades, a mountain post made up of in total 10 people at the most. Pades is home to the mountain resort of Munti Smolikas. It has been converted from a country schoolhouse into a lovely hotel with 15 beds. The owners Kostas Zografos, Dimitri Pavlidis and Sofia Panna quit the city life in Thessaloniki to find sanctuary in the cool mountain air. They run an impeccably clean guest house, tall ceilings, crisp linens for a remarkable price of 15 Euro per bed per night. But just because Munti Smokikas is affordable does not make it skimp on the essentials. Things like soap and heavy duty toilet paper, and the best reggae music from a stable Internet connection. Their kitchen provides simple hearty fare. The youthful atmosphere of this lodge is unexpected especially for a place most city-folk stereotype as inhabited by retired yiayias and pappous. But for these three partners, in their 20s and early 30s, the choice to run a remote mountain resort year round had to do more with personal choice than the crisis.
“We have tried to select the positive elements of our grandparents’ way of life,” Sophia Panna says. “We are searching for a healthy way of life in nature.”
They do not deny that the crisis had something to do with the wave of young people in Greece who are rediscovering their grandparents’ villages.
“You choose what you demand from the city and you shape that with what the country gives you. But lets not deny the fact that it’s not that easy to grow a few tomato plants on top of a mountain the whole year round. Most of us are not used to this kind of life,” their friend Despina from Vonitza chimes in.
Dimitri got disillusioned with the city life from his job running a kiosk in Thessaloniki. “The people of the city disappointed me. It was the crisis, their problems, you’d say hello, thank you to them and they wouldn’t say anything back.”
“The people of the mountain are totally different,” he continues. “They are honest, more pleasant. The man of the city is way different from the man of the mountain. The man of the mountain helps you , he’s cleaner. You cannot hide your true self on the mountain. It does not matter your profession, how much money you have. The mountain shows your true colors.”
Sophia’s choice to head for the mountains was clear from the beginning. She found the city life unthinkable for herself as an option. “People are waiting to watch the 8 o’ clock TV serial to get a sense of belonging,” she explains. “People follow the script—get a job, get married, have kids, retire—but that’s not living an authentic life. Sometimes we romanticize the village life, but in an age where everything is leveled, it’s a good thing to have a bit of romanticism in you. Most people think that this type of life is for those 80 years old and over. It’s a question of choice; where do you envision yourself living.”
“It is not enough to look at what is all around us, have a quick drink of tsipouro, and then go back to the city,” Despina adds. “You have to deeply understand what this type of life offers you.”
Pades village, under the radar, simple, with no claim to fame, is exactly what the post-modern soul yearns for.
In case I have not convinced you to trek out there (be forewarned it is a trek: 7-8 hours from Athens), here is a list of activities waiting for you when you arrive:
- Cliff hanging
- Rafting/ kayaking through the Aaoos river
- Mountain biking
- Nature trails Swimming in mountain lakes and natural springs: (there’s even naturally warm thermal baths at Kovosita and Amarantos)
- Fly fishing
- Paragliding : (I’m coming back to do that one; the take-off platform is on the hill of Prophet Ilias 1.071 meters above Konitsa—simply awesome!)
- Skiing and snowboarding at Ski Resort Vasilitsa 30 kms away
- Horse back riding
- Alpine skiing
- Climbing the gorge at Via Ferrata
- Bird watching in the spring you can hear the nightingale sing.
and of course, just being. I am content just to sit and take in the panoramic views of Tymphi, Grammos, Trapezitsa, Nemertsilka and Basilitsa from the wooden tables in front of Munti Smolikas in Pades.
Web page at www.muntismolikas.com
Facebook: Ξένωνας Munti Smolikas