Tucked in the folds of the Pindos Mountain Range, just next to the Albanian border, lies a fabled and forgotten corner of Greece. Forget the crumbling ruins of ancient empires, sweeping sandy beaches and villages coated blindingly in whitewash. In this tiny slice of a sun-baked, tourist- trodden nation, all the Greek stereotypes are cast aside. Complete with pine forests, slate roofed villages, wild boar and brown bears, the Zagorohoria has a personality all its own.
Due to the nature of the land, the Zagorohoria, literally meaning “behind the mountain,” was largely inaccessible for centuries. Forty-six mountain hamlets constructed entirely of stone were connected only by an ambitious network of steep cobbled footpaths through the pine-clad mountains, making travel an arduous affair indeed. This inaccessibility, however, proved to be a blessing. While conquerors were marching through other parts of the country, empires rising and falling, the hardy inhabitants of this region flourished in peace, maintaining Greek heritage under centuries of foreign occupation.
We arrived in Monodendri, a confusing jumble of slate roofed buildings constructed solidly of stone on a brisk fall day in November. A colourful blanket of leaves crunched underfoot as we navigated the uneven cobbled laneways winding around the disorderly buildings. This was certainly not a place where one could park at the curbside and saunter casually into a hotel. We had left our car at the village entrance; a lofty parking area atop a narrow cobblestone street of alarming incline. This was a place that required hiking boots and a good sense of direction! The entire village was constructed of local, grey stone, from the garden walls to the footpaths and even the roof shingles themselves! Nothing bound them together; just their own, massive weight.
The Zagorohoria reached its height of prosperity in the 18 th century. Schools were built, mills to grind corn constructed and sturdy, ornamental fountains of stone erected along the footpaths. Shepherds herded their sheep from one mountain pasture to another and travel and trade between the villages was done on foot or by mule. In winter, the whole region was carpeted in a soft blanket of snow.
Since then, the area has experienced something of a decline, but tourism is bringing life back to the Zagorohoria. Paved roads into the mountains now provide easy access to a once remote and forgotten region, bringing on them Greek holiday-makers seeking a mountain respite from Athens and an athletic international bunch with their hiking boots and backpacks looking for outdoor adventure. Slicing the Zagorohoria dramatically in two is the Vikos Gorge, a vertiginous 12-kilometre chasm with a depth of 1,000 metres in places, one of the deepest in the world. Part of the Vikos-Aoos National Park, it is possible to hike the length of the canyon, stopping along the way at some of the quaint, historic villages where shepherds still tend their flocks and wizened Greek women in long skirts still collect and dry wild herbs from the mountains.