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.
Back in Monodendri, our search for accommodation was not going well. We poked our noses in tiny stone churches decorated with elaborate, faded frescoes and inspected the slate shingles that crowned the somber little buildings, all shut up tight. We ascended steep and winding stone pathways that seemed to take us nowhere and watched a small construction crew lay the stone for a new village square. In the shade of a grand, old plane tree they manually cranked their small cement mixers and chipped at the local stone by hand. November was clearly the off-season and the whole place seemed to be preparing for its winter hibernation.
To experience the Zagorohoria, a car is necessary, but once you arrive, it is essential to get out! Villages are connected by ancient cobbled footpaths leading to gracefully arched stone bridges, hundreds of years old, spanning cool and clear meandering creeks. This, you may surmise, was the route someone’s grandparents once used to access the neighbouring town. Upon arrival at that village, at the trail’s end, a stately old stone water fountain may greet the weary traveler, a refreshing and unspoken “welcome” to your destination. Meander a little further, and you may stumble upon a pleasantly situated little monastery tucked away in the forest or perhaps clinging dramatically to the walls of the Vikos Gorge, its lofty bell tower unattended, allowing you to ring the hefty thing and hear its chimes resonate through the forested hills.
Finally tiring of our fruitless search for a hotel that appeared to be open, we stopped into a mostly empty little café in the central square. The proprietor, a friendly Greek woman, was happy to show us to “her hotel.” Back up the cobbled paths we were led, until we finally came to a beautifully restored old stone mansion and shown to a modest little room overlooking the pleasing slate rooftops. An inclusive breakfast, a rare treat in Greece, added to our appreciation of this hidden treasure of a place.
Thus began our exploration of Greece’s fabled and forgotten corner. Next morning, bellies full of pastries, coffee and hard boiled eggs, we set out to discover the Zagorohoria. A refreshing mountain chill was in the air and the entire region seemed to be blanketed in the colourful hues of mid-fall. With the eager anticipation of travelers facing a full day to uncover the secrets of a new place, we zipped our jackets, laced our hiking boots and started walking.