Undiscovered Greece: exploring Epirus

Go beyond the bustling beaches and you’ll find a land of lakes, mountains and exhilarating outdoor adventure. This is Greece, but not as you know it.

The area of Zagori is one of Epirus' crowning jewels when it comes to active adventure, with limitless opportunity for raising your heart rate. 

Photograph by Jordan Banks
By Megan Hughes
Published 20 Sept 2022, 12:30 BST

Hidden in the northwestern corner of Greece, Epirus is a region where adventure meets nature with an almost mythical reverence. Here, dramatic gorges punctuate alpine pastures, ancient stone bridges span crystal-clear rivers and thriving traditional communities serve feasts of fresh local produce. Head inland from the country's coastline and discover the distinctive character of Epirus in two of its most picturesque destinations — Zagori and Metsovo.

For active travellers, Zagori offers countless opportunities for high-adrenaline adventure. Set among the dramatic natural terrain of the Pindos mountains, its white stone villages are a magnet for serious climbers and hikers, many of whom are keen to experience the colossal Vikos Gorge — the world’s deepest in relation to its width. 

Go east from Zagori, across the waters of Lake Aoos, and you’ll eventually reach the mountain town of Metsovo, one of Epirus’s most fascinating destinations. Among vineyards and black pine forests, you’ll find a vibrant local community that has roots across the Balkans, influences of which are immediately visible in the area’s unique pastoral culture and distinctive local dialect, Vlach, which is still passed down between generations with pride. 

For those wanting to head off the beaten tourist track and experience the impressive diversity of the Greek mainland, Epirus is a destination that’s sure to captivate. 

The traditional stones houses of Aristi sit perched among lush green landsacpes.

The traditional stones houses of Aristi sit perched among lush green landsacpes.

Photograph by Jordan Banks


Eyewitness: an elemental escape in Zagori

“I’m in Greece,” I think to myself. “I’m in Greece and I’m absolutely soaking.” No, no, I’m not floating lazily in the sun-soaked waters of a white-sand beach, or fresh from a dip in a Santorini plunge pool. I’m high in the hills of the Pindos mountains and the heavens have just opened. Heavily. However, as I gaze out from under my enormous poncho I can’t help but feel elated. I’ve spent the past few days marvelling at the vivid greens and blues of the landscapes here — colours that are only possible if it does, occasionally, absolutely chuck it down. 

I’m in Zagori, an area deep in the heart of Epirus, made up of 46 picturesque villages, perched high on the hillsides and blending seamlessly into the natural landscape. Our base, Aristi, is one such village, an idyllic spot where chickens wander the streets and cats laze happily in dappled sunlight.  Don’t let these sleepy villages fool you though — Zagori is a destination made for extreme adventure. The heart of the area is the Vikos-Aoös National Park, a UNESCO Global Geopark, where dramatic cliffs and canyons provide plenty of opportunities for trekking, rock climbing and whitewater rafting. 

Today, we’re taking it easy. We’re hiking the ‘Hunters of the Ice Age’ trail, a two-and-a-half-hour route that winds along the shores of the bright blue Voidomatis river, one of the coldest (and thus clearest) in Greece. As we walk, our guide Spyridoula, from local adventure outfit Trekking Hellas, stops to point out plants, rock formations and animal tracks. “There are over 1,700 different plants in Vikos, many of which are endemic just to this area,” she explains, pointing out a bright pink wild orchid hidden between two large pine trees. These plants have played an important role in the area’s history. Before modern medicine, many were used by ‘Vikos doctors’ — natural healers from Zagori who gained fame across the Ottoman Empire due to their deep knowledge of herbal remedies.  

To this day, the national park remains a treasure trove of flora and fauna, where Zagori’s natural history can be seen written into the rock and tasted in the water.  At Spyridoula’s urging, I fill my bottle from a spring that meets the river, as she tells me that she’s just signed up to take a water sommelier course. This will enable her to gain a greater understanding of the taste, make-up and history of the water — skills she hopes to use to benefit the area.

Left: Top:

Rafting on the Voidomatis River. 

Right: Bottom:

Restaurant in the main square of Aristi

photographs by Jordan Banks

“The water holds the history,” she says. “It takes information from all the eras, all the way from the seabed of Pangaea — long before the mountains formed — and holds all the nutrients that have been locked away since then, such as calcium, iron and magnesium. You can almost trace the evolution of Epirus in this water.”

The passion she feels for her surroundings is palpable. Whether it’s about the soil, the wildlife, the trees or the rocks, she speaks with a deep understanding of the natural area. She stops sporadically to wrestle ivy from tree branches or rock faces. “It strangles the trees,” she says. “It winds itself around them and sucks the life right out.” 

All too soon, the path along the river comes to an end and we begin to climb up into the forests. It’s here that we feel the first drops of rain, drops that swiftly become a deluge. Luckily, we’re almost at our destination, where our ride home is waiting on the water. We hop into wetsuits and embrace the rain as we paddle back downstream, dwarfed by the steep walls of the gorge and feeling increasingly miniscule amid its tangible history. The river isn’t too rough at this time of the year, so we keep our eyes peeled for the rare black storks and elusive brown bears that inhabit the area. Sadly, none are out to play today.  

By the time we return to our alpine retreat, my body is wet and weary. Thank goodness then, that Salvia, the best restaurant in town, is right on my doorstep at the beautiful Aristi Mountain Resort. I settle in for an Epirotic feast of crispy egg, fresh spinach pie and braised beef cheeks, all washed down with deliciously crisp local wine. This is true farm-to-table dining, with many of the ingredients grown organically by the resort’s owner, Vasilis Iosifidis, at his own garden’s farm just a short walk away.

As I eat, the clouds begin to clear and golden hues of sunlight illuminate the greenery of the surrounding mountains. This is a Greece I could get used to.

Explore more of Epirus

Parga: The sun-soaked village of Parga, with its clusters of colourful, terrocotta-roofed houses, sits happily on the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea. Expect beautiful beaches, freshwater springs and the ruins of a Venetian castle.  

Ioannina: This laid-back lakeside town is the capital of Epirus and wears this badge of honour in its bustling streets and multicultural communities. In the historic Old Town, you’ll find Christian, Islamic and Jewish architecture, while the modern bars and cafes of the surrounding streets provide sanctuary for the city’s large student population. 

Preveza: Although many will simply pass through Preveza (the international airport here is well served by flights from the UK), it’s worth stopping for a few nights to enjoy its relaxing beach-front atmosphere, quirky cafes and intriguing archaeological sites.

Nestled among vineyards and black pine forests, Metsovo's charming cobbled streets hold a vibrant local community ...

Nestled among vineyards and black pine forests, Metsovo's charming cobbled streets hold a vibrant local community with roots across the Balkans.

Photograph by Jordan Banks



How to spend a weekend in Metsovo

The lush green landscapes of Metsovo draw the eye ever upwards, to mountain peaks, towering rock formations and monasteries. Here’s how to plan the perfect Metsovo adventure.

What to do

The best way to appreciate the spectacular landscape of Metsovo is to throw yourself into the area’s active pursuits. Begin with a gentle e-bike adventure through lush rolling hills, before trying your hand at standup paddleboarding or commandeering a kayak on the startlingly blue water of Lake Aoos.

Local legend Lefteris Fafalis and his company Go Active Metsovo are the stand-out choice if you’re looking for an outdoor adventure guide here. Not just a hiking and biking guru, Fafalis is also a four-time Winter Olympian. A cross-country skier from Greece may seem unusual, but it makes sense in Metsovo, as the area has three ski areas and impressively reliable snowfall. In a way, Lefteris embodies the region as a multifaceted destination where you can hike sun-soaked meadows in summer and ski through snow-covered glades in winter.  

Alternatively, opt for a tour with regional specialists Epirus Adventures. With a selection of off-road jeep tours, cooking experiences and adrenaline-inducing activities, they offer opportunities for all types of traveller to explore more of the area, whether you want to swim in mountain springs or sample its culinary specialties.

Cycling around Aoos Spring Lake with Metsovo resident and four-time Winter Olympian Lefteris Fafalis.

Cycling around Aoos Spring Lake with Metsovo resident and four-time Winter Olympian Lefteris Fafalis.

Photograph by Jordan Banks

Where to eat

With heaped plates of perfectly grilled meat, smoked local cheese and slabs of flaky homemade pies, mealtimes in Metsovo are a true experience. And the experience begins long before you even reach the table. 

Spend a morning truffle hunting with mushroom expert Katerina Nola and her faithful canine partners. The rich, shaded environments of the Metsovo mountains are ripe for the cultivation of truffle varieties all year round and the dishes Katerina creates with your freshly found fungi are a true showcase of their versatility. Next, take a trip to the Tositsa Foundation Dairy, where you can learn all about the process behind local delicacies such as metsovone, a deliciously smoky cheese and one of the area’s most famous exports. 

End your day at the Katogi Averoff winery, an institution launched in the late 1950s by Evangelos Averoff-Tossizza, widely regarded as one of Metsovo’s main benefactors. The Averoff winery now offers 15 labels, produced from the highest vineyard in Greece, sitting just outside the town. Be sure to sample flogero, a fantastically fiery blend you can only purchase in-house. 

Left: Top:

Truffle hunting with local mushroom expert Katerina Nola and her two Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, Cece and Ramón.

Right: Bottom:

Traditional pie-making at the Grand Forest Hotel Metsovo. 

photographs by Jordan Banks

Where to stay

If you want to fully appreciate the beauty of Metsovo, head across the valley to the Grand Forest hotel. Nestled among the black pine forests of the Pindus mountains, with floor-to-ceiling windows providing spectacular views over the town, Grand Forest could easily pass for a Bond villain’s hideaway. Soak up the views from the indoor and outdoor pools, or from the terrace of the in-house restaurant, Metsovo 1350m, where you can enjoy local dishes served with a distinctive modern twist. 

The stars of the show, though, are two local grandmothers who are dedicated to sharing their countless years of culinary expertise with the hotel’s guests. If you want to return home with new skills creating pies and petoura (a type of Greek pasta), you won’t get many better teachers. It’s primarily a practical lesson — the ladies only speak Vlach, so every instruction is translated by helpful staff members —  but their love of their craft and community is palpable and their sense of joy infectious. 

Top three: mountain monasteries within easy reach of Metsovo

1. Meteora: The dizzying rock formations of Meteora were formed over 60 million years ago, but it’s the Byzantine monasteries atop them that have cemented the place as a must-visit destination. Built by monks hoping to get closer to God, six working monasteries remain open to the public and can be reached by road from Metsovo in less than an hour. 

2. Kipinas Monastery: Clinging to a sheer cliff face with gravity-defying determination, the Holy Kipinas Monastery is a breathtaking feat of historical engineering. Built in 1212, it remains incredibly well preserved and has a rich history to explore, from its role as a hidden school during the Turkish occupation to its utilisation as a weapons arsenal. Don’t miss the cave hidden within its depths. 

3. St Nicholas Monastery: Just a 15-minute walk from the centre of Metsovo, the St Nicholas Monastery was renowned for its wine production. Despite many restoration projects in the years since, its cellars still hold a 27-ton wine barrel as a reminder of those times. 

Sunset over the Monostaries of Meteora from sunset rock.

Sunset over the Monostaries of Meteora from sunset rock.

Photograph by Jordan Banks

Plan your trip

Numerous airlines offer direct flights to Preveza from London, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham. Average flight time: 3hr 30. From here, hiring a car is the best option to explore the area, with many rental options available at the airport.

For more information, go to: VisitGreece.gr

Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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