People are skeptical when told of a region in Greece that still has a wilderness of forested mountains, white-water rivers crossed by stone-arch bridges. A place where people live in tribes and the countryside is still home to Bears and Wolves, a landscape of green alpine valleys and rocky gorges. Certainly not most peoples idea of Greece.
The region is Epirus in north-west Greece; Epirus is mostly made up of the Pindus Mountains, the backbone of Greece. Both the people and landscape have a unique character that's defined by the mountains, both quintessentially Greek, just a littler tougher, more rugged. Its name derives from words meaning infinite earth, the ancient Greeks believed the region to be a wilderness and the people barbarians, but many archeological sites around Epirus prove otherwise. It is now thought that both the Mycenaens, and later the Dorians may have emerged from the mountains of Epirus. Since ancient times its history has been the same as the rest of the country, being invaded by everyone from the Romans to the Turks as with the rest of Greece. Up until now the one invasion of Greece not suffered by Epirus is mass tourism.
The coast line of Epirus is full of sandy beaches and hidden coves where the mountains fall into the Ionian sea, in some place the pine and fur forests reach the waters edge giving it a fjord-like appearance. The logical place to start travelling in Epirus is Preveza, in the south, having the only airport in the region with European flights. Preveza sits on the mouth of the Ambracian Gulf, it's a picturesque town with a lively waterfront lined with narrow streets of cafes and tavernas. The mouth of the gulf is dominated by two Venetian forts on either side; but is more famous for being the location of the battle of Actium in 31BC, where Octavian defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. The ruins of Nikopoli "Victory City", built to celebrate Octavian's victory, are 7km north of Preveza.
Following the E55 road along the coast north of Preveza is the town of Parga, similar to Preveza with the strong Venetian influence, lively waterfront and sandy beaches. The town is in the shape of a tiered amphitheatre around the bay, with the Venetian buildings and an island atmosphere it feels more like Corfu than Epirus. It's one of Greece's most scenic towns with some beautiful sandy beaches and a breathtaking view across the bay.
Other places of interest along the coast are the ruins of Kassopi near the village of Kamarina, capital city of the ancient tribe of Kassopians; the Necromanteion of Efyras, 37km south of Parga, it is believed to be the gateway to Hades by the ancients. It's not the greatest archeological site in Greece, but how often can you write on a postcard that you've visited the gates of Hell.
At the very northern part of Epirus on the coastline is the port of Igoumenitsa which is the main gateway to Greece for anyone driving from Europe. Ships from Trieste, Venice, Ancona, bari and Corfu all bring thousands of tourists to Greece every year.
West of Preveza is Arta, the gateway to Epirus, situated on the left bank of the Arachontas River. It's a very lively vibrant town but makes few concessions to tourism, a perfect place to see real Greece without the tourist facade. Arta's most famous monument, and town emblem, is the 17th century stone-bridge crossing the Arachontas. Legend has it that the builder of the bridge buried-alive his wife in the foundations, after being told by two small birds that this would prevent the bridge from collapsing - a murderous Doctor Dolittle. The town also has some beautiful Byzantine Churches, the most famous is the Panagia Parigoritissa, built in 1283 and crowned with towers and domes.
The Ambracian gulf is at the very southern point of Epirus and parts of it are National Parks protected under international law, as the gulf is very important for migratory birds - some quite rare ones. There are also some very nice beach towns along the coast such as Menidi and Amfilochia.
Driving north from Arta along the twisting mountain roads that follow the River Arachontas, the mountain scenery changes from barren rock to thick green forests, in some places having to slow down where streams cross the road, it's difficult to believe your in the same country.
Built on the shores of Lake Pamvotis in the middle of the Pindos Mountains is Ioannina, Capital of Epirus. Ottoman rule has left its mark on Ioannina, the town's appearance is a mix of east meets west; Byzantine Churches stand next to Mosques (all are now museums), 17th century oriental houses and cobbled streets opposite typically Greek Neo-classical buildings, there is even a Middle-Eastern style baazar market.
Ioannina is most famously associated with Ali Pasha, the 18th century Pasha of Eprirus, who made the town the richest in Greece. The harbour and fortress areas are the best places to see remnants of Ioannina's Ottoman past. The towns biggest attraction is an island in the lake, simply called Nisi, meaning island, it consists of one village populated by fishermen. At the far end of the island is the 18th century house of Ali Pasha, it has been converted into a museum and displays things from the period including some of the pasha's possessions. Ali Pasha was shot dead in the house, the bullet hole in the floorboards can still be seen.
In a green valley on the eastern slopes of Mount Tomaros, 22km south-west of Ioannina, is Dodoni, the most important archeological site in Epirus. The site dates back to before 1000BC, and was the place of the Oracle of Zeus, second only to Delphi. The main feature is the theatre, which is still in good condition, one of the largest in Greece with walls of up to 21 metres high and a capacity of 18,000 people. Most of the archeological finds can be viewed at the Archeological Museum in Ioannina.
Zagoria is one of the few places in Europe still described as a wilderness. It's 16km north of Ioannina and made up of 45 traditional Epirot villages scattered over the forested slopes of Mount Mitsekeli and is populated by two tribes of people, the Vlachs and the Sarakatsani. The Vlachs are descendants of Roman settlers and still speak a Latin dialect similar to Romanian. The Sarakatsani are pure Greek their ancestors date back 4,000 years to the Pelasgians, one of the first Greek speaking tribes. Both tribes are traditionally semi-nomadic shepherds. The inaccessibility of the region has saved it from the many invaders of Greece, Zagoria only feeling small ripples of their passing.
With huge grand houses and beautifully stone-paved streets the Zagorian villages are not what you expect from such a remote place. These timeless villages are all built to a similar design, all built around a Meochori - a stone paved square shaded by a large tree. The houses are all made of stone with slate-tiled roofs, testimony to the expert stone masons of the region who also built the many stone-arch bridges that link the villages. Other unique features of the region are the Arakontikas, huge stone mansions that look more like mini fortresses than homes; built by rich merchants to protect their families from bandits. Many of these have been converted into guesthouses.
Some of the more popular villages: Skamneli in East Zagoria, it's built into a forest and has the remains of the ancient Pelasgian wall; Vrysochori, with its beautiful alpine scenery; Kipi, famous for its stone arch bridges; Vradeto, it's reached by a 15th century path carved into a cliff face; Monodendri, for its views of the Vikos Gorge.
Part of Western and Central Zagoria is the Vikos-Aoos National Park, one of Europe's most important parks. The surrounding mountains have preserved the area, almost like a lost world, and has rare animals like the Brown Bear, Lynx, Boar and Wolf. Wolves are actually found through out Epirus and are harmless; after seeing the huge spike-collared local sheep dogs, I'd be more afraid of meeting one of those on a lonely path. Some of the park's forests are remnants of the huge ancient European forest, only found in two other countries, Sweden and Finland.
The park's most impressive sight is Europe's Grand Canyon the Vikos Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world according to the Guinness book of records. The gorge is one of the most spectacular natural sights in Europe, it's 12km long and traversed by the Voidomatis River, supposedly Europe's cleanest river. The walls of the gorge fall vertically over a kilometre in some places and with an average width of only 200 metres it's a breathtaking sight. To walk the gorge takes 6-7 hours between the villages of Monodenri and Vikos, and is marked with cairns and waymarks. The gorge is teeming with wildlife, wild-goats, lizards, tortoise, even bears; above circling in the thermals are birds of prey including Eagles and Egyptian Vultures - a little worrying, being circled by Vultures on a long walk. The best views of the gorge are from Monodendri at the Monastery of St. Paraskevi or from the Vikos balcony a 30-minute drive from Monodendri.
Epirus is the least populated area of Greece and is mainly agricultural. The famous Greek cheese - Feta - actually originates from Epirus
Location - Epirus is the very North West of Greece
Nearest Airport: European and internal flights go to Preveza in the south of Epirus and internal flights only in Ioannina.
Traveling to Epirus: You can get to all the major towns of Epirus (Arta, Ioannina, Preveza, Metsova, Igoumenitsa) from Athens by using the KTEL national buses. Traveling from Europe you will enter Epirus through the port of Igoumenitsa.
Tips: Epirus is a large area give yourself a few days to see it all.