A hidden gem behind the mountains:
Zagori means the place or land behind the mountains. In this remote part of Greece, often called “Zagorohoria”, I fell in love with Greece. I am a history buff and having grown up reading Homeric verses and Greek myths, I thought Classical Greece would dominate my experience of Greece. Yes, I was awe-struck by Classical Greece and also had loads of fun in the famous Greek islands, but I unexpectedly lost my heart to Zagori.
Under the shadows of the Pindos mountains and fairly close to Albanian borders, Zagori has remained largely unexplored and unknown despite the abundance of natural bounties – verdant forests, frothy rivers and streams, icy lakes, looming mountains. Part of the Ioannina province in Epirus and comprising of about 50 villages, the region has marched to its own tunes since time immemorial. Romans, Albanians, Ottoman Turks, Italians, Germans and Greeks – all have come and gone, yet Zagori retains its special character. Even when Greece saw significant turmoil under the Ottoman rule, Zagori men deftly negotiated independence in religion as well as economy. In an interesting innovation, they created a panchayat raj (Zagori vilayets), gaining self-rule while paying an annual tribute to the Ottoman Empire in the form of men. Soon, the villages were empty of working-age men, but rich with new ideas and money from the far-flung lands of the Ottoman Empire. While the monies and education built beautiful stone mansions, schools and trading houses, the villages remained barely populated. This trend continues till date with all of Zagori being inhabited by just 3500 people. The lack of people, the missing signs of urbanisation and the vast, empty plains, dense forests and mighty mountains complete the isolation of this region. I wish, rather foolishly, that this forever stays a hidden gem.
Zagori : Fleeting thoughts
Leaving the comfort of fast highway for narrow unnamed, unmarked roads. The fear of being lost in an unknown territory. And then looking at the landscape and slowly awakening to the magic of being lost in the size-zero village roads which offer no points of return.
50 shades of gemstone green in the trees. Ten shades of yellow seen in the wild flowers. Solitary benches on the roads waiting for a traveller who eases his tired driving feet by gazing at the green valleys. The lone shepherd with his sheepdog and sheep. The speckled horse with the thick mane of a mythical unicorn. The rare sight of a car on the road. The sense that the roads belong to you.
Timeless stone pathways winding their lonely way. Grey Slate stone houses with little courtyards and giant wooden doors. Tiny churches with priests who know everyone in their parish and paint their own icons. A solitary monastery that crowns the deep ravines of Vikos. The curving stone bridges that save you a leap across the gurgling streams.
Rolling about in the twists and turns of the zig-zag zagori roads to Papingo. Claiming ownership over an empty mesochori /village square with fairy lights. A haze of pretty pink flowers hiding a church pathway. Running from the village dogs who rarely see a stranger. The biting winds while being splattered by rains. The soothing aroma of mountain herbs in my hot tea. The first glimpse of the misty towers of Astraka. The sweet smell of wild mountain berries in a home-made liquer.
The comfort of a seat by the fireplace after a long day, the heat from a well-distilled tsipouro and best of all, the warmth of new friends.