Monday, 12 March 2012

Metsovo: Setting high standards

                                                                                                                                                                                             Prosperous benefactors have ensured this town in mountainous Epirus stands out

Metsovo, a small, prosperous town of 3,000 in Greece’s northwestern region of Epirus, is one of the country’s most traditional and picturesque settlements. Lying in an impressively lush setting at an elevation of 1,150 meters and surrounded by several summits of the Pindos mountain range rising to more than 2,000 meters, the town and its surrounding district are an attractive destination all year round, offering visitors unique glimpses into tradition, abundant natural beauty, winter sports and a large number of sights.

Tourism, in fact, accounts for some 60 percent of the local economy.

To be sure, Metsovo has long been prosperous, mainly on account of its being on the trading route between Epirus and Thessaly to the east, which went through the Katara Pass at 1,600 meters. The Ottoman Sultan Murat II first granted Metsovites tax privileges in the 15th century to guard and keep the pass open. The privileges were further extended in 1659, making the area virtually autonomous. But in 1795, Ali Pasha, the regional strongman, decided to rescind them, driving many locals to seek their fortunes abroad. A large number of them amassed considerable wealth, returning eventually as benefactors of national stature and leaving their indelible marks mainly in the town as well as elsewhere.

Today’s prosperity is directly linked to that of Baron Michael Tositsas, who died childless abroad in 1950. Evangelos Averoff, a subsequently prominent politician who succeeded Tositsas as head of the foundation which received $1.7 million, had a vision for Metsovo. The town acquired what was probably the most advanced public utility infrastructure in all of Greece, schools and other institutions, a timber processing factory and the first funicular railway in the country.

Choice cattle breeds were imported and distributed to local farmers and a cheese factory was manned with staff trained in Italy, hence Metsovone and Metsovela -- types of cheese for which the town is also famous.

The legacy of benefactors is also evident in culture. The Averoff Gallery has the second-largest collection of 19th- and 20th-century Greek paintings after the National Gallery in Athens. The restored Tositsas mansion, built in 1661 and now hosting the Museum of Folk Art, is one of the most beautiful in Epirus.

The architectural style of most buildings, in fact, makes Metsovo an open-air museum in itself. Stone, wood, red-tiled and slate roofs and enclosed balconies dominate in imposing and well-maintained structures (not all, to be sure) over cobblestone alleyways and water springs -- 110 in all. Even banks follow the traditional building style.

Walking around town, you will hear people speaking Greek as well as Vlach -- the Latin-based language spoken in the broader region and thought to have passed down from ancient Roman legionnaires who settled here. The overwhelming majority of national benefactors have actually been Vlach speakers.

Men and women of all ages can also be seen pouring onto the square and dancing in traditional Vlach costumes, especially on Sunday mornings after church or at weddings and on other festive occasions.

Besides the magnificent mansions, visitors can also admire the old churches and monasteries in lush settings in the area. The highlights are the Monastery of Aghios Nikolaos, near the village of Anilio, with some fine 16th- and 17th-century iconography, the Church of Aghia Paraskevi in the square, with an excellent wooden-carved iconostasis, and the Monastery of Kimisis tis Theotokou (Dormition of the Virgin) in a gorge outside Metsovo.

About 15 kilometers from town, on the Poltsies plateau, is the artificial lake of the Aoos River, a wonderful and serene alpine setting worth the 30-kilometer drive around it.

Getting there

Metsovo is a half-hour drive from Ioannina on the new Egnatia Highway. Ioannina is about five hours from Athens by car via the Rio-Antirio bridge. Alternative routes are via Kalambaka, 60 kilometers to the south, and Grevena. From Thessaloniki, it is a two-hour drive. Olympic Air (801.801.01.01) and Aegean Airlines (801.11.20000) have several flights a day to Ioannina. There are also intercity buses from Athens (100 Kifissou, tel 210.512.9363/5) and Thessaloniki (tel 2310.512.444). Parking in Metsovo tends to be problematic.

Where to stay

There are many hotels and guesthouses in the traditional style. Area phone code: 26560. Katogi Averoff, for wine lovers, artfully decorated, discreet comfort, part of the winery complex on the edge of town (tel 42505,; Apollon, near the square, top-floor rooms are better, closed parking (tel 42110); Archontiko, on the square, most rooms with fireplace and jacuzzi (tel 29100,; Victoria, 900 m from the center, fine views (tel 41454,; Galaxias, hospitable family unit (tel 41202).

What & where to eat

Most restaurants and tavernas are in the central square but you will also find some on the side streets offering fine traditional food, such as Koutouki tou Nikola, behind the post office on Tositsa Street, where you can sample leek and celery croquettes and lamb fricassee. The Galaxias hotel’s restaurant serves an excellent pie with wild greens, as well as beef casserole with hilopittes and game. In all establishments you will find good meat dishes, fasolada (bean soup), sausages, excellent cheeses and the well-known Katogi wine.

What to see

The Averoff Gallery (tel 42617,, with wonderful views, and the Folk Art Museum (tel 41084) are musts. The museum is virtually a reconstituted 19th-century mansion; the village of Anilio (5 km away) has apiarian and barrel-making traditions (ask for Michalis Baltzois); near Anilio is Anthochori, with an old water mill; the Monastery of Voutsas, founded in 672, burned three times but still standing, has a unique iconostasis; drop into tailor Giorgos Boumbas’s workshop for traditional costumes on the square.

What to do & buy

Buy the Mountain Climbing Map of Northern Pindos, issued by the Prefecture of Ioannina, and pick one of the seven suggested routes for signposted trails; from Milia, 22 km north, you can reach the beautiful lakes at the Flegga summit, at 2,000 m; two skiing centers are near Metsovo, Karakoli (tel 41345), 2 km northwest, at 1,350 m, and Profitis Ilias (tel 41095), 3 km further, at 1,400 m -- for experienced skiers only; buy excellent cheeses and sausages (tel 42433), wood-carved objects and utensils from Bletsos, antiques, traditional textiles.

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