Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Western and central Zagoria: No secrets

 Lesser-known western and central villages of the highland area
By Dinos Kiousis
Western and central Zagoria, a wonderful part of Greece, comprise 47 mountain villages, which are in the highlands of the Pindos range north of the city of Ioannina with Mount Mitsikeli to the southwest. The area features four rivers and the impressive Vikos Gorge, at an altitude of 900 meters and above.

Forests of oak, beech, black pine and fir that are home to most of the country’s wildlife (deer, wildcats, shrews, boar, bears, otters, skunks, wild goats and squirrels, among others).

The name of the region of Zagori (Zagoria is plural, denoting the abundance of villages) is Slavic and dates to the 6th century AD. Given the name by Justinian
-- “za” meant “in front” and “gori” meant “mountain” -- the region is split into the eastern, western and central Zagoria. All of the villages in the region have a rich history and during Ottoman times enjoyed self-rule and wealth thanks to the privileges bestowed upon them by the sultan.

Some are also very well known and popular with tourists, but here, we explore the lesser-known villages of western and central Zagoria.

A good base for a tour of the region is Ano Pedina, a pretty village featuring traditional architecture at an altitude of 960 meters.

The village first appears in history books in 1361 on a golden bull belonging to the Serbian despot of Epirus Simeon Uros. Today, it has a small population involved mostly in livestock farming and tourism, and like all pretty villages is best explored on foot. The Monastery of Evangelistria, with its fortress-like facade and murals, should not be missed.

Kapesovo, Vradeto, Koukouli and Kipoi

On my first day in the area I started at Kapesovo, a village not far from the Vikos Gorge that affords panoramic views of the outlying area. It also has a cobbled path linking it to the nearby village of Vradeto.

Standing at an altitude of 1,100 meters, Kapesovo used to be a walled city with a somewhat a glorious past, and it still boasts some wonderful stately buildings, the most notable of which is the Paschaleios School, donated to the village by a local family in 1861. Other than its architectural interest, the building also houses a collection of rare books, among which is one of three original copies of the Charter of Rigas Feraios, the influential 18th-century Greek writer and intellectual who first conceived the movement for the liberation of the Balkan nations. The main square in the village has a pretty church and a cafe.

The next stop was Vradeto, 5 kilometers away, known as the “balcony” of the Zagoria. The highest village in the region at 1,350 meters, it has a marvelous view of the area, as well as a very advantageous view of the Vikos Gorge from a spot known locally as Beloi. Up until 1973, the only way to get to the village was via the cobbled path from Kapesovo, which is a bit of trek, but rewarding for its views. The so-called Skala path is one of the most impressive stone paths in Greece, with 1,100 steps. It takes about an hour to walk down, and quite a bit longer to ascend.

The village of Vradeto was first inhabited in 1616 by Vlach livestock farmers from Skamneli, which had been destroyed in raids by Turkish and Albanian bandits. Today, the village is practically deserted during the winter, but is still worth visiting for its views.

Koukouli is another quiet village in the vicinity with pretty stone houses, cobbled alleyways and freshwater springs, as well as one of the most beautiful churches in all of Epirus, the Church of Kimisis tis Theotokou (the Dormition of the Virgin). The Natural History Museum, which houses a large collection of endemic herbs and flowers, is not open in the winter, but it is worth a visit if traveling to the area in the summer.

On the way to the village of Kipoi, I came across a beautiful bridge that from afar looked a lot like a moving caterpillar. Built originally of wood, the Kalogeriko Bridge was reconstructed in stone in 1814.

The village of Kipoi, or Bayia as it was once known, used to be the area’s main village and the “capital” of central Zagoria. The local Folk Museum has a good collection of traditional costumes and jewelry, as well as furniture and cooking utensils that illustrate how life once was in the region.

If you feel up to it, hike up to the Rogovou Monastery, a trek that takes about two hours from the start of the path at the Kontodimos Bridge. My own ample proportions prevented me from attempting the climb, but I hear that those who do venture to the monastery are delighted to find a river on the way, known as Little Vikos or the diminutive, Vikaki.

Dikorfo and Negades

The next day, I left Ano Pedina for Frangades, passing through the villages of Dikorfo and Negades on the way.

Dikorfo, which means “two-peaked” in Greek, takes its name from the fact that it is built at an altitude of 1,000 meters between two hills on the wooded slope of Mount Mitsikeli. In 1431, the village, then known as Mikri Tzontila, reached a deal with the Ottoman rulers that gave it and several other villages in the region many privileges in exchange for sending 38 of its finest men to serve in the sultan’s stables. These privileges meant that commerce took over from farming as the dominant occupation, turning Dikorfo into one of the wealthiest villages in the region from the 17th to the 19th century, a fact that is still evident in the facades and ornamentation of its stately homes. By the mid-1800s Dikorfo’s population had grown to around 1,200 and in 1835 a school was opened.

Today, Dikorfo is a lovely village with traditional stone houses and stately residences, many adorned with the work of the renowned early 19th-century artists of the village of Hionades in Konitsa. It has a cobblestoned main square with a church dedicated to Aghios Minas that was built in 1778. Locals also say that it is not rare to see a bear wandering into the square around dusk.

Unlike Dikorfo, Negades -- a village founded in 1312 at an altitude of 1,060 meters -- is practically deserted in the winter but is very pretty so worth having a quick wander through for its stately homes which once belonged to locals who made their fortunes in Moldavia, Austria and Russia during the Ottoman occupation, when it enjoyed numerous privileges. The village also has an impressive church at its entrance, dedicated to Aghios Georgios (Saint George), which features an impressive belfry built in 1795 and graceful arches, as well as superb murals depicting ancient philosophers -- a true rarity.


After starting to feel rather lonely in Negades, I headed for Frangades, the last stop on my tour of western and central Zagoria.

Located at an altitude of 960 meters and overlooking Mount Mitsikeli, Frangades was first settled in AD 600 by farmers. It gradually began attracting settlers from other surrounding villages and began to grow, with cobbled streets, a village pump and stately homes, many of which are well preserved. Today the village has an inn and two picturesque cafes, while a 2001 census put its population at 105, most of whom are livestock farmer or loggers.

In 1903, however, Frangades had a 900-strong population and around 130 mansions made of stone by the region’s most respected masons. It had two schools -- “one for the children and one for the girls,” as the locals say -- and is also believed to have been the home of Antonios Frangos, who assassinated the Serbian ruler of Epirus, Thomas Preljubovic, in 1384.

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