Ali Pasha (1741-1822), the semi-independent despot of Epirus, who was infamous for roasting his enemies on the spit and for drowning women in Ioannina’s lake, had come to believe that Drakolimni, the Dragon Lake, high up on Mount Gamila, was filled with gold.
One summer’s day, during a quiet period between sieges and battles, he decided to visit the lake, desiring to find the gold and to bring it down to Ioannina to replenish his coffers. Who else could have a better claim on the gold than the Pasha of Epirus? Dire warnings about the ferocity of the dragon that lived in the lake did not deter him.
He gathered his slaves, loaded canoes and other equipment on their backs and set off for the top.
The Pasha’s plan was to enjoy the lake’s pristine waters, then to drain it and to recover the gold.
Nowadays the long climb up to the lake can be undertaken relatively easily, as there is a good path for most of the way; but in those days the terrain was wild.
After days of hard trekking they reached the lake. Ali went for his canoe ride and then drew up a plan about how to drain the lake.
In spite of it being the middle of a summer, a violent storm struck suddenly. The usually calm waters of the lake became a seething turmoil. Many men were drowned. The rest of them, including Ali Pasha, fled back down the mountain, yelling that the dragon was taking its revenge.
The truth or otherwise of this legend is irrelevant. Its purpose is to emphasize the Pasha’s greed and cruelty as well as the might and beauty of the Pindus Mountains.
There are few places in Europe that the travel industry has not exploited. I cannot claim that modern travellers have not set foot in the remote parts of Ali’s pashalik, but the Zagori (where the Drakolimni is to be found) still remains one of the least-explored areas of Europe, and the scenery is stunning.
“Come to Zagori!” I say to those who lament the tourist developments of Greece.
Its natural grandeur will capture the imagination of anyone seeking the magic and atmosphere of Ancient Greece. A mountainous area in the northwestern corner of Greece, not far from the Greek-Albanian border, the Zagori still remains unspoilt, beautiful, and dramatic.
The region has been continually inhabited by semi-nomadic livestock breeders for thousands of years before Christ and consists of forty-five villages. The vernacular architecture and beauty of the Zagori cannot fail to enrich one’s perception of Greece and of course of Europe.
The villages are perched high on the mountain slopes. From the many lookout points, stupendous views of the gorges can be enjoyed. Walks through the famous Vikos Gorge will satisfy the adventurous as well as the casual lover of nature. There are many routes from which to choose.
The area is divided into Eastern, Central, and Western Zagori. At the 19th kilometre point on the Ioannina-Konitsa highway there is a pedestrian flyover bridge. The signpost to the Vikos Gorge points to the right and this is the road to follow in order to reach the villages of Central Zagori.
The road is good, albeit with many bends, and just when you might think you are about to take off, a statue appears on a hilltop to the left. It is the giant-sized image of a woman, The Woman of Zagori. Zagori women have become another legend in Greek history, because of their brave contribution during the Second World War. Climbing the mountains in the harshest conditions, they carried ammunition, food and clothing on their backs. In peacetime, they stayed behind while the men went abroad to work.
They looked after the old people, the livestock, and produced children who later studied and went to university, having learnt the ethics of hard work; many of them became great benefactors to the area.
Do take the short walk to the top of the hill. This female image should be seen not just as a war memorial, but also as a monument to ancient, silent, unpretentious feminism.
The many villages are well signposted but almost invisible until you approach them. The stone houses, with roofs made of large slabs of flat local stone, are the same grey colour as the mountain rock. Often very substantial, and built in a style unique to the region, the houses have enclosed courtyards, guarded by large wooden gates. They seem formidable, but behind their fortified walls they hide the most enchanting yards. Full of flowers, these courtyards are dominated by the colour blue. Pots, flagstone joints and window frames are all painted blue, just like the sky above.
Vitsa, in Central Zagori, is the best place to spend two or three nights. Of all Greek villages it offers the ultimate Greek experience in order to enjoy the traditional hospitality and the mountain scenery. People often drive past it on the way to better-known Monodendri at the end of the road, but Vitsa has many more hidden treasures.
There are around seven main guesthouses/hotels in Vitsa. Bed and breakfast accommodation is also available. Impressively clean, centrally heated and with all modern amenities, the rooms are big enough to accommodate up to four people each.
All Zagori bedrooms have their own particular design. Wooden platforms of king-size proportions provide plenty of sleeping space on either side of the fireplace. Early in the morning only the tinkling sound of hundreds of harmoniously tuned goat bells can be heard, for miles around.
Some of the guesthouses/hotels (Selini, Beloi, En Hora Vizitsa) have restaurants attached. The others, such as Troada and Filira, offer bed and breakfast. There are about five restaurants operating in the village. Cleanliness is paramount here; the dining rooms are traditional, with open fires in the winter and cool yards covered with vines for dining al fresco in the summer.
The local specialities are well known and visitors come from far and wide to enjoy them. Predominantly a dairy region, quality grilled meats and stews, cheese, yoghurt, buttermilk, trahana (local home made sour milk based pasta) are on offer, but many vegetarian dishes are also available. The pies of the region are what bring visitors back time and time again, particularly the Zagori flour pie (alevropita). The recipe is a well-guarded secret, but I suspect that it is much the same recipe as for Yorkshire Pudding, with chunks of feta cheese added to it, and then baked in the oven. There are also wild-greens pies, chicken and spinach pies.
The village restaurants are within easy walking distance from each other and so are the hotels.
Tsipouro (local schnapps) is served before the meals and sparkling Zitsa wine can be ordered to accompany the meals. Lord Byron enjoyed it when he visited the monastery of Zitsa in 1809.
Discriminating visitors keep returning here, seeking not just the essence of nature but also the taste of the local cuisine. The walks and fresh mountain air will help you digest the food quickly!
Each restaurant has its own speciality:
‘Cinnamon and Clove’ specializes in wild mushrooms. Beloi offers authentic Epirot cuisine and Selini, located just outside the village, offers a panoramic view from the veranda as well as the best-baked aubergine dish in the world.
En Hora Versitsa, in the village square, offers a good view of a section of the gorge, as well as of Upper Vitsa, with its imposing stone manor houses. Dishes of giant baked beans served with greens are as appetising as the chicken soup.
Yannis’ Kafenio, at the entrance to Lower Vitsa, serves ouzo, wine, schnapps, mountain tea, beer, coffee and preserves. He does wonderful charcoal-grilled sausages in the summer and serves them with homemade fries.
Troada, a hotel on the way down from the square to the Vitsa Steps, is a beautifully restored manor house.
Filira offers bed and breakfast and heaps of traditional Zagori charm.
The best time to visit Zagori is in the autumn (just about now, in October and early November), when the trees turn red, yellow and copper and the temperature is perfect.
If you happen to be in Vitsa for a weekend then you can enjoy an Orthodox service in one of the churches. In the Greek Church you can come and go while the service takes place. Nobody minds. On Sunday morning you will hear the bells ringing and then you will know which church is functioning that day. Our Lady in Kato Vitsa is the oldest church in Vitsa. It became a parish church between 1600-1625. Small and intimate, it offers a powerful spiritual experience.
A walk from the village down the “Vitsa Steps” to Misios Bridge is a must. If you do not want to do the full seven-hour trek from Monodendri to Vikos village or the even longer trek up to Papingo and to the Dragon Lake, take the short walk to Kokoros Bridge. It is much easier and less demanding. The river at the bottom is full of water for much of the year, but by June it dries up.
In the winter the temperature can be low, but more often than not the warm Greek sun enables residents and visitors to eat outdoors, to go for walks, climb the mountain tracks and visit the other villages.
Oxies (Oaks) is situated beyond Monodendri. From there the gorge can be seen at its most dramatic. When I’m there, I often think of the British poet Peter Levi, who once wrote the line, “Virtue is in the mountains and in the stony villages.”
Who can argue with that?
See also “The Ionian Islands and Epirus, A Cultural History” (Signal Books, Oxford, 2010)