IF YOU THINK GREECE IS ALL ABOUT THE ISLANDS, YOU’RE MISSING OUT ON SOME BEAUTIFUL HOLIDAY DESTINATIONS.
The mainland is home to some spectacular scenery; mountains, beaches, hilltop villages and ancient sites. It’s a treasure trove that most people aren’t even aware of.
And don’t worry, you don’t have to compromise on spectacular beaches. The coast is lapped by the crystal clear Ionian Sea meaning every little sandy track you come across could lead to a cove or sandy stretch you could have all to yourself.
We headed for the region of Epirus as it promised everything we were looking for in an adventure. We started out in Syvota, a small town with a lovely port, teaming with yachts and tavernas so you can enjoy a sundowner with the boats bobbing in front of you. This is a great base to explore the beaches and towns along the coast. We stayed just out of Syvota town, overlooking another bay, and enjoyed a very secluded beach just under our place in the day, only ever seeing one other swimmer.
We walked in to the port of an evening past the bakeries where the older generation gather for a coffee and natter and the children playing in the church square. We’d enjoy an aperitif in one of the sea front bars and then take our pick of the tavernas serving fresh fish, seafood and traditional Greek home cooking – simple but delicious. Also worth noting is the house red wine – remarkably good and cheap in every taverna we visited, no need to splash out on expensive bottles.
As we explored in the day we found the scenery is quite simply stunning; lush and green, mountainous and windy, so as you switchback along the coast road beautiful vistas of beach or enticing blue water open up and compel you to find a way down to dip your toes in the water. As you look out to sea there are countless islands to add to the amazing views.
We enjoyed a lovely day on the beautiful beach of Megali Ammos, just 2 minutes from Syvota, where there is a beach club, which means you get a lounger and brolly, a taverna for drinks and lunch and access to the loos. We had a great big sea food platter which would have fed six, and obviously a Greek salad. The sea is so clear and turquoise you could be in the Caribbean, though the water is a little colder!
Just along the coast, Parga is a little bigger with a bit more to offer than Syvota. There’s a sandy beach at one end of the seafront. The multicoloured houses tumble down the hillside to the sea, it feels a little Italian in fact. There’s a tiny island called Panagia just offshore with a wee chapel, with a castle overlooking the whole scene. It’s very pretty and has a great, vibrant atmosphere. The promenade is lined with tavernas, bars and boutiques, perfect for a stroll and an aperol – a little touristy but in a very lovely natural setting. We climbed through the winding streets of the old town to the Venetian castle, pretty much a ruin but offering spectacular views over Parga and the coast.
We stumbled on a traditional Greek dance festival which led to a great fun night out. We watched things warm up with a gin fizz in a roof top bar, best seat in the house for the festivities. It was supposed to go on for a couple of hours but as the sun fell and the lights of the castle came on, the locals left the bars and restaurants and joined in the dancing in the main square well into the night – spectacular, all ages were on their feet, all seemed to know the traditional songs and all the moves and were loving it! What a great night! That’s travelling like a local.
Glyki and the Springs of Acheron
Just outside Parga is the clear, fast flowing Acheron river, sometimes known as the border of hell in Greek mythology and with links to the underworld. These days, in the height of summer, you can walk up the river until the rocky banks tower over you or ride a horse up stream, or zip wire over it! We walked through the forest alongside the river from Glyki until we ran out of river bank. We also visited Dodoni, the site of the Oracle of Zeus, a Greek amphitheatre which is pretty impressive and very quiet, but is being renovated so covered in scaffolding at present.
Leaving the coast behind we headed inland to Ioannina, the capital of the Epirus region. Its a big, sprawling town but sits on a huge lake which makes it quite spectacular and has some very historic sites to recommend it. It’s also a good stopping off point to the further flung sites we were headed to.
Our hotel was right outside the castle which is the oldest Byzantine fortress in Greece and was the centre of power under Ali Pasha, the Ottoman ruler. Within the castle are the Mosque of Aslan Pasha, Ali Pasha’s burial site and several museums telling of the more grizzly side of Ali Pasha, who once tossed 17 bound women into the lake to their deaths. Be warned that in typical Greek fashion not all the sites are open every day so check before you head out. We jumped on a ferry to the island which is more nature reserve than tourist spot, lovely to walk around, TC spotted lots of pelicans. Here is the Ali Pasha museum which is where he was actually killed – shot and beheaded – having fallen foul of the rulers.
We did find some good restaurants, including something more contemporary than moussaka, and some lively bars whilst here.
From Ioannina we hit the road again and headed up into the mountains to Metsovo, a very lovely traditional village with a lively atmosphere due to all the visitors. It’s open all year round as it looks so beautiful in the snow, it has a kind of alpine air and architecture. There is a big central square with museums and churches. There is also a very particular regional cuisine so try sausages and pies whilst here, and the Averoff Winery for the local tipple, Katogi.
From Metsovo we headed to Meteora, which we just loved. The scenery is amazing on the drive in, a huge vista of tree covered mountains, snow on the peaks, windy roads. We were looking for a very particular site and were wondering how this would fit in with these green mountains. Then we rounded a bend in the road and it all fell into place – the scenery changed and we could see the huge, sharp, rock face rising high above the rest of the landscape which is home to the monasteries of Meteora. Photos won’t do this justice but I have to try…
Meteora is a stunning area and is home to the most precipitously built group of monasteries atop immense pillars of rock which dominate the surrounding area. There are six Eastern Orthodox monasteries, all beautifully kept and individual in style, with lovely gardens, serene chapels and, of course, amazing views from their high perches. We visited five out of the six over two days and were constantly blown away by the sheer scale of the ambition which saw these monasteries built in such hazard spots.
If you can get to your first monastery for 9am you can get ahead of the crowds (and the monk with the keys) and have the place to yourselves for a few precious minutes. The climb up to each monastery, across gorges and around spiral staircases, is as much a part of the adventure. Moni Megalou Meteorou, or Great Meteoran, is built on the highest point and is the biggest and oldest of all. There are 16th Century frescos in the main cathedral in the courtyard and you can wander through the old buildings. You can look down to Varlamm, founded in the 14th Century. There is a great sense of calm and serenity as well as history, these are still working monasteries where monks still live and work. You must wear appropriate clothing, there are skirts provided for women to pop on over trousers, and behave yourself.
We stayed in a great hotel in the town of Kastraki which is perfectly placed with lovely views and very easy access to the monasteries, so you could drive out for sunrise or sunset with this spectacular backdrop. This is a really magical place we would highly recommend. Though one of the most visited sites in Greece it is still possible to get away from the crowds and feel the serenity and quiet.
From Meteora we travelled further to the left of Greece to the even more mountainous Pindus National Park. The scenery was, once again, spectacular, with layers of mountains off into the distant, some with snow on top, and every bend revealed a new vista. The roads became a little more wiggly as we weaved through some of the beautiful Zagorohoria villages for which this region is famous. Some are so tiny you are out the other side before you know it, but they are inhabited all year round, even in the snowiest times. Tourism has meant a new lifeline for some of these villages which were almost deserted. Astri even has a sprinkling of spa hotels popping up.
We based ourselves in Papingo, one of the forty six beautiful villages of Zagoria, perched on the top of a mountain at the top of the wiggles and gateway to the Vikos Gorge. This little known area is a haven for walking, cycling, rafting and skiing at the right time of year. Papingo is a tiny village of stone houses rising up a hillside within a bowl of mountains. We stayed in the delightful Saxonis House Guesthouse, run by the equally delightful Vasillis, who is a font of knowledge about the region and can give you great advice on what to see and do. He can organise hikes and long duration skiing trips for those looking for off piste adventures.
When we arrived, Vasillis offered us delicious homemade cheese pie and fruity desserts for lunch whilst we chatted. In a very cosy attic room with two giant beds and a fire place, we enjoyed a warming local liqueur as we plotted our next days adventure.
Following a fabulous breakfast of freshly made pancakes and strawberries, and more chatting, Vasillis guided us to a lovely walk through a forest following a river, to a hidden ancient monastery, very restful. We also visited the Papingo pools, where the fast flowing water has carved a path through the rock leaving a gorge with a narrow path so you can walk along through the woods. In the evening we visited a great restaurant in the village, the very stylish and cosy Astra Inn, where the food was great, a lovely beef and mushroom stew in a delicious sauce, TC had a giant veal chop. We enjoyed some local red wine and were content with that, but the landlord insisted we try some local wine, followed by some ouzo followed by some delightful walnut liquor, so by the time we trickled out of there we didn’t care about the rain!
What we are really here for is the Vikos Gorge. Rumour has it’s the world’s deepest canyon and it is spectacular with its craggy mountainous sides and huge vistas. The best vantage points are the cliff-hugging monastery of Agia Paraskevi at Monodendri village at the southern end, and the hill top village of Vikos with its viewing point at Oxya at the other. Both offer panoramic views in a peaceful setting and you get some feeling of the sheer scale of the gorge. The walking and hiking and climbing possibilities are obviously endless if you are that way inclined and the villages make for a perfect base to explore.
Built in the 18th and 19th centuries, these bridges were the main thoroughfare between the forty six isolated villages until the 50’s. On the main road to Kipi village you can see the bridges from the road and get up close to them. All built in the same local stone they are deceptively steep and very beautiful.
After all this road trippin’, we headed back to our Syvota base for some R and R on the beach. Reflecting on our time, we really loved the relaxed feel of the countryside away from the busier beach resorts. We saw a really authentic side to Greece where everyone was very friendly and very proud of their countryside and loved that we were venturing into the far flung corners. With a little effort and a few road miles, we were able to fit lots of great sites into a week with ease. It’s a really beautiful area with so much to offer, and still relatively unknown, so it’s a great time to go. May was ideal as we pretty much had the place to ourselves, could book hotels just a day before and really enjoy the peace.
If you’d like to investigate mainland Greece and see if it’s for you, get in touch and we’ll be happy to share our experience and help plan a bespoke trip to this very special region.
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