Despite the lingering effects of our multi-day bug, we were bursting to get out of Ioannina. Chris, the boys and I jumped into the car and headed out of town in the general direction of big mountains.
Before long we were climbing up a steep, precarious, valley side. The road zig-zagged back and forth, offering ever better views of the land we had left behind. Up onto the top and we were on the edge of the Zagorohoria. A famed region in Greece, made up of a series of small mountain villages scattered over 1000 square kilometres of the Pindos mountains. There have never been many people here (I understand that the permanent population is currently under 4000!), but for those that have called it their home, the harsh geographical setting have provided much protection against the coming and going of overseers.
You can spend weeks exploring the nooks and crannies of this region, but we were lucky that the part closest to Ioannina contains some of the most spectacular scenery. Across a small section of upland plateau and the land before us suddenly fell away in dramatic fashion. A real Roritania moment, as we parked up on what felt like the edge of the world.
To our right, the higher land was wrought in two by the Vikos Gorge, falling hundreds of meters down shere cliffs to the torrent of the Voidomatis river. Moving to the centre of the vista, the gorge widened out into a more curvaceous valley, backed by snow-capped mountains and riveted by smaller hills in between. To the left, the mountains on each side abruptly halted, creating twin gates to the flat, fertile land which lay beyond.
Over this remarkable scenery were scattered small groupings of traditional stone houses, linked by age-old mountain paths. We jumped back in the car and took the snaking road down into the midst of the valley. We passed a couple of these hamlets on our way down to the bottom, where the land was green with forest and thicket. After crossing the light blue-green waters of the Voidomatis, we climbed back up the fast rising far side of the valley towards Papingo.
Papingo is one of the larger villages of the region, parked a fair way up the increasingly steep slopes of a mountain. As well as being home to many beautiful buildings, an old bell-tower and, as we were delighted to discover, fantastic local dishes, it provided as magnificent views as one could hope for. Further into the mountains than our first vantage point, the Vikos Gorge dominated to the front, rising up on both sides, before corrugating off into the distance. It resembled the Grand Canyon, but with foliage. It excited me to think that brown bears still lolloped out in those wilds. The views behind were much worse, as large bulk-heads of granite burst out the top of the mountain, clung to by the remains of the winter snow.
Stopping as often as possible to take in the surroundings from different angles, we drove back down the mountain to the river floor, before heading up the other side by a different road that took us to the east and further into the Zagorohoria. Far too soon, we were back into the uplands, leaving the splendid, frictional destruction of the Voiomatis river behind.
As the road and land calmed, we passed more hamlets, flanked by orchards and populated mainly by goats. In the middle of a field to our right, I noticed a large but low stone building, topped with tiles and a small dome. Stopping off to take a closer look, we discovered a centuries old Orthodox Church and a wizened old man. He produced a large key and let us into a treasure. Stooping through the low door, we entered a dark world of pristine saintly icons. Passing through and looking up to the dome, every surface was detailed with intricate frescoes, telling dozens of tales. Faded by goodness knows how many years, the richness of artwork was still clear to behold and had their intended impact.
Limited by the daylight, we headed back to Ioannina, descending from the heights of the Zagorohoria via another twisting, precipitous road. We had caught a narrow snapshot of the region, but had seen more than enough to understand why the Greeks hold it so dear. One to venture back to with much more time, a stick and some sturdy trekking boots.