Easter was very early this year. We always have a small trip somewhere in the 2nd week of Easter holidays but this time we were a bit concerned about the weather. It was rainy and cold. The excursion was arranged the minute we saw the photos of a hotel that Vasia (our niece) booked for a weekend. The hotel was in Papigo and she had traced and booked it from Belgium! It has been almost twenty years since we last visited the area. We were so jealous! Both about the hotel and the destination.
We arranged everything right away! An evening at the “Astra Inn Hotel” (unfortunately there was no vacancy for a second), in Papigo and one in “Gamilla Rocks Mountain Hotel” in Aristi, the village just next to Papigo. Early on Easter Tuesday morning, we set off from Veria to Zagorochoria. In less than two hours we were leaving Ioannina and taking the road up to Zagorochoria to the north. After 35 km we passed by the historic Kalpaki (at the entrance of which there is a nice war museum). Another 4 km and a sign showed us the road that goes right ways , towrds Aristi (10 km) and Papigo (23 km)
Tip: The last Gas Station is in Kalpaki. Fill in there!
So we turned right and began slowly to ascend the road. After 4 km we passed through Mesovouni village and another 4 km near the village of Agios Minas. 2 km further we reached beautiful Aristi. We crossed it took the road to Papigo.
3 km after Aristi, we came to a sign that leads the way to the path to Panagia Spiliotissa. (There is a small opening of the road for parking). A newly built bridge and a 5 minute walk leads to the monastery, built in 1579 in a fantastic location, right over the river. "It has an impressive carved iconostasis and frescoes from the 17th century. It served as a refuge for the inhabitants when in danger. After the earthquake of 1897, it was completely abandoned. It has now been restored and is quite tidy but the church cannot be visited”, we read on a guide book. It was abandoned for sure, and it’s only worth going up there just for the walk through the towering plane trees, but especially for the magnificent view from the rock of the belfry, if you are eager to climb up there.
We returned to the car, and after another 400 m we suddenly saw the bridge and the river! (Caution! The narrow bridge does not fit two cars to cross at the same time. Moreover, being particularly pointed, the driver standing at one end of the bridge, has eye contact only with half of the bridge!) Once we went across, we parked on the right, in a plateau under the trees. The water that poured this year had changed the configuration of the landscape. It was very different the last time we visited it. What had not changed at all were the crystal clear, emerald waters of Voidomatis River. That’s why there were dozens of visitors, admiring the scenery, taking photographs and many of them preparing to descend the river by rafting. Inflatable boats, life jackets, trainers...... (The ride until Klidonia costs 25 Euros per person)
(The path leading to the river head starts at this point. Through the dense plane trees and a direction opposite to the flow of the river, with a relaxed pace, in about three hours, one can reach the riverhead of Voidomatis). Voidomatis is one of the cleanest and coldest rivers of Europe, since its waters, even in the heart of summer, during a heat wave period, do not exceed a temperature of 6 ° - 7 ° C. Etymologically, the term Voidomatis probable derives from the Slavic "Voda Mate" meaning “spring/fountain”.
Back in the car, we began climbing up the twisting, winding road to Papigo: within a distance of 3 km from the river, we passed at least 17 - 18 “hairpin bends” of 180 °, ie the notorious "Kagelia of Papigo", where increased attention is needed, especially when the road surface is slippery and even on the way downhill.
We arrived to Papigo! On the left, there is a spacious free parking (for those who want to leave their vehicle and continue on foot (unless you have to unload suitcases, etc.). In front of us we saw the first church, completed in 1852 and dedicated to Saint Vlasios . Just beside it, is the imposing hexagonal stone steeple of 1887. A few meters after the church we passed by "Kallineio School" that was built in 1897 and houses the nursery/ primary school.
Papigo is built at an altitude of 980 m. In fact, there are two villages or if you prefer a village in two neighborhoods. Some refer to them as Megalo Papigo (Big Papigo) and Mikro Papigo (Small Papigo) (1,040 m) which is 3 km further. They are definitely the most beautiful villages of Zagoria, perhaps the most touristic and it should de noted that they are protected traditional settlements. The population in Papigo decreased significantly during the 40s, 50s and 60s and reached its lowest point in 1971 with only 95 inhabitants. Currently, there are about 250 inhabitants (in both villages). All the glorious art of Zagoria’s craftsmen to reclaim the only product that nature gave them abundantly, the stone, unfolds in this corner of the country. Beautiful traditional houses with stone roofs, well kept paths, beautiful stone fountains, all made of stone. And all this with the background of the "Towers of Astraka," a series of five, huge rock formations of Mount Gamila (or Tymfi), rising just above the houses, a real eye catcher. Our hotel was the last building of the village, on the road to Mikro Papigo. Facing the towers! Stone terraces, corners with flowers, tables in the sun! We looked further up to the mountain. Small Papigo was standing, perched on Tymfi’s slopes. Half an hour later, we were drinking our coffee on the terrace of the hotel "Mikro Papigo", at the highest point of the village and a little later we were tasting Zagori pie, smoked sausage and grilled mushrooms in the Astra Inn restaurant. In the courtyard, under the pleasant sunshine!
In the evening, the village retained its beauty, with yellow lights faintly illuminating the streets and the silence that reflected our steps in the cobbled paths, to make it even more atmospheric. We enjoyed our coffee in the courtyard of an old café (“Koulis”), at the small square, and later a drink by the fireplace.
The wonderful breakfast in the next morning, raised the trip to the top of the evaluation scale. Delicious, homemade breakfast, in a wonderful room, coffee in the courtyard, under the trees, chatting with the people of Astra ... reluctantly we got up for our morning walk. Halfway on the road to Mikro Papigo (3 km.), on our right, we went down a path that lead to a ravine with a beautiful stone bridge. On the same stream, just a little further, on the left of the road this time, we saw an all green ravine. It is the stream of Rogovo, forming large natural pools, which the locals call “ovires” or “fonts”. Here, during the warm, summer months, a lot of people take their swim.
Going further up, we arrived to Mikro Papigo. Cars, fortunately, cannot enter through the narrow cobbled streets. Everybody park next to the church of the Archangels, with the perennial plane tree. We walked down the alley and at 40 m on the left we stopped at the "Information Center for Nature and Culture at Zagori", which was founded by the WWF and is hosted in the building of the old primary school, a donation of Michael Anagnostopoulos.
VISITING HOURS: Daily /Weekends (except Mondays) 9.30- 15.00 (tel. 2653025096). Very informative material for the region from the Management Body of National Parks “Vikos –Aoos”. There, they informed us on the many mountain trails that offer courses of various difficulty levels. A popular trail includes the crossing of the Vikos Gorge. (six-seven hours’ hiking/medium difficulty)
WE SUGGEST : On a longer stay
Mikro Papigo, at an altitude of 1,700 m, is the basis for many climbers starting climbing to either the legendary Drakolimni or to the famous caves of Astraka or the peek (2.497 m.). The well marked trail starts at the last houses of the village, after an hour’s walk it comes out of the woods, climbs on bare landscape, passes four fountains at different altitudes and leads to the mountain lodge at 1,940 m. (Tel. 6973223100). From that spot, it descends until a point called “Xeroloutsa of Tsoumani” and finally climbs (in total 4-5 hours’ walk from Mikro Papigo) up to the 2,050 m. plateau, reaching the famous Drakolimni (dragon’s lake) which attracts both Greeks and foreign climbers. It is a heart-shaped lake of about eight acres, a diameter of about 120 m., a maximum depth of around 12 m. and water temperature, even in heat period, 18 ° -19 ° C! There are so many adventurous climbers that try a dip. Alpine newts live in the lake (similar to tiny salamanders). Climbing easily to the brink, images of infinite beauty unfold before you: Albania, Grammos, Smolikas, Vasilitsa, Konitsa, Aoos’ lacquer, the Monastery of Stomio, all before you. We were there one summer, 20 years ago. A unique experience! This time of the year, however, the climb is quite difficult if notimpossible for many. The tops are still covered by snow and the "shelter closed," on the information sign verifies that.
Another attraction in Gamila are the 5 world-famous caves. One of them, more known as "Ewe" is a completely natural vertical well with a depth of about 407 m., the second deepest on the planet. However a visit is possible only with accompaniment of experienced cavers climbers.
After a walk through the narrow streets of Mikro Papigo, we take the road to Aristi. (650 m. altitude). Aristi is another traditional settlement with 130 permanent residents. It is 49 km. far from Ioannina.. Aristi is very green and has several well-preserved stone houses, of which most with view to the Astraka peeks. There are several hotels / traditional guesthouses, all in harmony with the environment. In the square you will find restaurants, cafés, the school, a stone fountain and the church dedicated to the Assumption, built in 1718.
Near the square you find signs that show the way towards Vikos village, Elafotopos, Kato Pedina, Ano Pedina, Vitsa and Monodendri villages. After 600 m. the road forks. Go straight to Vikos village, and turn right to Elafotopos and Ano Pedina. (Today the route Aristi - Elafotopos is only 6 km. From there you can continue to Vitsa and Monodendri.)
We left our luggage at the hotel and took the road to Vikos village (5 km. distance from Aristi). Vikos is built at an altitude of 770 m., has about 25 residents and 2-3 taverns around the square. We parked at the square near the church, the hostel and the old school. We walked for another 150 m. following the signs, until we came to the old stone threshing floor of the village. A wooden gazebo stands nearby, an ideal spot to enjoy the view of the famous Vikos Gorge. A sense of freedom is imposed to you by the impressive depth in front of you! It’s a canyon with a world record, for it is deeper in proportion to its width (depth 900 and width 1100 measures at a point). Farming and logging or other activities that affect the environment are not allowed in the area, favoring the development and preservation of a unique biodiversity. From this point, lower down, near the river, stands a small chapel dedicated to Virgin Mary. From the gazebo starts a path paved with Zagori stone, which in 15 minutes takes you to the chapel and from there in other 20 minutes, to the springs of Voidomatis. The height difference is so big that you have to think of the way uphill when you return! It’s going to be demanding!!
When it’s dinner time, we return to Astra Inn to enjoy the food, the view and the clean air. A secure choice!
This second night we stayed in “Gamilla Mountain Hotel” in Aristi, a great hotel as well, with greater emphasis on decoration. Every decorative element was meticulous to detail! Very clean, with views of the Towers and the sounds of birds singing on the tree branches outside our windows!
In the beautiful, paved square we had our coffee while the sun was setting, painting the rocks of Astraka in red and purple. It got dark while we were enjoying our drink, listening to retro songs, at the unique probably "bar type" spot of the village. At night we left the window open to listen to the blackbirds. Their singing woke us up the next morning. The breakfast at the hotel was served in a very nice room. It was adequate but standard. The comparison was inevitable. Drinking our coffee on the terrace, with the morning sun warming us pleasantly, we decided to return to Ioannina by an alternative way, through Elafotopos, Ano and Kato Pedina etc. Soon we arrived first to Elafotopos. We had the sense of being in a deserted village! We felt like we're alone. An elderly gentleman only welcomed us at the entrance of the village. Looked like he had been waiting long for someone to chat. He told us that, only 25 people live in the village permanently. There is a guesthouse with a restaurant, a tavern and a couple of cafes, he said. On our stroll at the cobbled streets, we observed that many old houses have been restored, so have the stone made streets ...... but when were those that use them?
We descended back to the junction and continued to the left, on the road leading to Pedina. On our right we could see Kato Pedina but we turned left to Ano Pedina, one of the most picturesque Zagorochoria, with a population of approximately 100 residents. The village has a rich history. Among the great persons the village gave birth to, was Neophytos Doukas, the great teacher of the nation, the most important representatives of the Greek Enlightenment. The fortress- style Annunciation Monastery (1647) is another sight of the village, where, in the difficult years of Turkish rule, they had set up a small "secret school" and the church of Ag. Dimitrios in the village center.
We continued the way back to Ioannina, via the road to Vitsa. At the intersections we encountered, we always chose the direction to the right, until we got to the provincial road of Kalpaki-Ioannina. Soon we arrived to Ioannina. We stopped for a cold beer next to the lake and returned to Veria. My mind failed to return with me though! It was still in that place with the unique nature, right in the heart of Northern Pindos. On the high, massive mountains with the green forests, the fertile valleys, the lush plateaus, the unpolluted lakes and the rushing rivers, all unique treasures of this proud place.
FOOD GUIDE to the local cuisine
“Hotel Astra” Restaurant : It’s a family business owned by, Spiros , Costas and Christopher Tsoumani. Pies, Epirus feta, galotyri (local soft cheese), soup dishes, pasta, rabbit stew, etc. Tel. 2653042108.
“Calliope” Tavern : On the path that starts from the church and passes near the old school. Among the oldest in Zagorohoria (operating since 1983). Ms. Kalliopi Bitou cooks the infamous “paprikasi”, ie pieces of pork in spicy chili sauce. Tel. 2653041081.
“Giorgos Ioannidis” Tavern : At the entrance of the village, opposite the church. Pies, soups, wild boar with prunes, coq au vin, etc. Tel. 2653041124.
“Nikos & Ioulia Tsoumani” Tavern: At the homonymous hostel. Open since 1992. She prepares pies, pork with leek and celery, lamb in a pot with potatoes, etc. Tel. 2653041893 and 6973682252.
“Astraka” Tavern: In space formerly operated as a bar. Tel. 2653042034, 2653041693, 6948204546 and 6974049104.
All taverns serve Zagori pies, grilled meat from animal bread in the area and local tsipouro.
“Jupiter” tavern /guesthouse. Since 1990, serves excellent beef soup with vegetables, bean soup, lamb fricassee, etc. Tel. 2653041257 and 2653041892.
Restaurant in the hostel “Mikro Papigo 1700” Tel. 2653041179 and 2653041094. Besides the excellent food, the view is fantastic as well as the decoration!
“Restaurant In Aristi”. At the square. It serves lamb stew with noodles, wild boar in wine sauce with prunes, beef soup boiled with vegetables, rabbit stew, chicken in lemon sauce with potatoes, homemade pies, fresh salads, goat cheese and Epirus ouzo. Tel. 2653042103 and 6998423444.
“Zisis” hostel's restaurant. Near the fireplace. Specialty in pies. Tel. 2653041147 and 2653041088.
“Salvia” restaurant, inside the hotel “Aristi Mountain Resort”. The menu includes chicken soup, lamb with pasta in a pot, grilled vegetables and pies from Zagori. Tel. 2653041330 and 6943105011.
“Christopher Tsoumanis” Tavern. Very good food. Tel. 2653042170.
“Karpouzis” hostel's restaurant. A grill house. Tel. 2653041176.