The Zagori region of Greece offers thick forests, stunning mountain and a well-preserved network of paths. Here's everything you need to know about this awe inspiring area.
Where is Zagori?
Zagori in Slavic means the place beyond the mountain, which is exactly what it is. It consists of 44 isolated villages scattered over a wild mountainous area just behind Mt Mitsikelli, as seen from Ioannina, the largest city of Epirus and historically its economic and cultural capital. Zagori is, to this day, one of the wildest areas of present day Greece, with hugely diverse wildlife and flora.
When is the best time to go to Zagori?
Spring on the higher mountains comes in late May/early June when the snow melts away and the first wildflowers burst forth with colour. Snow patches give a beautiful touch to the landscape but at the same time they might cause trouble in some high altitude mountain passages. Up there, temperatures plummet to near freezing during the night but are 10–15ºC during the day when it’s not rainy. In the lowlands and the villages, on the other hand, there are pleasant temperatures (around 25ºC) during this period; hiking days are long and wildflowers are blooming all around. In short, the conditions are ideal for hiking. Bear in mind though that the sun is already strong while rain is not uncommon during this time of the year. Similar favourable climatic conditions occur in late September and October. Better still, there are usually no storms or rain during early autumn. You may miss the snow patches but the deciduous trees burst into an inspired composition of yellowish-reddish tones contrasted by their evergreen coniferous siblings.
In high summer (mid-June–August), the sun is definitely scorching. Temperatures climb well above 30ºC in the lowlands and, combined with humidity in the morning, the conditions can be really punishing. Higher up, the mountain temperatures don’t get above 25ºC but the lack of trees means you are exposed to the sun. Therefore you should choose carefully when to move – typically very early in the morning or late in the afternoon in the lowlands and very early in the morning in the treeless alpine zone of the higher mountains – carry plenty of water and have all the necessary sun protection. Hiking is still a great pleasure while you can also enjoy swimming or bathing in the ice cold rivers of the region. Bear in mind that on hot summer days, afternoon storms are not uncommon in high mountains. Zagori (Chapters 1 and 2) gets quite crowded, so booking accommodation in advance is imperative.
Finally, in winter the villages are deserted, making it difficult to find accommodation and make food arrangements – except for during the Christmas holidays. The high mountains are almost entirely covered by snow and ice, and should only be tackled by experienced mountaineers with proper gear as they could be deadly dangerous otherwise. Even the lowlands get snow and experience freezing temperatures, making the mountainous road network tricky. Still the scenery is exceptional and a visit to the area becomes a really thrilling adventure.
Getting to Zagori
The easiest way to reach Zagori is to take a plane to Ioannina from Athens and then continue by bus, taxi or hire car for 40km (45min). There is also the Aktion international airport (aka Preveza airport) some 100km south of Ioannina, with direct international flights from the UK, as well as central and northern Europe, Scandinavia, the Balkans and Israel. You could rent a car from there and reach Zagori or Konitsa in just over 2 hours.
For those travelling by car or camper from central Europe, there are daily ferries from Italy to the port of Igoumenitsa (125km and 2hr 15min by car to Zagori). The crossing takes between 9 and 26 hours depending which crossing you choose.
What are the accommodation options in Zagori?
Zagori offers an excellent choice of hotels and family-run guesthouses. Guesthouses offer simple rooms to luxury suites and breakfast is usually included. Prices in high season (Christmas, July and August) can get quite expensive and availability is limited but overall the services are fine and reasonably priced. It is therefore strongly recommended that you book in advance. During the winter months (November to March) many guesthouses close down but it is still possible to find a room.
There are no campsites in the region and camping is officially forbidden. You can still do it on a multi-day trek or on long mountainous routes but you should not light fires and you must collect all your trash and leave absolutely no trace of your presence.
The refuge of Astraka above Papigo is the only manned mountain refuge in the region and is a very good solution for the routes on Mt Timfi. It is reasonably priced and offers breakfast, meals (about €12) and refreshments as well as accommodation in dormitories (€13/night). Sleeping facilities are not luxurious but are fine for a mountain refuge. It’s usually open from May to October but in some cases it is closed or over-booked so you must check availability beforehand. In the nearby Mt Smolikas there is also an unmanned refuge which is beautiful and convenient regarding hiking but requires self-preparation in terms of supplies and cooking.
A note on bears
In the mountains of Epirus, there is a slight probability that you may encounter a brown bear. This might sound scary but in reality humans are perceived as a threat and by no means as prey. These intelligent mammals have a very acute sense of smell and hearing and in most cases will run away before you even notice their presence. However, if you are fortunate enough to encounter one of them, there is a basic rule to follow: the beast should not feel threatened. Therefore:
- Keep calm.
- Don’t scream, don’t run and don’t grab or throw stones, branches or other items. Initially stay still and retreat gradually, acknowledging its domination of the area. Always face the animal as you retreat but don’t stare directly into its eyes. Raise your arms to look taller and keep retreating.
- If you find yourself in a narrow place, leave room for the animal to run away and don’t block its path.
- Most probably, you will not have the time to even think of all these points before the animal runs away. And remember that, according to tradition, meeting a bear is a sign of good fortune and health.
- If you are wild-camping don’t store food in your tent, don’t leave trash or unwashed utensils and hang them from a tree at some distance from your camp so that you avoid any uninvited guests.
What is the walking like in Zagori?
There are a range of trails in Zagori - plenty are easy, quite short, and well-signed and are therefore suitable for any kind of hiker. Others are more challenging and routes can be linked together to create longer hikes. There are also some truly mountainous routes on remote and rugged terrain where endurance, route-finding skills and experience in high mountains is essential.
The residents of Zagori as well as traders and caravans, along with their mules and horses, used these trails regularly and that is the mystical part of hiking in Zagori; it links the present to the past. Walking through the wild forests, the untamed rivers and the deep gorges of Zagori, imagining the harsh conditions of everyday life in the past along with the beauty of this remote mountainous region, one can’t help but feel its magic.
What is the best bit?
There is a well preserved network of old cobblestone paths and spectacular stone bridges between the picturesque villages of central Zagori. The incomparable stonemasons of the past three centuries have left behind an unbelievable heritage in their land; schools, churches, fountains and mansions along with their colourful wooden gates and windows composing a wonderful picture. As you walk you wonder how many locals, travellers and merchants must have crossed these bridges over the years, carrying wealth, fresh ideas, good or unexpected news, hopes and fears?