Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Greece: The reign of the Athamanian Mountains

In the heart of Epirus, in northern Greece, the mountains spread out their ancient, unshaken and imposing kingdom.. 

By Kon Hans

Leaving behind the faceless chaos of the city the road becomes a path in the serenity of the mountains. The vivid colours of spring make up the dress in which nature chooses to flirt with the brilliant sun as it rises in the blue horizon.  Here, you can hear your thoughts whispering at the rhythm of the small crystal clear streams all around; you are alone, as a child that slowly finds its way to the embrace of his mother. 

Nature is everything; she is your existence and your god, your mother and father, the cord that still unites you with the vast, inexplicable universe.  You need to breathe the oxygen and smell the humid wood, to let the soil caress your palms as you pick it up and let it in the wind to become earth again. You need to let down your defences that the urban life has provided you with, when you first entered the mechanical entrails of the City.  You need to feel the breeze of time at your cheek, just to realise the enormous illusion we live in; you need to let go in order to be free.  Only then, you can admire the brilliant work of nature, the masterpiece of existence in which you are just an insignificant speck; the sea of mountains, ancient, unyielding, imposing are there to remind you just that, your fragile and yet unique and beautiful existence.

The Athamanian Mountains

Tzoumerka mountains in Epirus, north Greece (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 

In the heart of Epirus, in northern Greece, the mountains spread out their ancient, unshaken and imposing kingdom.  Others are gigantic, with lazy outlines and covered in their deep green cloak, while others are bare, with abrupt and rough slopes as they rip the deep blue sky with their peaks, and all of them embellish the backbone of the vast mountain range of Pindos.  None of them, however, hold the wild, unblemished and proud beauty of the “Athamanian  Mountains” or else “Tzoumerka”mountains, rising high like the sanguine teeth of a mythical dragon  as the last rays of  a red dying sun embrace their bare peaks.

In their fringes they have allowed the human presence even from the ancient times, (the ancient tribe of “Athamanians”) and thus now, centuries afterwards, a lot of villages, called “Tzoumerkohoria” (which means “the villages of Tzoumerka mountains”), unfold under their shade and in their slopes while their proud inhabitants look far beyond, to their sea of mountains as it fades in the horizon. The land is harsh, made from stone and oak, and the people that inhabit it are harsh and together they are locked in a primordial struggle trying to tame one another, signs of which can be seen in the arid fields, the ravines, the stony watering holes.  All around, the virgin nature engulfs in its suffocating embrace the labours of men but her call is irresistible: the perfume of the lotus and the humid timber, the live red of the dogwood and the yellow of the loquat, they all call to you: to leave behind the streets of the city until they become no more than a shadowy path in the wild vegetation.

Unique villages and stunning sites

More mountains (photo by Aris Hantzopoulos)
However, after you decide to follow nature’s call, you should know that the access to this region is relatively difficult, the road network is unfinished and the roads in many points are hard to traverse (mainly in winter), which partly explains why these hidden diamonds remain hidden from the domestic and international tourism; in any case, rest assured your efforts will pay off. You can reach Tzoumerka either coming from Arta and Ioannina, or coming from Trikala, as it is relatively easy to find the road for the bigger villages, such as Pramanta or Agnanta and from there continue to explore.

 The “Tzoumerkohoria” are roughly about 47 villages, stretching out between the 
Agios Dimitrios church in Ramia village (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 
Municipalities of Arta and Ioannina, a region which is constituted henceforth by the Municipality of Central Tzoymerka with its seat in Voulgareli village and the Municipality of Northern Tzoymerka with Pramanta village as its seat.  All of them are beautiful villages, each one with a separate quality, others are pretty small and remote while others are big and more accessible; others are deep inside the pines and others next to gurgling waters, others with alleys and masterfully crafted stone mansions while others spread out in the slopes and in the gorges; all of them, however, possess an authentic mountainous character.  You can drink a coffee in the beautiful square in Voulgareli looking at the view from above or a “tsipouro” (strong alcoholic drink) in the warm and traditional refreshment pavilion in Ramia’s square or you can wander around in the stone alleys of Syrrako and Kalarrytes, admiring the unique architecture of the twin Vlach villages – many regard them as the most beautiful mountainous villages in Greece.

You can savour the marvellous roasted lamb and goat kid in Hosepsi (or Kypseli) or in the bigger villages such as Agnanta and Pramanta, where there the culinary options are even more, or you can admire the grandeur of the forces of nature as they materialize in the deafening roar and the vast crystal column of the biggest waterfall in the country, in the village of Katarraktis (which of course in Greek means “waterfall”!) In addition, just opposite of the village and situated on an evergreen hill you can find the “Kedros -Dasiko Horio” (Forest Village), a complex with beautiful houses and villas of traditional architecture ready to warmly welcome you and accommodate you.

The famous Bridge of Plaka (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 
The choices are really endless, and since the region has started, in the past few years, to attract tourist interest,-though at a snail's pace still-, you will find other appreciable rooms to let and hotels to stay as you make your exploration trips.  Furthermore, if you want to combine the exploration with the adventure, then in Monolithi, and only a short distance away from the historical and impressive “Bridge of Plaka”, you will find the synonymous modern hotel (“Gefyri tis Plakas”) that can initiate you into the secrets of rafting in a valley of picturesque beauty.  There, you will also find the restored Customs, a historical building that signals where the old borders between the emerging State of Greece and the Ottoman Empire have been; close by,  a lovely traditional hotel is now the bearer of the name and its historic importance (“Teloneio” = “Customs”), where you can warm yourself sitting on the “basia” (traditional low benches) next to its imposing fireplace.

If, on the other hand, you prefer the car - presuming that it possesses good suspensions - then you can use as a base for your expeditions some central village as Pramanta or Agnanta and discover graphical villages and stunning views almost in every turn of the road.  Some of these roads may bring you to the cave of Anemotrypa (“Wind’s Hole”) outside Pramanta, where you can enjoy a magical route of 250m. between underground small lakes and a river, or to the Byzantine RedChurch in Palaiochori, near Boulgareli, built by master stonemasons with stones that have a natural red shade.  If again you fancy walking in the nature, then the options are even more as there are great many paths to explore; however, you must pay attention in the gorges and the abrupt precipices that here are widely known as “stefania”.

In the duration of your journey to the wild beauty of the Tzoumerka villages, you will find that the local cuisine with the exceptional quality of meat and various pies is a guaranteed benefit and even more so regarding its star product, the “tsipouro”:  produced by the local mountain variety of grapes, named “zampela”, it is a strong and pure spirit, with transparent flavour and body that you are sure to enjoy.  Sometimes, engulfed in the silence of nature as the veils of rime cover the sleeping mountains, a tsipouro can ease your thoughts and free your mind as your gaze wanders among this forest of eternal peaks.

(Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on May 11, 2013 (transl. & edited from greek, original here )

Tzoumerka mountains (photo by Aris Hantzopoulos) 
A small path.. (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 
Local cuisine: natural baked bread in the fireplace (photo by Diogenis Hantzopoulos) 
Tzoumerka mountains (photo by Aris Hantzopoulos) 

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