Imagine Mount Meron, multiply it by four and five times, and then add dozens of similar mountains at different altitudes. Imagine the cliff on Mount Arbel in the north of the Sea of Galilee, multiply its height ten or twenty times, and its width a hundred times. If you can imagine these sights, you can visualize the Epirus region of Greece. The view is charming and fascinating. It has torrential rivers and snowy peaks. This is a mountainous region like our Galilee, but at greater intensities.
But why imagine, if we can get there easily and see it for ourselves? Today, it is easier to get to the Epirus region, after TUS Airlines has recently opened a flight line twice a week from Ben Gurion airport to Ioaninna, the capital of Epirus province, with a stopover in Larnaca.
Epirus is an area that combines the beauty of nature with a glorious tradition and history, and a special culture. The raging rivers are a paradise for rafting and kayaking enthusiasts. Epirus is an old tourist destination for Europeans, and recently the Israeli public are also beginning to discover it.
The provincial capital is Ioannina. A city where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side in good neighborly relations. The walled old city is reminiscent of the walls of Jerusalem, and for good reason. The wall of Ioannina was also built by the Turks at about the same period when the wall of Jerusalem was built. The area between its walls was considered as an open museum. Until the Holocaust there was a "Jewish Quarter" where the ancient synagogue was preserved. On the shores of Lake Pamvotis with calm blue waters, the promenade along the banks of the lake is reminiscent of Tiberias' promenade, with fish restaurants and tavernas, and with many people walking on the promenade.
After a day of sightseeing in Ioannina, we'd take a tour to the mountains surrounding it. The most visited area is the district of Zagori. An area known by the harmony of man with the nature of towering mountains, snowy peaks, cliffs and rivers, and between them pastoral villages.
The villages in Zagori are far apart and are located in mountain ranges. All the mountains in the area are very steep and covered with forests, interspersed with rivers and crevices. The roads between the villages also cross rivers, on which beautiful bridges were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first bridge we saw is "Kokoris Bridge". Each bridge receives the name of the person who financed its construction. This bridge was built in 1750 and was then called the "Nutsos Bridge". After 150 years, and after a few earthquakes, the bridge needed serious renovation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Mr. Kokoris financed the renovation of the bridge, that has since been named after him.
Further down the road we see a bridge with three arches. This is the Kalopiko Bridge. Near the village of Kipi is the Lazareris Bridge. From this bridge, a popular walkway leads to the village of Zilopo. The route takes about two and a half hours, and anyone who has experienced it, returns fascinated.
The village of Kapesovo is a picturesque village hidden among the mountains. Small stone houses with stunning views. On the opposite mountain, 3 km away, the village of Veraveto, the highest village in the area.
Another large village is the village of Monodentri, which is known for extreme sports, rappelling and rafting. There are many hotels on all levels, and on the gates of one of the hotels we saw a sign in Hebrew "ברוכים הבאים".
I noticed an interesting phenomenon. In the streets of small villages I saw only the elderly people, mostly very old ladies, but didn't see normal adults or children. Did the young people die before the elders? The guide explained to me that most of the residents of the villages are working in the city, and return home just for weekends.
The peak of my trip was at the observatory on Vikos Gorge Oxia, near the village of Monodentri. The canyon appears in Guinness Book of Records as the largest and deepest in the world. It is 900 meters deep and 1,100 meters wide. From the end of the road there is a walking trail along the side of the mountain, and after about a hundred meters we reach an observation terrace with a stunning view of the canyon and the river below.
From the balcony, a path leads to the side of the mountain. It is very dangerous. There is no fence attached to the mountain. On this side there are sections less than 30 centimeters wide, one side of which is the mountain wall, and the other is an abyss. So narrow that there is no room to turn around and return, except for a small surface at the end. The scenery on the end of the trail is amazing. In many places of the world I have seen landscapes and horrors that I wrote that are "breathtaking", but in this place I really felt my breath stop literally at the sight in front of my eyes.
There are many more charming villages in the area, which will not be mentioned here. We can roam the car on the roads and enter any village on the way. They are quite similar to each other. Not only the pastoral look, but also the "background music". Peace and quiet around. The acoustics are amazing. We hear voices of people talking, and the guide explains me that they are probably walking on the opposite hill, more than two kilometers away. The tranquility is broken only by the chirping songs of birds from time to time. A lot of butterflies are flying silently through the bushes and between the trees, and between our legs. From time to time we hear the hum of bees. The Cicadas are also sometimes heard in their courtship calls. A total silence. There are no sounds of urban vehicles. Only a soft whisper of wind through the forest trees. When we stand still without talking or moving for a few minutes, we begin to hear the … silence. It has a melody of its own, which only the sensitive soul can hear, and only in such places.
On the way to the top of the mountain we cross the "Stone Forest". There are many rocks that protrude from the ground among the trees, and we see a fascinating combination of stone and vegetation. There's a walking trail which is considered a global attraction for hiking sport enthusiasts.
In many of places in the Zagori mountains we can see the houses of one small room stuck in "nowhere." There are no more houses next to them. There is no path or road leading to them. No power lines and telephone. Nothing! A room stuck at the end of nowhere. The guide explains that these are special "churches". Over the past two hundred years, criminals and thieves have been cleaning their consciences during their old age. They "repent" and contributed to the churches. But decent priests were not willing to accept donations of unclean money from thieves and whores of such dubious types. That is why they built on their own money a "church" dedicated to Heaven. Their intention was that when their day will come, they will enter the next world with "rights".
Continue toward the village of Aristi, near where the Voydomastis River flows. Near the village there is a bridge over the river, with an exit point for a two-hour rafting trip for 7 kilometers. On the banks of the river there are old trees with huge trunks, like a small car. When I visited there, a group of Israelis enjoyed a picnic by the river. The Voydomastis River is considered as the cleanest in Europe.
The rafting route ends at the Klizonya Bridge, on the Aoos River, which is very close to the entrance to the large village of Konitsa. Here we return the boats, and we can continue on a lovely walk hiking to the valley. On one of the mountains here is one of the world's most important paragliding parachutes, which attracts masses of tourists who like parachuting. On the wide riverfront there are concerts outdoors, with the orchestra on a stage under the bridge, and the audience sits on both banks of the river.
It is also worth visiting the village of Konitsa. It is a large village relative to the small villages we saw among the mountains, and it has about 4,000 residents. They are proud of the fact that their village has a bank branch, a post office, a pharmacy, and even a police station. It is worth driving along the narrow roads up the village to the summit of Sendilias hill, which offers a magnificent view of the village and the wide Aoos River.
When descending from the top of the hill we should stop at the remains of the Amko Palace. It was part of a compound where the mother of Ali Pasha, the Turkish governor, lived. There were times when the site served as a Turkish military camp.
A folk tales tells that the people from the village of Kardiki came to a robbery and pillage in Konitsa, and on this occasion they also raped the women of Konitsa, including the mother of Ali Pasha and her sister. When Eli Pasha heard about it, he asked his mother what did she want to do with them. The mother replied that she wanted to lay her head on a pillow filled of the rapists' hair. Ali Pasha fulfilled his mother's request. He came with his soldiers to the village of Kardiki, slaughtered all the men, and curled them. He brought the scalps with the hair to Konitsa, and used the hair to fill pillows for his mother, and other women of the village.
There are two museums in Konitsa. One for the history of the village and its environs, and the other for wine and wineries. Outside the village is an ancient "laundry" called Water Mill Burazani.
Some distance away there's the Molivdoskepasti monastery. The locals call it "the Israeli monastery". Frescoes with Israeli locations and biblical heroes from the Old Testament were painted in the 16th century. The monk proudly shows me paintings of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Mount Tabor. I think that the artist has never seen Mount Tabor and the mountains of Galilee, but he has painted European landscapes out of his imagination. The portraits of Moses, Aaron, Jacob and King David are dressed in medieval clothes in cold Europe.
After a few days of hiking in the mountains north of Ioaninna, we arrive at the mountains in southern Epirus, in the district of Tzoumerka. The landscapes are similar to the mountainous area we saw in the north, with its small picturesque villages. The roads are narrower, and some are not maintained as we are used to in Israel. People here are in no hurry on the road. They drive in a kind of shanti.
Among the many beautiful villages, a must-see destination is the village of Kallarytes. This village was built at an altitude of 1200 meters on one of the cliffs of the Tzoumerka Mountains, above the Kalaritikos Canyon. The special location was chosen according to the difficulty of enemies to reach it, and the high cliff was rich with water springs.
It is a picturesque and inspiring village, with stone paths that were originally intended for horses and donkeys, so vehicles cannot travel inside the village. The view is of steep slopes and stunning beauty. The rustling of the wind is as easy as stroking the face and elbows. I wish I could stay there a week. No doubts I'll come back for a longer time. Suggesting you'll plan your vacation with more time to relax in Kallarytes.
Once upon a time the village was known as a center for silverwork and artistic writing and copying of Christian scriptures. The jewelers in the village were known all over the world, and their works were sold throughout the Balkans, Italy, Austria and Egypt. The international jeweler "Bvlgari" brand was born and grown in this village.
The village flourished as long as its residents had difficulty getting out of it, and worked inside the village. In the 1980s an access road was paved to the village, and since then it has begun to deteriorate. Young people had the opportunity to move out of the village, and they began to work outside the village and outside the traditional professions of the village. Then they went through their work to live in the towns of Ioaninna and Larissa. There are about 200 houses in the village, but most of them are not inhabited when I visit. The owner of the cafe and restaurant of the village told me that on the day I visited there were only 9 residents, who were only 3 families.
The fresh and clear air of the village attracts vacationers from every region of Epirus, and many come to vacation there in the summer. There is also a Jewish aspect to Kallarytes vacation. The owner of the restaurant and grocery store, Napoleon, heard from his grandfather that rich Jews used to stay in the village in the second half of the summer. (Apparently they arrived after Tisha B'Av). They had a special gambling practice in Grandpa's cafe. Before leaving the village, they would gamble how much each one of them would earn in their business next year, and in what areas of commerce. The bets were written in a special notebook kept by the owner of the cafe. When they returned to Kallarytes next year, they checked who bet right and who missed, and according to the results they distributed the gambling money. What will we gamble in Kallarytes?..we
On the mountain cliff on the road there is the Kipina Monastery near the road but in a location that is not reachable. The monastery was built inside a cave 240 meters long . A wall was built in its front, and behind it they built rooms. The monastery wall looks about five stories high above the road at the bottom of the cliff, so it is easy to miss it when we travel alongside it. The monastery was built in 1212. For hundreds of years they climbed up to it with ropes. In the 18th century, a walkway was paved to the monastery, which begins about 100 meters further down the road and the cliff.
It is also a good idea to visit the Yefire Plaka bridge, on the Arachatos River. The historic bridge was destroyed three years ago in floods after heavy rain, and due to poor maintenance.
The history of the bridge also gives a glimpse of our history, and arouses thoughts. When the Second World War ended, a civil war broke out in Greece between people who had previously fought side by side in the ranks of the partisans, and accumulated military experience. The "Lefty" Communist groups fought against the "Righty" Greek patriots. The Communists were "useful idiots" whom Moscow incited against local "fascists", who were actually patriots and ordinary citizens. For three years a bloody war continued throughout Greece. And it ended with a peace agreement signed next to the bridge of Yefire. I found great interest in reading online about the reasons for the civil war and the details of the peace agreement discussed and signed here. The sad conclusion that emerges is that the extreme left (the Communists) may be an existential threat to the Israeli country too, as they were in Greece. It is food for thought that awakens at the foot of the bridge.
In conclusion, the Epirus district is charming in its beauty, especially for hikers and for extreme sports enthusiasts. The district is not far from Israel, and the prices of hotels and restaurants in Greece are relatively cheaper than elsewhere in Europe. Highly recommended!
Many thanks to the people that contributed their knowledge to the research of this article: Mr. Charilaos Kalpidis of GNTO, Mrs. Allegra Matsa, Tzanos Panagretis, Liana Zerva, Yana Methorios, & Mr. Stathis Sioutis