For a long time, Greece was all about its islands and to some lesser extent its capital – this has started changing in the last few years with the emergence of small boutique hotels in the countryside and most notably around the Zagori mountain. A cluster of more than 50 villages, also known as Zagorohoria, represents a mountainous terrain with a vast number of things to see, to do and… to eat!
Out and about in Ioannina
As you get closer to this magical destination after around 3hr of a drive from either Athens or Thessaloniki, the city of Ioannina is a reasonable stop for a quick detour and sightseeing. Known for its Ottoman influence, the city has emerged as a trending destination especially so in 2019 for its start-up scene. A mix of agriculture (notably so around cheese) and small medium enterprises (notably so around silverware) complements the vibrant student community here with many young locals choosing to stay at their home base for a living these days. Ioannina lies at an elevation of 500 metres above sea level, on the western shore of Lake Pamvotis with a beautiful backdrop of the Zagori mountain and its diverse landscape.
As we go through the main square, we stop by Kofi Microroastery to get a specialty espresso to go for our quick tour around Ioannina’s castle. We navigate through the cobble-stoned streets of the city, taking note of the many coffee and food establishments which tend to surround the lakefront. Most of these are touristy but still the place is buzzing with street life. The walk up to the Aslan Pasha Mosque goes through the old city and the view to the lake up there is definitely worth the trek.
Papingo and Aristi
Zagorohoria is more or less split between two main routes: the western one that goes mostly through Aristi and Papingo, and the eastern one that covers everything else. Its best if you budget at least one day to go through the former as these villages are two of the most visited ones – and in spite of those tourists, they still tend to stay very very local.
Aristi is a well preserved settlement with a handful of small hotels, a couple of restaurants and a small picturesque square. Although most tend to book Aristi Mountain Resort, a modern complex of hotel rooms featuring also a very small spa centre, we definitely recommend going for the more local Gamila Rocks where you get much more value. Regardless of what you book, both represent a good basis for venturing out to day trips and will definitely make for a good stay.
On the odd day out that you don’t have breakfast at the hotel, pop in at the pantry-cum-coffeehouse of Mrs Alexandra for a freshly-baked cheese-pie; just make sure you give her enough notice so that she can prepare it especially for you. Although she opens the business every day of the year for the last few decades (having grown up nearby), she only caters to specific orders. Chatting with her can also reveal a lot of hidden spots around.
A relatively short journey from Aristi will get you to the most busy part of the mountain where you’ll get to enjoy the views to the Vikos canyon and all the nature around. Papingo, one of the biggest villages of the cluster, is a joy to walk around. After getting a first view of this cobble-stoned settlement, we stop for a quick coffee at Sterna, one of the cutest retail shops in Epirus that in recent years moved here from Kapesovo when owner Elli Papageorgiou married to a local. 5 minutes up the road you can also venture for a walk around the infamous Papingo Rock Pools – just make sure your shoes do not have a slippery grip.
Kapesovo, Monodendri and Dilofo
Next on the map is the eastern side of Zagorohoria with a scenic drive from Aristi that can last about an hour or more depending on the stops you make. We first pass by Kato Pedina which may feel deserted but is worth a photo or two. Taxiarches church on the main road is also a renown stone-built temple. Dilofo is one of the first villages we go through where we stop for a quick coffee. Lithos also serves some nice meze but we’re not quite on lunchtime so we carry on towards Koukouli. As we wander down the narrow streets of this tiny village, we finally get to the infamous canteen of Vikogiatros perched on a square at the edge of the village. History has it that the so-called doctor here prepares for you a personalized beverage (mostly based on liquor) that will give you the remedy for whatever it is you’re looking for. Along with it, we order up some raki and a generous portion of french fries that make for a perfect treat under the wintery sun.
For the ones wishing to make a full-lunch spot, Vitsa is the best village to do so. For many years now Kanella & Garyfallo is the main food attraction here where you can enjoy an all-mushroom feast. This is village gourmet food, not your typical taverna with the occasional appearance of the chef that makes rounds to the tables explaining each day’s specials in this cosy place.
If you skip lunch and opt for some more meze, then head up to Kapesovo. As we make our way there, we take note of the deserted landscape around and kind of wonder how one lives up here all year round. Most notably, we meet Konstantinos here at the tradiitional café Mezaria who makes for some great discussions. Having long removed himself from the busy streets of big cities, Konstantinos works as a professional photographer and photography teacher giving seminars to small groups around the world or sometimes even online. During his days off, he also operates this cosy café that more or less operates for the 9-10 locals of this village. Sitting by the fireplace, enjoying his daily specials such as the chicken stew is a joy we kind of cherish until the next time we meet.
Ioannina – a virbant city with lots of history, which serves as the main hub in Epirus, 45 minutes away from Zagorohoria
Aristi – one of the most beautiful villages in Zagorohoria, featuring a coupe of tavernas and a coffeeshop
Vikos Gorge Point – amazing views to the Vikos canyon
Papingo Bridge – very scenic landscape in this stone-built bridge, minutes away from Aristi
Papingo Rock Pools – rock formation near Papingo that allow some shallow dips in the summer
Drakolimni – a mountain-top lake that your each after a 1h30m uphill trek. Definitely worth visiting if you’re there during springtime or Autumn
Aristi Mountain Resort – upper scale hotel in Aristi with a small pool and spa too. Nice rooms although a bit too plain
Gamila Rocks – great boutique hotel in Aristi with a very hospitable owner and staff. Cosy rooms with a fireplace, also offering a nice breakfast until late
Apeiros Chora – very nice 4-star property in Kato Pedina with a very thought-through offering. Rooms a bit small though
Kofi Mircoroastery – just about the only proper specialty coffee place in Ioannina. Definitely worth checking it out
Alexandra Coffeeshop – traditional pantry shop in Aristi that also serves tea but most famously a traditional stove-baked cheesepie
Adriano restaurant – cosy and nice Italian restaurant in Papingo offering both lunch and dinner
Sterna – beautiful hand-crafted retail shop in Papingo, offering a wide array of deserts and herbal tea; at the basement they also sell artisan produce
To Kafeneio tou Kouli – nice spot for a relaxing coffee in Papingo
Traditional Café Mezaria – one of the best spots in the eastern part of Zagorohoria, up in Kapesovo
Traditional Café Vikogiatros – small cafe by the main square of Vitsa
Kanella & Garyfallo – delicious lunch in Vitsa in this all-mushroom restaurant; just make sure you visit early enough to avoid the crowd
Joya – very cosy and small café-bar that opened in 2019, serving also some nice snacks to complement your drink at night. When the weather allows, you can also sit outside and enjoy the view to the mountain