When most people think about a trip to Greece, the first thing that comes to mind is a trip to the islands, right? The Greek islands are always a great choice for a vacation with relaxation, history and sightseeing in mind.
But I was happily surprised last fall when I was invited to visit the mountains of Greece. From Athens it was a short flight to Ioannina, in a region called Epirus in the northwest of the country. The city is located on a serene lake surrounded by mountains.
We took a day trip to the Pindus Mountains. It seemed that time had stopped! Local people wearing traditional outfits, the brick streets, the architecture haven’t changed much since the town was build, which made it very quaint and charming. There was no sign of the economic crisis that has hit most of the country, since they produce everything they need to live thanks to their rich agriculture.
After a short climb into the mountains you’ll arrive at the deepest gorge in the world. Yes, that’s right – the Vicos Gorge is indeed deeper than the Grand Canyon! You’ll find a small monastery perched on its edge, Monastery of Paraskevi, where the resident monk sits and paints icons and other religious objects for sale to tourists. The top of the gorge is just a short 15-minute walk up, and the view is spectacular. Your walk and the fresh air will surely open your appetite, as you return, you can choose among several small restaurants that have been family-run for generations and serve a variety of local dishes. Don’t miss the traditional pies made with one of the region’s special cheeses – they’re delicious! I kept asking them the name of them and they would simply say: “cheese pie!”
Back down the mountain, the castle of Ioannina on the lake serves as a reminder of the town’s history. It also houses the Museum of Silversmithing, which pays tribute to the important role the silversmiths of the region have played throughout the ages. In fact, a family from a nearby town founded the Bulgari brand.
One of the silversmith techniques on view in the museum is filigrana (filigree in English). Seeing that brought a big smile to my face because when I was just 8 years old, I fell in love with a silver filigrana butterfly pin decorating a Bambi plush stuffed animal in my grandparent’s farmhouse. Even then I loved accessories and had a keen eye for quality items! I turned the pin into a hair clip and it became one of my style signatures, which I still have today. On our visit to the town shops I bought two more butterfly pins to add to my collection.
Just a few minutes’ drive outside of Ioannina is the must-see Oracle of Dodona. While it probably isn’t as well known around the world as the Oracle of Delphi, it’s even older and is considered the second most important oracle of ancient times. According to Aristotle, it’s also the birthplace of Hellenism, and of the name “Greeks”. Homer has described it as an oracle of Zeus, and writes of Odysseus visiting it in The Iliad. Next to an impressive and fully intact theater, there is still an oak tree situated in the sanctuary that you can approach, which in antiquity was how the oracle signaled to the priests which actions to be taken. According to ancient Egyptian legend, the spiritual culture of ancient Egypt arrived in this location in the form of a dove.
From the local delicacies, to the beautiful mountain scenery, to the wondrous ancient site of the Oracle of Dodona, this region shows a side of Greece rarely seen or experienced by even the most seasoned travelers. I highly recommend taking the time to experience it for yourself.
We stayed at Du Lac Hotel and Congress Center, where we had a view of the lake as well as the mountains. It’s walking distance to the center of the town.
On Sunday before leaving, we went for a stroll on the charming main square. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, the cafes packed with people of all ages eating together and leisurely enjoying their coffees. And every little store you pass is filled with intricate handmade silver jewelry to take home – a stylish souvenir for sure!