Greece's Zagori region gains UNESCO World Heritage status

The historic rural landscape of Zagorochoria, with traditional stone villages nestled within the Pindus mountain range, will now receive better protection and funding under the new UNESCO-listing...

5 mins

Away from Greece’s popular islands and famous archaeological sites, in the Pindus Mountains of northwest Greece, the Zagori is one of the most distinct and beautiful regions not only in Greece, but all Europe. Slavic for ‘Land behind the Mountain’ the Zagori covers some 1,000sq km and encompasses 46 stone-built villages, collectively known as the Zagorochoria.

The setting in Vikos-Aoös National Park is spectacular. Home to 120 bird species, brown bears, wolves, otters, lynxes, and chamois, it is far from the noise of the modern world. But what truly set the Zagorochoria apart was a treaty signed back in 1430 with the new ruler of Epirus, the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, who granted the villages autonomy and tax exemptions in exchange for supplying a number of young men to work as the Sultan’s grooms.

It was a unique arrangement. Over time, surrounding villages inhabited by Vlachs (Romance-speakers) and nomadic Sarakistani shepherds were added to the self-governing Zagorochoria. Education and culture were promoted – even girls went to school.

The Scala of Vradeto is a historic stone path (Shutterstock)

The Scala of Vradeto is a historic stone path (Shutterstock)

Stone Bridge of Kleidonia (Shutterstock)

Stone Bridge of Kleidonia (Shutterstock)

The relative freedom they enjoyed attracted scholars and rebels. Many locals became merchants who travelled throughout Central Europe, Asia Minor, the Balkans, Mediterranean and Black Sea, sending home money that made the Zagorochoria one of the wealthiest pockets in Greece – and introducing architectural and cultural influences still reflected today in the local folktales, music and dance.

Yet because of their isolation, the villagers were also self-sufficient – as the men travelled, the women worked the land and herded flocks. Local healers became renowned across the Balkans for their knowledge of cures, using the 1,800 plants species of the area, including many rare endemics that grow only on the highest mountains.

Visitors to the Zagorochoria often feel as if they’ve landed in a fairy tale illustration. The natural and built environments are in perfect harmony. Grey stone houses and mansions, churches, and elegant bridges over gorges and streams, are all knitted by cobbled paths (kalderimia) winding through forests and rugged slopes. Yet when they became part of Greece in 1913, many villagers left to make an easier living elsewhere.

The first modern roads into the Zagori only date from the 1950s, when outsiders began to discover the region. Today it’s considered a Greek national treasure. Once abandoned mansions have been converted into cosy inns. Active holidays are especially popular, especially hiking along the kalderimia. Outdoor companies offer rafting, kayaking, canyoning, paragliding, mountain biking, mushroom hunting and skiing on and off piste in winter, when the Zagorochoria are blanketed in snow.

Vikos Gorge in Zagori (Shutterstock)

Vikos Gorge in Zagori (Shutterstock)

At the top of many visitors’ lists is walking the 13km path through the Vikos Gorge through the heart of the Zagori. At 900m, it’s second only to the Grand Canyon in depth, and the deepest canyon in the world in relation to its width. Starting from the village of Monodendri, allow around seven hours to reach either Vikos or Mikro Papingo. Bring a picnic, hiking sticks and stop for a refreshing dip in the icy Voïdomatis springs; before you go, be sure to arrange for a taxi back to your hotel. Or just go and enjoy the vertiginous views into the gorge from the Oxia Lookout, 8km north of Monodendri.

By car, it takes fifteen hairpin turns to reach Mikro Papigno and Megalo Papingo, two of the oldest Zagorochoria villages, with a beautiful set of rock pools between them where you can swim. At Mikro Papingo, you can pick up the trail for the Zagori’s second most popular trek, up to Drakolimni (Dragon Lake) and beyond to one of the summits of the 2497m Tymphi range – nicknamed the Greek Alps.

Another must is the breathtaking view from the Beloi Lookout near Vradeto, the loftiest village, located near the Vradeto Steps – the often-photographed 1,200 steps coiling down a steep forest slope. Or seek out the remarkable bridges, near Kipi – the Milos Bridge and the triple-arched Plakides Bridge.

In the spring, the Zagorochoria are a riot of wildflowers; in autumn the colours blaze against the clear blue sky. But any time of year it’s a place that touches your heart.

Dikorfo village (Shutterstock)

Dikorfo village (Shutterstock)

Need to know

Location: The Zagori is an hour north of Ioannina, the capital of Epirus in northwest Greece.

Getting there: The nearest international airport is Preveza Aktion, two hours south of Ioannina; it’s served from April through October by direct flights from airports across the UK on British Airway, Easyjet, Ryanair, among others. Alternatively fly to Athens and take a domestic flight to Ioannina, or the bus (five hours).

Getting around Buses are scarce; you’ll need a hire car (you’ll need to be confident on narrow mountain roads) or taxi. If you want to hike the Vikos Gorge, local companies can organize transport back to your hotel. Cicerone’s Walking and Trekking in Zagori is useful.

Accommodation Monodendri, one of the largest of the Zagorochoria is convenient for hiking the gorge: try the Vikos Traditional Hotel. Eco-friendly luxury options include Mikro Papingo 1700 Hotel & Spa with spectacular views, and the Artisti Mountain Resort & Villas in Aristi. 

For more information: Northern Greece (Bradt Travel Guides, 2020) by Dana Facaros. 

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