Travel With Kids to Epirus’s Petra
Few are the places where the man-made environment ties up so harmoniously with Nature’s own architecture. Among these are the Zagori Villages in Epirus, an ideal destination in Greece for every family.
From Kokkori’s bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in Greece, the road to Kipoi (pronounced “kipi”) is adorned with rare natural works of sculpture. The Zagori villages (or Zagoria), also known as “stone villages,” camouflaged within the natural stone formations and connected by elaborately built bridges, are grey in the winter. Streaks of green light, however, leap out from the stone when the sun shines on them, suggesting that the best time to visit Zagori would be springtime and summer. Easy trekking paths around Kipoi makes the area perfect for kids, as do water activities in Greece’s bluest river, Voidomatis. Take weaving and pitta-baking or cooking classes, learn about the local folklore and taste the excellent food!
Family Stories in Central Zagori’s Traditional Manors
“If you haven’t visited a traditional Zagori mansion you cannot understand Zagorianites,” a friend told me some time ago. I did get a chance to visit one during our stay in Kipoi. Its rooms and their function reveal local daily life and culture of the past: The “mangeato,” or dining room; the “ondas” or bedroom with the wooden beds (or “bassia”) nailed on the floor; the “sansin,” the sunniest room of the house; the “katogi” or basement; the large closets at the ground level and further in the “bibtsa,” where food was kept in the cool. Secret exits, embrasures and hidden passages to neighboring homes tell of the need to protect the family from burglars bold enough to take hostages. “Look Ma! There are not as many trees in this photo as there are out there today,” one of my daughters noticed in an old black and white photo that left us wondering if there had been a conscious effort to systematically plant the area.
Family Hiking in Zagori Villages
We owe the re-opening of the old Zagori paths to Mr. Thucydides Papageorgiou, owner of the “Thucydides” hostel in Kapesovo and his friend film director Chronis Pechlivanides. The area is part of the Vikos-Aoos National Park. Because of their special quality and beauty, these paths have been included in the list of the UNESCO protected geoparks.
“Kipoi’s old name is ‘Baya.’ The word means ‘bath’ in the Vlach language and it obviously has to do with the many natural springs in the area. The town used to be known for its very accomplished fishermen,” says Angelos, our guide, as we begin hiking on one of the easier but no less impressive paths. “It comes as no surprise if you notice the local fauna. With no goats or sheep, vegetation has grown wild in the last several years. The trees absorb the water and do not let it spring out of the ground. Less water fewer fish!” explains Angelos. “We only saw cows around the Zagori villages,” said one of the children “and they don’t clean up after their mess!”
First stop at the Folk Art Museum created by Mr. Agapios Tolis to house his collection of antique items reflecting both the urban and the agrarian life of the past. Then, we walked downhill toward the Bayiotiko stream and the Mylos Bridge, named after the watermill by its side. “The famous stone bridges of the Zagori area were built in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Ottoman rule, when Zagori was an important trade center between East and West. Imagine the endless caravans from Constantinople (today Istanbul) transporting goods to the West and crowding over the bridges on which we now walk for recreation,” Angelos continued as the view of Kipoi spread in front of us on the opposite mound. “Most of these bridges are named after the person who paid for their construction rather than the engineer who designed and built them.” After half an hour’s hike in the morning dew we arrived at the famous Kalogeriko-Plakidas bridge. “But this is not the case here,” remarked the youngest of our group! Indeed, the three-arched bridge was built by the monks of a nearby monastery and was later repaired with the charitable donation of a benefactor by the name Plakidas, so it bears two names.
After a short climb, the town of Koukouli was now visible. Large yew shrubs grew on both sides of the path and the kids could not stop picking acorns. “The oldest yew shrub in the area is 600 years old and grows near the town of Aristi. The flora is very rich and many of the herbs are medicinal, hence the term ‘Vikdoctors,’” continues Angelos, “after Vikos, one of the Zagori villages.” Mr. Costas Lazarides, primary school teacher and naturalist, has a rare collection of local plants exhibited at the Koukouli Museum that operates under the aegis of the Rizarios Ecclesiastic School. This is where any serious conversation about the area’s natural history begins.
At “Vikogiatros” or “Vikdoctor’s,” the traditional coffee shop on the town square, the shining sun tells us that spring is not far. A stop for a glass of tsipouro (local alcoholic drink) for the adults and local pies for everyone sounds like a good idea. The kids are already chasing each other in the open space of the square. The weather is good. “Cheese pie, vegie pie and a few more minutes for the traditional flour pie,” suggests the owner. “Flour pie, flour pie with honey!” shout the kids from the other side of the square.
Strengthened by our mid-morning bite, we started back toward Kipoi over the Kondodemos-Lazarides bridge. We had already crossed three bridges of rare beauty. Indeed, around the town of Kipoi one can find the most beautiful stone bridges, easy hiking paths, and endless number of springs, small streams and creeks. The town of Kipoi is ideal as a base for family outings into nature. Not far from Kipoi is Vikaki, “a small gorge of stunning beauty to traverse in the summer months even with kids as young as 6 years,” Angelos informs us.
The next morning the Zagori villages had turned into sugar land, as my daughter put it when she pulled the curtain to look out from the “onda.” Fluffy, white snow was everywhere.
Family Activities in Zagori
- Family hiking crossing over the famous bridges and stopping for traditional pies at the squares of the various villages. Follow your family’s own pace based on the age, ability and interest of your group.
- Visit a traditional hostel for a unique family experience, a taste of Zagori rustic life, by participating in weaving classes, making traditional pies and enjoying the fruits of your labor.
- Go rafting in Voidomatis, the bluest of Greek rivers.
- Walk from Monodendri to Aghia Paraskevi (about 15min. walk with kids – but do take the return walk into account as well – to admire the view of the Vikos gorge from a safe distance. You can also view the Vikos gorge from the road to Papingo or the Rachi scenic spot: Leave your car at the square of the town of Vikos and walk for 100m. to a kiosk with stone benches. Continue for another 20m. to a wooden kiosk built on the edge of the mountain. Make sure to oversee younger kids or older daredevils!
- Go up to the Anilio Adventure Park, the ski center that is so much more than a ski center and so well suited for families who love the mountains and year-round mountain activities.
- Taste the unique pies at Kikitsa’s in Monodendri where your kids will be able to play in the town square if the weather is good; or eat at Mihalis’s yard in Kipoi; or at Vassilis Katsoupa’s “Cinnamon and Clove” restaurant in Vitsa. Vassilis, otherwise known as “Mushroom Man,” will cook for you the strangest yet tastiest recipes with mushrooms.
- Enjoy the Sterna sweets in Papingo with a view to the Astraka towers, after a walk to the “ovires,” between the Small and the (Big) Papingo. Beware of possible “dips” in the water! Make sure to carry a change of clothes for the kids, especially if they are the bouncy/active type!