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Epirus – A Secret Paradise in Greece

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The Katara Pass or Metsovo Pass, the mountain pass in the Pindus mountains in northern Greece. (Photo by Eurokinissi)

The northern border of Greece is a mountainous and forested escape that has an intricate history. Officially called the region of Epirus, this part of Greece stretches from the most northern border touching Albania and extends along the southwest coast. A less frequented region for tourists, Epirus has an entirely different atmosphere and vibe compared to the more advertised islands in the Aegean Sea. One of the most mountainous parts of Greece, Epirus offers a look into the diverse natural landscape of the country, but its significance goes deeper than its natural beauty, as this part of the Greek border has been fought for and contested ferociously.

Habitation of Epirus dates back to antiquity and has been home to legendary tribes. The extent of the ancient Mycenean civilization could be tracked by the artifacts found in the Epirus region. One of the most powerful and influential civilizations, the Myceneans imprinted their legacy on Epirus. After their decline, Epirus was subject to invasions from other Greek tribes who saw an opportunity to seize the fertile and powerful strongholds.

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Dodoni ancient theatre. (Photo by TNH, file)

First, the Dorians, followed by smaller tribes like the Thesproti, Molossi, and Chaones created settlements in Epirus. In contrast to the big city of Athens, people here lived in humble villages with only the simple necessities. For this reason, there were many misconceptions and stereotypes about Epirotes such as they lack a sense of civility. But this was far from the truth, in fact Epirus was home to one of the most valued and revered oracles in Greece. Besides the oracle of Delphi, the oracle of Dodona was deeply loved and was mentioned in detail by great authors like Herodotus and Homer, who wrote of it in his famed Iliad and Odyssey. The oracle of Dodona was believed to be dedicated to the king of the Gods, Zeus, and was therefore one of the most ancient in Greece. But evidence in archeological findings suggest that the worship that took place there was even more ancient than Zeus. Worship of the Great Goddess of fertility took place at Dodona, with an emphasis on the oak tree that was seen as sacred.

Despite its elevated status, this oracle was also approached by average citizens who sought guidance for everyday occurrences and challenges, whereas the oracle at Delphi was sought for to answer the heavier questions pressing the Greeke states.

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The port of Igoumenitsa. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Yiorgos Kontarinis)

As the centuries passed, the sacred site became more sophisticated in terms of its structures and architecture. Temples were built to honor different gods and goddesses as well as cultural centers like theaters, stadiums, and government gathering places. These temples and buildings were destroyed and restored several times, but thankfully, many surviving structures were able to be excavated and restored in the early 1900's. The archeological site of Dodona or Dodoni is located about twenty-five minutes south of the modern day city of Ioannina. The sacred oak tree was torn up around 393 BC, but you can still marvel at the restored theater, the foundations of the temples of Aphrodite and Hercules, and the site of the oracle.

In the modern period, the Greek border in Epirus was often challenged by neighboring countries and governments. During the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Greece and its neighbors continued to fight against the invading Ottomans Turks. In the first half of the war the Balkan countries succeeded in pushing back the Ottomans but further conflict erupted between them while determining where their respective borders should lay. Despite the turmoil, during this war is when much of what we see with modern Greek borders was won back. Many of the major cities in Epirus were a part of this reclamation campaign.

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The City of Ioannia. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Michalis Papanikolaou)

Along with Ioannina in the center of Epirus, other major cities are Igoumenitsa on the northwesternmost border, and Preveza some kilometers away along the southwestern sea coast. Igoumenitsa has a major port with regular ferry service to and from neighboring Italy, a trade and now tourism route that has persisted for millennia. Ioannina is smaller but no less developed. Situated on the banks of Lake Pamvotida and more inland, Ioannina is the capital city of Epirus. Although it is home to regular residents it is also a popular winter destination for people from other cities around Greece. The lake provides a different kind of connection to the water, a more calm and grounded experience compared to those at sea. Influence from the many cultures and occupiers can still be seen in the various architectural artifacts around the city, like the ruins of a Byzantine fortress.

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The lake of Ioannia. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Michalis Papanikolaou)

Unlike travel trends in the Aegean on the other side of Greece, many people come to Epirus for the mountain escape it provides. While the sea is beautiful and refreshingly cool in the coastal towns, there is a wide selection of excursions and adventures into the mountains. Along the Voidomatis River north of Ioannina city are a handful of ancient stone bridges worth seeing, and there are several tour guide stations for unique experiences like white water rafting and even horseback riding in the river. Within the Pindus mountain range that dominates Epirus are seemingly endless peaks and gorges, perfect for those who seek to go hiking and exploring in nature. As the rivers and their streams wind through the mountains, do not be surprised if you come across one of their wild waterfalls. The ecosystem in the Pindus mountains of Epirus is comprised of volcanic and metamorphic rock such as granite. It is populated mostly with the sacred oak trees like that of the oracle of Dodona, and pine and beech trees as can be found in other mountainous parts of Greece and the Balkans. On the eastern border of Epirus towards central Greece are scattered villages along the hillsides. The large village of Metsovo is popular in the wintertime due to its picturesque buildings and panoramic views of the surrounding mountain peaks, which always feels like Christmas. The nearby lake Techniti Aoou is yet another hidden gem nestled in the valleys between the towering mountains. It seems that there is something special around every turn in Epirus. While there are the standard beach towns along the west coast, there are also deep and ancient forests up in the mountains toward the east.

Take a dip in the stone-cooled sea or take a drive high into the Pindus range where you can see the Milk Way high up in the sky. Either way, Epirus is a secret paradise in Greece that we may want to keep that way.