Between the Pindus range and the Ionian Sea, the mountainous region of Epirus is in the northwest of Greece. The coast has the kind of warm climate and pine trimmed coves you’d expect from the Ionian Islands, but inland the landscape becomes vast and winters blanket the peaks in snow.
One of many awesome natural sights in Epirus is the Vikos Gorge, a great void in the landscape a kilometre deep and easier to traverse than it looks.
In antiquity Epirus was home to oracles like Dodona and Necromanteion, mentioned by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and still visitable today. In the 19th century just before the Greek Revolution Epirus was ruled by the tyrannical but surprisingly modern Ali Pasha, and you can retrace his last days in the city of Ioannidis.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Epirus:
1. Vikos Gorge
In the Vikos–Aoös National Park is the gorge with the greatest depth to width ratio in the world, plunging 1,000 metres at its lowest point.
The immense and precipitous rocky barriers of this natural wonder are something to behold, and you can experience it the easy way from above or on a trek along the Voidomatis River at the bottom of the gorge.
A newly laid road from the village of Monodendri will take you to the Oxia viewing platform, positioned above the deepest part of the gorge and presenting the full majesty of its cliffs.
There’s another vantage point on the east side of the gorge at Beloi, or you can strike out on the walking trail from Monodendri.
The hike to the village of Vikos takes five hours along the Voidomatis through this tremendous, unspoiled cleft in the earth’s surface.
At a pass on the eastern slopes of Mount Tomaros is the oldest of all the oracles in Ancient Greece.
Homer mentioned Dodona in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and at the funeral pyre of Patroclus in the Iliad Achilles says the priests at Dodona would sleep on the ground and not wash their feet to be united with the earth.
They offer advice by interpreting the rustling of an oak tree, which was believed to grow above the gods Zeus and Dione.
In the 3rd century BC, when Dodona was the religious and political hub of the Epirot Alliance, a wall was built around the oracle.
This has been partly restored, and the same goes for the bouleuterion (assembly hall) and stadium.
The theatre, also from the 3rd century, is another wonder, with two tiers of seats intact and a photogenic view of Mount Tomaros from its back rows.
3. Ioannina Kastro
At the town of Ioannina, the rectangular promontory pushing out onto Lake Pamvotida has been fortified since at least the 11th century, and maybe as long ago as the 6th century AD. The Kastro was reinforced in the early 1800s by the Ottoman Albania ruler, Ali Pasha of Ioannina, who enclosed it in the current walls.
He also rebuilt “Its Kale”, an enclave in the southeast of the citadel, home to his palace and the Fethiye Mosque.
The palace is a ruin today, and the military hospital built in Greek times on the foundations now hosts the Byzantine Museum of Ioannina.
Take a seat on the terrace and bask in the views of the lake, the Island of Ioannis and the hills at the southernmost point of the Pindou National Park.
Also treat yourself to a slice of ekmek (layered custard cake) and a powerful cup of coffee at one of the town’s cafes.
4. Acheron River
If you trace the Acheron back from its mouth at Ammoudia the river becomes a big natural playground.
The Acheron was one of the five rivers of the Underworld in Greek mythology.
At the springs in the village of Gliki you can go on a water trek, which will involve climbing over rocks and swimming in transparent water.
All you need is some kind of waterproof container for your belongings and swim shoes for the riverbed.
Rafting and kayaking are also on the menu, and you can also ride horses right through the water.
As a mountain spring the Archeron is very frigid, but when the mercury hits the 40s in July and August you won’t mind cold feet.
5. Bridge of Arta
No simple bridge, this structure spanning the Arachthos River to the west of the city of Arta, is woven into Greek folklore.
It is the subject of the much recited Acritic folk ballad the Bridge of Arta.
According to the ballad the bridge would collapse every night until the head builder, on the advice of a bird with a human voice, sacrificed his wife and buried her in the foundations to ensure its completion.
As she was being buried alive the wife cursed the bridge, so that people crossing would “fall like leaves”, but when she realises that her brother might also cross, she changes her curse to a blessing: “As the tall mountains tremble, so shall the bridge tremble, and as the birds of prey fall, so shall passers fall”. Historically the bridge may have Roman or Ancient Greek foundations, while its present design is Ottoman, from the start of the 17th century.
6. Parga Castle
This castle perched on a promontory in Parga is at the top of a stairway with tavernas, galleries and boutiques.
This path is much more fun than taking the road to the top.
Parga Castle was raised in the 1000s as a lookout and refuge from pirate raids, and was strengthened 200 years later by the Venetians.
From that time on Parga and its castle were at the centre of a tug of war between the Venetians and Ottomans, and the stronghold was wrecked three times to be rebuilt.
A reminder of Venetian dominion can be seen on the gate where there’s a winged lion of St Mark.
Parga was eventually sold to the Ottomans in the 19th century, when Ali Pasha built a hammam and the quarters for his harem at the highest point.
Another oracle mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey is the Necromanteion, by the Acheron River, which was believed to be the door to Hades.
Faithful visitors to the Necromanteion believed they could communicate with their dead ancestors.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus conducted his “nekyia”, a rite in which ghosts were summoned and questioned about the future.
In 1958 a potential location for the Necromanteion was found on a hilltop and then excavated in the 60s and 70s.
Whether this is the true location of the Necromanteion is open to question, as the ruins here have been identified as a Hellenistic farmhouse, but it’s an interesting site all the same.
The complex is hemmed by strong stone walls, and there are long, mysterious chambers underground, which were probably used for storing grain or water.
8. Archaeological Site of Nikopolis
It’s a mystery why this enormous 900-hectare archaeological site on the Gulf of Arta doesn’t get more traffic.
Nikopolis was founded by Augustus eight kilometres from modern Preveza to celebrate his victory of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in the 1st century BC. The settlement blossomed into a powerful urban centre in Epirus and has both Roman and Byzantine monuments.
Some things to check out are the mammoth walls guarding the city, with big sections going back 2,000 years, an Odeon, a theatre with 77 rows of seats, the Roman villa of Antonius, the nympheum, a monument to the victory at Actium and fragments of an aqueduct.
9. Nikopolis Museum
A kilometre from the archaeological site at Nikopolis is a museum with a constantly growing array of artefacts found in excavations.
The exhibition shows how Nikopolis evolved into cultural and political centre in late antiquity, not least because of its location at a mid-way point between Rome and Constantinople.
Some pieces go back to before the city’s foundation, like a marble funerary statue of a lion from the 3rd century BC and a statue of the goddess Athena.
Other outstanding pieces are the marble head of the founder, Octavius Augustus from the 1st century BC and a sarcophagus with reliefs from the 3rd century AD.
10. Ovires (Papingo Rock Pools)
Off the twisting mountain road from Papingo to Mikro Papingo is a chain of natural pools on the Rogovo stream.
Over time the water has sliced through the rock to form a ravine with otherworldly stratified rock in shelves that you can walk along.
The stream cascades down in steps and on each level is another perfectly clear pool calling you to jump in.
There are some 20 pools in all and their cold water is a relief on sweltering days.
11. Valtos Beach
You can follow up a morning at the Castle of Parga with a lazy afternoon on the Blue Flag shingle beach tucked into the cove on the castle’s western flank.
With that monument and a small fleet of boats in the cove for scenery, Valtos has all the life and fun of a resort beach.
The beach attracts big crowds in summer and a watersports centre on the east end rents out pedal boats and inflatable rafts and organising banana boat trips.
Generally, sun loungers and parasols come with the price of a drink, and this is handy as the shingle surface can be uncomfortable.
You may need flip flops or swim shoes to get down into the sea, which is light blue and tranquil.
12. Island of Ioannina
In Ioannina you can catch a ferry across Lake Pamvotida to this island, measuring just 800 metres by 500 metres.
But even if its small, the Island of Ioannina packs a lot of interesting things onto its shores.
There are seven monasteries here, the oldest of which, Agios Nikolaos of Philanthropenoi, dates back to the 13th century and has sublime 16th-century frescoes in its church.
Also here is the summer home of Ali Pasha, now a museum where you can enter the very room in which he was killed by the soldiers of the Grand Vizier Hurshid Pasha after a revolt.
Ali was shot from below through the floor and the bullet marks are still in the boards.
The island’s main settlement, a stone-build fishing village on the north coast is a delight and has a clutch of restaurants and cafes.
13. Monastery of Molivdoskepasti
On the road less travelled, the Monastery of Molivdoskepasti is by the Aoos River, just before it empties into the Viosa at the border with Albania.
The drive from Ioannina takes about an hour, and it’s a road that will live long in your memory, weaving through the glorious mountainscapes of the western Pindus range.
The monastery dates from the 7th century AD and according to tradition was founded by Constans II, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire.
In the 14th century it was renovated by the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos, and there’s a fresco depicting the two emperors on the west side of the abbey.
The carved wooden iconostasis has a highly venerated icon of the Virgin Mary, drawing scores of worshippers on 15 August (especially couples struggling to conceive).
14. Pavlos Vrellis Greek History Museum
In Bizani, a 20-minute drive south of Ioannina, is a waxwork museum with 150 models created by one man, Pavlos Vrellis.
The sculptor established the museums in 1983 in a reproduction of a traditional fortified house from the 18th century, with plain stone walls and corbelled window boxes.
In 37 themed tableaux the museums is a guided timeline of Greek history from 500 BC to the 20th century, with an accent on the modern history of Epirus.
The three main sections are pre-1821 history, the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830) and the Second World War.
There’s a tableau for the death of Ali Pasha, and sculpture of the famous Klephts (mountain-dwelling insurgents) and military figures like the successful general Theodoros Kolokotronis.
15. Sarakiniko Beach
About 20 minutes west of Parga on a meandering road, Sarakiniko is a joyous sand and pebble beach in a recess from the Ionian Coast.
If you’re in Parga and don’t have a car you can catch a water taxi to the beach on a scenic ride for €11 each way.
The coastline west Parga is rocky and unpopulated, and Sarakiniko is the only real tourist development between here and Parga.
In July and August the beach is a forest of parasols for rented sun loungers, although there’s a public space where you can lie on your towel by the steps on the north side.
There are two tavernas and a cafe behind, bring your drinks and meals right to your sun lounger if you choose.