Monday 16-23 May 2022
STOP PRESS This tour has two last-minute places.
Zagori is a distinct area of the northern Pindos mountains in Greece close to the western city of Ioannina, the regional capital. It is a landscape of high peaks, extensive new-growth oak forest and grazed pasture. The roads are windy and slow and almost every bend seems to offer a more dramatic vista. At Zagori’s heart is the Vikos Gorge, reputedly the deepest in the world and certainly one of the most spectacular natural features I have seen anywhere in Europe.
The encircling mountains now support important populations of wolf and brown bear, yet the northern Pindos also hold some of the highest levels of biodiversity enjoyed by any European region. As an example, the Vikos-Aoos national park, on which we focus for the week, has as many plant species and more mammals than in the entire British Isles. It is to boot among the most natural river systems found on the continent.
As if that this were not enough, Zagori has a remarkable human story. Remittance payments from its historical Greek communities, who travelled and worked all over Europe and the Near East, supported the creation of some of the most striking vernacular architecture you will find anywhere in the Mediterranean. The life of the villages was also interwoven with the yearly migrations of transhumance pastoralists – the Vlachs and Sarakatsani herders – whose sheep flocks kept the slopes open and the flowers in abundance.
Now some of this has gone and Zagori has endured a long period of abandonment, which has led to forest encroachment and a period of inadvertent ‘rewilding’. Yet it has also been the focus of some of the most sympathetic eco-tourism you will find anywhere. With a total population of under 1000 people it feels like a place where nature is in charge. Our holiday is shaped to ensure we enjoy an encounter with all of Zagori’s elements: mountains, rivers, forest trails, meadows, soaring crags, eagles, orchids, insects, butterflies, tortoises, yellow-bellied toads, leopard snakes and snakes’ head fritillaries.
There are some fixtures which we make sure we include in the week: such as the cultural centre at Monodendri, the cliff-edge Paraskevi monastery; the old stone bridges near Kipi; the viewpoints of Oxyia and Beloi, which offer the defining images of this whole landscape; the glorious vernacular architecture at Dilofo (where we stay) and Papigo; the slow descent to the shrine at Vikos to see the waters pouring out of the Voidomatis springs, which are so pure and preternaturally aquamarine-blue that you could almost imagine Naiads bathing on their banks. So much of Zagori is breathtakingly beautiful and the sense of wildlife abundance can be exhilarating. If you wish to read a little more about it and the wildlife then see my blogpost here.
We also spend an entire day in and around Ioannina. It’s a busy city but set amid the most dramatic scenery on the northern shores of Lake Pamvotis. It also has several lovely museums, including Ali Pasha’s mausoleum (below left) and just a ten minute ferry ride is a small island in the lake. It is the location for several monasteries and the sixteenth century images in Philanthropiki monastery are some of the most beautiful Orthodox paintings you will see anywhere in Greece. The island is an excellent wildlife locality with a huge number of breeding great crested grebes and often the odd visiting pelican …
Another goal for our combined day of culture and nature is a visit to the ancient oracular shrine of Dodona close to Ioannina. We also have our lunch near these fifth century BC ruins, perched high above the site with spectacular views over the shrine and the encircling mountains. It seems almost a rule of the Hellenic world that these archaeological sites are also great for wildlife. Dodona is full of singing nightingales and turtle doves, and the open spaces between the remaining stonework, including a rather beautifully restored open-air theatre, can be superb for flowers and butterflies.
The 360 Degree Approach
The week is co-organised and led with director of Balkan Tracks Chris Mounsey. He has lived in Greece for years, speaks Greek and is a mine of information on the culture and history of the area. I have visited Greece 20 times since the 1970s. Our joint approach to the week has been worked out over many years of sharing wildlife and its place in human culture with others. The week is intended to be a form of alfresco salon where the landscapes and life of Epirus are a stimulation for reflection, thought, debate and unending conversation, as well as laughter and great fun. We shall never be in a rush. There will be no concern whatsoever for listing. And while we are not experts in everything, we will look at everything. The aim is to pack each day with wonder so that you have the richest and most imaginative engagement with all parts, whether it is pelicans or al fresco paintings. It is not a writing trip in any sense but the approach lends itself to creative responses. If you feel inspired all the better, and impromptu readings in the evening are a routine part of the holiday.
The week includes moderate walking, some of it involving quite steep climbs and descents (especially the walk into Vikos). However we will provide everyone with walking sticks and really take our time, so all the walks should be perfectly achievable for a reasonably fit person of any age.
Mark Cocker is an author and lifelong naturalist. For more than 30 years he has contributed to the Guardian country diary. His 12 books of creative non-fiction, including Our Place, Birds and People and Crow Country, have been shortlisted for many awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize. Crow Country won the New Angle Prize in 2008. In 2019 A Claxton Diary won the East Anglian Book Award. Mark led wildlife holidays all over the world in a previous life and the 360 Degree approach is a distillation of that experience.
Originally a lawyer in London, Chris Mounsey worked for an environmental NGO in Greece. He and his father Richard then founded their dedicated travel company when they judged that it probably wasn’t just them who enjoyed walking among unknown lakes and mountains and having dinner and drinks with the local shepherds and fishermen. Balkan Tracks was thus born with Chris swapping office life for ‘responsible tourism’; connecting visitors with some of Europe’s finest nature and, importantly, the people who live among it.
In Zagoria we stay (16-22 May) in Archontiko Dilofo, a 400-year-old country house that has been restored to its original condition by the owner Giorgis Kontaxis. It is probably the most beautiful hotel we have found in an area not short of superb accommodation and Giorgis rightly gets rave reviews in the Lonely Planet guide. The rooms are extremely well equipped and have very good wifi. The food is excellent, the breakfasts remarkably generous and varied and we will take our evening meals between Archontiko and a local restuarant five minutes walk away. Dilofo has no roads or cars and is immensely peaceful but there is a short walk to the hotel.
Prices and Arrangements
Single £1595 Shared: £1495 Dates: Mon 16- Mon 23 May 2022
Included are all transfers to/from Thessaloniki airport, all transport, all guiding and entry fees, all meals including daily packed lunches, all accommodation. Chris and Mark will be with you on all excursions. The only additional costs are your flights to/from Thessaloniki, drinks or snacks during the day, evening drinks with your dinners. The group will be a maximum of twelve. Our programme is based on 9am – 6pm excursions, although sometimes we might be later back from more distant locations. We will provide a detailed daily plan closer to departure including recommendations for where to stay in Thessaloniki before or after the trip. We can make reading and equipment recommendations. Thessaloniki is a superb regional capital and many previous participants have booked additional nights before or after the holidays. A £300 deposit is payable on booking. See our websites for additional details but don’t hesitate to ask us for more information.
“I thought the trip was fantastic, a good balance of nature and the culture”
Ed, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019
“Thank you both so much for a wonderful week – so full of richness and food for thought – the 360 degree experience is not only wide but also deep!”
Sheila, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019
“I think the makings of your trip, arranged along with Balkan Tracks, are the variety – in the birds, the wild flowers, the other wildlife – tortoise, snakes, mammals and insects etc., the landscapes and habitats, the cultural experiences – the folk music, ancient history and the food etc. I also particularly appreciated the walks – down into the gorge and to the view point over it…”
Arne, Epirus 360 Degrees 2019