The mountains continue their ancient and indomitable reign over the heartland of Epirus. Some with lazy valleys dressed in a deep-green cloak, and others nude, with steep, rough edges and pointy tips, they adorn the backbone of the Pindos mountain range. None, however, have the wild, untouched and glorious beauty of the Athamanika mountains, otherwise known as Tzoumerka, which stand above the rest like the teeth of some gigantic dragon, painted purple and red by the dying sunlight.
People known as Athamanes have lived here since ancient times and today, in the cluster of villages that dot the foot of the mountains and its slopes, the residents of the Tzoumerkohoria (the villages of Tzoumerka) continue to gaze proudly into the distant horizon over the sea of mountains. The hard landscape forged by rivers, stone and tough tree trunks, and hard people with their pastures and stone cottages continue to wage the eternal battle over who will overpower whom.
The call is irresistible: the aroma of lotus flowers and wet wood, the vibrant red of the dogwood and the yellow of the loquat tree entice you to leave the road to the city behind and explore the shady depths of this wild piece of nature.
Despite an unfinished road network, difficult access and roads that are often impassable in winter – conditions that explain, at least in part, why this true gem of a destination remains mostly unexplored by international visitors – the rewards from a trip to Tzoumerka are plentiful.
Whether driving from Arta, Ioannina or Trikala, it is relatively easy to reach the bigger villages, such as Pramanta and Agnata, where you can set up base.
The Tzoumerkohoria comprise around 47 villages and hamlets spread out over the municipalities of Arta and Ioannina, and the recently established municipalities of Central Tzoumerka and Northern Tzoumerka. Each of the villages has its own beauties and unique characteristics. Some are made up of just a cluster of homes and others are quite large; some are grand with stately homes and others are nestled in the woods beside running streams; some are built on steep slopes and some in the embrace of valleys – but they are all authentic.
You can enjoy a cup of coffee and a wonderful view on the pretty main square of Voulgareli, or a glass of fiery tsipouro at the traditional cafe in Ramia; wander the cobbled alleys of Syrrako and Kalarrytes, taking in the unique architecture of the two Vlach villages, considered by some as the finest specimens of their kind in Greece. You can have a veritable feast of meat in Hosepsi (also known as Kypseli) or at the larger villages of Pramantas and Agnata, where there is a bigger selection of eateries, or revel in the majesty of nature at Katarraktis, a village named after the country’s biggest waterfall. The village of Kedros has pretty traditional stone-built houses and a guesthouse.
There is no shortage of things to do in Tzoumerka, provided you have a car and are up for a good deal of walking. Over the past few years, moreover, the area has started doing a better job of promoting itself and a good number of decent guest houses and hotels have sprung up.
If it’s adventure you’re after, at Monolithi, close to the famed Plaka Bridge, there is a hotel that offers rafting excursions down a beautiful river valley. Nearby you will also find Teloneio, a recently refurbished hotel that is housed in a beautiful old custom house on the former Greek-Turkish border.
Tzoumerka is even more stunning if you’re exploring it off-road, but you will need to have a very well-equipped 4x4 vehicle and preferably a local to guide you, as the roads can be quite treacherous in parts. Sites worth exploring include the Anemotrypa Cave outside of Pramantas, which is 250 meters deep and has small underground lakes and a river, or the Red Church (Kokkini Ekklisia) in Palaiohori, which is built of local stone with a reddish hue.
Trekking fans will also find plenty of paths worth exploring; though, again, caution and good preparation are required.
The one thing that visitors to Tzoumerka are absolutely guaranteed is great food: The meat is of excellent quality and the tsipouro is renowned all over Greece. The tsipouro is made mostly of a local variety of grape known as Zambela.