I can’t really be objective about Karpenisi; it is an intrinsic part of my personal history, a place I always carry in my heart. Yet for a kid, there was little to love about the town and its surroundings in the early 1980s. It had no beaches – and still obviously doesn’t, despite its name (“nisi” means island in Greek) – and it was a long way from Athens, with it taking us as long as five hours to reach my grandparents’ house, while the stretch of mountain road was a nightmare.
Now, 30 years later, Karpenisi is a very different place. Often, when I wander around the narrow streets above the main square, I look for traces of the past testifying that Karpenisi was part of the poorest prefecture in Greece – Evrytania – just a few decades ago. In the 1990s, however, the town rapidly turned into a popular winter destination, transforming the entire region along with it. Evrytania emerged from poverty and obscurity to become a hub of economic activity. Getting there from Athens has become much easier as the roads have been improved (the trip now takes around 3-3.5 hours). The road to Karpenisi is well maintained and is rarely closed due to snowfall despite the large volumes Evrytania gets in the winter. Nevertheless, it’s best to take a set of snow chains for your tires, just in case.
The trite photographs of snowy bucolic landscapes that normally grace travel brochures for the region do Karpenisi an injustice. The streets in the town are very narrow, there’s quite a bit of traffic and aesthetically it is something of a hodgepodge, without any defining architectural traits. This is largely due to the fact that the town was razed by fire twice during World War II (destroying many of its stately stone houses) and suffered terrible economic hardship in the aftermath of the 1946-49 civil war. But, seen from above – from the winding road that leads up to the ski center, for example – Karpenisi is a pretty sight, with its horseshoe shape, stone structures and red-tiled roofs.
When most Athenians talk about Karpenisi, they are usually referring to the beautiful mountainous landscapes of Evrytania. There, and especially along the Karpenisioti River, you will see a different, more harmonious kind of architecture than that observed in the town, a tourism industry on a smaller and more elegant scale, outdoor activities (climbing, horse riding, hiking, rafting etc), as well as pleasant cafes, tavernas and restaurants.
The news is even better this year because hotel rates throughout the area have been reduced quite significantly (as they should be), as have those at the Velouchi ski resort, which is 100 percent privately owned. Also, a major revamp of Karpenisi’s town center is under way and the first phase has been completed.
The villages near Karpenisi are very popular with holidaymakers and weekenders. Voutiro has a small museum with a replica of a classroom from the early 1950s, Aghia Triada has a folklore museum dedicated to former President and philosopher Constantinos Tsatsos, and Kefalovryso recently inaugurated a botanical garden.
But the biggest plus about this wonderful part of Greece is that you don’t need to do very much to feel that you’ve got away from it all. Simply being in the presence of vast fir forests, gurgling springs and rivers, catching a whiff of a wood fire blazing in a fireplace or tucking into hearty local dishes at a wayside taverna are all it takes.