Inspiring people, incredible craftsmen and 47 unique villages are among the treasures to be found in the rich, beautiful and rugged mountains of Tzoumerka.
In the yard in front of the old three-story school in Syrrako, a cafe now welcomes visitors for a cup of coffee or something stronger. In Vourgareli – the once kefalohori (or ‘head-village’) of Ottoman beys and local herdsmen, the entrance to the headquarters of the legendary resistance figure Napoleon Zervas may be overgrown with weeds, but curtains still hang in the windows. In a cafe in Pramanta, Yiorgos Bekas, a stonemason from a long and distinguished line of craftsmen chews his pipe and blows out a cloud of smoke through the chaos of his beard. In Kypseli the Pantelis Karalis Museum is brimming with relics from a time when the Ottoman empire was not a memory but a reality. On the Aracthos, a river-guide sees me looking down at him and his raft full of oar-wielding adventurers from a bridge and urges me to, ‘Jump, Eleftheria, jump!” There is no way I am jumping, despite the fact that the Aracthos is one of the most alluring rivers that I have ever seen. It has a pale green color, like that of an emerald.
Our journey in Tzoumerka is short but incredibly rich. Tsopela, Pramanta, Mihalitsi, Ktistades, Raftanaioi, Ambelohori, Agnanta, Kataraktis, Melissourgoi, Matsouki, Kalarites, Syrrako, Kypseli, Vourgareli and Theodoriana. These are the villages and settlements that we visit in a short few days. There are many still that we do not have time for as it is impossible to see everything in just one trip. The Tzoumerka (or Athamanika – after the ancient Athamanes) peaks form a mountain range in western Greece at the lower tip of the greater Pindos range. A total of 47 villages – known as the Tzoumerkohoria, exist on the slopes of the mountains, split between the regions of Arta and Ioannina. And while each has its own distinct character, they all share certain features identifying them as members of the same family: the square shaded by a plane tree, the stone-built houses, the central church.
Some larger, some smaller, the Tzoumerkohoria are mostly quiet – indeed almost silent in several cases where there are few permanent residents. For tourists, the most famous of the bunch are probably Kalarrites and Syrrako, two beautiful stone-built villages whose distinct character is protected by law. While the two are relatively close to one another as the crow flies, on the ground it is a different story, with one needing to travel 24 kilometers by road and spend a little short of an hour to get from one to the other (alternatively there is a footpath that connects the two). We often run into such ‘setbacks’ and delays on our trip, making our theoretically simple itinerary more difficult to realize in practice. But it makes sense in this mountainous terrain where the roads are all bends, punctuated every now and then by small boulders dislodged during recent rockfalls. Elsewhere large cracks have appeared in the asphalt so driving requires a degree of caution.
As would be expected given its location in the heart of Epirus, the region of Tzoumerka has many stone bridges. These range in size from the tiny Neraidogefyro (literally ‘fairy-bridge’) to the bridges of Gogou and Politsas, reaching the enormous Plaka bridge, a huge single-arched bridge that once spanned the Aracthos, the river that once formed the natural border between the nascent Greek state and the Ottoman Empire. The Plaka Bridge collapsed during the winter of 2015 in the wake of major storms. Today, and until its pledged restoration, all that is left is a gaping hole and a few large pieces partially submerged in the river. Despite this, the location where the historic bridge once stood remains attractive, with the customs office on the Greek side of the old border now a cafe.
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