| Green Certified in the Zagori |
Pindus Mountains, northwest Greece. The village, Mikro Papigo, is one of 48 picturesque and ancient settlements arrayed like an amphitheater in the Zagori region. It’s dark when I arrive, past 9 p.m. I know the village is car free, by necessity. Its narrow, cobblestoned lanes were designed for donkey transport. Donkeyless, my path into Mikro Papigo is an uphill slog, bags in tow. And how will I find my way on this inky night? Fortunately, Gabriel, the hotel greeter, is waiting patiently at the entrance to the village. Smiling broadly, he hoists my bags onto the back of a four-wheeler, an ATV. I take the seat next to him and hang on for a opa! ride as we race up the dark lanes and bump around sharp, jagged turns that even the ATV has difficulty getting around. And this is how I arrive at Mikro Papigo 1700, a gloriously green mountain resort and spa in one of the most spectacular and wildest parts of Greece.
It feels like time travel, as if I’ve retreated back to a long-lost age. Incredible, I think. Mikro (Little) Papigo and nearby Megalo (Big) Papigo are only an hour’s drive north of Ioannina, a large city on a major motorway. Although the mountain roads that led me here were winding, I was again impressed with the good condition of the back roads I’ve encountered throughout Greece—and I have encountered quite a few.
Haris and his father Dimitris Exarchou are in the lobby when I arrive. Although the fact escapes me at this hour (and in the drama of my arrival), they own the hotel, along with Haris’ sister and mother. They have waited up for me to arrive, and assure me I can still get dinner at 10 p.m.
Next morning, while I breakfast on local yogurt, honey and fruit, sitting outside and admiring the view, Dimitris tells me his story. He was in the Greek navy, on submarines for 28 years. The family lived in Athens. As with so many families during the current economic crisis, they came back to their taproot, to their village. Dimitris and his wife Anthula both grew up in Mikro Papigo and wanted to make more of their homecoming—by doing something good for their village. Dimitris had traveled the world with the navy and had seen resorts in Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe, and wanted to create something like these in his own village, which he believed was as beautiful as any place he had visited. He is correct: the place is a stunningly beautiful.
These days there are only about 25 year-round residents in Mikro Papigo, but thousands flock into town during the height of the summer tourist season, and hundreds more come in winter to see the snow outlining the limestone cliffs and forests. Nature tourism is the main economic engine here. The region includes the Vikos Gorge and the mountains of Tymfi, well-known destinations for hikers and rafters from Europe and beyond. The National Trail 03 runs along the gorge through the Papigos and up to a mountain refuge hut where you can spend the night. The area is home to many medicinal plants, an abundance of wild flowers, as well as wild animals. Wolves and bears are making a comeback in these mountains. The traditional villages of the Zagori (or Zagoria, Zagorochoria or Zagorohoria) are famous for their distinctive architecture and their history. It is well worth a drive through the region to take in the mountain vistas and visit some of the most scenic towns in Greece—their limestone walls and roofs made from stone slabs resting atop each other without fasteners to hold them in place.
The Mikro Papigo 1700 Hotel and Spa was built in 2007 in just eight months, which to me is amazing. You could never get something built that fast in California. The Exarchou family built it the local style to fit in with the town. They had to truck the stone from Ioannina because the area around Papigo is now the Pindus National Park, and they could not use the local stone. They also could not find local stone workers, as the art is all but lost in Greece, and they had to bring in stone masons from Albania, which is just over a dozen miles north. They also had to bring in staff from Albania and Romania—even in hard times, getting young Greeks to work in such a small town is next to impossible. The hotel, which is open all year, is actually four buildings stacked uphill and has 20 rooms and a spa with sauna, steam room and small pool. The inside of the hotel is a bit of a shock. The traditional stone exterior has a very modern and sleek interior, with curvy plastic chairs, clear glass tables, bamboo poles and modern photography on the walls. The spa area is beautifully done and features shimmering tiles, a glass wall and a deck facing west for spectacular sunsets over the Pindus Mountains and Vikos Gorge. I can tell you the steam room is a delicious way to start the day, and the sauna would be great after a long hike.
This hotel was the first to be certified by Green Key in Western Greece. The family believed it was important to be environmentally friendly and have enthusiastically adopted the Green Key practices. Besides limiting the use of resources, they make an effort to find local and organic sources for much of the food served at their restaurant. Dimitris spends hours driving all over the area collecting local produce, eggs, meat and cheese, before picking up other supplies at the big box stores in Ioannina. Anthula is the cook, and she uses her mother’s recipes to create pies and spoon sweets with local fruits in season. I am here for apple season, so there are excellent organic apple pies at dinner and pastries at breakfast. Since this is a year-round resort and it gets cold in the winter, they have put in a heat pump that extracts available heat from the outside air and is far more efficient than even the best fossil-fuel-based heating system. The buildings’ traditional design also helps to keep heat in and cold out.
I thoroughly enjoy exploring the village, then the hills and forest. The church (dating to 960 BC), the cobblestone streets hung with grape vines, and the old wooden double doors of the traditional buildings give plenty of artsy photo ops. It’s late October, and the sun is shining brightly; but the air is cool, just the way I like it. Despite the lateness in the year, the hotel is full, so I am surprised how quiet the village as a whole is. Most of the other inns and guesthouses have closed until the winter season begins. Hiking the hills on well-marked trails is a delight, particularly when I chance upon a young Israeli who keeps me company and helps me over some of the rough patches in the trail. I do not attempt any of the area’s long hikes, but tracing the base of the cliffs and gaining a view of the turquoise river flowing through the gorge is satisfying enough. And I get to view the expansive scenery I missed arriving in the dark. The ringing of bells on the necks of sheep and goats being herded down the mountains from their summer pastures provides the background music, along with waterfalls and the ever-present barking of dogs. In the Greek islands there are large numbers of cats, in the mountains it is dogs—put to work by the shepherds, goat herders and hunters.
My last evening in Mikro Papigo I eat late in the restaurant and Anthula is sitting behind the bar. A young waiter acts as DJ, mixing the music on the computer behind a counter. Some traditional Greek music comes over the speakers and I suddenly realize this is my last chance to learn Greek dancing. I fly home the next day. The iconic practice of traditional line dancing in tavernas seems to be dying out. I haven’t seen any dancing Zorbas in all the weeks I have been in Greece. Everyone else has gone off to bed so I ask Anthula if she will teach me a dance. The waiter translates and she lights up, hops off her stool, and turns up the music really loud. She leads and I follow as we dance arm in arm around the tables. I have been sipping a cinnamon-flavored after-dinner drink so I am in the mood to party. Anthula, it turns out, is as well. We step and kick with arms over each others’ shoulders, then spin right and spin left, then do it again and again until I learn the dance. A perfect way to end my Greek adventure.—Constance Washburn, Contributing Writer