Hidden treasures in Epirus

If Italy is old, then Greece feels ancient. There is a sense of timelessness, epitomised in groves of huge olive trees which stand magnificently, their trunks twisting upwards, their branches weeping down towards the earth. I am often asked why I have chosen to walk, rather than go by bike, or another mode of transport. One of the most simple answers is that when you walk, you feel the changes: in the landscape, in the people, and in the atmosphere all around you. Italy is a country with a unique character, and the changes from city to city, and region to region were clearly evident. This feeling is exaggerated tenfold in a change of country, especially when you cross into a nation which speaks an unknown language (in the sense that it’s quite literally all Greek to me!).

Travelling through Greece is proving to be different…which is a good thing. On my first day, after a night on the ferry, I stared up at a mountainside, trying to decide whether I could scale it, or if I would have to follow the main road all the way around it. I saw a “semi” path which seemed to go upwards, and so I plumped for the first, and more adventurous option. Well, there’s nothing like a challenge to get the blood pumping, and dragging myself up the mountainside with 22kgs on my back was definitely that.

The “semi” path soon turned into a goat track, and as it turns out, I am no mountain goat! I found myself envying their sure-footed ease, which allows them to climb uninhibited, and weave gracefully through the undergrowth that seemed to trap me at every turn. But I am nothing if not determined, and have developed a certain mentality never to go backwards. The next 2 hours saw me dragging, pulling, jumping, scrabbling and generally struggling up the shrub filled mountainside, through thorny bushes, prickly pine trees and herbaceous plants. More than once I found myself entangled, my huge cumbersome bag snagged on thorns. After 30 minutes the sweat was pouring off me as the sun began to light up the countryside around me.

One of the things I am learning here is something like Murphy’s Law: at the top of a mountain…there’s always another mountain! However, I did eventually reach a summit of sorts, and it was more than worth the exertion. Apart from the feeling of having successfully scaled the mountainside, the rocks gave way to a clear path, which soon after opened out into a flattish meadow, covered in beautiful purple flowers and splendid view.

The view after my climb
The view after my climb

Soon after I was sitting enjoying a break on the other side of the mountain, staring dowen at my first destination: a shimmering bay of aquamarine water surrounded by green mountains. I was looking forward to lunch by the water!

The bay of Plataria, my lunchtime destination
The bay of Plataria, my lunchtime destination

Walking through Epirus, a relatively unknown area of Greece, it’s impossible not to stare in awe at the mountains around you. I find myself torn between two options: following the paths into the mountains, with their incredible panoramic views; or hugging the dramatic coastline, hiding beautiful bays reflecting brilliant shades of blue, with gleaming beaches, empty at this time of the year. Luckily most days I have the option of both, and more often than not, my footprints are alone on the pristine, virgin sand. And there’s no need for clothes if I want a dip in the crystal clear waters.

A typical view, walking along the mountain roads
A typical view, walking along the mountain roads
My footprints in the sand after my first swim of 2014!
My footprints in the sand after my first swim of 2014!

And then of course I am surrounded by history. Epirus has a rich past and some stunning sites. Which is how I discovered Cassope…

Cassope
Cassope

An Ancient Greek city from the 4th century BC, Cassope could be the Machu Pichu of Greece. It’s a big statement for a ruined city which many people have probably never heard of, but it’s stunning. I had the same feeling standing there amongst the ruins as I had standing in Machu Pichu. On the slopes of mount Zalongo, surrounded by mountains on two sides and reached by winding mountain roads and a path through pine trees, the main plateaux opens out onto an incredible panoramic view of the Cassopaean plain, the Ionian Sea and the Ambracian Gulf.

An road from the ancient city leads down to the plateaux, where you can look out to Actium below
An road from the ancient city leads down to the plateaux, where you can look out to Actium below

From here you can see the site of the battle of Actium, where Octavian defeated Mark Anthony in 31BC. It was after this that Cassope was abandoned. To celebrate his triumph, Octavian created a new city at the site of his camp on the plains below, and called it Nikopolis – the city of victory. The citizens of Cassope, along with those of other towns and cities in the area, were relocated to Nikopolis, which flourished and grew as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the area.

The Odeon at Nicopolis, which i visited in the next few days while staying in Preveza
The Odeon at Nicopolis, which i visited in the next few days while staying in Preveza

Above the ancient city, perched on the edge of a cliff, is a beautiful monument, built to commemorate the women of Souli. In 1803, a group of Souliotes (the people of the region) were tracked and followed by the invading Turks to the edge of this cliff. The story goes that rather than be captured, the women first threw their children from the edge, and then, holding hands, and singing and dancing, jumped into the abyss themselves. The statue, named the dancers of Zalongo, commemorates their sacrifice.

The monument of Zalongo, framed against the evening sky
The monument of Zalongo, framed against the evening sky
The story of the women of Zalongo
The story of the women of Zalongo

The ruins of Cassope sit proudly on the mountainside below. As I arrived at the fence, I encountered a group of 4 ladies – 2 mothers with their daughters. We began chatting and I ended up spending the next hour or so with them, wandering the ruins, and chatting away in English, Spanish and Italian. It turns out that Maria is a Spanish teacher in Preveza, and her daughter Xara grew up in the Dominican Republic. Nene, and her daughter Ele spoke Italian, Ele having lived in Italy for a year. So quite unexpectedly I found myself standing in an Ancient Greek city, speaking in a mix of the three languages I am able to speak! They left before dark, and I promised to call them when I arrived in Preveza the next day. As it turned out I ended up staying 3 wonderful days with them – the beauty of unexpected meetings!

The ladies demonstrate the dance of the women of Zalongo. The monument was behind them when I took the picture, but is unfortunately obscured by the light
The ladies demonstrate the dance of the women of Zalongo. The monument was behind them when I took the picture, but is unfortunately obscured by the light

Cassope outshines most of the ancient sites which I have visited, for the ambiance and the magic of the place. The layout of the city is still easily visible – a small Odeon (2000 seat theatre) stands almost on the edge of the world, a huge theatre sits proudly high up on the mountainside, and the incredible polygonal walls which form the outer walls of the Katagogion, the city’s public hostel, are beautifully preserved. They are made up of huge rocks, each one fitting perfectly with the next like a huge jigsaw puzzle, without the use of cement. It is a lost art which fills me with wonder every time I see it. In Peru the Incas were building incredible stone walls of similar craftsmanship, but that was in the 16th century AD. Here, we are talking 2000 years (and more) before.

Beautifully preserved walls of the Katagogion
Beautifully preserved walls of the Katagogion

I stood reading the information plaque which explained that the ruins in front of me could be two different things. Either indoor shops – an extension of the Agora, the marketplace; or they could be the old hostel of the city, reserved for honoured guests and delegations from other cities. I prefered to imagine the latter, as I had decided I would spend the night in the city, and the hostel seemed the perfect place. I chose a room protected against the wind by the beautiful walls. Whether I would be an honoured guest or an intruder remained to be seen, but I preferred to imagine myself a delegate from modern times, searching for the simple beauty of this incredible place.

As the light of evening faded I set up my tent in one of the rectangular sections of the “hostel”, protected from the wind by a section of wall twice my height. It’s not every day that you can sleep in the ruins and memories of an abandoned Ancient Greek city.

The best camp site in the world. Just don't tell the guardians!
The best camp site in the world. Just don’t tell the guardians!

As I settled down for the night, all around me the sky was lit up by lightning flashes. But it seemed to be an electrical storm and passed by without incident. I lay staring up at the sky, hoping the clouds would part to reveal the stars. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Cassiopeia, a constellation which apparently gave its name to the city, and I had been told by Maria is easily recognisable as a distinctive “W” shape in the sky. However, it was not to be – the clouds remained. But how can you be disappointed when you are in such a place. I felt incredibly privileged to be there, and justified my decision to camp in an archaeological site because I studied Ancient History and Archaeology. 

Cassope - the Odeon in the foreground
Cassope – the Odeon in the foreground

I have never in my life experienced such complete silence. It was incredible. I found myself straining to hear anything besides the wind but all I got was a ringing in my ears.

Pure, Perfect silence…


5 thoughts on “Hidden treasures in Epirus

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