Greece,  Nomad Life

Kotroni: How to Spend a Month in the South Pindus Mountains

Buried in central Greece, far from the azure waters of the Mediterranean or the iconic white domes of the Cyclades, lie some quiet mountains with their own kind of magic. We happened upon Kotroni quite by chance. After not being allowed to enter Turkey, our search criteria for the next month’s accommodation were simply “mountains” and “affordable price” anywhere in the Balkans. I think I should let fate do our travel planning more often…

The Pindus mountain range reaches from the south of Albania into western and southern Greece. Home to two national parks; the North Pindus National Park and the ponderously named National Park of Tzoumerka, Peristeri & Arachthos Gorge, the area is awash with natural beauty. Ancient bridges and monasteries are particularly prevalent here. Indeed, the world famous UNESCO World Heritage site of Meteora is just a stone’s throw from Kotroni.

The region is also great springboard to the rest of Greece; especially if, like us, you want somewhere quiet and peaceful to work during the week and like to explore at the weekends. Greece has surprisingly good roads given both the conditions (lots of mountains, tunnels, rain and sun) and the size of the country compared to it’s population (only 10 million). Allow plenty of time for travel though; not only does getting around take a while on these roads but you will probably want to stop and explore a few times as well!


Contents


Kotroni Village

The village of Kotroni lies on the edge of the mountains, around 40 minutes from Trikala. In contrast to much of the rest of Greece, the landscape here is lush with greenery thanks to ample rainfall. Goats and chickens run through the village and every house is a rainbow of colourful flowers. The view to Lupata mountain is an ever-shifting landscape of blue and green swathed in drifting cloud. If you’re looking for a retreat in bucolic paradise, you can’t go far wrong here.

Where we stayed: this Airnbnb in Kotroni village. We managed to get a great deal as we were the first guests and paid EUR 660 for the month. It was an absolutely perfect location for us, with the best views ever. Our Airbnb hosts spoke fluent German (like many of the locals) handy!

The Pindus mountains are thickly forested and green with swirling clouds

Restaurants and Stores near Kotroni

Where to eat: there are a number of restaurants in the village or close by. Sometimes they can look closed but they’re usually open all day. Greek food is the option so get your fill of Greek salad, tzatziki and souvlaki. It’s all excellent quality local produce but not much variety!

Groceries: the nearest store and bakery is 10 minutes away in Elati. A bigger grocery store as well as pharmacy can be found in Pyli (15 mins away). For everything else, Trikala is 35-40 minutes away.

So, after you’ve finished marveling at the sheer beauty of the area, what is there to do in the region? Here’s a breakdown of what we got up to.


Things to do nearby Kotroni

Meteora

The landscape around Meteora would be an absolute wonder alone. The 500m high stone columns rising out of the plateau are baffling even to geologists! Some have walls completely smooth and flat as though sandblasted. What is even more impressive, however, are the monasteries teetering high on the precipitous peaks. Built around the 14-15th century, 24 monasteries were home to a community of ascetics sheltering from the invading Ottomans. The position of the monasteries on the rocks was their defence; the only way to enter was via removable wooden ladders or being hauled in a net. Today, only 6 monasteries remain, the rest having been lost to natural disaster or human destruction. Fortunately, however, steps have now been carved into the rock to aid access.

There are various options for visiting the monasteries via either well-maintained footpaths or roads. The Visit Meteora website has information on the different monasteries and how to get there. We visited twice whilst staying in Greece and saw:

  • The Monastery of the Holy Trinity: walk from Kalambaka. You can park on the street nearby the starting point in Kalambaka. However, in busier periods, it may be necessary to find a car park in town. We had no issues parking even on a Saturday though.
  • The Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas & Holy Church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. This was a bit of an accident really. We were trying to get to the Great Meteoron Monastery (the biggest one) but it was pouring down with rain so we just went to this one instead! It was very atmospheric being in the monastery with the clouds and torrential rain. The Holy Church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary is an 11th century Byzantine church in Kalambaka town which is astonishingly well-preserved. Inside is painted in the Orthodox style and there is a beautiful marble pulpit in the middle. Worth the 2 euro entry!
The area around Meteroa is very fertile with lots  of trees, rain and small villages

There are many different routes you can take depending on how much walking you want to do, how mad about monasteries you are and how many viewpoints you want to take in. Things to bear in mind:

  • There is a dress code for men and women- no overly tight clothing, exposed knees or chests. They provide skirts (for men as well) so you don’t need to worry too much about it.
  • Entry is 3 Euro and they only accept cash. We had no cash the first time (oops) but some kind strangers paid for our entry!

Koziakas Mountain Hike

Starting Point: Kerketio Extreme Sports centre, about a 25 minute drive from Kotroni.

Route: available here on AllTrails.

Info: this is a nice and straightforward 12 KM hike. The first part takes you up a track so it’s easy to follow but not the most interesting part. Once you get to the top of the track, you can either head to the summit or take the footpath back down. We didn’t do the summit because it was totally covered in cloud! The footpath for the second half is much more interesting and has better views. Watch out for wild boar though because their tracks are all over!

Amarantos Mountain Hike from Elati

Starting point: Elati village (5 minutes from Kotroni)

Route: available here on AllTrails.

Info: a steep and adventurous way up the mountain and a nice, gentle track for the way down. A hiking route just the way I like it! This one is not for the faint hearted and walking boots are definitely required. The summit gives you a view onto the flat plane outside of the mountain range and you could potentiallly see a very long way. However, when we did the hike, we were mostly in a cloud (as usual). Elati is a pleasant village with plenty of options for food or coffee afterwards and a small store selling groceries.

South Pindus Mountains: Monasteries, Churches, Bridges and View Points

If you enjoy religious buildings, Greece has got you. Given how beautiful the area is, it’s not surprising people wanted somewhere to thank God! The below are all free to visit and don’t have opening hours. I would recommend doing a driving tour of the area: suggested route.

The only thing I would say is that the road between Paleochiri and Mesochora marked on the map (i.e. the middle bit) can be a bit hair-raising. You can’t really rely on Google and I wouldn’t do it in bad weather – the mountains are prone to landslides and the road is, in some parts, just a dirt track. If you’re up for the challenge though, it’s incredibly beautiful!

  • Top Bridge recommendation: Stone Bridge of Palaiokarya
  • Bridge at Pyli: from here you can also walk to the village of Saint Vissarion and from there, Saint Vissarion Monastery. Unfortunately, it’s one for the gents only and I think it’s more for those of a religious disposition rather than people simply interested in beautiful buildings. The monk we spoke to didn’t understand a word of English but was friendly. Another option is to make a loop over the hanging bridge and back on the other side of the river via the Holy Church of Porta Panagia.

Ioannina and National Park of Tzoumerka, Peristeri & Arachthos Gorge

Ioannina City

A city sandwiched between two national parks on the shores of lake Pamvotida, Ioannina is noticeably more touristy than the quiet valley of Koziakas. It’s also a city of historical significance, with a number of museums, the remains of a Byzantine Fortress and a more recent Ottoman Mosque.

We spent just one night here on our way to Frasta. However, it would also make a good base if you wanted to explore the the two surrounding national parks.

Alongside the lake there’s a footpath and plenty of cafes on the water where you can stop for a coffee or lunch. Whilst we were there, a guy was playing piano in the open air on the shores of the lake – mega atmospheric.

Ioannina has a great restaurant scene and nightlife. We paid much more than we did in Kotroni but it was still very affordable and absolutely worth it. We can highly recommend El Notari Gastrobar for breakfast – honestly, the best eggs I’ve had in forever!

We stayed at the cheapest possible option that wasn’t a hostel: King Pyrros Hotel. It has pretty terrible reviews but for a budget price (EUR 42 a night) we thought it was fine and the location was great.

Camping and Rafting Arachtos Gorge

A 60 minute drive from Ioannina, complete with dramatic mountain views, brings you to the small village of Frasta. We planned on camping the night here and doing some hiking in the morning. However, the owner of the campsite, Nikos,  also does rafting tours through the gorge and he convinced us to join in. We are so glad it he did!!

They provide two tours a day, leaving from the campsite. We set off around 14.00 and were back for around 17.00. You are driven via minibus to a stone bridge. The journey takes you down some spectacular roads though it can be a little nauseating, especially if you’ve overindulged the night before.

Upon arrival, the instructors provided clear instructions in both Greek and English on what we needed to do. They were really professional guys and we felt very safe the whole time. The tour started with a warm up and everyone practiced paddling forwards or backwards upon instruction. Then we were off!

Nikos had not exaggerated, it was an exhilarating and wonderful experience! The river never does what you expect and sometimes you felt like you were flying into a rock but the water would change direction before you got there. Halfway through, there was a stop to visit Klifkis Waterfall. Our small team united, becoming a tribe again for the afternoon, to help one another to safely cross the rocks. We even found a fresh-water crab!

At one point, we really felt the extreme nature of the sport. What was believed to be a small earthquake caused rocks to fall from high above us, narrowly missing our raft, at the unfortunate moment we were in the narrowest section of the canyon. The instructors kept absolutely calm so no one panicked but it was pretty scary! Helmets would have done much to help here. Everyone was fine and we can now say we survived an earthquake whilst rafting in a canyon!

We stayed at the campsite and got a deal for the night plus rafting for EUR 100 which we were very happy with. We didn’t need to book in advance but it was still off-season. Website link: Home – Via Natura Outdoor Activities

Other suggestions for the area

The national park has at least a month’s worth of activities in itself – there are waterfalls, hiking opportunities, viewpoints and ….you guessed it… plenty of monasteries. Here are some of the top suggestions:

  • A walk to the Plaka Arched Bridge – the loop takes only 40 minutes from Frasta. The bridge was destroyed by flooding but has been rebuilt recently. There’s a café at the bridge selling coffee and local produce.
  • Holy Kipinas Monastery: another fantastic monastery set into the cliff.
  • Hike from Matsouki to Vlyza Monastery – out and back route, takes a couple of hours.

Thessaloniki and around

A trip to the second-largest city in Greece takes only about 3 hours from Kotroni making it another possible weekend excursion from Kotroni or alternatively from Maroneia. The road takes you right past Mount Olympus, Greece’s highest and most famous mountain. I keep intending to do the hike (usually takes 2 days) but still haven’t gotten around to it yet. One day!

Another notable feature of the journey, if you’re a massive history nerd (guilty), is that it takes you along the Egnatia Odos (or via Ignatia in Latin). The highway E90 follows the route of one of the most important roads in the Roman Empire. Built in the second century BC, the Egnatia Odos connected Constantinople with Rome via the port of what is now Dürres in Albania. It’s fascinating to think that this road was so vitally important, that it still remains over 2000 years later. You can visit various sections of the remaining road and that’s exactly what we did in Philippi…

The Ancient City of Philippi

After that introduction, I had to start with Philippi even though it is still another 2 hours from Thessaloniki. Trust me, it’s worth visiting!

Philippi was founded by Philip of Macedon, after he conquered Thrace in 356 BC. If you haven’t heard of him, you’ve probably heard of his son, Alexander the Great. As a reminder, in just 13 years of reign, this guy conquered a region stretching from Greece into parts of India, north into the Caucasus and south into Egypt.

Some of the impressive structures you can see at Philippi are:

  • An enormous Roman Forum
  • A very well preserved mosaic floor
  • A particularly beautiful amphitheater with a backdrop of the mountain
  • Part of the via Egnatia

There’s also a small but well-made museum. Upstairs were the best bits – some incredibly beautifully carved statues and columns.

Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is ancient port city and the second largest in Greece. Home to 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites, it’s well worth visiting. The Archeological Museum was recommended to us our by our friends in Maroneia and we were not disappointed.

Thessaloniki, like most Greek cities, is a lively place. You find great restaurants, bars and coffee houses, full of people sitting outside enjoying each others’ company. It’s definitely something we loved about Greece in general!

Lake Kerkini

One for the bird-lovers, Kerkini is home to one of nature’s strangest-looking birds, the pelican. If you happen to be visiting in December-February, you may also be able to see flamingos. We were hoping to take a boat out onto the lake but when we visited on 19th May, there was no one around. Off-season, I think it’s something you need to pre-arrange; everywhere was very quiet and most restaurants looked closed.

Despite not being able to take a boat trip, we were still able to see plenty of pelicans (thankfully we had the binoculars this time) as well as black herons and storks. Not to everyone’s appeal but there were also soooo many snakes sunbathing on the rocks.

The best part for seeing birds we found was a section of road between Kerkini town and Lithotopos, where you can drive directly along the water. We also tried to drive along a “road” on Google from Livadia to Kerkini town. It’s not a road, it’s a dirt track with huge potholes. We decided to take it anyway and after managing about 90% of the road, got stuck behind a guy with his herd of cows. As there was literally no space for the car to get through, we just gave up and drove the 30 minutes back. I think our car rental guy, Mihailo, would probably not be too impressed.

Lake Kerkini is situated about 90 minutes from Thessaloniki. We did the trip to Philippi and Kerkini on our way from Maroneia. As long as you don’t mind a bit of driving, you could easily do both in a day trip from Thessaloniki.


Further East and South

Volos

A small coastal city, Volos is known for it’s tsipouro and small plates restaurants (i.e. tapas-style). If you haven’t heard of tsipouro (we hadn’t) it’s similar to a raki/rakija that you find across the Balkan region i.e. pretty powerful stuff. We didn’t indulge in the tspipouro here but can confirm that the restaurants serve excellent fresh fish and recommend trying some small plates.

Delphi

If you have any interest in Ancient Greece, you’ve most likely heard of the famous Oracle of Delphi. This incredible site is situated on the side of Mount Parnassus, offering dramatic views of the surrounding countryside and gulf of Corinth.

Some of the highlights of Delphi include the remarkably well preserved Treasury House with it’s distinctively Doric style, an enormous polygonal wall covered with inscriptions from freed slaves and a mountain-top stadium.

The modern village of Delphi has clearly benefitted from having a UNESCO World Heritage site in it’s proximity since 1987, and has great range of restaurants and hotels. We had a delicious lunch on one of the many cafes perched on the mountainside. Mainland Greece seems to be one place you never have to worry about tourist traps!

Lefkada

The island of Lefkada is conveniently accessible by road! A few hours south of Kotroni, we thought it would make a convenient stop off on the way back from the Peloponnese. As we were just there overnight, we didn’t really have time to fully explore the island. The town of Lefkada is very pretty though and will fulfill any bougainvillea-bejeweled dreams you may have.

It’s noticeable that the islands are much more popular with British tourists than the mainland; for the first time since being in Greece, signs were in English as were most of the tourists. Prices reflected this!

Northern Peloponnese

I enthusiastically suggest you visit the Peloponnese! We’re not really beach people because we have been put off by many disappointments: concrete-smothered coastlines, beaches under mountains of trash and thousands of pissed-up tourists don’t really do it for us. However, all around the gulf of Corinth is absolutely beautiful and no pissed-up foreigners in sight (or really many people at all)!

We ended up there visiting a couple of friends who are living about 90 minutes from Athens; their house is 10 meters from the ocean, they buy their groceries from the local farmers’ market and get free lemons from the tree next door. It’s even possible to see dolphins! Pretty idyllic.

Driving around does take a long time though. I think it would be more advisable to do a separate trip to the whole Peloponnese, given how much there is to see. It’s worth noting that the bridge at Patras is pricey – 13 euros for a car – and we crossed it twice in two days. Ooops!


That concludes our month of experiences in Greece! If I had to say one thing, it would simply be “Go to Greece!!”. It’s a very relaxing and wholesome place to live with wonderful people, nature, history and food. All the things we love!

If you’re planning a trip to Mainland Greece, also check out my post on our stay in Maroneia.

If you have any questions or comments, get in touch below or write to me on Facebook (Hopelessly Nomantic), Instagram (Hopelessly_Nomantic) or Twitter (HopelesNomantic).

Thank you for reading! Did you like this post? Give it a share...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *