A Week In Epirus, a serious option for Schools
Nikopolis and Actium, Zalongo, Arta (Ambracia), Cassope, Nekromaneion of Ephyra, River Acheron, Elea, Dodona, Papingo and Vikos Gorge, Orraon, Ioannina, Preveza
The GTO has launched a new initiative to encourage Tourists to explore the Theatres of Epirus, NW Greece.
We first visited the area many decades ago and simply adored it! Mountains and gorges, coast and rivers, rugged yet verdant, unspoiled, more archaeology than ‘merely’ Theatres, bears, wolves and golden eagles, isolated monasteries, the occasional glimpse of Sarasachian Nomad, Molossian sheepdogs intent on herding up our car and eating the tyres, partially made roads with pot holes seemingly larger than the poor car………
Not everyone’s cup of tea we admit and certainly not with the infrastructure to support school trips; sharing a bedroom with a pile of beans, showering in a courtyard with a hosepipe anyone?
We decided to investigate, purely for a school trip reconnaissance you understand.
Day One – Fly directly into Preveza Airport from Gatwick with easyJet at an unholy hour. Smashing little Airport; clean, efficient, well appointed – and bearing no resemblance to the Airport of years past where I stepped over the ‘security’ barrier, glasses and bottle of Zitsa sparkling wine in hand, to welcome John.
Hire Car paperwork completed we drive 30mins to the quiet village of Mytikas and the immaculate but simple Faros Apartments (£40.00pn for balcony, two rooms, kitchen & 3 beds!) with stunning sea views. Perfect for individual travellers, couples and families, schools would be happier in (slightly more expensive) nearby Preveza town – seafront, shopping, quaint back streets, yachts, cafes, Hotels, pastries and ice cream. Lots of pastries and ice cream!
To maximise time, this afternoon would be best spent visiting Arta, ancient Ambracia, home to Pyrrhus. Instead, we explored the village, walked the seafront, chatted to locals, found a newly excavated Necropolis and sampled two of the three Tavernas!
Day Two – Nikopolis and Actium
Thirty minutes’ drive away lies Nikopolis, the Trophe City built by Octavian to celebrate his Victory over Antony and Cleopatra, make a very strong political point and to ensure that no one had the temerity of questioning his authority ever again!
Time inevitably has taken its toll and the once vast City is spread over a huge area, several separate sites, cross-sectioned by roads, farms and a separate village.
The Walls & Gateways (Monumental Gateway and impressive fortifications of Nikopolis) are spectacular, mosaics (Beautiful Mosaics from early Christian Basilica at Nikopolis) superb, Decumanus Maximus Villaremains equally vast (Nikopolis, Decumanus Maximus & early Christian Fortifications).
The Theatre (Theatre of Octavian at Actium….works ongoing) dominates the surrounding countryside. The nearby Stadium (Stadium, Actium – first monument of Octavian’s victory building scheme for celebration of the Actia, quinquennial games in honour of Apollo) requires considerable cleaning and all that remains now of the victory Trophe (View down to Actium from remaining terraces of Victory Trophe of Octavian) is its base – but what a position overlooking the bay of Actium! Point most definitely made Octavian!
New research on the Niche dimensions of the Trophe, suggests the bronze rams on Antony and Cleopatra’s warships were at least four times the size of the largest ancient rams found anywhere else, thus harder to manoeuvre. However, we all know that it was Agrippa who is to be credited for the victory! His role is acknowledged in the small, but classy Nikopolis Museum, on the outskirts of Preveza, 15 mins from the Site.
That evening we returned to our chosen village Taverna, watched local politicians (EEC Elections) glad hand locals (including us, to great merriment!) and left carrying gifts of ouzo and locally made cranberry brandy……..
Day Three – Zalongo, Cassope, Nekromaneion of Ephyra, River Acheron
We left bright and early bearing far too many cheese and onion toasties and cups of coffee gifted by the proprietor.
Leaving the coast behind, first stop was to climb the 400+ steps to the 1961 Zalongo Monument. The Monumental Sculpture commemorates the Dance of Zalongo and the heroic grandmothers, mothers and daughters of Souli who danced off the mountain, to their death, in the face of Ottoman advance.
Nearby Hellenistic Kassope dominates the plain at an altitude of 650m. reached via a Pine Forest path (we thought we’d missed it) one emerges onto a wide plateau. The City once boasted its own Mint, Agora, Prytaneum, two Theatres, Xenon and Temple to Aphrodite. Subdued by the Romans in 168BC its eventual demise, as were so many towns and cities, was the battle of Actium and compulsory resettlement into Nikopolis. Today the highlights are the polygonal walls, Agora and views, Xenon (if indeed that is what it is) and Large Theatre.
Opening times are odd but, as ever, the amazing British School at Athens ensured our access. Indeed, bar the archaeologists and those working on the large Theatre, we had the huge site to ourselves.
Munching our way through our Cold Toastie reserves, we headed inland through lush farmland to the River Acheron and the Oracle of the Dead.
Once we had the area to ourselves; sadly no more – Tourism has arrived!
The River Acheron is just as glorious. Whereas thirty years ago I swam to the confluence, camera in hand, this time we walked the banks; a necessity to avoid the white water rafters and horseback treckers.
Long gone I fear is the family of large white water snakes, which accompanied my original aquatic adventure!
The Nekromateion of Ephyra has undergone sympathetic restoration. Whilst the nearby village now sports smart cafes, ice cream shops and souvenirs and the archaeological site preceded by manicured emerald green lawn, the archaeological site retains an aura of mystery. Information Boards instruct, the chapel hosts an informative exhibition……..but the nervous laughter of the Greek school children descending the metal staircase into the subterranean cavern proves the magic endures!
Dormitories for ancient Pilgrims, a purificatory pit, Labyrinth of black polygonal masonry, multiple querns– all bring to mind the possible use of grain and ergot at Eleusis. Fasting and sensory deprivation would have heightened the illusion created by ancient puppeteers by ancient torchlight. Is this what happened at Cumae?
The beautiful pastoral setting of what is actually the Oracle of the Dead – The Nekromanteion of Ephyra.
Heading further up into the mountains we encountered the usual Traffic Jam, Thesprotian Style.
The town of Paramythia reminded us of pre gentrified Arcahova.
The 4* Hotel Theasis at £60.00 B+B for two is most definitely suitable for school trips!
Day Four – Elea, Dodona
Stunning night’s sleep and stupendous breakfast and we head higher into the mountains towards another Octavian reduced Hellenistic City – Elea.
The Site is closed but yet again, the BSA arranged for a representative of the Ephorate to meet us at the entrance and open up. We attempted a recce the previous afternoon but the poor hire car almost gave up the ghost, so we arranged (via the Amoratis Family) to meet at nearby Taverna – his clutch was stronger than ours!
Mr. Tsipis, his wife and wilting tomato plants (they gave up their Saturday morning) very generously drove us to the site and waited for several hours whilst we explored the plateau. Originally administering the Nekromateion it suffered the same fate as Kassope and over 70 other settlements. The monumental black polygonal circuit walls are breathtaking, the interior somewhat overgrown but pathways are clear and the viewing platform offers unrivalled views. Agora, housing, domestic terracotta hip baths, temple foundations, stoa, terracing, water system and aqueducts – we had them all to ourselves.
Livestock abounds, both cattle and goats and extremely large sheepdog. We didn’t venture into his immediate proximity….he left us to our own devices.
Deposited back at our meeting point we devoured the Guide Books so generously offered by our Guardian, whilst quaffing a much needed ice cold beer. We do hope the tomato plants survived!
Set high on a plateau above the Acheron-Kokkytos Valley lies Elea.
Heading further inland we joined the Via Ignatia to take us to Dodona.
Years past the Theatre alone stood just off the main road. Now, my goodness!
Posh car park, Ticket office, book shop, two toilet blocks and a heck of a lot of excavation and restoration. In addition to the ubiquitous Information Boards there is even an electronic interactive Information Station, with flashing lights and buttons!
Yes, we admit we preferred it as it once was BUT no one can deny it is far more ‘user friendly’ and no one can argue against the ongoing excavations, which will eventually reveal the whole Temenos.
Dodona was, and should be again, much more than ‘just the theatre’ no matter how spectacular a theatre it may be. It is still specular……and the oak trees are still there.
Hotels suitable for Schools abound in Ioannina. We opted for the small, immaculately restored town house the Archontariki Boutique Hotel. Very reasonable prices, charming hosts, stupendous breakfast, quiet back street near Lake.
Day Five – Ioannina
Despite its Archaic archaeology, the City’s founding is traditionally attributed to Emperor Justinian. It provided refuge to many Byzantines fleeing Constantinople, surrendered to the Ottomans in 1430 and was not ceded to Greece until 1913! A lovely city, circled by snowcapped mountains even in high Summer and overlooking a wide lake, Ioannina doesn’t feel Greek.
Byzantine Churches, Mosques, trendy cafes and restaurants, pedestrianised cobbled back streets and quirky shops abound. The whole is dominated by the Mediaeval Fort, a variety of museums and a lively University population.
It has become a little gentrified over the decades, but very much in a good way.
The small, modern Archaeological Museum is set along the lake shore in a huge Plaza with herb garden, Mosque in distance, surrounded by snow capped mountains. A much needed breeze kept the 33deg temps manageable!
The display begins with geological, geographical and climatic facts before leading onto
Grave Goods emphasising a Southern Greek & Balkan fusion in superb Panoply for an unusually tall C13/12th BC Warrior.
Exhibits are displayed geographically, not chronologically across the whole region…..as the area vast! eg. Terracotta vessels, seals & coroplastic moulds from Ambracia.
C3rd BC female head, Chaonia, Epirus C2nd BC Bull Stele to Poseidon, Tepelene C4th BC Lion drawn Chariot Relief to Zeus Arelos ‘whose thunderbolt flies’ & C2nd BC dedication to Aphrodite.
Film on continuous loop explaining finds, history & performance of Medea at Dodona.
More Grave goods markers. Cist Graves Mikhalitsi & Kerasson near Preveza C2nd BC.
Nekromanteion of Ephyra. Catapults & other detritus from last days of 167BC Roman Siege & devastation.
Further selection of Grave Goods. C5th BC Pit Tomb of man – Bronze trefoil oinochoe & strigil, Iron sword, clay & glass vessels, silver ring, bone flute C9th BC Tomb – clay vessels, iron knives Epirus.
Roman Funerary Exhibits C2nd AD Sarcophagus showing scenes from Iliad, Homer. Death of Hector & Priam’s Embassy to Achilles. Ladokhori, Thesprotia.
The most interesting and plaintive section however is the room of Oracular Consultation at Dodona. How simple the questions but how many lives irrevocably altered by the roll of a die, the whispering of oak leaves, the mood of a priestess, a coin……..
Seeking Advice from Zeus at Dodona “The Oracular Tablets of Dodona as Memories of Consultation”.
A stroll through the Mediaeval Fortess will bring you, via back streets, to the Aslan Pasha Mosque built 1618. Merely 1€ Entry it is beautiful but sorely in need of some TLC.
€2 will buy a one-way boat ride across Pamvotis Lake to the small Island of Nisaki, the Ali Pasha Museum, Restaurants, Tourists shops and Orthodox Churches.
His tomb lies within the City Fortress Walls.
We were spoiled for choice for food. Long gone are the old men selling bullet hard BBQd Corn Cob Kernels – food is varied, wonderful and cheap. One evening we opted for trendy modern, another old fashioned traditional. Our day time ramblings were fuelled by milkshakes, frappes and pomegranate smoothies. An alcoholic drink came with a meze banquet; no need to eat until the evening.
Day Six – Monodendri/Papingo/Vikos – and a fellow Teacher!
Well rested we ventured further inland, higher into the surrounding Mountains and Gorges. We expected change. We found it.
The isolated Monasteries still look down into vast canyons, but there are now many Hotels and expensive Summer homes. Posh restaurants have replaced cafeneions, roads are paved, opportunities for pony trekking and white water rafting at every corner. Not yet Bungee jumping and paragliding, but we are sure it will come. Perhaps it’s a necessary evil, the villages are not dead – they thrive! The old men may mourn the lack of market for their goats, the roads which take the youth away; but the mountains do not change and the villages are not ghost towns.
One of our favourite places in Greece. Papingo, Vikos Gorge, Pindus.
Amazingly, we encountered one British couple, Frances and Peter Annear, who too had first visited over thirty years ago. Far braver than we they bought a ramshackle hut with threshing floor on the outskirts of the village, renovated it and lived without electricity for 15years! Now retired from Badminton School as Geography HoD, they spend their time between Bristol and Papingo, walking and guiding. Pre Days of H&S her pupils enjoyed Field Trips in the area!
Do buy her book or download to kindle – details below. For hiking hols, contact us – we have her email address.
Day Seven – Orraon and Arta (Ambracia)
Our final day proper and we head back to Civilisation………
First however, we must detour to Orraon, near the village of Gorgomilos.
An open Site with commanding view across to Ithaka, it suffered the same fate as so many settlements post Actium. Despite being relatively tiny and already having lost its walls in 167BC it was one of four final pockets of resistance. It suffered the consequences.
We found the village relatively easily but of Orraon there was no sign, on map, signpost or Sat Nav. I couldn’t even work it out topographically. Ask a farmer! Yes, he know it. Yes, it wasn’t far. No, I couldn’t understand an accent so thick he may as well have been speaking Martian. Inevitably, with very good grace he walked to his tractor and indicated “Follow Me”. Fifteen mins later we arrived. I think my joy was enough thanks. I thanked him most profusely for his time and Filoxenia. He left grinning. We had the place to ourselves – yes, you can see Ithaki!
And thus to Orraon, somewhat neglected and overgrown but none the less glorious for that.
Onwards we drove, to Arta, Ancient Ambracia, home to Pyrrhus, an amazingly busy provincial town reminiscent of Thebes and impossible in which to park. Thankfully, Greek hospitality prevailed again as the owner of a hardware store, expecting the arrival of a ‘long’ delivery lorry found us sufficient space for our ‘short car’. It was a very formal parking ceremony with much tutting, nods of approval and hand shaking. The whole ceremony was repeated in reverse on our departure.
We eventually found the little theatre……..if Arta is to join the Epirus Theatre Trail, there is much work to be done!
Arta is also famous for its Glorious Mediaeval Bridge, sadly lost during last year’s storms. It’s back! Complete with Folk Lore Museum.
Tonights accommodation was the rather swish ‘Captain’s House’ opposite Preveza’s Yachting Marina. We overdosed on Galatobourikno, vanillia ice cream and Greek rice pudding, pondered the wisdom of naming a Yacht ‘Peripeteia’ (disappointingly we failed to find her stable mate “Katharsis”) and slept like logs.
Day Eight – Drop off Hire Car & Fly home
Another early start and so with unfailing directional skills and flawless Greek I successfully navigated us directly to the Military Airport! The Sentry was a very nice lad, his mother would be proud.
So, would I recommend a school Trip to Epirus? Undoubtedly YES!
According to Livy (45.34.1-6) in 167BC the Romans destroyed 70 towns and enslaved 150,000 people in Epirus. An act of epic destruction largely unparalleled in the Ancient World. This was to be repeated throughout the coming centuries. Genocide is not new. It has not been eradicated.
The fate of the Epirotes throughout History teaches us all a valuable lesson. The Scenery is breathtaking, the archaeology wonderful, the people marvellous………and it’s still relatively cheap!
Visit before the rest of the World discovers it too.
Perhaps, like us, you too will spot an Eagle flying overhead – a snake clutched between its talons.
Further School Options –
Add Gitana /Gitana, Municipality of Philiates Philiates /Kalama Dam – Gitana, Municipality of Philiates Gitana, Municipality of Philiates Gitana, Municipality of Philiates Gitana, Municipality of Philiates Gitana, Municipality of Philiates1500 (Open by arrangement, Monday- Friday 9:00-14:00 with the Ephorate of Antiquities, BSA and Hellene Travel)
Condense the above and add Meteora (two hours from Ioannina) Fly out of Saloniki (3hrs Transfer) or Athens (4hrs Transfer) via Thermopylae and Cape Sounion
For those wanting Outward Bound, the area offers superb opportunities for Sailing, Camping, Kayaking and Hiking. Fly direct Gatwick to Preveza.