As travelers journey through the provinces of northern Greece, they quickly realize that Epirus and Thessaly may have far fewer miles of drop-dead-gorgeous coastline than the south, but if visitors have brought their hiking boots as well as their bathing suits, the north's spectacular mountains, folkloric villages, and lush valleys more than make up for it.
The land changes abruptly from the delicately shaded green of the idyllic olive and orange groves near the shore to the tremendous solidity of the bare mountains inland. This was the splendid massive landscape that came to cast its spell over Lord Byron, who traveled here to meet tyrant Ali Pasha (1741–1822). The Epirote capital of Ioannina still bears many vestiges of this larger-than-life figure, who seems to have stepped from the pages of The Arabian Nights.
Going back in time, and taking an easy trip southwest of Ioannina, you can visit Dodona, the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. North of Ioannina, in the mountainous region known as Zagorohoria, or the Zagori, dozens of tiny, unspoiled villages contain remnants of the Ottoman period, and outdoor activities such as hiking are abundant. The route east from Ioannina leads to the thriving traditional village of Metsovo in the Pindos Mountains and over the Katara pass on one of the most dramatic roads in Greece. It ends in the fertile province of Thessaly, where, on the edge of the plain, the Byzantine-era monasteries of Meteora seem to float in midair, built atop bizarrely shaped pinnacles that tower over the town of Kalambaka. At this spiritual center of Orthodox Greece, the quiet contemplation of generations of monks is preserved in wondrously frescoed buildings. Nearby, spectacular mountain passes reveal shepherd villages with richly costumed women speaking the Vlach vernacular.
All in all, northwestern Greece, which stretches from the northern shore of the Gulf of Corinth to the Albanian frontier west of the Pindos range, was aroused from its centuries-old slumber several decades ago with the advent of the ferryboats from Italy. The nautical crossing from Corfu to Igoumenitsa, the westward gateway town to mainland Greece, is enchanting, with the lush green of the island slowly receding and the stark outlines of the mainland dramatically ahead. The bay is at its best in the early morning, but sunset will do, when the gray rocks likewise flame with deep pinks and violets in an unforgettable welcome. Igoumenitsa is generally unappealing as a port of entry, which means everyone quickly pushes on into the interior and discovers the often-overlooked wonders of Epirus and Thessaly.