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Metsovo: Vlach capital of the Pindus

William Gourlay takes a look at the mystical and historical Northern city of Metsovo

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The outside of the Tositsas Museum: a prime example of 17th century Epirote mansions.

24 January 2012

The completion of the Egnatia Odos in 2009 was a boom for trade; a four-lane highway connecting the major towns, industrial centres and agricultural lands of northern Greece.

It was also a bonus for travellers who want to explore the Pindus, the rugged mountain range sometimes referred to as the spine of Greece.

Here is a realm of imposing peaks, untrammelled forests and rustic villages that offer a delightful alternative to the typical Greek holiday experiences of sun and sand. Metsovo, just south of the Katara Pass - that marks the border between Epirus and Thessaly - is a gateway town for travellers to the Pindus. Fresh air, panoramic vistas, distinctive stone-built architecture and a homey village atmosphere make Metsovo, at an altitude of 1,160 metres, an alluring destination. Little is known of the founding of Metsovo, but the historian A.J. Wace wrote it was thought to have been occupied by semi-nomadic Vlachs in the 15th century.

During the Ottoman period the town received privileges, apparently because a Constantinople official who had been condemned to death was sheltered by local Vlachs. When he later won back the favour of the sultan he granted tax concessions to the Metsovites. Wace records that the men of Metsovo were noted for their skills as masons, and the architecture of the town is one of its most appealing features. Sturdy stone homes line the natural amphitheatre of hillside that climbs above the paved town square.

In the 1850's, the English traveller George Bowen wrote that Metsovo's houses seemed to be "hurrying down the steep face of the mountain" and were "fixed, as if by magic, in whimsical arrangement". Bowen's description still holds true, as Metsovo has retained its historical core, resisting the onslaught of concrete that has affected so many Greek towns. The Tositsas Museum (open daily; €3; guided tours half-hourly) is the pre-eminent example of Metsovite architecture. Displaying local costumes, silverware and wood carvings, and with distinctive protruding balconies and historical interiors, the museum is typical of 17th century Epirote mansions.

The museum was once home to Baron Tositsas, who served as a government minister in the 1960's and 1980's. As well as establishing the museum in 1955, Tositsas was active in conservation and community projects, doing much to preserve the traditional character of the town.

Tositsas was one of several Metsovites who played significant roles in the development of modern Greece. Another was George Averoff, who was born in Metsovo and who became a noted benefactor of educational institutions throughout Greece. Averoff was also a significant contributor to the construction of the Olympic stadium in Athens in 1896. The Averoff name is commemorated in Metsovo in the Averoff Gallery, which displays a diverse collection of 19th and 20th century Greek paintings and sculptures.

The wonderful 1960's photographs of Constantine Manos, in his book Greek Portfolio, show Metsovo locals wearing customary Vlach costume of leggings, tasselled caps and fustanellas. You may still encounter a few elders sporting this garb as they pass the hours in the main square. Around the square is a cluster of shops selling the handicrafts for which Metsovo is famous. These include woodcarvings, everything from candlesticks to shepherd's crooks, notable for their delicate workmanship. Apparently the Metsovo woodworking tradition arose when shepherds began whittling sticks while tending their flocks in the mountains. Metsovo handicrafts also include copperware and, in particular, hard-wearing woollen textiles in bright colours.

The main square of Metsovo is the heart of the village. At any time of day you can enjoy views of the hills, take in the fresh air, join in the banter of the locals or an impromptu football match with kids. And as evening descends you can enjoy the homey smell of wood smoke from stone chimneys and appreciate the rustic beauty of the location. The historian Wace remarked that in the 1880s Metsovite women knew only Vlach, speaking no Greek. Nevertheless the Vlachs of Metsovo were regarded as travellers and traders.

Edward Lear, the poet and artist, recorded that the labourers and artisans of Metsovo sometimes travelled as far as Hungary and Russia. He admired their industriousness and "quiet habits of life", while the French diplomat Francois Pouqueville remarked the Pindus Vlachs were tidy and houseproud, describing their mountain villages as "eagles' nests".

Metsovo, of course, is a convenient base for exploring the mountains. A popular walk is to the nearby Monastery of Agios Nikoloas. Following a sign from the square brings you to this 14th-century building, which fell into disrepair and was for a time used as a shelter by shepherds, but which has now been restored. A short distance away is the Valia Kalda National Park, home to bears, lynxes, wolves and wild boars.

During winter there are two nearby ski centres, Karakolis and Profitis. Yiannis, at the Hotel Filoxenia, offers a wealth of information about walks and other activities in the mountains. In this mountainous realm of beech and pine and spruce trees, you will discover the alpine majesty of the Pindus, and see an entirely different side of Greece. On the Egnatia Odos, Metsovo has regular bus links with Igoumenitsa (for Corfu and the Ionians), Ioannina and Thessaloniki, as well as Trikala (for Athens). There is a range of accommodation options; recommendations include Hotel Filoxenia (ph 26560 41332) and Asteri Metsovo (www.asterimetsovo.com). There are many popular restaurants on the main square.

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