Forget the Greek islands, head north instead as Lonely Planet suggests!

Foliage in the forest near Vryssochori and Heliochori villages of Central Zagori region in Northern GreeceForget the Greek islands as Lonely Planet suggests in this article and explore Greece’s vast north. It is unmatched for geographical, cultural and even culinary diversity. Here, great stretches of mountains, lakes, forest and coastline remain to be discovered. With terrain stretching from the azure Ionian Sea across the rugged Epirus mountains to the Thracian plain and the Turkish border, the north offers something for everyone, from culture and urban sophistication to swimming, hiking and bird watching.

The caves in the middle of the rough side of Vikos north and east of the monastery of Ag. Paraskevi in Monodendri, where hermits and persecuted Christians sought refuge during Ottoman timesHowever, the most spectacular sights are surely those of Epiros, a place that will take your breath away. The lofty Pindos mountain range, which comprises most of it, has for thousands of years been safeguarding civilisations and confounding invaders. Bisecting the Pindos is the stunning 12km-long Vikos Gorge (one of the world’s deepest), now a national park filled with leafy forests, waterfalls and ice-cold mountain lakes, and surrounded by immaculate traditional stone-and-slate villages of the Zagorohoria.

South of these mountains, the provincial capital of Ioannina is a fun, student city with history and ambience, set along a placid lake decorated with an island; it is a fine place to base yourself while exploring the area. The Epiros capital is the gateway to the Vikos-Aoös National Park and faces sheer mountains. This idyllic setting is further enhanced by an evocative old quarter interspersed with narrow lanes and architectural wonders from Byzantine and Ottoman times.

"Kokkoros bridge", the single arch stone bridge close to the villages of Koukouli and Kipoi in Zagori, Epirusou-arched-bridgeGetting to Epiros can be an event in itself. The main road, whether from Kozani in Macedonia or from Kalambaka in Thessaly, winds up over the Pindos Mountains – except when it cuts straight through them, inside the massive tunnels created for the Egnatia Odos cross-country highway, a spectacular feat of modern engineering which cannot fail to impress.

The Vikos-Aoös National Park bursts with pristine rivers and forests, flowering meadows and shimmering lakes reflecting jagged mountains and endless blue sky. Almost one-third of Greece’s flora (some endemic) lives here, along with endemic fish, foxes and chamois, rare hawks, river otters and brown bears. The park’s major Tymfi Massif, part of the north Pindos Mountains, contains numerous ear-popping peaks including Mt Trapezitsa, Mt Astraka and Mt Gamila.

Winter has fallen upon a traditional stone village of the National Park of Vikos-AoosThe 12km-long Vikos Gorge is a truly awe-inspiring work of nature. Jaw-dropping gorge views across the abyss can be enjoyed from walking trails and accessible roads. While most people you encounter – should you encounter any people at all – will be fellow hikers or their local hosts, you may still find semi-nomadic Vlach and Sarakatsani shepherds, taking their flocks up to high grazing ground in summer and returning to the valleys in autumn.

Should you tire of the solitude and the mountainous beauty and crave some of Greece’s best beaches, Ioannina is only a short trip away from Igoumenitsa, the main ferry port to the popular Greek island of Corfu.

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Neotinea tridentata (three-toothed orchid)