Kokkini Ekklisia – Vourgareli – Athamanio – Theodoriana
Trip: Peta – Melates – Kokkini Ekklisia – Vourgareli – Athamanio – Theodoriana(83 km)
On the east side of Tzoumerka, in a mountain “fold”, there is the most mountainous village of Arta (950 meters), Theodoriana. It is the last place of a wonderful trip (one of the most beautiful in Epirus) that starts from the roundabout on the east entrance of the city and follows the national road Arta-Trikala. Getting to the mounds of Kleisto you will have the opportunity to enjoy a panoramic view of the west side of Arta, from Kopraina to Zalongo and Actium. On the peak of the hill you will find an override on the left, and if you follow it after 2 kilometers you can gaze at picturesque Zygo (village), with a likewise wonderful view of the lake of Pournari in the background.
Back on the central road and before arriving at Melates village (27 km), which is surrounded by the foliage, we leave the old Monastery of Virgin Mary with its impressively decorated pylon (1842) on the right, and after a while we find ourselves before a wonderful landscape as a picturesque arm of the artificial lake of Arachthos penetrates in the green hills creating a great painting. The road is meandering and upward just like the hills until we arrive at an openness right in front of imposing Tzoumerka. The spectacle is impressive! Tzoumerka are so close that you can easily make out all of their characteristics in detail as well as their appearance that changes colors depending on the season. A little farther, Palaiokatouno seems as if it were a painting: a beautiful chapel on the hill, in the background of Tzoumerka. There is also another pleasant surprise, while moving upwards, after a bend of the road you will find the diamond of Tzoumerka, Byzantine Kokkini Ekklisia (Red Church), surrounded by the green vegetation in the peacefulness of the idyllic landscape of Tzoumerka; you are not allowed to go past it just like that, you should dive in its beauty and read its history.
Kokkini Ekklisia is a brilliant and representative sample of the byzantine church architecture of the creative 13th century. Its name is due to the great quantity of ceramic ware that was used for its construction. It is also called Vasilomonastiro (royal monastery) revealing in this way its relation with the Dynasties of Komnenoi and Doukades of Arta. It was built in 1823/4 , during the years of Nikephoros I Komnenos, by the craftsman Ioannis Tsimiskis and his brother Theodoros, and a year later, with their own expenses, the interior murals that are slightly preserved were created. It is a cruciform temple the initial dome of which collapsed and it was afterwards replaced with a pitched roof. The wide use of ceramic structural and decorative materials and mostly its multiform elegant roof, offer the building grace and elegance while at the same time they offer another charming element to the already indisputable beauty of Tzoumerka. The temple celebrates on the day of the Birth of Virgin Mary.
Continuing the trip from Kokkini Ekklisia has some more surprises: after five kilometers of an upward trip you will see the first houses of the most famous mountainous touristic-and not only-centre of Arta, picturesque Vourgareli, the seat of the Municipality of Central Tzoumerka (760 meters of altitude and 60 kilometers away from Arta). Its best view can be admired from the hikers’ recreation area, outside the village at the opposite openness: living in Tzoumerka is not always easy. You need a haven and you will definitely find that in Voourgareli, on a sunny side of the mountain where it spreads amphitheatrically towards the warm South. It is a beautiful and populous village with many fir trees, located in a slope, next to the rocky landscape of Tzoumerka. The big parish church of Agios Nikolaos with its wonderful column-based arched arcade as well as the newly built stony touristic resorts that are constructed with artistry and elegance but mostly with respect towards the surrounding settlement, stand out and draw the visitor’s attention. We proceed to the village in order to admire its centre. It is redolent of old grandeur: beautiful two-storeyed stone-built houses, those that survived the ruthless bombings of the Germans as well as the curse of the modern development. Stone-paved alleys, running waters, and right in the middle “Krystallo” and “Archonto” the two springs that have been offering residents their endless freshness for centuries! The Monastery of Agios Georgios (1690), where Karaiskakis, Koutelidas, Bakolas, Koutsonikas and other chieftain from Arta locally declared revolution in 1821 under the blessings of abbot Christophoros, turning the monastery into the new Agia Lavra Monastery, is a real jewel of the village. Thanks to that sparkle that became a flame later on, Greeks triumphed over the Turks-Albanians of Omer Vrioni, during the “battle of Vourgareli” in 1824. The buildings of the monastery remain intact; however there are not monks anymore. Its athonic type one-arched domed temple has some wonderful murals that date back to 1714, created by painters form Kalarrytes. A little farther there is Tzouka mound, the unknown citadel of ancient Athamanes. As far as the afternoon walks are concerned there are two old stone-built bridges, in Gloumpari and Korai streams and a traditional watermill. The perimeter road of Tzoumerka also starts from Vourgareli and with an incredibly beautiful trip it surrounds all of their jewels (Kypseli, Ramia, Lepiana, Mikrospilia, Katarraktis, Agnanta, Ktistades, Pramanta, Melissourgoi).
However we continue with our trip that within 5 minutes will lead us to the village that was named after the first residents of Tzoumerka, Athamanio that is the “twin” village of Vourgareli. The morphological features are almost the same while the tradition and the history are indeed the same. Their distinctive characteristics comprise the peculiar parish temple in the populous lower neighborhood as well as the renovated part of the village with the development of modern constructions in a sheer traditional settlement.
In the outskirts of the village, as people say, sometime there had been found remains of a stone-paved roman road through Julius Caeser passed while directing to Thessaly in order to face the army of Pompey during their civil war (battle of Farsala 48 BC). Sporadically, during the past traces of ancient Athamanes were found in the area.
Right in the middle of the village we meet a left upward override that will lead us after a not so comfortable though extremely pleasant trip of 15 kilometers to our destination, famed Theodoriana. We actually climb Tzoumerka by meanderingly crossing Athamanio and after we pass by the camping area and the last fir tree areas we travel through the bald mountain, until we reach the col, the highest point of our trip (1200) at Stavros location; there even if one wanted to proceed the spectacle would not allow them to. Actually, we have “climbed” Tzoumerka by car and now standing at the crest of the huge balcony of Tzoumerka we enjoy the grandeur of nature without knowing what to look at first. You gaze at the “anger” and the “smiles” of Tzoumerka, the folds and the emergence of the mountains of Thessaly, Acheloos getting lost in Seltso, up to the glory of the mountain peaks of Agrafa and, right next to you, there is the bulwark of Bakolas, Karaiskakis and the rest chieftains that having only 70 men with them managed to triumph over 6000 soldiers of Hurshid Pasha, when in August, 1821, he passed through Thessaly while directing to Epirus.
And after you have filled your memory card as well as well as your own memory, you descend towards the back side of Tzoumerka without any rush in order not to miss any detail. You can see Theodoriana– Theodoria of ancient Athamanes- sheltered in the background in order to stay away from the snow and overhead there is the chain of the peaks surrounded by the crazy “costume” of Tzoumerka, famed Kostilata that seems as if constantly flirting with you. The other “captains” of Tzoumerka, the shepherds have set their haunts there, and they spend half a year there along with their herds.
Before you have even understood, you are there. The wavy streams that transfer the waters of Kostilata in order to make the water pits and the old watermill move welcome you while roaring. In a while, as you are drinking your coffee at the square you can admire the beauties of the most remote village of Arta. Once a year, the square becomes extremely crowded on the day of the famous festival of Theodoriana, on the 15th of August. No matter where they live, people from Theodoriana meet there on that day of the year at the chapel of Panagia and after honoring her they hold a big procession among the ferns and the boulders combining the incense burners and the psalms with the glory of the nature. The final stop is at the square where under the giant plane tree the people follow the priest of the village in the traditional “kagkelari” dance- what a picturesque image! Then you wander around the alleys, water is everywhere! Watch out at the springs so that you will not lose the bet by letting your hand on their waters for more than half a minute. The houses are small and one next to another as if they were purposely built like that in order to prevent the cold and the wind. At the end of the village there is still the temple of the old monastery of the Birth of Virgin Mary (1793), where the owner of the monastery, monk Anthimos Argyropoulos, founded a peer-teaching school- a kind of “krifo scholio”- that was operating in the cells that are now abandoned and he was the teacher himself. By combining a 5 minute difficult trip through a dirt road with 20’-30’ of a relatively easy climbing path, you will find the magic of Souda, the imposing double waterfall that is formed by the waters of “Aspri Gkoura” in a fantastic corner of the planted-all-over with fir trees slope of Tzoumerka. You won’t have seen anything if you go to Theodoriana and you don’t see their waterfalls, breathe their steam and, if you are so courageous, swim in their waters. It is the summer gift of Theodoriana because during the winter, if you manage to get there because of the road (that is very rare) you will find the houses closed and locked-up.
So after having enjoyed that gift we say goodbye to the village, by following another road, the winter one, as when the col of “Stavros” gets full of snow the road becomes impassable. We move downwards to the river and passing by the traditional stone-built bridge from where the path to the second renovated watermill begins, we continue while watching its magnificent gorge and at the same time we admire the landscape of Tzoumerka with Theodoriana leaning against them. At the end of this magnificent gorge our road meets the National Road Arta –Trikala, at the exact point where a left override of 500 m. will lead us to the most popular worshiping area of the area, the renowned Monastery of Agia Kyriaki. Built in the warm nest made by the steep triangle-shaped ending of an outgrowth of Tzoumerka, it gazes the course of leisurely Acheloos with as much water as was left by its “Procrustes”, the dam of Mesochora, at a small distance. The temple is small and new as the old one collapsed because of an earthquake. It seems that is indeed popular as if you find yourself there on the eve of its celebration day (July 7th) you will see how crowded it is. There are thousands of worshippers and especially girls, who- according to the tradition- have made a vow to be there so that they prop up their affair with the young man they admire and wish to become their couple.
The visit to the monastery of Agia Kyriaki is the end of our wonderful trip. We return through the national road Trikala-Arta.