|OFF the BEATEN TRACK|
Stuck out in the Libyan Sea south of Crete, Gavdos Island is the most southerly place in Europe. Rumour has it that this was the island where Calypso the sea nymph held Odysseus captive on his way home from the Trojan War. The island has three small villages and pleasant beaches, and it is perfect for those craving isolation. There are no hotels but several of the locals rent rooms. Fishermen from Gavdos take visitors to the remote, uninhabited island of Gavdopoula.
Between the Cycladic islands of Naxos and Amorgos there is a chain of small islands variously called the Little Cyclades, Minor Islands, Back Islands and Lesser Islands. Only four of the islands have a permanent population: Donousa, Koufonisia, Iraklia and Shinousa. The islands were densely populated in antiquity, as evident from the large number of graves that have been found, but these days they are inhabited only by a few goatherds and an increasing, though still relatively small, number of visitors attracted to the pristine beaches. The islands have a few domatia (rooms) and tavernas, but don't expect anything fancy.
Grey rocky mountains, mottled with defiant clumps of green scrub, characterise the inner Mani region of the Peloponnese. The people of the Mani claim to be direct descendants of the Spartans, the fierce warriors who chose to withdraw to the mountains rather than serve under foreign masters. Until independence, the Maniots lived in clans led by chieftans. With fertile land scarce, blood-feuds were a way of life, so families constructed towers to use as refuges. To this day Maniots are regarded by Greeks as fiercely independent, royalist and right-wing. Areopoli, the capital of the Mani, is aptly named after Ares, the god of war. In the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town, grim tower houses stand proud and vigilant. The Diros caves, 11km (6.8mi) south of Areopoli, were inhabited by Neolithic people and may extend as far north as Sparta. Visitors are taken on a boat trip along the subterranean river through narrow tunnels and immense caverns filled with myriad clusters of stalactites and stalagmites. Further south, there are stark, barren mountains, broken only by deserted settlements of mighty towers. Vathia, the most dramatic of the traditional villages in this region, is a barnacle-like cluster of tower houses perched on a lofty rock.
There are 44 villages in the region of Zagoria, north of Ioannina. As with many inaccessible mountainous areas in Greece, these villages maintained a high degree of autonomy in Turkish times, so their culture flourished. The houses are built entirely of slate from the surrounding mountains, and the villages, with their winding cobbled and stepped streets, look as if they've leapt straight out of a Grimm's fairy tale. Many of the villages are now sadly depopulated, with only a handful of elderly inhabitants. The area is thickly forested with hornbeam, maple, willow and oak, and bears, wolves, wild boars, wild cats, wild goats and rare Rissos quadrupeds roam the mountains. Vlach and Sarakatsani shepherds still live a semi-nomadic existence, taking their flocks up to high grazing grounds in the summer and returning to the valleys in autumn. The Vikos-Aoös National Park encompasses much of this area, which, although popular with trekkers, is untouched by mass tourism.
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