Even if you don't visit every classical ruin, this one offers a rare reward: a spectacular theater at one of the major oracles of the ancient world. In August, the theater produces classical Greek dramas; ask at a travel agency for specific information.
Dodona is only 22km (14 miles) from Ioannina. With a car, a round-trip visit should take about 3 hours. The bus service is inconvenient -- basically there's only one bus very early in the morning, and then you're stuck at the site for hours. It's better to spring for a taxi -- about 75€ for the round-trip, including an hour's wait. The first 7km (4 miles) are on a main highway due south (signed to Arta); the turn to the right at about 7km (4 miles) is signed Dodona; you proceed about 3km (2 miles) on a relatively flat road before the final 12km (7 1/2 miles) on an ascending and curving road. You'll arrive at a plateau ringed by mountains. The trip becomes part of the experience -- you get the sense that you're on a pilgrimage to a remote shrine. Admission to the sacred areas is 4€. In high season, the site is open daily from 8am to 8pm; off season, it's open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 3pm.
The Oracle of Zeus at Dodona traces its roots back to the early Hellenistic people who had arrived in northwestern Greece by about 2000 B.C. They probably worshiped Zeus, but at Dodona there was already an earth goddess cult with an oracle that might have based its interpretations on the flights of pigeons. In any case, by about 1400 B.C., it appears that the Zeus-worshiping Greeks had imposed their god on the site and turned the goddess into his consort, Dione.
By this time, too, the priests linked Zeus's presence to the rustling leaves of an oak tree at Dodona and interpreted these sounds as oracular messages. The Greeks set up a shrine around the tree -- a simple, protective fence. Over the centuries they built more and more elaborate structures on the site.
Eventually, they established a temple to Zeus here in the 4th century B.C. At that time, the oracle spoke through the bronze statue of a youth with a whip. The wind stirred the whip so it would strike nearby metal cauldrons. Priests then interpreted the reverberations. Many ambitious structures, both religious and secular, were erected at Dodona, but the oracle effectively ceased functioning in the 4th century A.D. -- about the time when, it is claimed by some, the original oak died. The oak now on the shrine's site is, of course, a recent planting.
Although the walls are all but destroyed, the magnificent theater survives, thanks to its reassembling in the 19th century. The first theater, built in the 3rd century B.C., is said to have seated 17,000. It was destroyed, but another of the same size replaced it in the 2nd century B.C. Later, the Romans converted the theater into an arena for gladiator contests. The theater, one of the largest on the Greek mainland, has almost the same marvelous acoustics as the famous (but smaller) one at Epidaurus. Just to sit here is an evocative experience.
Ancient Greeks' Dear Abby -- People from all stations of life came to Dodona with a request or a question for the oracle. Their desire or query was inscribed on a strip of lead and then submitted to the oracle. Some were quite practical: "Should I buy a certain property?" "Should I engage in shipping?" Others had a religious tinge: "To which god should we pray or sacrifice to get certain results?" But the most intriguing are also the most personal: "Shall I take another wife?" "Am I the father of her children?" These tablets -- some now to be seen in the Ioannina Archaeological Museum -- speak to us as do few remains from the ancient world.
Only about 5km (3 miles) north of Ioannina (the turnoff is past the airport), this cave is actually a series of caverns. It was discovered in 1941, during World War II, when people were combing the countryside in search of hiding places. Now thoroughly developed, with lights, steps, and handrails, it features a half-mile walk through a series of vast caverns and narrow passageways. In high season it's open daily from 8am to 8pm, and in winter daily from 9am to 5pm (tel. 26510/81-521). Guided tours set out about every 15 minutes from the well-signed entrance in Perama village; the fee is 6€ (2.5€ for children). The guides often don't speak much English; they may only repeat the names assigned to the unusually shaped stalagmites and stalactites. They may also rush everyone through -- but you can linger and join the next group. Perama may not live up to its boast as one of the most spectacular caves in the world, but it's worth a visit if you haven't been in many caves. Warning: Some stretches can be slippery. And at the very end, you must climb what seems like an endless number of steps to come out of the cave. But people of all shapes and ages have made it up and -- you emerge into a cafe!
Zagori (Zagoria/Zagorohoria) & Vikos Gorge
If you have limited time in northwestern Greece and prefer wilder nature to tourist destinations, you might opt to head here instead of Metsovo, Dodona, or Perama Cave. The Zagori is the mountainous area just north of Ioannina, a region of about 1,035 sq. km (400 sq. miles) now part of the Greek National Park System. About 45 villages here have remained almost unchanged through the centuries. Note: The mountainous roads make for slow going.
The region's most spectacular sight is Vikos Gorge. Do not attempt the hike without advance planning.
Getting around the Zagori without your own vehicle is all but impossible. The buses are too few and far between; on a day trip, you'd have time to visit only one destination. With a car, you can visit several villages, view Vikos Gorge from above, experience the scenery, and be back in Ioannina within 6 to 8 hours.
Take the main road north out of Ioannina toward Konitsa; turnoffs are clearly marked. For most first-time visitors, I'd recommend heading for Monodendri; after taking the highway north for 19km (13 miles), just past Metamorfosi, take the right turn signed Vikos Gorge. At about 5km (3 miles), a sign to the right indicates Kipi; the famous high-arched bridges are well worth the brief diversion (8km/5 miles). Regarded as old Turkish structures, they were most likely built in the 19th century for the convenience of packhorse caravans. The first, single-span bridge is Kokkoros; beyond that is three-arched Plakida Bridge. (If you have the time and inclination, another 11km/7 miles on through Kipi village leads to Nigades, with its strikingly handsome Church of Ayios Yioryios, built in 1795.) Returning to the main route, proceed about 39km (25 miles), where a sign indicates a turn right onto Monodendri's lower square.
Drive to the small parking lot at the edge of the village square. Proceed on foot from there, following the sign for Vikos Gorge (which directs travelers to Kato, or Lower Monodendri). It's about a 10-minute walk to the lovely little 15th-century Monastery of Ayia Paraskevi, perched on the edge of the gorge. The well-protected viewing areas here will be spectacular enough for most people. Only sure-footed and experienced hikers will want to get back on the narrow, unprotected trail above the monastery; there the next several hundred meters lead you to even more spectacular views of the gorge -- as well as dramatic drops from the path.
Back at the parking lot, continue on the main road for about another half-mile, until you come to Monodendri's upper square. (A short cobblestone path leads from the lower to this upper square.) The upper town has several modest hotels (I would recommend the Monodendri Hotel; tel. 26530-71-300; www.monodendrihotel.com) and decent restaurants, but unless you seek such amenities, you need not go up there. If you want to have a meal, I recommend either Katerina's Restaurant (try her tasty chicken or meat pies) at the top of the square, or To Petrino Dasos, the little taverna on the right as you come up to the square. The Oxio, a hotel and restaurant opposite To Petrino Dasos, is another possibility but the food is nothing special.
To view the gorge from Vikos Balcony, drive up through the upper square and on for another 7km (4 1/2 miles) along the road to Oxia. Leave your car and walk down a stone path to a spectacular view. Local signs claim that Vikos Gorge, at 900m (2,950 ft.), is "the world's deepest," but several places around the world might dispute that.
Next stop is Papingo. Drivers are usually advised to retrace their entire route back to the main Ioannina-Konitsa highway and then proceed north to the turnoff to Papingo (a 1 1/2-hr. drive). If you're adventurous -- and, more important, able to ask basic directions in Greek -- you can take an asphalt road that cuts that time almost in half because it is a more direct route to the highway. You start down from Monodendri but at about 5km (3 miles), take the (signed) right turn and head across the flatland for Elafatopos; do not go on up to Elafatopos, however, but continue and take the left turn signed Kato Pedina. You then come to the main highway; turn right and proceed 4km (2 1/2 miles) until a sign to the right indicates Papingo. The drive from this point on offers the kind of scenery best described by Simon, a young English traveler I once fell in with, who exclaimed, "It makes you want to stop the car and get out and applaud."
Of the two villages, Megalo Papingo and Micro Papingo -- "Big" and "Little" Papingo -- we recommend visiting at least the first. Many regard this as the archetypal Zagori village, with its terrain, streets, homes, roofs, public buildings, and everything else seemingly all made of the same stone. Megalo Papingo has several cafes and restaurants as well as modest hotels. You can always be sure of a meal in Papingo, but rooms may be booked up at various times of the year -- such is the reputation of the Zagori in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. The most ambitious hotel is the Papaevangelou (tel. 26530/41-135; 120€ double); behind it is the Saxonis Houses (tel. 26530/41-615; 110€ double); more modest is the Hotel Koulis (tel. 26530/41-115; 65€ double); all include private bathrooms and breakfast.
If you drive on another 1.6km (1 mile) from Megalo Papingo, you'll come to Micro Papingo, which offers a view of the mountains from another angle. To really get away from it all, stay at the cozy Dias Guesthouse here, with its limited but tasty menu (tel. 26530/41-257; fax 26530/41-892). A double can be 75€, but that may be negotiable depending on the tourist traffic.
For those looking for a special place to stay, there is the Aristi Mountain Resort (www.aristi.eu) in the village of that name. It is off the same road that leads from the main highway to the Papingo villages and is signposted. Built of local stone, this is a true spa resort, with an indoor heated swimming pool as well as a Jacuzzi, sauna, steam bath, and masseur. Rooms include A/C, TV, and Internet connection. The hotel's restaurant specializes in local produce. All of this doesn't come cheap -- a double runs from 120€ to 140€ in high season. Whether you sit and admire the view or set out on daily walks, you cannot beat the location.
After all this, you are only about 60km (38 miles) from Ioannina. You can return knowing you've had a taste of the true Epirus.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.