Dimitsana (Δημητσάνα) is well known in Greece as a popular winter destination but is certainly not on the radar of the majority of foreign tourists.
It is located 3 hours by car from Athens in the Peloponnesian district of Arkadia and at an altitude of 1000 meters, which means it can see a fair bit of snow during the winter months. Dimitsana’s stone built houses, lovely mountain scenery and its history as the engine of the Greek independence movement in the early 1800’s make it a fascinating place to spend a few days. With this in mind, we packed our snow chains, bundled the kids up nice and warm and headed out for quick winter break in Dimitsana!
Getting to Dimitsana
Access to Dimitsana and the rest of the villages in the area (Stemnitsa, Vytina, Karataina etc) has become much easier in the last few years with the opening of a European grade highway taking you from Athens to Tripoli. There are a number of options from Tripoli: taking the main road just after the Artemision tunnel that leads through Levidi and Vytina or else carrying on into Tripoli and then taking the smaller roads that wind through the mountains up through Stemnitsa and on to Dimitsana. We decided on the second option which in hindsight might have been a mistake (did I mention the area can see a bit of snow?). We made it to the village of Chrisovitsi before the road was blocked by snow and other Athenians without snow chains having their own adventures in the cold. A big thanks to Christos and his mates from Chrisovitsi who helped all involved to get their chains attached and pushed them back up the hill on their way back to Tripoli, it was quite an experience! Needless to say, if you are heading to the mountains of Arkadia in the wintertime check the weather forecast and take your snow chains, the weather can change quickly and what is rain at 500 meters can in a very short amount of time turn into 15cm of snow a bit higher up.
Arriving in Dimitsana
All this extra excitement meant that we ended up approaching Dimitsana from the North instead of the South, something that is well worth it as the village suddenly appears above you as you come around a mountain bend. Dimitsana is built amphitheatrically on two adjacent hills over of the Lousios river and the first view of the stone houses wrapped in a light winter fog is quite simply amazing and gives a feeling of medieval Europe much more than of anything you usually associate with Greece. Once parked up (an adventure in itself during the weekends when the Athens mob makes itself most known) get yourself to your chosen rooms and then kick back with a nice hot rakomelo (raki and honey, the best winter drink ever) in any of the town’s little cafes. They are not hard to find, they are all on the main (and only) road that leads through Dimitsana.
Things to do in Dimitsana
Dimitsana was a commercial center in the 18th century and flourished during the years up to and including the Greek war of independence in 1821. Its position on the Lousios Gorge meant that water was available to power mills that were involved in the production of flour, animal skins, metal works and (most importantly) gunpowder. Without the gunpowder mills of Dimitsana (evidence suggests up to 14 operated in the village and surroundings) the Greek freedom fighters would have been doing a lot less fighting. The Lousios Gorge also hides a number of secluded monasteries along its walls that became centers of resistance and education during those years. A number of celebrated Greek resistance fighters and Patriarchs made their home in Dimitsana and/or the nearby monasteries and today Dimitsana is home to two small museums celebrating its illustrious past, the Ecclesiastical Museum and the Town Library.
Dimitsana’s own homegrown son is none other than Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Grigorios V. His house just off the main street has been restored and made into an Ecclesiastical museum holding treasures from the churches of Dimitsana and the surrounding monasteries. Most pieces are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and include a several representative sample of icons produced by seventeenth century artists in Crete. Take note, the museum is only open Saturday and Sunday in the winter time 09:30 – 13:30.
Dimitsana Town Library
The Dimitsana town library is housed opposite the church of Saint Kyriaki in the town’s extremely small main square. Inside it has a small but interesting folklore collection with various objects from everyday life of Dimitsana in the nineteenth century. There are also a number of more historically weighty objects including several artifacts from famous residents of DImitsana during the 1821 Greek war of Independence and a number of books from the 16th century that were commissioned by wealthy local residents to be translated from Latin to Greek and printed in Venice and other European cities.
The library was initially started with the books from the local monastery that had amassed over 5000 items before the War of Independence started. We are told that by the end of the war only 500 survived, not due to any wartime incident but because the pages were found to be perfect for wrapping the gunpowder produced at the local mills to be prepared for final use! The library is open Monday to Friday 09:30 – 13:30.
Wandering the Streets of Dimitsana
Beyond the two museums, you can spend an enjoyable day simply wandering around the cobblestoned streets of Dimitsana. There are a number of churches including the above mentioned Saint Kyriaki built in 1834 to replace a church of 1603, Saint George from the seventeenth century, St Haralambus from 1862 with an impressive clock tower dating from 1868, the Transfiguration at the north edge of the village believed to date from the eighteenth century and the Archangel standing on the foundations of an original church built in 1635.
Walking the path to the Transfiguration will also take you past the remains of ancient walls. The exact origin of these remains is unknown with some suggesting the Mycenaean and some the Hellenic periods. They are most likely from the ancient town of Teuthis which is known to have stood on the same spot as modern day Dimitsana.
The Open Air Water Power Museum
Just outside Dimitsana to the south is a small road leading down into the Lousios Gorge with a sign pointing you on to the Open Air Water Power Museum of Dimitsana. I was not expecting too much from this trip, but stood pleasantly surprised by the amount of care and attention to detail that has been put in restoring and recreating water powered mills fed from a spring that runs down the mountains to the Lousios river itself. The museum is a fantastic example of what can be achieved with a little care (and a little bit of funding) and is well worth a visit.
Day Trips from Dimitsana
Dimitsana is perfectly situated to be the base for a number of very enjoyable day trips around the wider area which could easily include visits to Stemnitsa (about 14 kms further south along a beautiful road that winds along the edge of the Lousios Gorge) and ancient Gortinia which is a further 10kms or so beyond that. Truth be told, all the roads in the region offer fantastic views down the Lousios gorge so if you have a car just get in and go, you will find many little villages, churches and scenic viewpoints that will keep you occupied all day long.
Hiking the Lousios Gorge
A path starting from the Open Air museum will lead you down into the Lousios Gorge itself and will take you past the Philosophou and Prodromou Monastaries. Although the snowfall and a slightly cranky two year old prevented us from attempting the walk on this trip, it is by all acounts a lovely hike and one I plan on doing some springtime soon. Reasonably priced leaflets and books detailing the trails are available from the museum kiosk. There are a few offices in Dimitsana that offer guided tours of the area and can also arrange rafting trips on the Lousios river if that is your thing.
Dimitsana – Final Thoughts
Dimitsana and the central Peleponnese generally is a great place to get your fill of beautiful mountain scenery and historical monuments. Anytime of the year is good, wintertime is most popular for the greeks, spring and autumn a mixture of greeks and foreign tourists in the know, in the summertime you might well be virtually alone with most of the country down at the beaches. Fully recommended.