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Every Greek knows the legend of the bridge of Arta. Fewer know that this city in southern Epirus is studded with historic monuments from many eras. You’ll see sections of ancient wall, Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches and a well-preserved medieval castle with a clock tower, which all add colour to this friendly town. And if it’s magnificent nature you’re after, you’ve also come to the right place.
Arta’s location in the region of Epirus makes it easy to explore the slopes of the Tzoumerka mountains, the man-made lake at Pournari and the remarkable wetlands and fishing villages on the rim of the ‘closed’ Ambracian Gulf. The whole region is blessed with forests and rivers, waterfalls and lakes – the ideal nature holiday setting. This side of Greece will surprise and delight you, but first find out the story behind that famous bridge.
Look closely at the elegant arched span of this celebrated bridge, constructed around the 14th century. There are many like it around Epirus and they all display the stone mason’s art, a long tradition and a singular vision of architecture. But this is the only one associated with the dark folk tale of the builder who, in order to stop the arch from collapsing, is said to have used his wife as the foundation stone!
The story has inspired numerous plays, operas and folklore studies. According to the great Greek poet Kostis Palamas, ‘It is a folk masterpiece, like a verse from a Homeric hymn and it’s there to be mined by poetry and music, for as long as they exist.’ Now, it’s your turn to be inspired.
With a drive or boat ride in the Ambracian Gulf, you’ll discover a spectacle that nature took eons to craft: an enchanting, labyrinthine complex of wetlands, where freshwater from the Louros and Arachthos rivers has been mingling with the saltwater from the Ionian Sea for more than two millennia. Here you’ll come face to face with lagoons and reed beds, salt marshes and thick forests, sandbars consisting solely of shells. It is home to 270 bird species, 71 of which are endangered, protected under European legislation.
The town of Arta, built on the banks of the Peranthis River, is a happy combination of past and present. The 13th-century Byzantine castle, which rises into view above sections of the ancient city wall, is an important attraction and still plays an active role in people’s lives. Dozens of events take place in the municipal theatre near its entrance, where the clock tower stands. Present-day tales are spun in National Resistance Square, on the sidewalks, shops, cafes and bars, where you’ll see Arta’s lively young people getting together.
Among the most impressive sights in Arta, the wall was built to protect the ancient town but it’s not known exactly when its construction began. The parts that remain show that it was an imposing wall, made with impressively large uncut stones.
Take a side trip to the village of Theodoriana, in the eastern Tzoumerka mountain range. In the middle of a dark green fir forest, you’ll stumble upon a magical scene… a village encircled by two rivers, the Goura and White Goura. They flow around it to meet in a deep gorge but before the White Goura meets its other half, it has a surprise in store for you in the shape of two stupendous waterfalls.
Not far from Arta, you’ll come to the village of Pournari. An enormous earth dam, the second largest in Greece after the Mornos, stops the river flow to form the artificial Lake Pournari. Human endeavour and nature’s grandeur join forces to impress.
On the left bank of the Arachthos River, just a few metres from the legendary Arta bridge, is the ageless and imposing Arta Plane Tree (O Platonas tis Artas), also known as Ali Pasha’s Plane Tree. One of the oldest and most beautiful in Greece, it was declared a protected natural monument in 1976, providing the perfect shade for an enjoyable coffee break while you take in the view of the bridge and the river.