One of the traveller’s great delights is to come across the unexpected in the midst of the familiar – to be taken by surprise by somewhere that is “just around the corner”.

Mavri Spilia, Karpenissi

Karpenisi is just such a place. In the heart of Central Greece in the prefecture of Evrytania, it is mountainous, tree-covered, chequered with waterfalls and numberless streams – more evocative of the Swiss Alps than mainland Greece. In the winter months, carpeted with snow, it has long been the private playground of Athenian ski enthusiasts, eager for spectacular routes. Once the season is over, however, it reverts to a more bucolic existence, enjoying the benefits of a temperate climate and air that is claimed to be the cleanest in the whole of Europe, as evidenced everywhere by the abundance of lichen.

Certainly the air is extraordinarily pure; it means that everything you do is enhanced by its invigorating clarity. Whether you opt for energetic pursuits like winter skiing, or spring and summer activities like rafting through the gorges or horse-riding across the foothills, or perhaps prefer to walk along the remains of the old salt path to ‘Mavri Spilia’ (The Black Cave) or one of the many trails that take you past waterfall upon waterfall, it feels as if the very act of breathing is transformed into something unusual and fresh.

Yet at the same time Karpenisi remains profoundly Greek, not just in its hospitality and style of life, but in its mix of ancient and contemporary. Hercules himself is said to have fought here, and if you venture to the 9th century monastery at Prousous – built improbably into the mountainside – you will be following the path of a once lost icon that had been smuggled out of Turkey. Years later, legend has it (and when doesn’t legend have it in Greece?) a miraculous footprint appeared in a rock face and led to the spot where the icon was recovered, and where the monastery now stands. More recently, Karpenisi was one of the centres of resistance against Mussolini’s invasion in the Second World War, and a National Resistance Museum can now be visited at Korischades.

Prousos Monastery, Karpenissi

Undoubtedly the best way to explore the area is by car. Karpenisi is about a 4-hours drive from Athens (perhaps visiting Delphi en route) or 2 hours from Volos. One of the benefits of its standing as an exclusive winter resort is that Karpenisi’s accommodation and cuisine is of an exceptional quality all year round. Our suggestion would be to stay at one of the many renovated houses in the various small villages to get a real sense of the place. The area is famed throughout Greece for the pork specialities prepared by the Stremmenos company in Prousos, with its organic air-cured sausages and varieties of prosciutto, cured and soaked in red wine, and perhaps topped with a glass or two of tsipouro.

As Greece rises to the challenge of its economic situation, it has given opportunities to more innovative regional authorities, and the Karpenisi municipality is at the forefront of adapting to the interests of the more independent and inquisitive traveller who wants to discover one of the hidden treasures of Greece.