Dreamy lakes and gurgling rivers, lush greenery and ancient civilizations, curvaceous shorelines and hidden subcultures, Aitoloakarnania (a joint word arising from Aitolia and Akarnania) represents a true convergence of heritage, wildlife and natural beauty.
Aitoloakarnania is pretty much off the beaten track, especially the inner parts away from the coast which are not always easily accessible (but well worth the effort). Even the coast is popular with Greek tourists, and has not become a magnet for foreign ones who tend to prefer the islands and other better-known areas.
The bounty of this prefecture is fed generally by the Acheloos River, dotting the landscape with lakes and lagoons. It is no wonder that the area has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic period. Castles and ancient theatres stand witness to the passage of time and peoples that have inhabited this rich land, now sparsely populated in comparison to its rich history.
Perhaps the lack of population today is why nature has been so kind to the area, with the many lakes representing ecological havens with a variety of fauna and flora. Eco-activities such as canoeing and kayaking are popular around Lake Stratou and the Bania Evinou Bridge, while paragliding takes place from the slopes of Mount Panaitoliko and Arakynthos.
Nafpaktos is a must-see little city, considered one of the oldest towns in Greece with a history spanning three and a half millennia. It boasts a Venetian castle and port, which was home to the famed battle of 1571 that caused the destruction of the Ottoman fleet. Old churches and a mosque await the historically curious, so do the tower of Botsaris and the remains of ancient temples at Asklipion.
If you're in an exploratory mood and head inland from Nafpaktos, you'll find yourself in thick forests of fir and spruce, until you reach Platanos. You may also come across simple little villages in and beyond these woods, idyllically lying at an altitude between 700 and 1000 meters above the sea, such as Ambelakiotissa, Ano Hora, Arahova (not to be confused with the snow resort in Viotia), Dorvitsia, Elatou, Hrissovo, Perkos, Simos, Terpsithea and more.
Back on the coast, some seven kilometres southwest of Nafpaktos is the village of Platanitis overlooking the grandiose Rio Antirio bridge which connects the mainland to the Peloponnese. Platanitis is truly a picturesque village if ever there was one, with crystal waters that are perfect for swimming.
On the other side, only 12 kilometres east of Nafpaktos is the seaside village of Monastiraki (in the Efpalio municipality which actually lies in the neighbouring prefecture of Fokida). It offers a pebble-laden beach and some trekking options. Kastraki is another close village in close proximity to Monastiraki and the beach of Chiliadou. The surrounding Nafpaktia mountains with their 60 odd villages are a haven for forests of oak, plane, chestnut and fir trees, with diverse fauna such as hares, ferrets, squirrels, foxes and even wild boar.
The long coast also features a number of beaches, some popular while others very quiet, while the mountainous area of Nafpaktia is a verdant escape from civilization. The Mesolongi lagoon is another stunning natural attraction right next to the capital of the prefecture. The historic city of Mesolongi where the Greeks besieged themselves from the Ottomans for a whole year before trying to escape its walls in a bittersweet exodus that took many lives yet saved others, today stands as a reminder of its troubled past and days of glory. The Garden of Heroes and the monastery of Agios Simeon from the 17th century are particular landmarks that are connected to this historic event. Yet even from nature's perspective, the city of Mesolongi is significant for its wetlands. It was established during the 16th century on three little islands that were later united, at the mouth of the Evinos and Aheloos rivers. Across its coast the little island of Etoliko lies 13 kilometers away, connected to the mainland by an old stone bridge that stood the test of time. In fact, both sides of the bridge form the town of Etoliko, although the island side constitutes the older, more traditional part. Noteworthy is the sweet water in the Etolikos lagoon among others, making it ideal for fishing. Consequently, there are fish taverns around the lagoon that are perfect for seafood lovers. The sunsets around the lagoon are also extraordinary.
The village of Evinochori (or Evinohori) near Mesolongi which got its name from the adjacent Evinos river, is luckily untouched by mass tourism. Its fabulous local restaurants, amazing views all around and nearby archaeological site of Kalydona (or Kalidon) add to the mystique.
Another village within close proximity to Mesolongi is Galatas, with quaint accommodation and easy access to Varasova mountain, which is excellent for mountaineering and caving. Not far off are the water-sports-friendly Evinos river and the beaches at Krioneri, another locality that attracts campers and climbers.
Next up is the city of Agrinio, which while not the capital, is the biggest town in the prefecture, situated between Amvrakia and Trichonida lakes. The city and environs are best visited for the archaeological museum, folk art museum, old train station, ancient theatre of stratus and the early Christian church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Kimisi tis Theotokou). The artificial lake of Kremasta and its spectacular dam are also a sight to behold.
More inland, somewhere behind Lake Trichonida lies the village of Thermo, a bustling town and gateway to the Nafpaktia mountains. The town also boasts a sophisticated Centre for Environmental Training. The ruins of ancient Thermo – once the capital of Aetolia – are of course nearby, with remains of temples of Apollo and Artemis, among other noteworthy elements and an archaeological museum.
About 50 kilometres away from Mesolongi heading in a north-westerly direction, you will come across some fabulous sandy beaches at Astakos, particularly the beaches of Asprogiali, Agios Giorgis and Vela. (From Astakos you can hitch a boat ride to Ithanki or Kefalonia).
Further down the coast is Mitikas where you can catch a boat to the small islands of Kastos and Kalamos that boast exquisite beaches, or visit the nearby remains of the ancient city of Alizea. There too is another great beach at Paliomagaza, as well as further down the road at Paleros. Continue on to Vonitsa with its ruins and medieval castle, or to the Venetian citadel at Aktion. East of Vonitsa is Thirio, which is home to a decent archaeological museum that offers an interesting stop before reaching Amfilohia.
The seaside town of Amfilohia is known for its large shrimp and dairy products, but also for its churches and ancient sites of Limnea and Olpes. Be sure to visit the phosphorescent waters of the Ambracian Gulf (Amvrakikos in Greek). Around it are many beaches to pick and choose from, after which you can continue back inland and discover enchanting woods and mountains, rich in biodiversity.
Off the road between Amfilohia and Agrinio pass by Katouna, right on Lake Amvrakia, for a special nature-filled experience. Overall, at every fork or turn in this prefecture, you'll find a small settlement, a village or a natural attraction that will fill your visit with wanderlust. Enjoy!