Hiking the ancient trails of Greece
Editor’s note: The following article was written by two local women, Debbie Mather and Sharell Carney, who are avid hikers and backpackers. They have spent many years trekking various mountains throughout the world. Their most recent adventure was to the Pindus (Pindos) Mountains of Northern Greece.
The deepest gorge in the world, towering limestone cliffs and ancient Zagori stone villages are all part of the Pindus Mountains of Northern Greece.
The Pindus Range stretches from Albania to central Greece. Scattered throughout these mountains are Zagorian stone villages nestled on the sides of precipitous mountains. The inhabitants are descendants of semi-nomadic people and their inaccessibility allowed them some autonomy during Ottoman times. Trade routes were established by building stone paths and roads to accommodate mule caravans. The Skala of Vradheto is a stretch of cobbled stone stairway winding steeply up a cliff between Tsepelovo and Vradheto that was, until recently, the only access to Vradheto.
Our six-day trek in September 2011 began in Monodendri where a Guinness Book of World Records sign states that the Vikos Gorge is the deepest gorge in the world at 1,650 metres. Just a few minutes into the descent we came across an uninhabited stone monastery perched on the edge of the cliff, and we mean on the edge! On the steep winding path down, the views of the towering limestone cliffs and lush vegetation were constantly changing. In the gorge we marveled at the beech and Hollywood oak forest inhabited by yellow-bellied frogs and colourful butterflies. We walked beside a dry river bed, which in spring would be a torrent of rushing water from the surrounding peaks. Ten kilometres later, the climb out of the gorge took us up a steep switch backing “kalderimi” or cobblestone track to Vikos village which sits on a panoramic saddle. A meal of Greek salad and chicken souvlaki was a welcome end to a fabulous first day.
From Vikos to the village of Mikro, Papingo was a short, but strenuous, day as we had to again follow the kalderimi downhill into the gorge only to then begin the climb to Mikro Papingo. However, far reaching views of scree slopes and towering Papingo Towers kept beckoning us. Staying each night in a small Zagorian stone lodge, or sometimes just a room in a local’s home, was a way to really experience the flavour of the area.
On our third day, after an early Greek breakfast of feta cheese, olives, tomatoes and bread, we started up the cobblestone path out of the village and onto the mule track that climbed steeply for three hours above the tree line and to the Alpine Refuge of Astraka at 1,950 metres. It was a hot hike but we were invigorated by the cold, refreshing, mountain water that poured out of the cisterns that we encountered along the way. The views were magnificent! We took time at the top to sit and enjoy the wide expanse of the mountains and valleys dotted with the unique Zagorian villages.
In the afternoon we followed a path to some old, but interesting, shepherds’ huts and then wound our way up the next mountainside until we reached Dhrakolimini, or Dragon Lake. The Gamila Peak stood guard above and created the most astonishing reflection in the water. Apparently the lake is bottomless, as the legend goes, and its guardian dragon lives in the depths. We climbed to the edge of the cliff and peered down at the next valley of the Aoos River before heading back to the Astraka hut where we could admire the pinkish hue of the sunset before bedding down for a much needed sleep.
The hike down the mountain the next morning led us back to the village of Mikro Papingo, and then onto Megalio Papingo before heading to the village of Kipi, famous for its stone bridges, and in particular, its triple-arched bridge. The stone bridges, built in the 18th and 19th centuries, were part of the cobblestone roads that linked remote villages until roads were opened in the 1950s.
A scenic drive took us to Tsepelovo where an elderly Zagorian woman showed us to our room through her courtyard filled with flowers, vegetables and herbs. A thunderous rain storm was an eerie afternoon delight as it echoed off the surrounding mountains. Supper was hard to come by as the tourist season was winding down. However, our hostess served homemade cheese pastries for breakfast. Definitely a food highlight!
The final day started early as we anticipated a hot 33-degree hike, sunny and exposed as we headed once again up a mountain pass on our way to Beloi and Vradheto. After two hours of route-finding, we were lost. The map, trail description, and lay of the land just didn’t make sense. So with the help of a shepherd and our common sense we continued cross country until we came to Vradheto. A six-hour day turned into an eight-hour day! The Vradheto steps, built for walkers and mules to make the long ascent and descent from the gorge to the village were an amazing feat of engineering and architecture! After the long descent down the stairs, across a bridge, and up the hill we met with our prearranged ride back to Tsepelovo for a second night at our cozy lodging. We celebrated the end of our amazing exploration of the Zagorian Villages and Pindus Mountains with a breakfast of Greek pastry and strong coffee before heading back to Athens and boarding the plane.