Pindos/Vikos Circuit

Greece

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

In the remote mountains of north-western Greece, up by the Albanian border, lies the region of Zagoria, which boasts the wild grandeur of the north Pindos range – deeply eroded limestone peaks, cliffs and gorges – and ancient villages which tell of a rich past. At its heart is the magnificent Vikos Gorge, claimed to be the world's deepest - although every country seems to have a deepest gorge and those who have scrambled through the USA's slot canyons or trekked the Colca Canyon in Peru may dispute this particular claim.

Zagoria is a distinctive place, with a surprising past. Unlike most mountain country, its remoteness enabled it to prosper: it was effectively autonomous within the Ottoman empire, avoiding the tax collectors but its people trading widely. The area's superb “Kalderini” mule tracks and gracefully arched bridges are evidence of this long mercantile prosperity. Following the fall of Byzantium to the Ottomans, its remoteness protected the old religion and culture from the depredations of the Muslim overlords. It was a base for partisans during WWII, and was fought over during the ensuing civil war; from this, and the lure of the cities, came depopulation and dilapidation.

This has left the area remarkably unspoilt, and some of its villages are now national monuments, with their limestone walls and heavy slated roofs, narrow cobbled streets and mellow little squares under vast, spreading plane trees. The sturdy churches, with low arcades sheltering long stone seats from the summer furnace, have been restored by the prospering diaspora, and the area's monasteries and simple wayside chapels are touchingly well-maintained.

Zagoria straddles the far north of the Pindos mountains, the spine of Greece, which march from Albania to the sea at Dephi. The range's limestone peaks and deep ravines make for thrilling if demanding trekking throughout its length, although the Vikos circuit is, justly, the most famous route.

The area's lower slopes are cloaked in richly varied forests (relics of ancient habitats) of beech, oak, maple, birch, hornbeam, with twisted pines giving way to flower-studded little pastures amid the crags of the higher slopes. These mountains are home to abundant wildlife – although you are unlikely to see the bears, boar and wolves that lurk in their forests. If you are sharp-eyed (and lucky), you will see a chamois half way up some impossible precipice. And the wild flowers…in May and June, you will tramp through sparkling carpets of them in the higher meadows, and bright reception committees will line your path as you struggle up a cobbled track out of some abyss.

This walk is a circuit of up to seven days, often following the ancient mule tracks which linked the area's remote villages; it can be broken down into shorter routes (or even day walks) if time is short. You will trek through the extraordinary Vikos Gorge, staying in the historic villages of Monodendri, and Vikos or Papigo, at each end; then slog up to the Astraka refuge, perched on a narrow ridge under ferocious cliffs, enjoying wonderful views to each side; walk to the outstandingly beautiful Dragon Lake; and ascend one or both of Mts Gamila I and Astraka. You may cross the high, broken limestone plateau to Tsepelovo, and shouldn't miss the view from nearby Beloi down the Vikos Gorge and the ancient Vradeto steps, a seemingly endless switch-backing mule track which negotiates a cliff face down to a slender bridge in the cool of the distant canyon bottom. The tracks are well marked, and there are places to stay (and eat) every night.

Our group of six tackled this trail at the end of May, when the wild flowers were at there most glorious and the days were warm, with a thunderstorm on one afternoon. We started with a warm-up day, walking from Vradeto, on its cliff top, across a ridge dotted with limestone outcrops to the Beloi viewpoint, with its dramatic vista directly down the length of the gorge some 900 sheer metres below (its depth seems to depend on which book you read). In the flat mid-morning light, the full scale and glory of the view were perhaps hard to fully appreciate. Try to get there at either end of the day.

From Vradeto, with its thick-walled, lovingly restored church and spring gushing sweet cold water, we descended the eponymous steps, as they snaked their way down a sheer hillside to the graceful bridge deep in the side gorge.

Later, we walked down to the bottom of the upper Vikos Gorge, to cross it on the soaring Mitsiou bridge. Some hundreds of these bridges were built across the Balkans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by itinerant Albanian craftsmen, and they are gorgeous: so slender that they appear to be just one large stone thick at the top, narrow, and many with no parapet (presumably to save weight and cost) but instead a bell to warn of cross-winds that could buffet men and beasts out into the void.

After a picnic in the shade by the bridge, we slogged up out of the gorge to the village of Vitsa, marvelling at the flowers clustered around the path, sitting briefly in a squat, lovingly tended chapel half way up, with white-washed walls and fresh-looking icons.

We wound up cobbled streets lined with typical sturdy stone houses into the hilltop square, which is shaded by a huge, fat plane tree and open to the world on one side, somehow reminiscent of Ravello in Italy. We gratefully addressed beers and long, cold coffees at tables in the shade; then we were off again, to the Agia Paraskevi nunnery perched below Monodendri on the very edge of the vast gorge. A ledge above it winds round the cliff-face to the Megali Spilia, a high, shallow scoop from the cliff rendered inaccessible by a stout doorway on the path. The walk along this ledge is thrilling but horrible for anyone prone to vertigo – no more than a metre wide in places and 300 metres above the quiet forest of the bottom, with ravishing views out into the gorge. A stand of trees in a near-vertical gully seems to have its own mossy microclimate as cool air wafts down into the gorge.

That evening we had dinner on a restaurant balcony as the sky slowly darkened over the rooftops and trees of Monodendri, Vitsa scattered along its ridge across a chasm below us.

On day two, our hike got serious: the 12km central section of the gorge. We zigzagged for nearly an hour down a steep, beautiful path, through varied vegetation zones, into the cool air deep in the gorge. A good trail meanders for several hours beside the dry river bed at the bottom, occasionally clambering over huge boulders in the bed, or climbing high to avoid cliffs or cross a scree-slope. It is invariably beautiful, passing through lovely woodland under cliffs so high that their scale can be hard to appreciate. There is a special quality to the light down here: a thick, almost glutinous glow. The gorge bottom flattens out later on, the path winding among more widely spaced trees in beds of thick herbage and then through flowery little meadows.

We reached the Viodomatis springs in time for a ravenous lunch. Freezing water gushes out here, between boulders on the eastern bank – the Voidomatis is with good reason known as the coldest river in Greece, and it's waters are said to take a week to percolate down from the sink-holes far above.

Under its cool plane-tree shade, this is a strong candidate for the spring that epitomizes the idylls of the C3 BC poet Theocritos; while we meet no lovelorn goatherds piping in the shade, and these springs disgorge a river rather than a plashing brook, this is a good start. The snake dozing in the rocks up the riverbank thought so, too.

Rather than climbing to the nearer village of Vikos, now visible high on the western flank of the gorge, we crossed the riverbed and started a long, tough trudge up the hillside under a blazing afternoon sun, past thorn bushes and patches of perfect spring flowers. Some 300m higher, the path eventually levels out and traverses the gorge wall, the spectacular chasm to the left and the beginnings of the dramatic Towers of Papigo far above to the right. It passes a soaring column of rock, then crosses a ridge on an ancient, embanked track, finally winding up the flank of a side-gorge to the pretty village of Megalo Papigo. We stayed here in a renovated house with a wonderful view from its terrace across the gorge to the Towers, which changed colour and definition by the minute in the mellow evening light; and had another cheerful dinner under a vine canopy.

The next morning is tough: a 3-hour, 1,000 metre slog up to the Astraka refuge on its high ridge, another 1,000 metres or so below the 2,436m Astraka Peak. The vegetation changes from lush deciduous woodland to twisted little pines and wild flowers, then shrub and grass, then grass and rock. We pass four Theocritean springs – albeit falling into stone troughs, perhaps a bit orderly for that perfect idyll.

We struggled up to the refuge - spotless and well run by the charming George and Alexandra Rollas – and munched a grateful lunch on its terrace, absorbing the magnificent scenery around us.

We trekked that afternoon to the Dragon Lake, a high tarn of almost ridiculous beauty, perched on the edge of the vast cliffs that disappear to the Aöos far below, beneath broken crags and still, in early June, reflecting deep (snowdrifts) in its still waters. Rare orange-bellied alpine newts were pullulating in their hundreds in the warm shallows, early maturers already wriggling up the banks to shelter under the edge of the snowdrift. The lake is said to be bottomless, guarded by a dragon in the depths. Our friend Reggie splashed around, also bottomless, guarded, presumably, by several days of limited washing.

The walk to the tarn was gorgeous – bar a tough final slog back to the refuge: vivid meadows patched with deep blue flowers contrasted exquisitely with the crags and scree behind. Very Dolomitic.

We gorged on a delicious supper on the refuge's terrace, revelling in the views on both sides of the ridge as the evening shadows lengthened. Pack ponies idled around, poking their heads over our shoulders when they smelled something sweet.

The fourth day takes you up to Astraka peak. Gamila I, with its huge views over the Aöos gorge, can be tackled instead – or as well, if you are really keen. After dropping steeply from the refuge, then climbing back up among vast boulders, the trail reaches an area of immaculate, almost freakish, rolling grassland, backed by dark silhouetted peaks patched with snow, reminiscent of Kyrgyzstan or even bits of Tibet or Mongolia.

A tough clamber up a broken limestone face gets you on to Astraka's flank, with huge views of the surrounding uplands. A beautiful walk – almost a saunter compared to the last few hours' sloggings – leads up the ridge to the final peak, which broods over enormous cliffs on two sides, in the middle of which a chamois briefly appeared for us as if to order. Far below is the refuge; behind it, a series of broken ridges screen the Albanian border. To the east are broken plateau and ridges that, with a squint (and a decent covering of cloud), are reminiscent of the Scottish highlands.

You are then faced with nearly 2,000m of trudge back to the refuge and down to Papigo – or you can enjoy a fine walk across the plateau round to Tsepelovo and Vradeto. We had run out of time, so headed down to Papigo. Although your whimpering legs will wish it would end, it is a superb descent back into shrubs and twisted pines and then into the thickening forest. Across the glen from the second spring, a group of wild ponies grazed listlessly while a foal scampered around over impassible looking rocks. We wound back below the magnificent Towers of Papigo, and we were at last back under the plane tree by Mikro Papigo's arcaded church. Nothing seemed to have happened here. Not so for us: we were dreamily exhausted after two profoundly satisfying days in the high mountains.

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