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I heard a lot about the Karpenisi area and had high hopes for this mountainous region but it still managed to surpass all my expectations. The beautiful mountains, lucid rivers and streams and charming villages clinging to the hillsides stole my heart from the first moment. Even just one short weekend is enough to get lost in the unbelievably lush and mossy valleys and to recharge your energy.
The fastest and easiest way to get to Karpenisi from Athens is via Lamia. It takes around two hours to drive from Athens to Lamia on the highway. It’s fast and comfortable but also boring and bloody expensive when it comes to the toll. We paid more than 15 euros one way! To make the journey more fun you can stop in Thermophiles for a hot spring session in the famous thermal river. It’s free and very relaxing if you don’t mind the smell of bad eggs following you for the rest of the day.
In Lamia, we left the highway and followed the road to Karpenisi passing through the valley of the Sperchios River. The road is easy until the village of Agios Georgios Tymfristou where it turns up to the mountains. From here it climbs to almost 1300 meters high before dropping down to the Karpenisi on the other side of Mt.Tymfristos. The Tymfristos village should probably be written to the Guinness book of records as the village with the most turns!
Karpenisi is a large town placed in an absolutely stunning location on the slopes of the Mt. Tymfristos overlooking the valley of the Karpenisiotis River. It is the capital of Evritania and provides everything that a district town can offer. Thanks to it’s proximity to the ski resort in Velouchi and abundance of hotels, shops, restaurants, and bars Karpenisi is the obvious choice as a base for the explorations of the area.
However, the town itself is quite large and not very pretty. Fortunately, my boyfriend has visited the area in the past and insisted on staying anywhere else but Karpenisi. I based my search for accommodation solely on price (and dog-friendliness) and come up with a little guesthouse called Levanta in the village of Megalo Chorio. When we finally reached our destination I couldn’t be happier with the choice.
As the name suggests, Megalo Chorio is a large village some 15 km away from Karpenisi. It spreads at the base of Mt.Kaliakouda with Mt.Helidonas as the main star of its panoramic views. There are enough taverns, cafes, and shops with traditional products like marmalades, liqueurs and homemade pasta to satisfy everyone’s shopping needs.
There are plenty of guesthouses and rooms to choose from in Megalo Chorio and the surrounding villages. Anyway, I was extremely happy with our guesthouse and recommend it to anyone. Even though it was one of the cheapest in the area it was very cozy and comfortable. The rooms were fashionably equipped, no kitsch rustic decorations or stuffed animal heads hanging on the walls. There was tasty breakfast including the famous local marmalades and a friendly owner ready to answer to all our needs. It was dog-friendly, too, and our Labros has as much fun staying here as we did.
In general, the people of Karpenisi were lovely! Greeks are famous for their hospitality and in this remote mountainous region, one can understand why. Traveling during the offseason probably helped, too. In some places, we may have been the only travelers passing that day and the shop owners went out of their way to satisfy us. Also, it was a rare opportunity for them to chat about life in the village which can never be missed. I was worried that our dog may not be welcomed in some establishments but the opposite was true. I have a suspicion that even with a crocodile we wouldn’t have an issue as long as we provided at least some income.
Traveling outside of the main season has its disadvantages, too. The mountains were still covered in snow which made it impossible for us to reach the top. Also, the water sports like kayaking or rafting are available from May when the water level drops and the temperature rises. On the other hand, we were alone most of the time enjoying the alpine views of green forested valley shadowed by the peaks sprinkled with the sparkling snow.
We had two full days to spent in the Karpenisi valley which is really not enough. To get the most of it, we decided to spend one exploring the villages along the Karpenisiotis River and the other to climb to the refuge of Mt.Kaliakouda for birds view of the valley.
Prousos and Mavri Spilia (Black Cave)
We set off early in the morning and drove south along the river. The first village on our way, Gavros, is just a cluster of few taverns and souvenir shops along the road. However, after Gavros the scenery changes abruptly. The wide valley suddenly transforms into a narrow gorge hardly fitting both the road and the roaring river next to it. Part of the road is carved into the rock creating a half-tunnel. The high cliffs are very impressive but also dangerous thanks to the falling rocks so don’t get stuck admiring them for too long.
After about 20 minutes drive we reached Dipotamo. Here the Karpenisiotis River meets his southern cousin called Krikeliotis and they continue together through another a narrow gorge towards the Kremaston Lake further west. It’s a popular rafting and kayaking spot in the late spring and summer. We had to settle for a walk next to the river and over the old bridge.
After leaving Dipotamo we continued down to Prousos. Usually, before every trip, I make extensive research on the destination. I search through all the photos, articles and maps online to make sure we don’t miss anything interesting. For me, all this planning is part of the adventure and extends the fun of traveling (as opposed to my boyfriend who usually decides where to go while starting the car). Strangely, the village and monastery at Prousos managed to elude me completely. I’m so glad it did. As we come out of the last turn before the village and the view opened up I was completely mesmerized by the beauty of this place.
It was the combination of the stunning mountainous scenery, the classic architecture of the monastery buildings glued to a tall cliff and the charming watch tower balancing on a sharp hillock in the middle of the valley that made me think like Bilbo coming to the Rivendell for the first time.
The monastery dates back to 829 and was build around a cave where the Holy icon of Virgin Mary was found. The icon originates from the Prousos village in Asia Minor and its journey to a small cave in the heart of Evritania is shrouded in mystery.
Except for the monastery, the biggest attraction of Prousos is the trail to Mavri Spilia Cave and the adjoining via Ferrata through the gorge. We settled for the walk as we didn’t have any equipment with us but it was still superb. The trail starts at a bridge about 1km after Prousos and it takes around 30 minutes to walk to the cave. For a longer hike, you can start from the gates of the Prousos monastery. This should take around 2hours. Both trails are marked with red signs and there is information about the expected walking times.
The trail is very easy except for the last scramble to the cave. The last hundred meters or so were complicated by the water running from all possible direction turning the path into a small creek. However, until there it’s a pleasant walk passing through an unbelievably green forest, passing a few wooden bridges and multiple waterfalls.
The cave served as a shelter for the inhabitants of the area during the Ottoman rule and German occupation. The remains of an old brick construction can be seen until today.
After leaving Mavri Spilia we stopped in Prousos for a simple but tasty meal of local sausages, steak and of course a Greek salad. We ate enjoying the beautiful view of the valley while listening to the elderly owner chatting happily about the hardships of life in the countryside. On our way back we made one last detour and drove up to the village of Mikro Chorio on the opposite side of the valley. This is just a cluster of houses with one tavern, church and a small museum around the central square. However, it’s also the starting point for the ascents to Mount Helidonas towering above the village.
After exhausting the sightseeing possibilities down in the valley we decided to climb to Mt.Kaliakouda for a change of scenery. The trail starts right in the center of Megalo Chorio where there are information signs with destinations and walking times. So after getting our supplies of slightly overpriced but delicious local cheese, salami and tsipouro in the village we were set to go. Up until the saddle of Mt.Kaliakouda at 1750 meters high, this is an easy hike. There is a lot of
Up until the saddle of Mt.Kaliakouda at 1750 meters high, this is an easy hike. There is a lot of altitude to gain but the path ascends slowly and is not very tiring. It loosely follows the dirt road to the refuge and the gorge of Pandavrechei and crosses it multiple times. This may be annoying in the summer when the area gets busy due to the summer camp at the refuge and tourists visiting the famous gorge. However, on an early March Monday we had the mountain all to our self and the proximity to the road didn’t bother us at all.
After zigzagging through the alleys of Megalo Chorio the path dives into a dense fir forest and doesn’t leave it until the church of Panagia few hundreds of meters before the refuge. I was amazed by the amount of greenery everywhere around that I would expect somewhere in Ireland or in The Shire, not in our sunny and dry Greece. However, in the early spring, every corner of the woods was covered by the greenest and dewiest moss and disturbed only by few oddly shaped mushrooms. I half expected some magical creature jumping out from behind the tree most of the way but in the end, had to settle for a single deer hiding in the bushes next to the path.
After about two hours we reached the chapel of Panagia at around 1400 meters of altitude. Except for an amazing viewpoint, this place serves as a monument to the Battle of Kaliakouda, another bloody struggle during the Greek War of Independence. It took place on the slopes of Mt.Kaliakouda on 28. August 1823 and didn’t end well for the Greek fighters. 150 died on the Greek side and the rest fled to Mesolongi leaving the road to the south wide open.
From the church, the road continues climbing up to the saddle passing the refuge and camp of Kaliakouda. It leaves the forest and continues through an alpine terrain of rocky slopes and meadows. Here things started to be too difficult for us. With snow up to our knees and completely unprepared for this kind of winter adventure soon enough we were all wet and exhausted. So, halfway to the top we found a dry spot and settled down for lunch while admiring the mountain views all around.
We returned down to Megalo Chorio the same way but there are other options, too. The road continues to the Pandabrechei gorge to the south and a marked path from the church descends on the other side of Mt.Kaliakouda towards Aniada.
Back to Athens via Nafpaktos
After all the adventures at Karpenisi, we didn’t want to return to Athens the same boring highway route. Instead, we decided to drive south through the mountains to Nafpaktos and return to Athens via Delphi and Arachova. I’m not gonna lie, this route is LONG! It took us a whole day with about 3 hours break in Nafpaktos. But it was worth the trouble! The road passes through some truly stunning scenery, both mountainous and coastal. The towns of Nafpaktos and Arachova are of the prettiest I’ve seen in Greece and the archeologic site at Delphi surely needs no introduction.
Leaving Megalo Chorio we followed the road to Prousos and further down to Thermo. Once out of Prousos it started a steep climb through seemingly never-ending turns followed by a couple of kilometers of a scenic drive at the altitude of almost 1400 m with superb views across the mountains of Evritania on both sides. But my favorite part was the following descent through the valleys of the Panaitoliko mountain range. Except for few tiny hamlets, the obligatory herds of goats wandering freely on the hillside and a couple of overly curious horses there wasn’t many sights of human presence through this pictures countryside.
To stretch our legs for a bit we stopped at Kato Labiri. This tiny village is one of the starting points of the trails heading to the summit of Mt.Panaitoliko. However, it’s worth stopping even if you aren’t after the peaks. The stream we’ve been following for a while now gets wilder here rushing through a narrow rocky ravine crossed by a small stone bridge. Accompanied by the alpine scenery around this is the perfect spot to stop and take in the mountain views for the last time. Soon enough, we will leave them for good and continue through the green hills, orchards, and fields of Nafpaktia.
Leaving the mountains the countryside changed from wild and dramatic into a calm and fruitful. Suddenly, the sides of the roads exploded by flowers of all colors and shapes and the weather turned from late winter into a beautiful spring in just a few kilometers. We passed the Lake Trichonida, glittering in the afternoon sun and the stunning turquoise Evinos River before finally reaching Nafpaktos.
Nafpaktos is one of the prettiest Greek towns and deserves much more time than what we could spare. However, even a couple of hours was enough to explore the picturesque old port and the charming alleys ascending to the castle. To make things even better, Nafpaktos has two long sandy beaches lining its shore and an amazing view of the mountains of Panaxaiko and the characteristic bridge at Rio.
Driving to Athens from Nafpaktos it seems like a good idea to follow the cost all the way but it is not. Once at Itea turn inland and follow the road for Delphi, Arachova, and Thiva. Not only is this road absolutely stunning and provides the opportunity to visit the world-famous archeologic site at Delphi and the beautiful Mount Parnassos. Thanks to the posh ski resort at Arachova it is kept in very good condition and the passage over the mountains is fast and comfortable.