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Every year as the temperatures start rising and the heat in Athens slowly becomes unbearable I start dreaming about the shady forested valleys of Northern Greece. This year the lot fell on the Zagori region north of Ioannina best known for its traditional stone villages (Zagorochoria) and the stunning Vikos Gorge. With 46 villages, 45 stone bridges and uncountable canyons, peaks, lakes, and rivers there is enough for one lifetime of explorations and our five-day trip was just a little taste of what the region has to offer. It was on my bucket list for a while now but due to its distance from Athens and the lack of transportation through the region, I haven’t manage to make it a reality until now.
This year I and my friends rented a car and drove from Athens to Ioannina via Patra. This is supposed to be the fastest route but with the state of the highway to Patra and the construction works in the northern part it still took us around 6 hours to reach Ioannina. Ioannina is the capital of Epirus and one of the prettiest cities in Greece. Placed on the banks of the Pamvotis lake and surrounded by the mountain peaks it is worth the visit on its own. Except for the historic center of the town with a huge medieval castle, mosques, museums, and uncountable cafes and taverns flanking the streets the visitors can take a boat trip around the lake and to the Ioannina Island or explore the nearby Perama caves.
After a short stop in Ioannina for some sightseeing and souvlaki, we continued towards the Konitsa village, where we booked a room for the night. Konitsa is a large village on the slopes of the Pindos mountains overlooking the Aoos valley and is a good base for excursions to the northern part of the Aoos – Vikos National Park. Our plan for the next two days of our trip was to hike through the Aoos valley and up to the Dragonlake high on Mount Tymfi with the night spent in the Astraka Refuge.
The trail starts from the stone bridge of Konitsa, the tallest one in Zagori, and follows the Aoos river to the Stοmio Monastery. This is the easiest part of the hike with beautiful views of the Aoos valley and the Gamila peak in the distance. The monastery itself is very pretty and offers the last chance to use a (Turkish) toilet and refill your water bottle.
After the monastery, the long, torturing ascent to the plateau of Mt.Tymfi starts. For the next 3-4 hours, the narrow path climbs straight up and is “enhanced” in places by slippery fallen leaves, nettles and rocky crags. There is no shade in the upper part of the trail and no spring to refill the water bottle so be prepared. The last part of the trail before the plateau is passing through a narrow and steep pass and is particularly difficult.
This was the moment where I promised myself to never ever set my foot on a mountain again and to spend all my future holidays on a sunbed with Mojito in my hand. I am not the most athletic person and my exercise regime consists mostly of walking my dog in a park so this kind of trekking is quite challenging for me. However, all the suffering of the ascent is always quickly forgotten when I reach the top. I love the feeling of achievement after pushing through all the pain and exhaustion and the view of the world below all quiet and peaceful without the everyday hustle and worries.
Once reaching the plateau walking became enjoyable again but it was still another 300 meters of elevation to the Dragon lake, the highlight of our hike. At first, I didn’t want to hear about more climbing or lakes. I just wanted to take a hot shower in the refuge and put my feet up but after a refreshing drink from the stream and remember that there are no hot showers in the hut I decided to give it a try. We left our backpacks at the beginning of the path to making the last ascent easier and continued up with just a water bottle and camera in our hands. Our stinky socks and toothbrush didn’t seem like the kind of prey any thief would climb for to the altitude of 2000 meters so we weren’t too worried about our belongings.
It was another half an hour of walking uphill before we finally arrived at the lake but it was nothing in comparison with the previous climb and we slowly began to appreciate the amazing scenery around. Some say the lake took its name from the little salamanders living on its banks. Others claim it to be the creation of two apparently not very friendly dragons living in the area who angrily threw rocks at each other creating the lake. The only living creature we’ve seen up there was a couple of mountain goats but the strangely shaped peaks of Mt. Tymfi against the stormy sky reflecting in the calm waters of the lake still made for a wonderful experience.
After another hour we finally reached the Astraka Refuge hidden in the shade of the majestic Astraka peak where we spent the night. This is a simple mountain hut with cold showers, bunk beds and a bowl of lentil soup for dinner. But watching the sun setting over the mountains in the company of just a few other hikers, four dogs and a herd of horses made it the best accommodation in the world.
The next day we returned to Konitsa following the same path but there are many other hiking options from the Astraka Refuge. The path to Mikro Papigo is supposed to be the shortest and easiest ascent route to the refuge, the other paths lead to Tsepelovo, Skamneli or the peaks of Mt. Tymfi. The main paths are pretty well-marked and are covered in the Anavasi map of Zagori with a short description on the other side of the map.
After the Mt. Tymfi trek we only had one full day left to explore the Vikos-Aoos National Park and the Zagorochoria so we decided to make it a road trip with as little walking as possible and with the final destination the village of Tsepelovo on the other side of the park. First stop after leaving Konitsa was the Klidonia Bridge across the stunning Voidomatis river. There is a path starting from the bridge and following the river upstream through a lush valley towards its springs in Vikos Gorge.
We crossed Voidomatis one more time when driving to the Papingo villages deeper into the park and it was truly magical. Early in the morning, the clear deep blue water was shrouded in a blanket of mist with the greenery around mirroring on its surface. Voidomatis is only 15 km long and spends most of its short journey running through the national park before it joins the Aoos river outside of Konitsa. Therefore it remains one of the cleanest rivers in Europe. With temperatures around 4 °C, it is probably one of the coldest as well.
Next stop was the villages of Papingo and Mikro Papingo up on the slopes of Mt. Tymfi. The villages are not only very beautiful with traditional architecture against the backdrop of the Astraka rock towers. They are also the best starting point for the hikes to the Astraka refuge, the peaks of Mt. Tymfi and down to the Vikos Gorge. In Mikro Papingo there is an information center where a very knowledgeable local girl gave us a lot o great information and tips for our trip.
About halfway between the Papingo villages is located the swimming hot spot of the area – the Kolymbithres. This is a set of natural pools created through the centuries by a stream cutting its way through the rock formations. In the 80′ the locals built a small dam at the end of the canyon to create the last bigger pool. The water here is not as cold as down in the Voidomatis river and during a hot day, this is a great spot to cool down after a hike.
Next stop on our way to Tsepelovo was the tiny Vikos village at the entrance of the Vikos Gorge. There is not much to see in the village itself but it offers one of the best viewpoints of the gorge with the spring of the Voidomatis river on the bottom. There is a path leading from the village down to the springs and to the gorge. From the photographer’s point of view, it would be better to visit the Vikos view-point in the evening when the setting sun paints the imposing cliffs red and brings out all the shapes and structure of the rock. However, things are hardly ever ideal when traveling and I had to make do with the harsh morning light blinding me and my camera.
From Vikos we drove all the way to the other side of the gorge to Monodendri to visit the Agia Paraskevi Monastery glued to the rock-face of the gorge just outside the village. The path to the monastery starts at the central road and is marked well even though the distances are a bit confusing. The monastery is just a cluster of small rooms and a balcony overlooking the gorge.
However, the path continues little further to another viewpoint of the gorge and then winds around the cliffs on a natural terrace. There is supposed to be a cave at the end of the path but I didn’t make it so far as the fear of heights kicked in. For those who enjoy walking high above the valley on a path made of slippery stone and with no railing whatsoever there is a similar one at the viewpoint of Oxia short drive up from Monodendri.
After spotting this picture map of the Vikos area at the Oxia viewpoint our road trip quickly turned into a stone bridge scavenger hunt. It was fun trying to spot as many bridges as possible along the road, some tall and majestic while the others small and hidden in shrubby ravines. Being one of the most important sights of Zagori almost every bridge, no matter how small, has a sign with information about its history and the bridge-building tradition of the region.
Apparently, the Zagorites were passionate bridge-builders and paying for the construction of the bridge was a sign of true wealth and prestige. The bridge usually carried the name of the donor which served as a never-dying reminder of his generosity. From the bridges, we’ve seen my favorites were the impressive Kokoras bridge squeezed between two high cliffs over the dry riverbed of Voidomatis and the pretty three-stringer Kalogeriko bridge just outside the Kypoi village.
The last destination of the day was the Beloi view-point accessible only on foot from the tiny Vradeto village. The drive to the village was an adventure on its own! The road climbs steeply up the mountain through never-ending turns and to make the matter worse it started purring rain and hail. We were driving up through the dark deserted landscape thinking how the hell are we gonna walk anywhere in this downpour. Nevertheless, our perseverance paid off and the rain ceased just when we reached the end of the road so we were able to run through the puddles and mud to the view-point.
This would be a pleasant walk in a different kind of weather as the path undulates over the rolling hills and is completed by signs with information about the landscape and flora around. Until the end of the path, nothing really suggested that there was a massive gorge in front of us. Only when we passed through a crevasse between two rocks and reached the balcony the magnificent of the view of the Vikos Gorge opened up for one last time. Multiplied by the stormy sky and the beginning sunset this was my favorite view of the splendid landscape and one that got stuck in my mind forever … or at least until the next visit.