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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.
We spend 5 days on our trip through Zagorochoria including the long drive from Athens and back and for me, it was the bare minimum. Especially if you are an avid hiker you’ll want to add at least a couple of days to enjoy some of the many beautiful trails.
It is easy to reach Ioannina by bus from Athens. There are frequent buses connecting the two cities and the drive shouldn’t take more than five and a half hours. From Ioannina, things will be much more complicated if you’re set on public transport. There are few regional buses connecting Ioannena with some of the larger villages like Konitsa or Tsepelovo but they run in inconvenient hours and far apart.
Driving is much better choice when visiting Zagorochoria. The were generally in good condition but this can change quickly especially in winter. Some of the roads ascending to the higher placed villages like Vradeto or Papingo are full of sharp turns making for hair-rising experience. Petrol stations are a rare sight in the mountains of Zagori, too, so make sure to plan ahead and fill up your tank when you can.
For the road trip through Zagorochoria following google maps or some sort of car, navigation is perfectly fine. However, if you decide to explore the region on foot as well I highly recommend getting a printed map. We were very happy with our Anavasi Map of Zagori, including a description of some of the best hiking trails in the area.
The trails we took were generally well marked and some included information about the surrounding nature as well (Beloi Viewpoint). On the other hand, during our ascent to Dragon Lake of Tymfi we passed plenty of spots where signs were missing especially at the upper section and where our map proved very useful.
There was a small tourist office in Mikro Papigo, where we got a lot of information about Vikos Aoos National Park as well as a few useful tips about places to visit. The guys running Astraka Refuge were helpful, too!
The first stop on our road trip to Zagori was the city of Ioannina, regional capital of Epirus and one of my favorite cities in Greece. Thanks to its rich history and beautiful location now the banks of Pamvotida Lake Ioannina is worth a visit on its own.
There is plenty to see and do in Ioannina and you could easily spend a couple of days exploring the city and its pretty surroundings.
But even if you are pressed on time I suggest you make at least a short stop here to stroll along the banks of the lake and to eat souvlaki in the shade of the impressive castle walls.
Ioannina is also a great place to stash on food and other necessities before heading up to the mountains. Even though you’ll find plenty of places to eat out, few petrol stations and some small convenience stores in the mountain villages, Ioannina is your last chance to visit a proper supermarket or drug store.
After a short stop in Ioannina we continued towards Konitsa where we booked our accommodation for the night. Konitsa is a large village 60 kilometers north of Ioannina. It sits in a pretty location at the entrance of Aoos Gorge overlooking the confluence of Aoos and Voidomatis river.
Konitsa is a great base for hikes in the Aoos Gorge and adventure activities like rafting or Via Ferrata. It has plenty of accommodation options for reasonable price and choice of taverns and shops. What’s more, daily buses run between Konitsa and Ioannina making it one of the few villages if Zagori easily accessible by public transport.
Konitsa may not be as postcard perfect as some of the other villages of Zagori but its old town is worth a stroll and the stone bridge of Konitsa one of the biggest in the Balkans!
We didn’t have much time to explore knowing we have a 9-hour hike planned for the following day but still managed a short hike to the Agia Varvara church right outside Konitsa to watch an incredible sunset above the valley.
Hiking from Konitsa to the Dragon Lake of Tymfi with overnight stay at the Astraka Refuge was a highlight of our trip to Zagori and an unforgettable experience.
That being said, it also was one of the most challenging hikes I’ve ever done. It took us around 9 to 10 hours to reach the refuge while covering more than 1500 meters of attitude gain.
We started our hike around 7 o’clock in the morning to ensure we have enough time to reach the refuge before nightfall and to manage to cover enough distance during the cooler morning hours.
The trail was market quite well and clear for the most part but our hiking map of Zagori proved useful few times, especially at the plateaus around Xeroloutsa. Make sure to take enough drinking water with you as well, the last reliable spring we found was at Stomiou Monastery.
The trail starts at the stone bridge of Konitsa and follows the Aoos river for about 5 kilometers until the Stοmiou Monastery. This was the easiest section of the hike offering beautiful views of the Aoos valley bathing in sweet morning light.
The 18th century monastery is a perfect place for a short brake thanks to its picturesque architecture and beautiful location deep in the dramatic Aoos Valley. It is also your last chance to visit a proper toilet (even if Turkish) and to refill your water bottle so don’t miss it!
Right outside the monastery the trails turns upwards and begins its grueling, 4-5 hours long climb towards the Dragon Lake. For the most part, the narrow but well marked path climbs straight up and is “enhanced” in places by slippery fallen leaves, nettles, scrubs, scree and rocky crags.
The most challenging part of the climb comes at the end right before reaching a plateau. The path traverses under some very impressive cliffs, crossing few slippery scree passages along the way. After couple hundred meters it merges into the incredibly steep Davakista pass climbing straight up between large boulders and few deserted trees.
Exhausted from the long climb and thirsting for water I spent the rest of the ascent in a state of self reflection trying to understand why would anyone in their right mind choose this amount of pain and suffering as voluntarily past time activity.
However, all the torment of the ascent was quickly forgotten once we reached the plateau. From here, walking become a joy again and we started getting the first glimpses of the unusually shaped peaks of Mount Tymfi.
It took at least another half an hour of uphill walking to finally reached 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 Dragon Lake took its name from small salamanders living on its banks, others blame dragons and their violent quarrels for its creation. Either way, it is a magical place hidden in one of the most striking landscapes in Greece.
After spending some time at the lake we set off on the last section of our hike to Astraka Refuge where we planned to spend the night. We followed the same path back to the Xerolutsa plateau and continued up on the other side towards the majestic Astraka peak. The Astraka Refuge sits right at its foot at an altitude of 1950 meters.
Astraka Refuge is a simple mountain hut with cold showers, bunk beds and a bowl of lentil soup for dinner. But watching a colourful sunset over the mountains after a long day out accompanied by only a couple of other hikers, four dogs and a herd of semi wild horses made it the best accommodation in the world.
Astraka Refuge is a great base for ascents to some of the peaks of Mount Tymfi like Astraka or Gamila as well as stopping point on a traverse of the mountain from Mikro Papigo or Tsepelovo. The ascent from Mikro Papiho takes around 4 -5 hours and is a good option if you are looking for a slightly easier alternative (still about 1000 meters of an altitude gain).
Next day we returned to Konitsa same way as we come omitting only the detour to the Dragon Lake. Even though the descent was easier it took us at least 6 hours to reach Konitsa with short break at the banks of the Aoos river soaking our tormented feet in its cool, refreshing water.
After an opulent (and well deserved) late lunch in Konitsa we decided to take thing easy and spend a relaxing afternoon at the Voidomatis river.
Voidomatis River is only 15 kilometers long and spends most of its short journey passing through the unspoild nature of Vikos Aoos National Part. Thanks to this it is considered one of the cleanest rivers in Europe. With temperatures around 4 °C, it is probably one of the coldest as well!
We first meet Voidomatis River in Klidonia some 12 kilometers southwest from Konitsa and immediately fell in love. The combination of calm, crystal clear water of the river, lush green vegetation shrouding its banks and a picturesque stone bridge makes Klidonia a magical place.
There is a trail connecting Kleidonia Bridge to Aristi and Papigo bridge passing alongside the river through the gorge. It takes around 3 hours to compete with an option for a detour to Agioi Anargyri Monastery nearby. Exhausted from our previous adventure we settled for a short stroll along the river before driving to Papigo Bridge.
We crossed Voidomatis River one more time at the Papigo Bridge. The bridge itself is nothing too interesting, just a regular modern bridge allowing car access to the Papigo villages further up. However, it is set in superb location and offers an easy access to the river as well as an amazing photography spot.
We didn’t book accommodation for the night and ended up rolling our sleeping bags at the river banks. The following day, we woke up to a misty morning disturbed by nothing but quiet bubbling of the stream and few chirps of an early bird. It was an enchanted morning one of the most memorable moments of our trip.
The 4th day of our trip was devoted to exploring the traditional mountain villages of Zagori and Vikos Gorge ended by overnight in Tsepelovo 50 kilometers away. We had plenty of sightseeing planned for the day but wanted to keep walking to minimum considering how sore we were from the previous days.
The first stop on our road trip through Zagorochoria was the sister villages of Papingo and Mikro Papingo. These to villages are without exaggeration some of the most beautiful in Zagori and an absolute must-see when visiting the area.
Perfectly maintained stone houses, narrow cobbled alleys, cute cafes and taverns, stately guesthouses and striking mountain vistas all blend together in perfect harmony creating a postcard perfect scene.
What’s more, the Papigo villages are the starting point to many beautiful hiking trails heading up to the peaks of Mount Tymfi or descending to the springs of Voidomatis river and Vikos Gorge.
In Mikro Papingo, there is a small tourist center where we received a lot of useful tips and information about the area from very knowledgeable local girl.
When driving down from Mikro Papingo make sure to stop at Kolymbythres about half way between the two villages. This is the local swimming hotspot but worth a visit during the colder months as well.
A small stream, called Rogovo, makes its way through a narrow slot canyon creating cascades of crystal clear pools. In the 80′ locals built a small dam at the end of the canyon, creating beautiful natural swimming pool.
The water here is not as cold as down in the Voidomatis river and during a hot summer day, Kolybythres are an awesome spot to cool down after a hike.
Leaving Papingo, we made a small detour to Vikos village at the entrance of Vikos Gorge. There is not much to see in the village itself but it offers one of the best views of Vikos Gorge and Voidomatis springs.
Vikos Gorge is a truly impressive sight and nothing like the Greek landsapes I knew from postcards and holiday broaches! At 20 kilometers long and up to 1000 meters deep it is considered one of the deepest gorges in the world (for its width).
The combination of tall limestone cliffs towering above the lush green valley floor creates a stunning scenery. However, they are also home to many rare species of flora and fauna and protected as part of the Vikos Aoos National Park.
From a photographer’s point of view, it would be better to visit the Vikos viewpoint in the afternoon. During the morning, you’ll have the harsh morning light in front of you making it close to impossible to get a decent shot.
The next stop on our Zagorochoria road trip was Monodendri, yet another pretty village built at an altitude of 1060 meters in the traditional style of Zagori. But the main reason for our visit to Monodendri was the Convent of Agia Paraskevi only a short walk away from the village.
The 15th century monastery is just a cluster of small buildings perched on an edge of tall cliffs overlooking Vikos Gorge. There is a tiny balcony right at the monastery offering striking views of the gorge.
But dont just stop here, a narrow path continues past the monastery to another viewpoint and then winds around the cliffs on a natural terrace. Supposedly, it leads to a number of caves carved to the rock face.
In the past, they were used by hermits looking for solitude and locals in need of safe hideout. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it so far as the fear of heights soon kicked in and I had to retrieve to the safety of the monastery.
North of Monodendri at an altitude of aprox. 1300 meters lies yet another amazing viewpoint of Vikos Gorge – Oxia. At this point, you may consider omitting this 7 kilometers long detour thinking that there is not much else to see after visiting Vikos and Monodendri. That would be a shame, though.
Each and every one of these lookouts offers a fresh vantage point into the varied relief of the gorge and uncovers new hidden corners. Oxia is not an exception. Besides Vikos Gorge, from Oxia you can also admire its subsidiary Magas Lakkos, slightly smaller yet equally impressive canyon joining from the east.
After spotting a picture map of Zagorocoria at Oxia our road trip quickly turned into a stone bridge scavenger hunt. It was fun trying to spot as many bridges as possible on the way to our final destination in Tsepelovo, some tall and majestic while others hardly visible in shrubby ravines.
Being one of the most important sights of Zagori almost every bridge, no matter how bit or 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.
Bellow are few of our favorites:
Last stop on our road trip through Zagorochoria was Beloi view-point accessible only on foot from Vradeto village. We almost missed it due to a sudden storm that caught us unprepared while driving to Vradeto.
The drive itself was an adventure with the road climbing across deserted mountainscape soaked by the rain, through never-ending turns. Nevertheless, our perseverance paid off and the rain ceased just when we reached the beginning of our trail.
The one and half kilometers long hike to Beloi Viewpoint is a pleasant walk on its own with the path undulating over rolling hills and completed with information signs about local flora. Until the end of the trail, nothing really suggested that there was a massive gorge in front of us.
Only when we squeezed through a narrow corridor between rocks and reached the balcony we were treated to a magnificent view of Vikos Gorge for one last time. Multiplied by stormy skies and sunset slowly rolling in this was my favorite moment of the entire trip.
For our return to Athens we decided to take slightly longer route along the eastern coast of the Greek mainland and briefly visit Metsovo and Meteora along the way.
Metsovo is a picturesque mountain village lying in beautiful location about half way between Ioannina and Meteora. It is the largest village in the area and popular tourist destination all year around.
With at least 5 hour long drive in front of us we didn’t have much time to explore the town to its full potential. Instead, we settled for coffee in one of the shaded cafes on the main square admiring Metsovo’s characteristic architecture and stunning mountain scenery.
To read more about Metsovo’s traditions and history check out THIS awesome post from Greece Is.
Last stop before returning to Athens – Meteora! This unique monastery complex perched precariously on the top of towering sandstone spires doesn’t need any introduction.
I’ve been to Meteora before and my friends had a separate trip planned just for Meteora so we didn’t spend too much time here. However, if you plan to add a proper visit to Meteora into your itinerary make sure to add at least one more day to fully explore this striking place.