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Tzoumerka was love at a first sight for me! Even though our first two encounters were brief, driving through the mountains on our way elsewhere, I always knew I have to come back one day to climb one of its majestic peaks. Thanks to its remoteness and almost non-existing infrastructure it took me longer than I expected but it was worth the wait.
Tzoumerka, or Athamanika Ori, is one of the lesser-known Greek mountain ranges, at least to the outside world, but it is definitely one of the most beautiful. It belongs to the wider Pindos mountain range stretching through Northern Greece all the way to Albania. The combination of impressive rocky peaks, deep gorges, sparkling, crystal clear rivers, and charming traditional villages makes it the perfect holiday destination, however, it managed to keep its remoteness and unspoiled feel.
Hiking is an obvious winner among the popular activities in Tzoumerka with a plentitude of paths to choose from. Ranging from short low-level forest walks to some serious mountain ascents or technical climbs there is something for everyone. Some of the trails are well marked, other a bit trickier to find and there are few that only exist in the imagination of a very determined mountain guide. Good hiking map and some asking around will be enough in most cases but for the one described below an experienced guide is a must to keep you safe! But more about that later…
Even if you are not willing to break a sweat on the trail you’ll have so much to choose from to make the visit to Tzoumerka a memorable experience. For the adventure types, rafting or canyoning will be the way to go. Rafting may not be as thrilling as you would wish for especially during the dry summer months but is still a great way to get up close and personal with one of Tzoumerka’s stunning rivers. Canyoning is a different story, though. No matter if you choose the impressive 6 hours long descent through the Gate of Paradise or rappel a 50 meters tall waterfall at Syrrako you’ll definitely get your heart rate up.
But it doesn’t have to be all extreme sports and hair-raising adventure in Tzoumerka, either. A road trip through the mountains visiting the picturesque villages, old monasteries, stone bridges, caves, and waterfalls just a short walk away can easily fill more than one holiday.
Getting to and around Tzoumerka from Athens
To explore Tzoumerka (and basically any other Greek mountains for that matter) you’ll need a car. There are some KTEL buses servicing the villages but they are rare and you’ll have to master at least some Greek to understand their slightly confusing timetable. The drive from Athens is pretty long (over 7 hours depending on the final destination) but comfortable enough thanks to the new highway until Arta (via Patra). There are multiple tolls along the way and a fee of 13 euros to pass the bridge in Rio so don’t forget to include it in your budget.
From Arta the road climbs up to the mountains, twisting and turning on the mountain slopes with stunning views opening up on every corner. It will slow you down considerably but who cares with scenery like this. The mountain refuges, as well as the trailheads, are often connected to the main asphalt roads with dirt roads of varying quality. Depending on the weather, you may need to walk the last section before the refuge so keep that in mind when packing up.
An organized tour is another option and there are more and more active holidays tour operators popping up everywhere. As much as I love self-guided vacations I must admit I’m starting to appreciate the comfort of an organized tour. They are especially helpful for mountain crossings where getting back to the beginning of the trail could be a challenge or for activities I wouldn’t dare to do on my own.
Where to stay in Tzoumerka
There are three mountain refuges in this part of Tzoumerka, two on the western side of the mountain between the villages of Pramanta and Melissiurgoi and one in the east above Kataraktis. They are the best choice for ascents to the summit thanks to their location high up on the slopes of the mountain.
Pramanta refuge is a great base for explorations on the northern slopes of Strogoula. This smallish refuge, sitting in a beautiful location at an altitude of 1300 m, offers a homey atmosphere, simple dorm accommodation, good home-cooked meals, and amazing views of the surrounding mountains. The owners were unbelievably flexible and welcoming, too, waiting up for us till midnight with a huge chunk of παστίτσιο ready to be served and waking up with the chickens to prepare breakfast so that we can depart at six-thirty in the morning, well-fed and happy.
Melissourgon Refuge lies between the villages of Melissourgoi and Pramanta at an altitude of 1023 meters. Open year-round and accessible by car this is an awesome starting point for hikes to the nearby waterfalls or ascents to the peaks of Tzoumerka. I haven’t stayed here just yet but their website is a good resource of information about the refuge and close-by hiking trails.
Κatarraktis Refuge is the only refuge on the east side of the mountain lying at an altitude above the village of Katarakktis. Its location makes it a great base for the ascents to the Katafidi Summit, the Mpresiani plateau, or for a crossing of the mountain range. Unfortunately, its been under construction for years and is open only for larger groups after a previous arrangement. Even then, the conditions are quite harsh including no electricity, for the most part, sleeping on a concrete floor or using toilets with a curtain in place of a door (the main challenge for some of the female members of our expedition). Let’s just hope the alleged constructions will meet a lucky end in the near future and the refuge will open to the public.
If sleeping in a dorm with another 10 snoring mountaineers or taking a cold shower in the evening (if any) is not your idea of the perfect holiday there are plenty of cozy ξενώνες (guesthouses) in the close by villages providing all the comfort you need. I always go for the snoring though so no personal recommendations there (but THIS weird igloo thing looks kinda cool).
Ascending the Stroggoula Peak (2112 m) from Pramanta Refuge
For a reasonably easy day hike, the ascent to Stroggoula Peak from Pramanta mountain refuge is an awesome choice. It is an ascent with almost 900 meters of elevation to gain and a couple of pretty exposed spots but nothing an averagely fit person with a good head for heights couldn’t master. It took us around 3 and half hours to reach the top at a swift pace and just a couple of brief stops. If you are more of a stroller and/or a photography lover (I know I am under different circumstances) 4 – 5 hours would be a more realistic estimate
The ascent itself starts easily with the path climbing slowly across the grassy lower slopes of the mountain. What’s more, we were awarded for the early wake-up by an amazing sunrise, illuminating the misty valley underneath and making this first section of our climb absolutely breathtaking. However, not before long, the terrain become rockier and the path steeper rising up among the rugged crags. It stayed more or less this way until we reached the main ridge, testing our fitness levels for the first time.
I was worried about the weather beforehand, the forecast of rain and passing storms was far from ideal for an all-day hike on an exposed mountain ridge. In retrospect, we couldn’t wish for better conditions! The storms, fortunately, didn’t make an appearance while the clouds provided shade and utterly mysterious scenery on every step. My point is, even though Greece is considered a land of never-ending summer, the Greek mountains are the same as any other mountains in the world…unpredictable and ever-changing. A sunny morning can turn into a stormy afternoon in a matter of minutes and vice versa, so come prepared but don’t be discouraged by a few raindrops.
The last push to the top from the ridge was easy and if there was any pain in our legs it was quickly forgotten seeing the panoramic views suddenly opening up in all directions. There is a lot to see from the top of Stroggoula. From the impressive, 2429 meters tall Kakarditsa to the east, over the forest-clad hills and gorges around Syrrako and Kalarrytes to the North to the lovely deep valley of Arachthos river underneath you can easily spend an hour or more admiring all the beauty around. But for us, this was just the beginning of our trek so after a couple of silly summit photos, we put our backpacks back on and headed towards the unknown.
The ridge, the crazy goat paths, and Skala Stamati
A few days before our departure for Tzoumerka I was studying my map trying to understand the planned route and to decide if it is in my power to complete it together with the group. It seemed to have four sections, a steep ascent to Stroggoula, a pleasantly looking walk on the ridge, an even steeper descent down to the refuge above Katarraktis, and one confusing part with no path whatsoever. I didn’t pay too much attention to this section, thinking my map haven’t been updated and worrying about Stroggoula instead. Oh, how wrong I was!
I come to learn the hard way, that if there is no path on the map chances are there is no path in reality either and even if there was one it wouldn’t be very good. I absolutely do not recommend anyone to attempt this crossing without some serious mountaineering skills or under the watch full eye of an experienced guide who knows exactly what he’s doing. That being said, I loved every bit of the trek including the scariest, most exposed sections, the slippery grass, the rain showers, and even the occasional fall. But again, we had amazing guides!
Once we left Stroggoula we joined the ridge heading South towards Rokas (2143 m). The ridge walk was exactly as I imagined if not better. There wasn’t much change in elevation and the path was reasonably easy making for pleasant hiking while enjoying the views. And they were some views! With the valley on the east covered in thick mist and the western side clear and sunny the scenery was just magical. And when a herd of half-wild horses comes running out of the mist I felt like walking through a movie scene.
Our lovely ridge walk ended at a place called μαντρα taking its name from an old stone wall separating the high pastures. It seemed unrealistic at first that anyone in their right mind would drive their herds so high up to the mountains but apparently, the fresh mountain air is good enough motivation. But it made me feel great so why not the goats. It was actually these goats accompanied by local shepherds who climbed the mountains for generations searching for the easiest way to the top while creating the trails we walk today. For that, I’m forever grateful.
From μαντρα things become much scarier. The trail turned into a narrow, hardly visible path overgrown by vegetation traversing the hundreds of meters tall cliffs of Geranovouni. It was hardly visible right under our feet but completely hidden when trying to spot it in the distance and I kept wondering how the hell are we supposed to get through the maze of small grassy patches scattered across the rock face. Looking back wasn’t much better either, the path magically disappearing right behind us, making me feel like walking through an enchanted kingdom cut right out of Greek mythology. But we did get through eagle and finally reached the infamous Skala Stamati.
Skala Stamati was used for centuries by the shepherds of Katarraktis moving their flock to the summer pastures at Besena plateau. It is considered one of the most striking mountain paths in Greece and while still a hiking trail it requires a steady step, strong nerve, and a head for heights. It is pretty well marked, though, and with a lot of caution can be done by any skilled hiker. Just avoid it after a rain when the wet slippery grass adds unnecessary challenges.
We did the Skala Stamati in the downhill direction descending towards the Katarraktis refuge. While it was less physically challenging than climbing up it was hard to avoid looking down the cliffs making it all the scarier. I must admit to sliding some of the steepest sections on my bottom instead of walking straight up as a real mountaineer earning myself the title of the dirtier bum. But better safe than sorry, right?
Hiking tip: Trekking poles are awesome! I’ve been avoiding them for years thinking they are just for the elderly or total beginners. I couldn’t be more wrong! This was my first trek ever using them and I was amazed at how fast I got accustomed to them and how much they helped. They were amazingly useful for stability in difficult terrain, relieved my knees on the way down and made the difficult ascents with a heavy backpack so much easier. I still wouldn’t use them for easier hikes, there is just something about wandering freely through the countryside with only a camera in my hand but for more demanding treks I’ve been converted.
Canyoning in Syrrako
Canyoning is slowly becoming one of my favorite mountain activities (after hiking, of course). The first time I tried it during our trip to Pelion I just wanted to do something new, fun, and exciting but I’m slowly starting to see it for what it really is – an awesome way to explore new and otherwise inaccessible corners of this beautiful country. There are so many canyons, gorges, and ravines all across Greece hidden under a canopy of trees looking like yet another pretty valley. But few rappels and a bit of river trekking later you’ll find yourself in a paradise of waterfalls, sparkling pools, narrow gorges, and jungle-like vegetation. And Syrrako was no exception.
The canyoning route through Syrrako’s Stavraetos canyon is considered easy and it certainly starts that way. After the initial rappel down to the gorge, we waded through the stream for a while, getting used to the freezing water and enjoying our pretty surroundings. Then the first waterfalls started and as beautiful as they were it wasn’t too difficult to surpass them even for a novice like me. That was until we reached the highlight of the route, an almost 50 meters tall waterfall at the confluence with the Bozias Canyon!
I knew about this challenge the whole time and even saw photos of the waterfall beforehand but for some reason, I wasn’t too scared. Supposedly, there is a way around the waterfall for those who freak out at the last minute and this option kept calming me down. What’s more, the waterfall is not visible from the top, you’ll have to go through one more shorter rappel to see it for the first time and when you do it’s already too late to change your mind. I wrote a whole paragraph about my way through the waterfall, both physical and emotional, before I realized that not knowing what to expect was an important part of the adventure. I don’t want to spoil that for you, so let’s just say go for it, you’ll have so much fun and some serious bragging rights afterward!
Normally, this is not the end of the route, there are another 4 waterfalls to rappel before reaching the finish line. However, our trip was cut short by an incoming storm so we abandoned the gorge here and climbed back to the village. It was a steep and tiring climb, especially carrying all our canyoning gear but I loved this little hike as much as the rest of the trip. The gorge is absolutely breathtaking and seeing it from above instead of walking through its jungle-like bottom gave us jet another awesome perspective.
If time permits, don’t abandon Syrrako right away, this village is stunning! It lies in a beautiful location on the slopes of Mt.Peristeri and is a picturesque cluster of stone-built houses, cobbled alleys, and old stone bridges. It is the starting point of many hiking trails, the most popular being a 2-hour hike to Kalarites through the lovely Chrousia Gorge. There are plenty of cozy guest houses, taverns, and cafés in the village, too, making it the perfect base for explorations of this part of the mountains.