The Vikos Gorge

Vikos Gorge 2The Vikos Gorge

“Greece has two great and unforgettable gorges ; the gorge of Samaria in Crete, and that of the Vikos in Epirus.  It is hard to decide which is the more beautiful of the two, since each is unique in its way.  In my view, however, Vikos takes the prize … “ George Sfikas  –  ‘The Mountains of Greece.’

I’ve descended the Samaria Gorge to Agia Roumeli many times, but never the Vikos, and a visit to the Pindus Mountains in Northern Greece last summer gave the opportunity to walk through the gorge as part of a 4-day trek in that area.  We had arranged our trip with ‘Walking Holidays *’, were met at Thessaloniki airport by our guide, Thanasis Pantes, and after an evening meal and brief tour of the city, next morning drove to Ioannina, in the region of Epirus, for lunch.  Then a short 30km drive north to Vitsa, one of the Zagori villages and, since 1973, part of the Vikos/Aoos National Park.

Vikos Gorge 3

The Zagori villages consist of 46 “traditional settlements”,  dating from the 17th century or earlier,  built of local grey stone, where commercial development is forbidden except for limited eco-tourism.  Until roads were built in the 1950s, they were linked by stone-laid paths and beautiful arched bridges, now part of a network of way-marked trails.

Konitsa bridge

Konitsa bridge

Our accommodation in a small, family-run hotel was excellent, as was the evening meal and substantial breakfast.  Then a quick transfer to Monodendri, from where we would descend into the Vikos Gorge, following it N and NW before a sharp climb to Vikos village, a walk of around seven hours.

Vikos Gorge signA sign informed us  (Guinness Book of Records 1997) that the gorge is the World’s Deepest Canyon, at 900m, with just 1100m between the rims.

 

With all day to reach Vikos (where our luggage would be waiting for us), we took our time and many photographs, enjoyed a picnic lunch by the river (Voidomatis), and admired the spectacularly sheer walls rising high above us.  The path is straightforward and, in contrast to Samaria in June, we met only a handful of other walkers.

Descent to Vikos 2Thanasis had told us that here, in the Pindus Mountains, is the last European stronghold of the brown bear, although he admitted to only ever seeing a distant glimpse of one.  We walked warily, heard many birds, but the only wildlife was a slow moving tortoise next to the trail.

Vikos tortoise

Vikos tortoise

A warm welcome awaited us at Vikos, in a simple village taverna with “all-home-produce” meals, comfortable beds, and at dusk, a memorable view down into the gorge we had walked through.

Vikos taverna

Vikos taverna

Next morning we re-descended into the gorge for an hour or so, as far as the Voidomatis Springs, where the water, refreshing but ice-cold, had dropped quickly from snow level.  Then a short, but steep ascent to the delightful village of Mikro Papigo, where Thanasis has a dream of building a home for his family.

Papingo Towers

Papingo Towers

It’s dominated by the impressive Towers of Papigo, below which we would walk, a day later, on the climb to spend a night at Astraka Refuge, a mountain hut situated at 2000m, below the peak of Astraka itself, 2436m, part of the Gamila range.

Mt Astraka

Mt Astraka

Our last day in the high mountains was from the Refuge to the stunningly beautiful “Dragon Lake”, or Drakolimni, and from there a long and far from easy descent into the Aoos Valley, to spend the night at Konitsa.  And the following day, a pleasant walk along the lower reaches of the Voidomatis river, now placid and tree-lined, before it joins the Aoos.

Vikos lower gorge

Vikos lower gorge

*  ‘Walking Holidays’ was excellent in every way, our experienced guide Thanasis very knowledgeable, informative & looked after our every need.  Details from http://walkingholidays.gr

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The best time to visit Elafonisi is undoubtedly during the winter, when summer hordes are  replaced by a few hardy visitors enjoying often windswept (but usually empty) beaches and bracing sea air.  Since Lynne died, it’s become an annual pilgrimage between Christmas and New Year, finding solace and strength for the year ahead, usually alone, but most recently with Joanna, looking to enjoy a walk en route, and as a keen botanist, hoping to find the rare ‘androcymbium rechingeri’ flowers, endemic to Crete and located only on Elafonisi “island” and Falasarna, and then only in mid-winter.

Elafonisi winter

Elafonisi is 52km from Paleochora, en route passing through a region called “Enneachora” (nine villages), the largest of which is Elos, now with a ‘by-pass’ below it.  A little further on is Kefali, where we stopped for coffee and what what we thought would be a short two-hour walk.  Described in our book “More Walks from Paleohora” *, the route starts from the far end of the village where there is a park and playground area, right, with a small statue (to Nikolaos Pimplis – 1872-1963 – a Professor of Education and local war-time hero.)

Next to here is a large plane tree ; directly across the road from this is a footpath, little used and often overgrown.  This slants diagonally between houses and into olive groves, and appears to end.  But persevere, keeping upwards to meet a clearer track which heads towards Papadiana.  When it begins to descend, fork sharp left, the track winding down to reach the former (Kefali) village school, with a small church in the pine trees above.

Papadiana

Papadiana

Continue down to reach the main road, and turn right to the tiny slate-roofed church of Agios Vasileios, left of and below the road.  Go down the gully below the church to a small concrete footbridge, then turn up right on passageways through Vathi.  Continue along these, then down past derelict houses to meet the surfaced road to Tzitzifia at a bridge over the river.

Church below Kefali

Church below Kefali

Cross the bridge, walking up out of the village, and when the road bends right, turn left up a steep gully. This soon becomes a narrow path, and beyond the last house turn sharp right, passing above a small chapel in a vineyard, to reach a bull-dozed track.  Climb uphill to reach a stone wall at right-angles across this, and walk left in front of the wall, then right, rising again to a wire gate, and through this to a rough road.

Vathi

Vathi

Turn left along this, with good views over Vathi, as it descends to the valley, crossing the river at a ford.  In summer it will be dry, but after rain you might have to jump over boulders or even wade across.  On the far side, walk up to meet a surfaced road, and turn right alongside the river into Pervolia.  Opposite the first house you reach – a former mill –   look for a track on the left, which you will take later.

Stream nr Pervolia

Stream nr Pervolia

Joanna and I, walking fast in late December, reached here in around an hour, and carried on into the village.

Pervolia

Pervolia

An elderly man was depositing rubbish in a skip by the stone bridge .“Yassas,” he greeted us, and the usual questions, “where are you from, where are yougoing?”  “Back to Kefali,” we told him, “ and then to Elafonisi.”  “You must come come to my house for raki, elate,” he insisted, and despite it only being late morning, we followed him.

He paused at the statue of Anagnostis Skalidis (1818-1901), a ‘pallikari’, a Cretan patriot and freedom fighter of bygone days.  “My grandfather,”  he told us proudly, and led the way into his house, the upper floor of which he has converted into a museum.

Pervolia statue

Pervolia statue

And there we spent a fascinating hour or so, with 87 year-old Zacharias (Skalidis) showing us old photographs, news cuttings, letters, books, weapons used against the Turks and Germans and much more.  His voice quavered and eyes moistened when he told us (only in Greek) that his older brother had been executed (at Agia prison in Chania) in August  1944. We signed his Visitors Book and left a small donation, and promised to send copies of the photos we took.  And of course we enjoyed the ‘raki’ and biscuits his wife offered us.

Pervolia museum

The aforementioned track rises gently through olive groves, before a final climb (rear of a building materials yard) to the main road just outside Kefali.  Rather later than intended, we drove on to Elafonisi, almost totally deserted, walked across to the “island” in warm afternoon sunshine, and found masses of ‘androcymbium rechingeri’ just beginning to flower ……

Androcymbium

Androcymbium

 

*  “More Walks from Paleohora” still on sale at ‘To Delfini’ bookshop in the town.

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