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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Over the winter I re-read “The Last Lemon Grove”, a gift from visiting friends a couple of years ago.  Written by American Jackson Webb, published 1977, it tells of the author’s one-year sojourn in Paleochora in the early 70s, living alone and simply, and his affinities with various animals and pets, neighbours, and the local community.

Lemon Grove cover

It’s a quirky book, and you need to know something of Paleochora, its past and people, to appreciate it fully.

One particular paragraph rather jumped off the pages :-
 “ … the bus will coast out between the eucalyptus trees and onto the canyon bridge
    with a bump, grinding up through the rocks to Spanyako again.  And after an hour,
    the cloudy twin peninsulas and the straight line of the north shore will start to
    show ahead between the mountains.  Then the loud music will play while everyone’s
    sick, winding down the foothills into the white town of Vukolies, and a completely different afternoon …. “

The bus journey over to Chania is still an experience, although both the buses and roads have been modernised.  The eucalyptus trees are still there, the bridge widened, the road straightened, the music still plays (but no smoking, except maybe the driver), Gramvousa and Rodopou still come into view, and Chania, when you reach there, often seems a different world.

The old bus

The old bus

The new bus

The new bus

Here’s an afternoon walk, taking the 3.30pm bus to Kalamos, walking up into Spanyako (sic), and returning on the bus leaving Chania at 4pm, picking you up at approx. 5.30pm below Spaniakos. Jump off the bus beside the olive mill in Kalamos, just a ten minute and 6 km journey (by car, there’s a parking place close by.)

Olives at Kalamos

Olives at Kalamos

Just above the mill, by stone steps to the former ‘platea’, and almost hidden, is Agios Ioannis, with old and rare frescoes ; a quick visit here is recommended.

Kalamos

Kalamos

Begin the walk by setting off back 700m to Paleochora, over the road bridge, around a bend, and then turning left up a track signed (currently at least) to Spaniakos.

Spaniakos sign

Spaniakos sign

Confirm you’re correct by passing a fridge  after 150m, and continue ahead. The track winds onwards and upwards, soon with Spaniakos’ main church, Panagia,  in view above the hamlet of Giannakiana.

Eventually the track joins a surfaced road, where you turn left, but pause here to enjoy the view, and get your breath back.  Across the valley is the ridge leading to the masts above Paleochora (see ‘Explore’ Oct 2014), and to its north a similar ridge ending at Kastri, 820m, above Sarakina (‘Explore’ Sept 2015.)  In between is a glimpse of Sklavoploula (‘Explore’ June 2015.)

Spaniakos village

Spaniakos village

Walk on, flat now, into the ‘centre’ of Spaniakos, still known as  ‘Tzami’, the Greek for ‘mosque’.  Here, during the long Turkish occupation, and where the (closed) school is now, stood the largest mosque in Crete, built c.1670, and only destroyed in 1897 following an uprising by resistance fighters.  Spaniakos was the religious centre for Turkish villages of the area, its residents forced to convert to Islam.  The 1881 census records a population of 136, with 41 Moslem families and only 4 Christian.  Nothing remains of the mosque, although the ruined Turkish fort above the village survives and can be visited (‘Explore’ Nov 2013).

Etching of The Spaniakos Mosque

Etching of The Spaniakos Mosque

Above Spaniakos lives Andreas Kontorinis, born here some ninety years ago, who has told me so much about the village.  He attended the school in the 1930s  –  “ just one class, 55 pupils aged  6 -12 yrs,”  and left when he was twelve.  Although, he smiles, “I started work when I was 3,”  helping his shepherd father, and spending summers high in the White Mountains “mitata” making cheese.  He talks of the harsh war years between 1941-44, the family living frugally on ‘horta’, dairy products when not taken by the Germans, and bread made from carobs.  “Diskola,” he says (difficult)

Andreas

Andreas

I asked him about the village cafenion ; “Which one ?” he asks, “there were three.”   The last, closed around 1970 and now derelict, is opposite the school, and could tell some stories.  Occasionally he would travel to Chania, a daily wooden bus in the 1930s carrying passengers and livestock taking four hours.

Spaniakos cafe

Spaniakos cafe

Spaniakos church is nearby, but better to continue downhill, past the school, then detour 250m to visit Agios Giorgos, peacefully situated, with a rocky outcrop above a meadow behind it making a fine viewpoint.

Agios Georgos

Agios Georgos

Return to the road, built only in 1965, before which paths (now overgrown) led from Spaniakos more directly down to meet the main road, closer to Paleohora.

On reaching the Chania road, walk 700m back to Kalamos for your car, or wait at the bus shelter for the short ride back to Paleochora, where, to quote ‘The Last Lemon Grove’ :
“To the east and west, the hills drop sheer on the deserted coastline, with only the
        blue-black sea and the faint tipped ramp of Gavdos Island lifting just under the
        horizon, quarter way to Africa.”

Lemons

 

 

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