Set out on foot to explore Greece’s lesser-known north – this self-guided walking itinerary takes you from remote mountain villages to cliff-top monasteries, via the world’s deepest gorge
WORDS ORLA THOMAS
PHOTOGRAPHS JUSTIN FOULKES
I want you to try everything,” says Elli Papageorgiou, emerging from the kitchen of her small café in the cobbled square of Kapesovo. She sets down a jug of sour cherry juice on a table heaving with food: cured sausage cut into rounds, fat green olives, garlic toasts heaped with tomatoes, and tiny cakes drenched in syrup. The jug lands with a clatter that startles a pack of sleeping dogs. “Besides, walkers need energy,” she says.
Philoxenia, meaning ‘love of a stranger’, isn’t just a word but a way of life in Greece – a deeply-ingrained culture of hospitality that manifests, mostly simply, as an offering of food. Though the practice is perhaps a little strained in the popular islands, those who seek out the remote northern region of Zagorohoria tend to leave it as friends. For centuries, footpaths were the sole routes connecting its 46 sandstone villages, and these ancient thoroughfares are still the most atmospheric way to get around. The area’s outstanding natural attraction, the Vikos Gorge – known as Greece’s Grand Canyon – can still only be explored on foot.
Kapesovo is one of the smallest of the picturesque grey-stone settlements, and offers a particularly warm welcome to walkers seeking a little RnR before they lace up their boots. Locals always find time to chat with visitors gathered at the pavement tables of Elli’s café, Sterna. While sitting in the shade of the village square’s giant plane tree with a glass of fiery local spirit tsipouro in hand, hours easily disappear.
DAY 1 THE BELOÏ CIRCUIT
9.65 KM, 3.5 HOURS
At 900m deep, Zagori’s Vikos Gorge is so enormous, its scale can only be appreciated from certain vantage points. Locals agree that the best of them is the viewpoint at Beloï: the word itself, probably Slavic in origin, means ‘good view’. As well as this unbeatable perspective, the walk here from Kapesovo offers a taster of the sort of terrain you can expect on subsequent (and more challenging) linear walks. It begins with a steep climb up the Vradeto Steps, cut into limestone cliffs like Escher’s never-ending staircase. Many mules have made their way up this old trading route over the centuries, and, like them, I walk the thousand steps of its dry stone path ploddingly.
The walk flattens out, passing a cluster of beehives circled by an electric fence (intended to keep out honey-guzzling brown bears, not uncommon in this part of Greece) and a tiny, unlocked chapel. Inside, saints and angels with gold leaf halos preside over unlit tapered candles. In the village of Vradeto, frogs swimming in the water trough greet walkers refilling their bottles. After a final scramble through shadowy woodland, nature makes its big reveal: the chasm of the Vikos Gorge, filled with spooling mist, the dry riverbed snaking into the distance like the tail of a retreating beast.
Retracing my steps back to Kapesovo, I find the village preparing for a party: the Feast of the Prophet Elias, its patron saint. A grill set up under a canopy of vines is laden with kebabs, filling the air with smoke and the scent of lamb cooked over coal. Grown-ups chat over cans of Mythos beer, while children play chase around the square. As the night wears on, the melancholy songs of the musicians grow gradually more upbeat. When the music has reached a jig-like intensity, the villagers abandon their seats and join hands, twisting at the hips as they dance in ever-larger circles. There’s no plate smashing, but a man in his sixties breaks free of the group to dance first on some shot glasses, then inside a baking tray, to laughter and applause from the crowds.
DAY 2: KAPESOVO TO MONODENDRI
12 KM, 4.5 HOURS
The next morning, the village sleeps in, the square deserted but for a cockerel, who crows lustily as if saying goodbye. Today’s walk will take me to one of the more visited of the Zagori villages, Monodendri, from where a path descends into the gorge itself. Paved stone soon gives way to rubble edged by wildflowers and their winged attendants, the yellow-headed flowers used by locals to make ‘mountain tea’ are swarmed by metallic, emerald-coloured beetles, and pale butterflies gather on feathery purple blooms. Dipping in and out of the shade of oak trees, I eventually reach the dry bed of the Voïdomatis River. Crossing it is a high stone arch: the Kontodimos bridge.
One of many built in the 18th and 19th centuries, this bridge – and the 91 others in the area like it – are a vestige of when these walkers’ paths were traders’ highways. During this time, the Ottoman Empire ruled over Greece, but Zagorohoria was safeguarded by its remoteness: the Turks never really managed to gain full control here. Instead, in exchange for guarding the mountain passes and collecting taxes on their behalf, they granted Zagorohorians semi-autonomy and other privileges. Local people grew increasingly prosperous, spending some of their wealth on the fine stone buildings still standing in the villages today.
It’s hard to imagine these pathways thronging with heavily laden mules. They are so peaceful that I encounter no one at all, except when the path meanders into sleepy settlements – Koukouli, Vitsa – where locals drink iced frappes in the shade of plane trees. Every village has one, and, by the time I reach Monodendri’s, the coffees have been swapped for beers, and the lights strung across the town square are already twinkling in the twilight.