The stunning vistas in the little-known region of Zagori. Photo: Costa Zissis
Costas Zissis pauses on the trail and gazes across the valley below. “Isn’t this beautiful?” he says, more to himself than to me. We’re in the Pindos mountains of mainland Greece. Ahead stretches a vast bowl of forest, its spongey green mass broken only by isolated villages. Above is the mountain pass that will lead us to Dragon Lake. “There’s so much nature here; so much to discover,” Costas adds. “Sometimes I wonder why more people don’t come.”
James surveys beyond the Dragon Lake. Photo: Costas Zissis
No kidding. For two hours Costas, a local photographer who has spent decades capturing the moods of the region, has led me up from Mikro Papigo, a lovely hamlet the colour of old ivory. At first we ascend through sun-dappled hazelnut woods, pausing occasionally to drink mountain spring water. Then the trees thin and we emerge beneath a ridge of rippling cliffs like a Mount Rushmore they forgot to carve – the Astraka Towers, one end of the Vikos Gorge. It glows pink at sunset, Costas tells me.
He’s here hoping to see his first chamois. Me? I’m happy just to be here. The last hour has been all empty trails and the springy scent of pine and juniper. It’s only now we’ve stopped to admire the view that I realise what’s lacking. Traffic noise. People. Notwithstanding a shepherd who lolled beneath a tree among his flock, its bells adding a soft gamelan to the birdsong, we haven’t seen a soul. Silence and space are such precious commodities. I can’t recall when I last felt such peace. But Costas is right: where is everybody? If this were Italy or southern France, this path would be full of happy hikers. The question pops once more into my head: is anywhere in Greece more overlooked than Zagori?
Alpine meadows and wildflowers. Photo: James Stewart
In a country with ancient ruins and more islands than you can count, people forget about this remote mountainous corner near the Albanian border as a holiday option. No one I talked to before my visit had heard of the place. Isolated from the 20th century by inaccessibility, then emptied after the Greek civil war in the 1950s, its traditional villages are treasured getaways for mainland Greeks. Few have any appetite for walking, however. Costas says: “We Greeks eat and we swim. But walking? Too much effort.” That seems a shame since the wild landscapes of the Zagori are at their best when discovered as they have been for centuries – on foot.
Because tarmac roads didn’t appear until the 1950s, the region is a maze of shepherds’ trails, footpaths and bridleways. Signposting can be sketchy in places – pick up Anavasi’s Pindus: Zagori 1:50,000 map if you plan to do anything more than short strolls – and few walks are circuits, so you’ll have to organise pick-ups through your hotel; no great hardship when you can wait over a late lunch. But you won’t run out of options during a stay.
Wildflowers. Photo: James Stewart
Nor will you run short of scenery, most of it protected within the Vikos-Aoös national park. Crete’s Samaria Gorge wins all the plaudits for Grecian walking but nothing prepares you for the Vikos Gorge. The world’s deepest canyon measured depth by width slices through the centre of Zagori. It takes six hours at brisk pace to track its deepest section between Monodendri and Vikos; longer if you allow time to explore a limestone riverbed sculpted into strange whorls by winter floods.
Yet the joy of Zagori is that it provides as many easy strolls as hard dayhikes (or longer). One of the shortest walks of my stay became one of my favourites. From a car park near Vikos village, I dipped down into the Vikos Gorge. Broad and thickly fuzzed with green, the canyon looked more lost world than anywhere in Greece. Only 30 minutes after setting out, I was discovering inky murals in a chapel and drinking cool, slightly sweet water from a spring beside the Voidomatis river.
On a walk around Kipi I crossed canyons on humpbacked bridges that dated from Ottoman occupation. If I’d had longer in the Pindos mountains, which jut north of the gorge, I could have summited Gamila mountain to sit with nothing but 2,497m of fresh air beneath my feet. Factor in a cool mountain climate as the seaside sizzles and you have the late-summer walking destination par excellence.
The region's rare 'Elysian Fields' flower. Photo: James Stewart
Back en route to Dragon Lake, Costas and I crest the mountain pass and cross a broad alpine meadow cupped within mountains. Shaded by an infinity of wildflowers, it’s too beautiful to rush. As we dawdle, Costas points out species: forget-me-nots and primula violets; the white flower spike of asphodel, a rare lily which, in Greek mythology, grew on the Elysian Fields; a herb used to brew Zagoria tea. Four hours after we set out, we’re sitting high up on a snowdrift beside Dragon Lake. Snow, in Greece, in June: who saw that coming?
Actually, the surprise was yet to come. To make up for lost time we pick up the pace on the return. Suddenly Costas stops. Two chamois in the meadow ahead are watching us. They sniff, then bound away up steep slopes as if on springs. It turns out that the goat-antelopes were hunted almost to extinction in Zagori in the mid 20th century. Now, given the lack of people, they have begun to return to the alpine meadows. Being overlooked has its advantages.
Zagori's elusive chamois goat. Photo: Costas Zissis.