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Zagori – hiking through history

The ancient trails across Zagori are so old that they appear fused with the natural landscape The ancient trails across Zagori are so old that they appear fused with the natural landscape Chris Fitch
22 Jun
Hiking and exploring Zagori, northern Greece, reveals more than just a spectacular geological landscape; it also uncovers the deep and rich histories of ancient culture

You know exactly when you’ve left the boundaries of one of the 46 villages in Zagori, a municipality mostly located within the Northern Pindos National Park of mountainous northern Greece. Each settlement is marked by a shrine dedicated to departed travellers, complete with candles and religious paraphernalia. These shrines were once witness to quite extraordinary scenes, as women from the village would have dressed in black and mournfully grieved over the loss of the traveller in question to the outside world. It was a funeral in all but name, it being assumed the traveller would never return, having joined the realm of the ‘living dead’.

My first shrine appears on the way out of Mikro Papingo, the baby brother of the nearby Megalo Papingo. Shaded from the morning sun by the 2,497m Mount Tympe, one of the three main mountains which surround this unique corner of the Greek mainland, Mikro Papingo is an assortment of weathered rocky buildings alongside a network of narrow yet steep alleyways with frequent slats protruding from the ground to provide grip. A small bell-tower overlooks the village’s grand panoramic views, the flags of both Greece and and the Greek Orthodox church (a distinctive two-headed eagle on a yellow background) hanging proudly outside. A squirrel with sharply pointed ears watches intently as I pack the last of my lunch into my rucksack, poised ready to flee were I to venture towards him.

shrineEach Zagori village includes distinctive shrines which greet incoming hikers (Image: Chris Fitch)

These elaborate shrine displays are a reminder of quite how disconnected the villages of Zagori were prior to the construction of proper infrastructure during the 20th century (the first roads didn’t appear until 1924). Before cars were a viable way of getting around, the only routes available between villages were the well-worn trails which threaded their way across the landscape like veins, seeking the smoothest path of least resistance between these isolated outposts dotted across the mountainside the locals called home.

Therefore, when hiking to Vikos – or any other neighbouring village – what is today an enjoyable and mildly adventurous pursuit across the tough mountain terrain, was, a century ago, a demanding, time-consuming exercise. Few would ever find the time (or, indeed, the inclination) to follow a potentially dangerous trail into the surrounding wilderness. Hence, only hunters, shepherds and tradesmen would likely ever have known the way from village to village. Although almost unimaginable in the modern, hyper-globalised world of 2017, it is quite possible that while previous generations of these locals would have been able to see and sometimes hear their neighbours, it couldn’t have been at all unheard of for many to have never actually visited them.

mikro papingoThe rough alleyways of Mikro Papingo, Zagori, Greece (Image: Chris Fitch)

The path across the terrain feels rugged, yet simultaneously slightly too well-aligned to be entirely natural. Crucially, this is because it isn’t. This path, like Mikro Papingo behind me, dates back over a millennium. Moss and other creeping vegetation has created the feeling of an ancient, medieval woodland, firmly establishing itself upon the carefully arranged rocky steps and external barricades, giving the false impression of a wild pathway emerging organically from the landscape. My crunching footsteps are the only sound to be heard over the occasional chirping or the faint sound of running water from the Voidomatis river far below. The occasional whiff of salvia – wild sage – a herbal painkiller amongst local doctors, is a pleasant accompaniment to the hike.

Perhaps the most impressive invention to be observed is the wall which runs alongside the path at opportune moments. The careful brick-by-brick arrangement of slats instinctively looks too perfect to be organic, yet the quality and age of construction feels equally unlikely. The calculation executed with each wall – a 15-degree lean, in order to hold back future scree collapses – means these multi-century-long structures are still in action today, keeping the trail in place even as the mountain crumbles and erodes around it.

wallAncient walls help hold back scree and have enabled the trails to exist for centuries (Image: Chris Fitch)

Simultaneously, appreciating the natural elements of the trail demands my full attention. As well as the spectacular panoramic views to my right, I have to remind myself to occasionally tilt my neck skywards, in order to fully appreciate the steep slopes looming overhead, the edge of Mount Tympe. A palate of colours is blotched across the walls, evidence of how long it has been since exposure to the air; the limestone rock goes from white to rusty red – as the iron minerals gradually oxidise – then finally grey. Never walk across white scree is the key lesson here, unless you fancy playing Russian roulette with what are likely to be highly unstable and perilous rocks.

The most striking geological features, however, have to be the distinctive columns sticking up into the air like enormous stalagmites, scattered across the terrain. Instead of being formed by the gradual accumulation of material from above, these hard structures contain tough magnesium dolomite deposits, which held firm even as the softer limestone was slowly eroded around them over millennia, leaving them behind. The vast small shattered fractures of this rock – sharp pieces of flint – can be found all along the trails, and would have been invaluable to the indigenous population, perfect for making tools and starting fires.

vikosThe geological history of Zagori form striking structures, such as here, at the end of the Vikos gorge (Image: Chris Fitch)

After a few hours of gradual descent from Mikro Papingo, the trail abruptly ends. Brushing aside the dry vegetation reveals a calm pool of water, crystal clear, as though peering into liquid glass. These are the ‘Springs of Voidomatis’ (emphasis on the plural), three large springs accompanied by hundreds of smaller ones dotted around the base of Vikos Gorge (the world’s deepest gorge, in proportion to its width) fed by freshly-melted water flowing from the mountaintop snow piles. The Voidomatis river – where this water will eventually end up – is officially the cleanest in all of Greece (possibly in the entire EU). It’s a reassuring thought for when I dip my bottle, already emptied by the demands of the hot sun above, in for a refill.

Wading across the shallow stream, it’s a short walk to the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, built in 1738 by villagers from Vikos, my intended destination. As with all Orthodox Greek churches and graveyards, the monastery points due east, and the tiny front door – specifically designed to prevent Ottoman horsemen charging in and trashing it – invites me inside. The interior is cool, a welcome relief from the hot sunshine. The pool in the nearby river shimmers with teal, turquoise, azure, and every other imaginable shade of blue.

riverThe rivers of Zagori are fed by meltwater from the nearby mountains (Image: Chris Fitch)

Walking outside through Zagori, the silence is deafening. While inordinately enjoyable for the passing visitor, the rules governing the noise of the region – to protect wildlife, among other reasons – is not without its obstacles. Case in point, ascending towards the opposite side of the valley, I encounter a fallen tree blocking the trail. Where most of the world would fire up a chainsaw and carve open a path to quickly enable easy access, in Zagori the resulting noise pollution would have had traditional villagers – and the local rangers – up in arms. It requires careful and delicate ninja-like skill to very slowly manoeuvre myself through the gaps in the branches which block my journey, before collapsing in an undignified heap on the other side.

Finally, after a long zig-zag up the opposite side of the gorge, the trail passes another shrine. This is the entrance to the village of Vikos itself, the ending point for this particular hiking route. From the village’s vantage point, I can look straight down Vikos gorge, the two sides rising sharply either side like skyscrapers. Turning to my left, I can see Mikro Papingo, where I started walking half a day ago.

These neighbouring villages – so clear and visible through the fresh mountain air – feel as though they should be well connected, with easy links between them. Yet, without the relatively new asphalt roads that wind their way around the hillsides, the thought of navigating along the mountain trails and back again on a regular basis makes them feel as far away as Albania, on the other side of the distant mountain border to the far north. The turmoil and confusion which must have erupted as the modern 20th century crashed into this slow and quiet part of the world is hard to imagine.

The trip was supported by the Greek National Tourism Organisation. For more details, see visitgreece.gr. For information about Aristi Mountain Resort and Villas, visit aristi.eu/en.

Essential equipment for anyone planning a hike through the picturesque landscape of northern Greece

Keen Westward Boots – £99.99
Sturdy boots are an essential for the rough and unpredictable terrain of Zagori, even along the main trails. The Keen Westwards have all the breathability necessary for Greece’s hot weather, along with the advantage of also being waterproof – ideal for occasional forays into the freezing Voidomatis river.
Zagori kit
Páramo Velez Jacket – £285
It’s important to think of the varying weather which can occur during a walk in the Greek mountains, from hot sunny days to cold, high altitude nights. Extremely lightweight, the Páramo Velez provides ideal versatility for such an environment, providing warmth, waterproofing, and ventilation, enabling the wearer to respond to whichever weather conditions appear.

Hawaiian Tropic SPF30 sun lotion – £7.50
The cool breezes of mountainous Greece can deceive you into forgetting the strength of UV in this part of the world. Use a high factor, water resistant lotion with both UVA and UVB protection to shield your skin from exposure in the midday sun.

Craghoppers aluminium bottle – £8
With potentially the cleanest river in the European Union flowing past your feet, you wouldn't want a chance to use it to top up your water supplies. The sturdy stainless steel Craghoppers bottle is light but tough, perfect for this environment.

Streamlight siege AA – £34.99
As light falls, so does the temperature, and the landscape becomes home to the few wolves, bears, and other wildlife which still populate the region. Find your way to the end of the trail with this powerful and waterproof torch.

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