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10a TH

Walking in Zagori: Greece at its most wild and beautiful

With one route to go to finish his Zagori hiking guide and in a race against the turning weather, Aris-Dimitrios Leontaritis confidently set off for Mount Tymphi. But it doesn't quite to to plan.

It’s a dull October afternoon in Athens. The weather is pleasant with mild temperatures and a warming sun, but I am under no illusions. In a matter of days the weather will take a turn for the worse in the mountains. The days are getting shorter, the shepherds are already bringing their flocks down to the plains, the brown bears are trying to gather as much fat as possible to survive their long winter hibernation and I am still missing the last route for the hiking guide I’m putting together about Zagori, a wonderful mountainous region in north-western Greece. This hike needs to be done before the arrival of the first autumn snow as it is a long high-altitude route over the most rugged and isolated part of Mount Tymphi. The weather forecast is good for the next three days so it’s time to get into action.

After making some arrangements, I manage to find two friends to do this hike with me as I am not keen to do it alone. All the necessary equipment like tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, torches, a GPS, shoes, clothes, a gas stove and utensils are packed in a flash in my little car and early next morning I set off north. The first stop is Trikala, a quaint town in the plain of Thessaly about midway between Athens and Mt Tymphi, where I pick up my two friends and stock up on provisions for the trip. Delicious local sausages, cheese, tomatoes, bread and honey from the nearby mountains. All set, we continue our journey to Mt Tymphi.

We pass by the beautiful city of Ioannina, the economic and cultural capital of the Epirus region, with its stunning castle and Ottoman mosque on the shore of the Pamvotis Lake, and climb over Mt Mitsikelli into the fantastic world of Zagori. Thick forests and stunning mountain scenery welcome us back to the ‘place behind the mountain’, as the Slavic name enticingly describes it. And then comes the upper part of the dramatic Vikos Gorge, the ubiquitous stone arch bridges and the first villages of central Zagori with their stupendous architecture, rich history and a well-preserved network of paths connecting them. I may have seen all this many times in the past few years, but I am once more awe-struck by this place.

Darkness is falling fast but we have finally reached Tsepelovo, one of the liveliest villages of Zagori and the starting point of our route at the southern foot of Mt Tymphi. We head straight for the traditional local café, typically located in the scenic village square under a vast plane tree. There could be no better way to finish this long day than enjoying a glass of cold tsipouro – a local version of grappa – along with delicious sausages from Trikala that the lady of the café kindly offers to cook for us. We have a long hiking day ahead so we set up camp just outside the village. The weather forecast is still good for the next day but it is expected to deteriorate soon after.

Overconfident start

Early in the morning things look promising. The sky is bright blue, there is a gentle breeze and a wonderful day is about to dawn. However, we have a tricky start as we fail to find the starting point of the trail we want to take. Instead, we wander in the upper part of the village in search of the usual red/cream paint markers of the Zagori mountain marathon that partly goes along our route. We should have got all the information beforehand, but overconfidence let us assume we could find it ourselves. This would be a lesson worth learning during our short adventure. Anyway, we get back into the car and drive along a rough track above the village over a glacial moraine deposited by a 7km long glacier more than 400,000 years ago! Somewhere along the road we should come across the trail that traverses Mt Tymphi all the way to the hamlet of Vrisochori on the NW flanks of the mountain. To our relief, a large painted arrow on a huge boulder indicates the way and finally we are back on track.

The craggy peaks above us look wonderful in the morning light in what seems to be one of those rare, magnificent days with superb visibility, mild temperatures and bright sun. We carry on at a good pace and apart from a flock of sheep and their fierce guard dogs unwilling to let us pass, we are making good progress and, most importantly, we are really enjoying the hike and each other’s company.

Saw-toothed peaks, sharp ridges, daunting crags, huge boulders and deep, grass-filled glacial valleys under the sweet October sunlight compose an unforgettable image and we literally couldn’t ask for more. And we do not expect anything more. But more is yet to come.

Exhilarating spectacle

We have been walking for about 5 hours amid this stunning mountain scenery when we begin the last uphill section to the Megala Litharia pass at 2300m. Reaching the pass, an exhilarating spectacle unfolds. Just ahead is the stunning pinnacle of Tsouka Rossa with the great Mt Smolikas – the second highest mountain in Greece at 2637m – and the incredibly steep Mt Trapezitsa forested right up to its very top in the background. Given the good visibility, we can also make out Mt Grammos and the Albanian hinterland beyond. As if not wanting to awaken from this dream, we decide to climb to a nearby peak to our west, where we have even more magnificent views stretching along the jagged northern ridge of Mt Timfi to the characteristic pyramid of the Gamila peak – a tip that should be added to the guide. Back to the pass we have a lovely picnic in full view of Mt Tymphi at its best.

Before descending north to the enticing grassy valley below, we make a detour to the Tsouka Rossa ridge in order to look over the 1000m drop to the east. The view is breathtaking but Vrisochori – lying at an altitude of 980m – looks disappointingly far away so we feel the urge to continue on our way.

Tsouka Rossa Ridge
On the Tsouka Rossa Ridge

Tsouka Rossa in the Vlach language means the Red Peak. You may wonder why this greyish limestone pinnacle was thus named. Sitting on a bench at the Vlachophone village of Vrisochori at dawn and watching the rising sun painting Tsouka Rossa and its sheer cliffs red you can see why. Vlachika is a Latin-based language, a remnant of the Roman Empire, preserved only in the isolated villages of the Pindos mountain range. In Zagori it was mostly spoken in the nearby villages of Vrisochori, Iliochori, Laista and Vovousa.

Tsouka Rossa
Tsouka Rossa (the red peak in the local Vlach dialect) as seen from the square of Vrisochori

The first part of the descent is among the sub-alpine bare zone and the scenery is still awe-inspiring. As we are dwarfed by the spectacular northern crags of Mt Tymphi we hear the characteristic whistling of the chamois – an alarm that a possible threat has been spotted. It is not unusual to see the very rare Balkan chamois (Rupicapra rupicaprabalcanica) in this remote part of the mountain. The inaccessible sheer cliffs and steep scree slopes offer invaluable protection against wolves, bears and, most significantly, poachers. The lone chamois that are whistling above us are male adults, while the small flock below that is running gracefully away from us comprises females along with their young.

Soon we reach the Katsanos pastures at 1700m and right after that we find ourselves walking in a beautiful beech forest on a thick, shock-absorbing layer of dead leaves. The wild sub-alpine zone is well behind us now. A couple of silly falls on the slippery leaves, some good jokes and the pleasant mood make up for our tired feet. At some point, the welcoming sound of gurgling water guides us to the Neraidhovrisi spring, gushing from a crack at the foot of a tall limestone rock face. ‘Fount of the Sylphs’ in Greek, it completely captures the essence of this place. After a necessary rest, we continue our way through the lower black pine zone to reach Vrisochori after a total journey of about 11 hours from Tsepelovo. Naturally, we have not arranged our transfer back to the car as ‘there is no need to worry; we can hitchhike back or ask someone to drive us for a fee’. And all this, despite knowing very well that Vrisochori is almost deserted at this time of the year and that hardly any vehicles use the secondary road connecting it to central Zagori.

Darkness falls

We find the local café open and even though it is totally empty we can’t resist a cup of coffee before thinking about our return. To cut a long story short, we fail to arrange transport back to Tsepelovo, realising how dependent we are on our phone internet connection, which is absent in this isolated part of the world. Given the situation and with darkness falling, we decide to walk to the next village, Iliochori, where we plan to ask for help from the very friendly and obliging lady that runs the local café. At some point I call a friend, a keen hiker who lives close by and could understand our situation. Unfortunately, he is not around so he can’t help us but warns me that he had been in a similar situation in Vrisochori some years ago and, as we were soon to find out, the thick fir forest on this part of the mountain – one of the favourites of the generally harmless brown bear – becomes pretty scary in the pitch-black darkness of night.

In the meantime, clouds are gathering fast and we can no longer see the stars. We reach Iliochori in a bit more than an hour’s walk, as it becomes windy and we can smell rain. Luckily, the café is open and when the storm breaks, we have already taken shelter there. We are now thinking of spending the night in the covered courtyard of the church as there are no other accommodation options in Iliochori. Not that we could afford one. The lady rules out this option and insists on putting us up and refuses to accept any money. The excuse is that she has two sons our age who ‘do the same stupid things as you do, and I am glad there are still some people out there who are willing to give them a hand from time to time’. So, after we have a small dinner with what is still available, we find ourselves in the back room of the café where local hunters often sleep. The place is like a museum and it must have served as an office in the past, as some ancient files with documents and invoices on an old desk indicate. Among them I find a stack of beautiful retro envelopes and decide it wouldn’t do any harm if I bought some of these to use on special occasions. And, indeed, some dear friends have received a letter in these historical envelopes!

The next day the sun is shining again. With the help of a guesthouse owner, we finally manage to get someone to drive us back to Tsepelovo, but we have to wait till noon. This is a good opportunity to revisit the fabulous waterfalls below the village and get rid of the previous day’s sweat and dirt. We take the steep path descending into the vastness and solitude of these endless forests and we are on the road again. ‘Insisting that the world keep turning our way. And our way is on the road again.’