Today is the longest day of the year, summer solstice, and according to Nina’s trusty journal it’s also the 150th day of our travels. It seems like a life time ago that we left England, the many changing landscapes that we have passed through adding to the fortunate yet artificial feeling of ever lasting adventure.
Nina and I are trekking in the Vikos Aoös National park, Epiros, Greece. It’s the north western region of the country, up close to the Albanian border. It’s another place we’ve landed in due to the kind hospitality of friends. We were invited to stay at Angelo and Birgitte’s house in the small village of Paleochlori nestled in forested hills, inland from the port of Igoumenistsa. After two weeks there our attention turned to the national park a couple of hours away. Nina plucked this little gem out of the Lonely Planet, hearing that not many people visit the region and that it’s filled with natural beauty, including a third of Greece’s flora, together with traditional villages and monasteries.
Leaving our most heavy items in Ioannina, we donned our backpacks, sleeping bags, tent, a bit of food and set off for 3 days trekking and camping with a rough itinerary of connecting ancient hamlets, traversing the world’s deepest gorge (according to the Guinness Book of Records’ depth/width ratio), visiting a monastery or two and plenty of swimming, much needed in the 30 plus heat.
Four days ago the bus from Ioannina dropped us in Monodendri, one of 45 villages in the Zagori region. The old houses here are all made from local stone, as are the streets, walls and churches. It has the quaintness of a Cotswold village yet more dramatic in it’s isolated setting. We walked to the 15th century monastery, just outside the village, from where we could look down into the gorge we would walk the next day. Close by we found a nice spot for the tent and, with a little concern about the wild boars, snuggled up for a good nights sleep.
We woke at the crack the dawn, packed down the tent and set off excited by what we may find. The first task was to descend nearly a kilometre down onto the gorge floor. It was already becoming hot but luckily there was plenty of tree cover. The old paths here were used to connect villages before roads were put in more recently. The gorge itself is 20km long. We joined it a little way along and walked around 12km along it. We’d heard that there were bears and wolves here but hadn’t really taken seriously the possibility of seeing one. It took an hour or so to descend and on reaching the bottom we stopped for some breakfast on the dry, rocky river bed.
The walking from here was not difficult, although challenging. The path had to climb to avoid rock faces that descended into the river below. The sheer scale of the gorge was breathtaking and the diversity of plants and habitats made every step of the way interesting. There were plenty of frogs, lizards and beetles. The whole place was humming with insect life. We even stopped to take in a family of weasels playing on the rocks and the only other people we saw that day spotted a small brown bear on the path. We read that there are 1750 recorded plant species in the national park and it feels like a very stable eco system. Geologically though, this is not the case, with the occasional sound of rocks pitching themselves into to ravine below, though not every rock finds the bottom.
Half way along the gorge we came to the source of the spring fed river that continued ahead. The mountains here are caustic which means they hold vast amounts of water within. In winter this forms glaciers inside the mountains and throughout the year they melt to produce the most stunning aqua coloured watercourses. Unfortunately though, this means that they are also extremely cold. Nina managed a five second swim but I only just got my feet wet. The river that we were to follow from here just added more beauty to the already picture perfect surroundings. Rainbow trout now added to the flora, a sub species that have adapted to the extreme water temperatures by spawning all year round.
Our path split from the gorge after a few more kilometres and we begun the climb up and round more forested mountains, clinging to the hillside, before opening out onto flower meadows and eventually the small village of Mikro Papingo. We’d made it to civilisation after a very hot 17km. A welcome fountain greeted us and we cooled down before enquiring about a spot to camp in Makro Papingo – the next village. A barman in the local restaurant pointed us to the village football pitch and we set up camp in the dark.
Yesterday we went easy on ourselves. First stop was the incredible rock pools between the two villages we’d found last night. Nina was keen for an early morning swim but once again I only managed a rinse off in the super cold waters. A small human intervention made a beautiful pool from an otherwise trickling stream through the rock.
We hitched a lift the next 7km to a village where we were hoping to wwoof. The Zissis brothers ran a hotel and restaurant there using their own organic veg. They were the only wwoof hosts in the region and we had contacted them a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately (but in the end fortunately) they had nothing much to do about the place. They instead offered us a free room for the night and lunch, drinks and dinner with the family. Greece already has that welcome feeling that we experienced in the villages of Morocco. We explored the village on foot before a well needed bed.
This morning we walked down the hill to join the Voldomatis river as it continued it’s path from the gorge. We are in awe of the beauty of this region and the unspoilt wilderness. Today we followed a path 10km or so along the river edge. We met one other couple, seasoned Aussie walkers, who obviously knew all the worlds best places to walk. We couldn’t argue that this was one of them. Nina swam again. I chickened out again. We sat and looked at the amazing scenery around us, happy that we are here but sad that to think that most rivers in the world are polluted by industrial and human waste or bad agricultural practices. We’ve been drinking the water from this river for three days, we’ve walked it, we’ve watched the trout, the birds and the dragonflies. The banks are covered in trees, to the waters edge. Nobody is messing with this landscape and that’s why it’s thriving!