We were led to the Zagori region of Greece, near the Albanian border, by a simple sidebar in our copy of Lonely Planet’s “Eastern Europe.” It gave a brief description of the region and then said don’t miss it, particularly for it’s amazing gorges, and especially 12 kilometer (or about 8 mile) long Vikas Gorge. The Guinness Book of World Records states that Vikas is the world’s deepest gorge at 900 meters, or 2950 feet, and only 1100 meters or 3600 feet across at its narrowest. One can argue that certainly the Grand Canyon of the southwestern United States is deeper, but we are really quibbling with the difference between a ‘gorge’ and a ‘canyon.’ Suffice it to say that it is devastatingly deep.
Having read a bit about what it is like to walk its length, we quickly ruled that kind of attempt out. We were not equipped with the proper gear, particularly serious hiking boots, and Dave’s lame and cranky hips would take more than a little light oiling to work sufficiently for such a trek. But we did manage a descent to the bottom and return to the top, which we will tell you about a bit later.
But let us tell you a little about the region’s history and towns first. For eons this was such a rugged and wooded area that very little human habitation took place. When that finally started occurring, in the 11th or 12th century A.D., it was occupied by nomadic shepherds who moved their sheep and goats from high summer meadows to those at lower elevations in the winter since much of the whole area is snow covered for that colder season. Over the course of this time they developed paths which crisscross the region, sometimes descending into the gorges to cross them, sometimes weaving around the gorges as best is possible to avoid the descents and climbs.
Then trade began as outsiders came in offering their goods, and the nomads began settling into villages, developing their own goods worthy of trade, and moving between villages to propagate that trade. And over time their villages grew, the commonly used paths were paved with stone, and bridges were built to cross the rivers, often raging with waters pouring down from the mountains above.
Their towns utilized the building material available–stone, infinite stone! So not only are their ‘streets’ and walls made of stone
but their roofs as well.
This is nearly universally true and the only exceptions are structures built in the last hundred years where red tile roofs are sometimes used.
The towns are almost always riveted into the sides of the mountains instead of in the valleys below
and all have a rather common design. Central to the village is a square with a church and a spring-fed fountain. The squares almost inevitably contains a large, aged tree, often of three hundred or more years old.
Inevitably present as well are at least one but frequently more tavernas serving drink and food, though given the weather and the time of year business was dreadfully slow when we were there.
While most of the homes are entirely of stone, there are some which show an Ottoman influence in their use of second story wooden additions which often contain bedrooms where families generally slept together close to a fire in the long, cold winter.
Sadly, however, the common impression we had of the villages was that their inhabitants had largely left. There were no young people; there were very few people out and about; much of the buildings were in a state of decay and if there was restoration or new construction going on it was, we were told, from wealthy Greeks from Ioannina and other cities to the south to use as summer cottages. Most common was desolation and the edges of the villages disappearing back into the wild overgrowth.
On a bit of a lighter note, let us tell you a bit about our long descent from the town of Vitsa to the bottom of the fearsome Vikas Gorge and back.
Here is a view of the gorge from the point where we had walked down out of Vitsa and were finally into the countryside with the descent in front of us.
Some of the path was stone in that traditional Zagori style with one track up the middle and a ‘shoulder’ on each side. This is most obvious in the earlier photo of the street and walls of the town we stayed in, Monodendri. At least when in a village, the ‘shoulders’ would appear to be added to accommodate wagons and carts. When out in the country we encountered just the central path, suitable to people, horses and donkeys.
A little lower we entered a long wooded area and continued down.
Closer to the bottom but still well above we walked next to a wall for a considerable distance.
Having walked for literally miles on these paved paths, not only in our descent to the bottom of the gorge but all over these mountains, we were continually amazed by the amount of work which went into their paving, usually in the 17th and 18th centuries.
When we finally reached the bottom we found that other amazing construction phenomenon of the region, the stone bridge. In this case it was the Misius Bridge, built in 1748 when Greece was still under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
That’s Dave atop the bridge giving the Richard Nixon two handed farewell victory sign.
There are over three hundred stone bridges in the Zagori, each an amazing feat given the primitive setting of most of them. This is the biggest one, in a narrow spot in the gorge between sheer walls of at least 500 feet in height.
Not all, of course, are of such grand scale. Here is one more typical of the smaller bridges still critical to movement across the mountainous and gorge riven area.
And here is the only triple arched bridge.
Finally, here is a closeup of the surface of one of the bridges itself. Note its roughness and the stacked rock along the edge to help prevent falls.
We’re real sorry but we are including none of the photos of our climb back up out of the gorge. We wouldn’t describe it as a struggle, but it was certainly a challenge and we exchanged high fives and shared several beers at the top.
We also spent a good deal of our time in the Zagori just driving from one town or settlement to another across really beautiful country.
Sometimes the roads themselves provided a few twists and turns.
We encountered many monasteries along the way, our favorite being a nunnery called the Monastery of Evaggelistria on the outskirts of the village of Ano Pedina. The interior of its church was just amazing for the vividness and profusion of its frescoes which literally covered nearly every bit of the walls and ceiling.
Outside it had the usual flowers we found in nunneries everywhere, unlike the rather stark male monasteries.
On the left is the church itself; the building in the background is that housing the monastic cells of the nuns.
Often our route was blocked for a few minutes by sheep, goats, or as in this case, dairy cows.
We came away from the region with a number of new friends, among them Jan and Judy from the Czech Republic, who found a quicker and easier solution around this sort of blockade.
And finally, we had our own sort of ‘blockade,’ a flat tire caused by running Rocky into the sharp edge of a stone curb.
That’s Dave and Marios, our wonderful innkeeper in Monodendri, trying to yank the spare tire out from its carrier under the car.
Here’s a shot of Marios under much better circumstances in front of his family’s lovely hotel and restaurant.
We finally drove down the mountains and out of the Zagori, but with more than a little regret. It is such a uniquely beautiful and dramatic region and far enough off the usual Greek tourist locations to have a delightful quiet stillness about it.