Zagori: The land of bears and bridges
There is something thrilling about trekking along a path where a big brown bear has preceded you. The evidence that he’s been there is on the ground in front of you, if you get my meaning, and the chances are that he is watching you, waiting for you to pass.
By PETER DUNCAN – dailymail.co.uk
In the mountain valleys of the Zagori region in northern Greece there are plenty of bears and wolves, but you rarely see them. They are more fearful of us than we are of them.
People have been using these ancient stone paths for centuries, as for a long time it was the only way to navigate between the 46 villages scattered among the rolling hills and ridges.
Now there are roads, of course, but since the 1980s, local officials have been renovating these cobbled walkways as another means of connecting the villages.
The particular route the bear and I shared was called Skala Vradetou and led to Kapesovo, where in the village square a mature oriental plane tree loomed over the houses.
Nearby, I found a coffee shop called Sterna (sweet-house) built on the site of an old well, where a mother and daughter traded in locally grown produce.
Fruits, jams, lotions and potions, dried herbs and mushrooms were among the specialities in a sophisticated set-up that wouldn’t have looked out of place in London’s Covent Garden.
The iconic images of the Zagori region are the 92 arched stone bridges, often named after the person who built them, that cross the rivers and link the paths.
I thought I’d discovered a dilapidated 93rd when I went off track on a wild walk only to find it on the map later that night at my hotel.
There are many places to stay in this area – some elegant mansions in the traditional Zagorian style, and other more simple accommodation. There are good restaurants too, serving very tasty organic food in the larger villages.
According to the Guinness Book Of Records, at 2,950ft the Vikos Gorge is the deepest canyon in the world in proportion to its width. My plan was to walk the full length of it during my week-long stay in the region.
The night before my first eight-mile trek, I stayed in the village of Papigo. At 3,200ft, it lies on the slopes of a mountain range called Timfi.
Papigo is popular with mountaineers and runners as every July races including a mountain marathon take place.
Although it is perfectly safe to walk the gorge alone, it is always best to go with a friend or in group as you can always spread out and walk at your own pace knowing there is someone behind or in front of you.
I travelled with the Natural Adventure Company – it offers baggage transfers, which means you can stay at different guesthouses or hotels along the route and your luggage will be waiting for you when you arrive.
The first part of my descent into the canyon on the first day was fairly slow-going due to the steepness of the terrain.
Signposts led us past rockfalls and strange pointed towers whose creation is a mystery unless you are a geologist. There was a lushness about the valley too, and a sweet, fresh smell of pines and oaks filled my lungs.
At the bottom is the Voidomatis river that has helped carve the gorge over millennia. There, a rock pool of the clearest water you can imagine seemed to bubble up from the earth.
Although it was too cold to immerse myself completely, I had a quick splash about in the water before continuing my walk along the valley floor.
Our destination was the village of Monodendri, which we reached via a steep ascent along a well-maintained path. The walk at a steady pace had taken us eight hours.
If there is time at the end of the day, you can visit a new viewing platform at Oxia only a mile and a half from the village. At the top you can see along the valley where you have trekked.
There is a timeless quality to Zagori which may be due to its inaccessibility for so many years. Whichever country has claimed this territory as its own over the centuries – be it Turkey, Albania, Serbia or Greece – Zagorians have held on to their identity and traditions.
There is an abundance of nature but there is sophistication too. I cannot think of many places in the world close to the UK that feel so untainted by tourism. It is adventurous and comforting. Go before everyone else does.