Beyond the beach: why Greece is the perfect destination for fall hikes

As the hot, dry Mediterranean summer slides into autumn, we turn our backs on the sea, in the mountains. From Thessaloniki, capital of Central Macedonia, we walk along Mount Olympus, above which lightning pits loose and backpacking skies – not a good omen for our long weekend walk. The sky opens and the wipers flow for a three hour drive along the deserted highway, the Ignatia Odos, west to the heart of Epirus.

The EU-funded motorway is a feat of engineering with seventy-six tunnels and over a thousand bridges. Completed in 2014, it parallels, in part, the ancient Via Egnatia, built by the Romans two centuries before the birth of Christ. In Greece, you never quite get used to these extraordinary juxtapositions of the old and the contemporary.

Soon we are transported across the great plains of Thessaly, rolling wheat fields hitting the foothills of the Pindus Mountains. We pass billboards celebrating that these hills are still home to brown bears, then beyond the gateway town of Metsovo, off the highway now, we finally push into the Zagori, the name derived from Slavic words meaning “the place behind the mountains.” The sense of seclusion grows as we pass waterfalls and crumbling farmhouses, around hairpin bends that overlook arched Ottoman bridges.

Aristi, one of the 46 villages that make up Zagori, is surrounded by wood smoke as we approach. The sound of sheep bells echoes around the hillsides. In the main square are the obligatory giant plane trees under which all the life of the Greek mountain villages takes place, and around it are the school, the church and, above all, the tavern, In Aristi. There, the owner and his family wait for tables on weekends, offering snapshots of tsipouro and the grass pitté, or pies, which are a taste of the region’s memorable comfort food.

A tavern in the Aristi village square
The En Aristi tavern in the village square of Aristi © Camera Press / Laurent Fabre / Fig

Aristi Mountain Resort offers a warm welcome with wood-burning stoves or open fireplaces in traditional stone houses

A roaring fire in a room at the Aristi Mountain Resort

The resort formed a base for exploring the surrounding peaks and canyons on foot

Walk around the resort, made up of a series of traditional stone houses

A few steps away, Aristi Mountain Resort offers the most cozy hotel option in Zagori: rooms with wood-burning stoves or open fireplaces spread over a series of traditional stone houses, with spa and indoor swimming pool. It will be a base for my three friends and I as we explore the surrounding peaks and canyons on foot. There is a storybook quality to the place; When you step out of your own rosemary-fringed front door on an autumn morning, it’s like stepping out through the back of a cupboard into a dreamy landscape.

Rather than taking a guide, we rely on maps to plot our own routes, and the first afternoon, we follow a white limestone road that threads through the village and ends up on the wild hill. It leads to a single track bridge that crosses the crystal clear waters of the Voidomatis. You can follow this path for several hours; in front of the frescoed 17th century Spiliotissa Monastery, Stone Age caves and a ruined chapel. We walk along white river beaches to the graceful Ottoman-era arched bridge in Kleidonia. In winter, the view of the clear water opens as the trees shed their leaves, revealing the snow deposited on the jagged summit of Astraka.

It is still too early for the snow during our visit, but the morning after our arrival the summits reveal themselves slowly and alluring, through the veils of mist; a sensational backdrop to our breakfast table. From the second espresso, the sun’s rays pour out like honey in the darkest folds of the valley. On the first full day of our long weekend, we decide to take the plunge and explore the Vikos Gorge, often presented as the deepest in the world, relative to its width.

The arched bridge of Voidomatis, near Kleidonia
Kleidonia Arch Bridge © Getty Images / iStockphoto

The old paving stone kalderimi, or mule track, descends in a zigzag way from the village of Monodendri to the bottom of the valley, passing in front of the imposing residences of former merchants. At the bottom of the gorge, we avoid the banks of scree and schist, following the bed of the river, which is dry despite the recent rains. Under the rows of imposing planes, limestone rocks, polished by the seasonal torrents, are strewn as tossed about by the giants of classical mythology. We lose track of the cairns we follow and are instead drawn to the sound of the water, which echoes through the steep-sided canyon.

Finally, we arrive at the sources of Voidomatis, where the water is always icy, even in midsummer. The blue-green mineral pools are pure enough to drink and certainly to swim, which we do, then warming us up in the sun pouring through the branches of the deciduous forests that line the lower part of the gorge. In this cool, green and silent world, the lichens hang like bracelets from the branches of the charm and the moss under the feet creates a bouncy, sometimes slippery tread.

The sources of the Voidomatis River in the Vikos Gorge, listed as the deepest gorges in the world by the Guinness Book of Records
The sources of Voidomatis, at the foot of the Vikos gorges © Alamy

Above us is the 18th century church of Theotokos Koimesis, abandoned although its frescoes are intact, and entered (we will find out later) through a low door that forces you to bow down and humble yourself before God. . In October, the surrounding plateau is full of wild flowers. Wild cyclamen, which appear to miraculously bloom from bare rock, were prized for their purgative powers by the eighteenth-century shaman doctors of Vikos, the Vikogiatroi. Much of their knowledge of the plants in this unique ecosystem has unfortunately long been lost, but the enthusiastic consumption of ironwort tea as a panacea is still part of the culture.

The doctor-shamans, like the bridge-builders and secret stonemasons of the region, formed self-protecting guilds and communicated in a private language, to prevent the secrets of their trades from being stolen. Zagori’s isolation worked in its favor during the time of the Ottoman sultans who allowed the region a certain autonomy. It prospered from Metsovo’s trade along the Silk Road to Thessaly, Constantinople, the Black Sea and beyond. Napoleon’s fleet in Trafalgar even wore coats woven from Zagori sheep wool, according to local guide Joshua Barley of travel company The Slow Cyclist, which is a wealth of information.

The more than 1,000 cobblestone stairs on the mountainside leading to the village of Vradeto
Over 1,000 cobbled steps climb up the mountainside to the village of Vradeto © Alamy

From the sources, we follow the marked path that leads us out of the Vikos gorges, pushing to reach the small village of Mikro Papingo. On the terrace of Cafe Pinocchio, we sit and enjoy cold beers, bread and sheep cheese, looking back in exhausted and happy contemplation as the sun sets over our throats. We have covered about 14 km from Monodendri, and nearly 1000 meters of elevation gain.

From our terrace belvedere, we plan hikes for the coming days that will join the points between some of the other beautiful villages in the region: to Lake Drakolimni, on a high ridge at more than 2000 meters above sea level, or in down the valley to the ancient trading bridge of Missios, or perhaps to tackle the more than 1,000 cobbled stairs that climb up the mountainside to the village of Vradeto, the highest in the region. It is an alternative Greece, revealing and haunting in autumn and winter, a world apart from the Mediterranean coastline, sunny and sociable beaches.

Details: Aristi mountain station offers double rooms from around € 140 per night. The slow cyclist offers tailor-made trips by electric bike and on foot in Zagori; the classic Rupert Smith (theeviaschool.com) guide to trips through the region on foot and by car. For rafting, biking and other guided mountain adventures, contact Hellas Trekking

More Greek hikes

Chozoviotiza monastery on Amorgo

Chozoviotiza monastery on Amorgo © Alamy

Naxos and Amorgos Much less developed than neighboring Santorini and Mykonos, these two Cycladic islands are ideal for walking. On Foot Holidays organizes tailor-made self-guided trips, traveling by ferry between the islands. Highlights include the temple of Sangri on Naxos, thought to be from the 6th century BC, and the monastery of Chozoviotiza on Amorgos, clinging to the cliff above the Aegean Sea. From £ 655 per person per week; trips take place between April and October; onfootholidays.co.uk

Evia In the south of the island of Evia, Exodus organizes guided winter hikes along the coast and in remote mountain villages, with visits to a Roman quarry and Byzantine churches and an ascent of Mount Kliosi. The walk during the week-long trip is leisurely – typically covering about six miles a day before returning to the same simple seaside hotel. From £ 1,149 per person, next departure on November 28; private guided excursions can also be arranged; exode.fr

Mount olympus The House of the Gods, the top of Mount Olympus itself, is the focus of a KE Adventure guided group hike. The week-long trip heats up among the sandstone towers of Meteora, with time to visit two of the “floating” monasteries atop the mountain, before storming into Olympus from 2,917 meters. Accommodation is in guest rooms and mountain huts; trips are scheduled for June, September and October next year, starting at £ 1,145 per person; keadventure.com


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