"Upwards and Downwards, One and the Same"--Heraclitus
BY Janet McGiffin
In the 6th century BC, the philosopher Heraclitus said, "A road is, upwards and downwards, one and the same." Those who have hiked the Vikos Gorge will say this description fits perfectly. Even with the varied terrain and vistas, anywhere one walks or points a camera is the same wild beauty, changing and not changing season after season.
Ask any Greek to name five beautiful gorges of Greece and the first response will be "The Vikos."* This quick name recognition may be because the bear and wild boar protected in the Vikos Aoos National Park wander out occasionally to feast on farm animals and get on the nightly TV News. The Vikos Gorge also borders popular Greek ski areas and area hotels are full during snow season.
But for hikers, the Vikos Gorge comes first because of its beautiful interconnecting footpaths of many levels of expertise that link stone villages tucked into folds of mountains. And a cool breeze that drifts through the tree-shaded Vikos gorge makes it possible to hike all summer, even when the rest of Greece is baking under blazing August sun. By the end of August, the Vikos Gorge is already tasting the crisp nights of autumn and the maples, beech, fig, and oak trees along Greek National Trail #03 that follows the Vaidomatis River through the gorge are ablaze with color.
The Vikos Gorge lies in the North Pindus Mountains in the historic area of Epirus, 30 odd kilometers north of Ioannina and 24 miles from the Albanian border. The area, called the Zagori, has 44 villages called the Zagorohoria. The 12-kilometer gorge itself can be hiked in two or three parts: Monodendri north to Vikos; Vikos to Papingo, and Monodendri south to Kipi and its lovely arched stone bridges.
Part of the pleasure of hiking the gorge comes from the long journey to get there. A car trip from Athens to Ioannina takes seven hours with an advised overnight in Ioannina to enjoy this lakeside town with its Ottoman-flavored bazaar and inexpensive eateries rimming the lake. The Archeological Museum is not to be missed as the exquisite displays of ancient glass and bronze work provide a quick sense of this part of Greece, inhabited for six thousand years. During the Roman and Byzantine eras, the road to Rome from Constantinople, the "Egnatia," ran through Ioannina and today the new East-West highway, the Egnatia Odos, follows much the same route.
After Ioannina, it's only 16 kilometers to the first villages of the Zagori. The mountain road is steep, narrow, and winding. Local drivers tear around hairpin curves leaving little space for oncoming traffic. On one recent journey, a helicopter was picking a bicyclist out of a canyon-a miscalculation of brakes and curve.
By bus from Athens, the journey requires calculation to connect with the smaller buses to the Zagori. Long-distance (KTEL) buses leave Athens Bus Terminal A (Kifissou Street) nearly every hour starting at 6 am. The trip is approximately seven hours with a spectacular crossing of the new bridge at Rio. Buses can be packed with Albanians making bus connections in Ioannina for the Albanian border so arrive at the station early if you need to make a connecting bus to the Zagori.