Zagoria, Greece's hidden wilderness

Forget the island hopping and hordes of tourists; we decided to head to Zagoria, an unspoilt mountain wilderness tucked away in northwestern Greece. 

When you hear about trips to Greece the most obvious destinations are islands such as Crete or Corfu, or perhaps city breaks to Athens or Thessaloniki. For the most part, mainland Greece is largely ignored by foreign visitors.

Recently, Joe and I embarked on a road trip hoping to explore some of Greece’s less travelled roads. For the first leg of this trip we spent 4 nights in the Vikos-Aoös National Park (map) in the Zagori region of Northwestern Greece. We spent our days hiking in the mountains, and swimming in remote rivers and eating delicious local food.

We flew into Thessaloniki and spent a night there before hitting the road in our battered Peugeot convertible. Getting to the Zagori region from Thessaloniki is a relatively uncomplicated three to four hour drive. Within an hour of leaving Thessaloniki the traffic had thinned out and we were leaving the expanse of a vast plane and heading into the mountains. 

Metsovo

It’s possible to reach the Vikos-Aoös National Park in three hours if you choose to drive non-stop, but we stopped off in the small alpine town of Metsovo (map). Sadly on the day we visited, Metsovo was blisteringly hot and overwhelmed by vast crowds of Greek and Balkan coach tours. I really hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come! After a brief lunch of souvlaki and salad we decided to skip Metsovo and press on to Zagoria.

Dilofo

We stayed in a small guesthouse named Aithrio with our wonderful host, Olga in the tiny village of Dilofo (map). Dilofo is without a doubt one of the most charming and well preserved villages in the Zagori region. This is partly because it’s impossible to drive a car through it’s extremely narrow cobbled alleyways, and partly because almost everyone who was born in Dilofo seems to have deserted it. An ex-local who had returned for the summer told us over a carafe of local (and surprisingly palatable) wine that there are now only six full time residents in the village. Sadly, most residents have left for work, and only return for the summer. This lends the village an eery, slightly ramshackle charm.

At the centre of Dilofo is a giant sycamore tree surrounded by a paved square and a wonderful taverna. We ate there most nights. The BBQ spit roast mutton was just too good to pass up, and the tzatziki was the best I’ve ever tasted. Thick, creamy, and properly garlicky. Dinner always evolved into drinks with the owners and other locals. By the end of our stay we knew pretty much everyone living or in the village, (as well as the feral horses which passed through the square each evening). Even though we were there for less than a week, we felt like we were part of the community.

 Bridge of Kokkori ( map ) - one of Zagoria's many traditional arched bridges.

Bridge of Kokkori (map) - one of Zagoria's many traditional arched bridges.

Hiking Vikos Gorge

The main focus of the Vikos-Aoös National Park is the vast, world-record-holding, twenty kilometre long Vikos Gorge. It’s utterly mesmerising. 

While it is possible to walk the entire length of the gorge, it’s an 8 hour one way hike with no transport links at each end, so we opted instead to walk a portion of it. We set off from the village of Vikos (map) at the head of the gorge. The walk starts with a steep descent into the gorge. The views are simply spectacular, and it’s easy to miss the incredible views walking down a valley covered in wild herbs. sage, oregano and lemon balm. We made slow progress as Joe kept stopping off to pick figs from precariously hanging fig trees.

At the foot of the valley there is a small disused monastery perched on the banks of a deep azure coloured river which appears from nowhere out of the river bed around two hundred metres upstream. We spent a few hours lounging on the riverbank and daring each other to jump into the icy cold water before continuing our hike.

On our return we met a badly prepared Australian couple in their fifties, who had decided to walk the eight hour one way hike in trainers with a single bottle of water. At the top we shared a beer with them and discovered they were also staying in Dilofo. We offered them a lift back to Dilofo before remembering our Peugeot only had two seats. Somehow though, and with a lot of contortion all four of us managed to cram into the tiny car. When we arrived back in Dilofo they invited us to dinner at Dilofo’s more upmarket restaurant. The food was superb, and the views beautiful, but the cheaper taverna is better and more authentic.

Beloi lookout and waterfalls at Iliochori

If you don’t fancy a day long hike, there are still plenty opportunities to take in the incredible views of Vikos gorge. Beloi lookout (map) is around a two kilometre walk from the small village of Vradeto and offers some of the most spectacular views of Vikos Gorge (provided you don’t suffer from vertigo).

The village of Vradeto is also home to one of the best tavernas in the area. As far as the internet is concerned, it doesn’t seem to exist. If you do find it, I’d recommend the stuffed baked peppers and filo pasty pies with local ‘horta' herbs (wild mountain greens).

lunch at vradeto taverna

After lunch in Vradeto, we drove North, towards Albania in search of a waterfall our host Olga recommended to us. As we drove North the landscape gradually transitioned into a mountainous, forested wilderness. It didn’t feel like Greece at all.

The waterfalls at Iliochori (map), a sleepy, all but deserted mountain village, are not easy to find. You have to follow a steep path down through the villages vegetable gardens, past a precariously perched monetary and down a trail which is more of a landslide than a path. The waterfalls are worth it though, we spent the rest of the day cooling off in the pool underneath the waterfall. It was the perfect way to cool down after a hot day.

Zagoria, (and specifically Dilofo) was an incredibly difficult place to leave; because of the wonderful hospitality, great food and wonderful views. As we left Olga gave us local wine and a packed lunch to take with us - we then headed off to Meteora

If you visit, my only advice would be to stay for longer than 4 days!