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!

Praia da Ursa - Lisbon's best beach

Last year on a week long road-trip around Portugal with Joe and Emma, we discovered Praia da Ursa, my all time favourite beach. It’s special. In fact it’s so spectacular that I actually had a tough time deciding whether I should write this post.  Surely a beach this special should be kept a secret?

Luckily, I don't think it's for everyone. Access is treacherous, forget about "facilities" and it's  not easy to swim - the Atlantic's waves and currents can be really dangerous here.

From above, Praia da Ursa is barely visible.

We’d spent the day exploring Sintra’s Moorish Castle and were ready to find a quiet beach to enjoy the rest of the late autumn afternoon. We parked at the Cabo da Roca car park before setting off on the long trek to Praia da Ursa. If you're visiting in the Summer, don't rely on finding a space here - I've heard it gets crowded. The path to Praia da Ursa follows the headland for around half a mile before descending into a perilously steep scree-covered valley. The walk is incredibly scenic, just remember to look at where you're treading as well as at the view. Emma was wearing a pair of shiny, slippery flat shoes and almost slid to her death on multiple instances. I'd definitely recommend grippy shoes. Oh and travel insurance.

Once we reached the bottom of the valley we were greeted by an arch of golden sand bordered by a range of incredibly shaped limestone stacks. Discovering that we had the beach to ourselves, we stripped off and ran straight into the sea which was warm enough even in November!  We spent the next couple of hours swimming, running around like children and taking photos of the incredible sunset.

If you're ever in Lisbon, make sure you find some time to check out Praia da Ursa. Even though it's so close to the swarms of tourists at Cabo da Roca, it's really a world away. You won't be disapointed.

Even though it was November, it was still warm enough to swim

Praia da Ursa is only accessible by scrambling down a steep scree-covered slope

As the sun started to set it cast long shadows over the golden sand

Praia da Ursa is a short walk from Cabo da Roca which is Europe's most Westerly point.

 

How to spend half a day in Amsterdam

I recently found myself with a free morning in Amsterdam. 

After a week of gruelling 14 hour days at a conference I had a 6 hour oasis of free time before I needed to catch a train to Belgium where I planned meet some friends.  Sure this wasn’t exactly the ideal amount of time to explore Europe's most vibrant and liberal capital, but there’s a lot you can do in 6 hours!

Here are my top tips for how to spend half a day in Amsterdam:

Trying to look like a local.

Trying to look like a local.

1. Rent a bike

First things first - rent a bike! It’s undoubtedly the best, and most enjoyable way of getting around Amsterdam.  Cycling is the preferred method of transport for Amsterdam locals, so the roads are generally quiet, and cycling lanes abundant.  I was able to rent a bike for the morning for around 10 euros from the Yellow Bike rentals right next to my hotel. It was worth every cent. Amsterdam is a lot bigger than it appears on a map, so cycling saves you a lot of time and gives you a pretty unique perspective of the city.

2. Skip the big attractions

I know it’s tempting to visit Amsterdam’s biggest attractions, especially if it’s your first time there! While the Ann Frank House and Van Gogh Museum are must-sees, they almost always have waits of an hour or more, so much better suited to a longer stay in Amsterdam. On the morning I visited, both the Van Gogh Museum and Ann Frank House had lines trailing right round the block. 

3. Check out some of the lesser-known museums and galleries

Amsterdam is full of gems such as the Stedelijk Museum or Droog design studios. If you’re cut up about skipping the Van Gogh Museum, visit the Stedelijk. It's crammed full of everything from impressionist works  (including Van Gogh and Matisse) to more recent experimental pieces like Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube.

4. Discover Amsterdam's street art

Amsterdam boasts some incredible street art, and a great place to start is Spuistraat. Spuistraat is a street with a history of squatting and incredible graffiti. I parked up my bike, and wandered around the neighbourhood taking in the art before grabbing a quick coffee and pastry at one of the many alternative-style cafes.

5. Just explore!

Amsterdam is a great city to just explore without much of a plan (or even a detailed map). I could have happily spent a whole day cycling along the winding canal side streets. Let me know where your bike takes you.

A pop-up BBQ on Spuistraat - a great neighbourhood for street art, cafes and quirky shops.

Arman, Couleur Tracante , 1967 at the Stedelijk Museum.

A classic Amsterdam scene near the Red Light District.