Greek Journal Part XIV

Greek Journal: 5/13/2005-6/8/2005

Summary: DenveràLondonàAthensàLeptokaryaàLitochoroàMt. OlympusàLitochoro àKalambaka (Meteora) àIguominitsaàCorfu TownàCorfu TrailàIguominitsaàZorganian Villages, Vikos Gorge and Mt. AstrakaàAthensàLondonàDenver


6/5/2005: Mikro Popingo and Astraka: The Vikos Gorge represented the first leg of one o the thirty “Worlds Greatest Treks” according to our trekking bible by the same name.  We decided to do leg two and possibly three if my foot holds together.  To get to our trail head we had to travel by car to the Papingo Villages a couple of hours away.  Mikro Popingo is one of the most beautiful and best preserved Zagorian villages in the Pindos.  

We left the Zarkada Manor House in Monodendri early this AM noting that we had about 1/3 tank of gas and making the assumption that we could fill up somewhere on the way.  After an hour of driving we came to our turn off to the Papingos and the last and only town we had seen.  The town looked lively enough, but an inventory of businesses came up with one café, two gift shops and no gas station.  I asked a gentleman who was sitting in the courtyard at the café sipping Greek coffee where we could get gas.  There was a simple answer with a long and relevant history.  The Zagorian Villages had survived over 800 years of foreign, often hostile, occupation, and had come through all of this relatively untouched and unchanged.  Their survival was the result of their inaccessibility to the outside world.  Mountain paths and Zagorian bridges, not roads, have been their means of travel for several hundred years and the people of the northern Pindos, as well as the country of Greece take pride in preserving as much of their past as possible.  The short answer to the question was, “there is no gas in Zagoria and the closest petrol is about 40 km down the mountain”.

From this small village it was possible to see a good deal of our path ahead.  The road disappeared in to the Aoos Ravine and then climbed 20 switch backs on the other side up to Megalo and Mikro Papingo, the gateway to the Nikos-Aoos National Park, and our goal.  With a bit less than a ¼ tank of gas in our micro-mini car we had to decide if we could make it over and back and another 40 km to a station.  After carefully analyzing the situation and making the assumption we could coast the down hills both ways, we went for it.

We coasted in to the valley and drove 15 mph up the other side and made it to Mikro Papingo.  To our amazement there were a line of cars parked along the road to the village.  Unlike Colorado where you expect to see full parking lots at trail heads, in Greece we rarely encountered any other trekkers.  The mystery was soon not a mystery.  Two factors accounted for the automobiles: (1) There were no roads in to town so that all the people who lived there parked their cars outside of town and (2) it was Sunday and people from town as well as the countryside were attending the Greek Orthodox church in Mikro Papingo.  

As soon as you walk in to town you can tell that village was planned as a unit.  The narrow cobble stone paths seamlessly connect to the rock walls that line the paths.  At regular intervals planters are built in to the base of the walls so that grape vines can grow up the walls and across the trellises in order to create shade for the people walking through town. 

In five minutes we were through town and on the trail to Astraka.  Springs with fresh water were located intermittently along the trail up from town.  About 2,000 ft up we passed tree line and entered an area of large open slopes and high meadows.  There were flocks of golden sheep accompanied by herders.  We came to the branch in the trail to take us to the summit of Astraka 3,000 ft above and since we were feeling good and making good time we branched off and headed for the peak.  



Left: The summit of Astraka sits about 4,000 ft over head in the left upper corner of the picture.  Our path to the summit is through the cliffs in the center and is much less clear.

Below: Astraka summit from further up the trail














The path became less definite as we went and was only marked by yellow paint on an occasional rock (shades of Corfu).  Our trail was steep, but the sky was crystal clear blue and the varied and brilliant wild flowers on the slopes pulled us forward.  






Not having seen anyone in several hours we were surprised to encounter two men standing in a small meadow about 4,000 ft up from the trail head.  They were from the World Wild Life Federation (WWF) and were stationed in Mikro Popingo specifically to monitor a group of wild mountain sheep that had lived on Astraka for a few hundred years.  We were told that if we were very quiet we might see the sheep family.  We floated silently up the slope, with the exception of continual grunting and gasping, but the stealth sheep were no where to be found.












Magenta wildflowers tucked in the limestone crags high on Astraka











Forty five minutes after leaving our WWF friends we finally made the summit of Astraka.  Our 360 degree view revealed large snow fields, surrounding peaks and a view all the way to Albania.  We snacked, snapped a few pictures and then mentally prepared ourselves for the decent. It had taken four and half hours of steady hiking to get up and we anticipated nearly the same time for the return.  

About eight and half hours after leaving our car in the morning we were back at our car in Mikro Papingo and just a little worse for wear.  Behind us was one the top 10 hikes I had ever taken and it was easy to see why the Vikos Gorge and Astraka had earned a place in the 30 most beautiful treks on the planet.  In front of us was another adventure, getting to civilization with out running out of gas.  

On the summit of Astraka


The 20 switch back descent in to Aoos Gorge was no problem.  We just coasted.  We crept back up the other side and made it to the pass that descended to the low lands of Ionina.  I was sure that at any second the car would cough and die, but it didn’t.  We made it to a gas station, gassed up, ate at a little town and headed for the port of Igouminitsa where would catch our bus the next morning for Athens.


6/8/2005: Athens, Greece:  We caught the bus out of Igouminitsa yesterday morning and a mere 10 hours later was dropped off in downtown Athens.  From there took the underground to the airport arriving about 10 PM.  Our flight didn’t leave until 6 AM the next morning, but we had decided that rather than get lodging for a few hours and then find transportation to the airport at 4 AM we would just lodge on the floor at the terminal.  Other than a very uncomfortable night all went well and we made our flight and connection to London and then on to LA and finally Denver.


After thoughts:  Greece is a wonderful country to experience the full spectrum of experiences in a variety areas.  With in one city, with in one day, you can see the best of ancient civilization and some of the worst of modern civilization.  With in a span of 12 miles in a single day you can swim in the Aegean Sea and stand on top of the highest pint in the same country.  We spent two weeks walking through ancient olive groves, along quiet beaches, over coastal mountains and staying in comfortable sea side resorts and with in a day were able to ferry and drive in to some of the wildest and most remote areas of Europe.

While the Greek people were challenging and frustrating at times, at our greatest times of need total strangers stepped up and extended us uncommon kindness and assistance.  We always felt safe and the level of adventure was just about right for a Greek vacation.

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