Arriving after a long ferry ride from the island of Naxos, I dashed through Athens, and hopped on the intercity train that heads north toward some of the greatest natural wonders found in this mythic land.
My aim was to explore the by ways and back roads of Greece, which reveal a world seldom seen by most tourists. After group tours of Greece’s famous sites with my class from the Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington, I took off on my own, in the spirit of adventure, to explore some of Greece’s lesser-known regions. I headed for the misty northwest corner of Epirus, to a seldom visited wilderness area known as the Vikos Aoos National Park.
I began my journey to the national park at the spectacular, ancient monasteries of Meteora, heading by bus to the town of Ioannina. From there, I boarded another bus for the mountain villages of Mikro and Megalo Papingo. About halfway there the bus started to wind its way through the Pindus Mountains, stopping at several small mountain villages along the way. As we approached the two Papingo villages, jagged peaks came into view and the countryside seemed more like Central Idaho than Greece. It was a cloudy day, and the mist partially engulfed the peaks that towered above a deep canyon called the Vikos Gorge.
The cute little mountain village of Mikro Papingo was the bus’ final stop. I found myself impressed by this quaint hamlet’s narrow, cobblestone streets, sidewalks and slate stone roofs. Most of the village’s old stone houses are summer homes of wealthy Greeks from the larger cities, but the village still gave off the feeling of another era, and the surrounding forest of ancient oaks added its own aura of antiquity.
It did not take me long to find lodging and I quickly became acquainted with the innkeeper, who doubled as a park ranger. Next I started to explore the surrounding countryside, an area of natural beauty comparable at once to the rugged backcountry of Central Idaho, the Chaparral areas of Southern California, and the lush canyons of West Virginia's Appalachian Mountains, all within a few miles. On one hike, I walked up one of the side canyons, near the village, and found a real treasure: a series of small waterfalls and crystal-clear pools that lined the canyon, surrounded by a lush forest of oaks and alders. The canyon wall was made up of layered limestone that reminded me of postcard scenes I have seen of West Virginia.
My original plan was to backpack into the park's wilderness, but, this being an usually wet June for Greece, I settled for a series of day hikes to, among other sites, the Vikos Gorge and a high-elevation, glacier-carved lake. The unusually wet spring blessed the area with an abundance of wild flowers that seemed to explode with color throughout the park’s numerous, small, meadowy glades. In the 20-plus years I have hiked throughout Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and other western states, I had never seen such a display or variety of wildflowers. The only species I recognized was a bright red poppy that seemed common in Greece.
The Vikos Aoos National park was, in fact, established to protect the rare flora and fauna of this region, which is comprised of the widest variety of highland trees in all of Europe. The park’s topography is no less spectacular; from the Vikos and Aoos gorges the Pindu mountains rise up over 8,000 feet. They are small in elevation, compared to the Rockies, Cascades or Sierra Nevadas, but every bit as wild and beautiful.
The park provides backcountry lodging in an old stone building known as “The Refuge,” though accommodation can also be found at the inns in Megalo or Mikro Papingo. The hike to the Refuge is steep and requires one to be in reasonable shape, but provides excellent views of the Pindus on the way up. A series of developed natural springs along the way provide cool refreshing mountain water.