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Hidden canyons and mountaintop monasteries in northern Greece

Set out on foot to explore Greece’s lesser-known north – this self-guided walking itinerary takes you from remote mountain villages to cliff-top monasteries, via the world’s deepest gorge
The 16th-century monastery Moni Agiou Rousanou, built upon sandstone pillars in World Heritage-listed Meteora



'I want you to try everything,’ says Elli Papageorgiou, emerging from the kitchen of her small café in the cobbled square of Kapesovo. She sets down a jug of sour cherry juice on a table heaving with food: cured sausage cut into rounds, fat green olives, garlic toasts heaped with tomatoes, and tiny cakes drenched in syrup. The jug lands with a clatter that startles a pack of sleeping dogs. ‘Besides, walkers need energy,’ she says. Philoxenia, meaning ‘love of a stranger’, isn’t just a word but a way of life in Greece – a deeply ingrained culture of hospitality that manifests, mostly simply, as an offering of food. Though the practice is perhaps a little strained in the popular islands, those who seek out the remote northern region of Zagorohoria tend to leave it as friends. For centuries footpaths were the sole routes connecting its 46 sandstone villages, and these ancient thoroughfares are still the most atmospheric way to get around. The area’s outstanding natural attraction, the Vikos Gorge – known as Greece’s Grand Canyon – can still only be explored on foot.

Kapesovo is one of the smallest of the picturesque grey-stone settlements, and offers a particularly warm welcome to walkers seeking a little RnR before they lace up their boots. Locals always find time to chat to visitors gathered at the pavement tables of Elli’s café, Sterna. While sitting in the shade of the village square’s giant plane tree with a glass of fiery local spirit tsipouro in hand, hours easily disappear.

Elli Papageorgiou collects vegetables from her kitchen garden. The dishes served at her family’s café in the village of Kapesovo make use of abundant local produce




At 900m deep, Zagori’s Vikos Gorge is so enormous, its scale can only be appreciated from certain vantage points. Locals agree that the best of them is the viewpoint at Beloï: the word itself, probably Slavic in origin, means ‘good view’. As well as this unbeatable perspective, the walk here from Kapesovo offers a taster of the sort of terrain you can expect on subsequent (and more challenging) linear walks. It begins with a steep climb up the Vradeto Steps, cut into limestone cliffs like Escher’s never-ending staircase. Many mules have made their way up this old trading route over the centuries, and like them I walk the thousand steps of its dry stone path ploddingly.

The walk fattens out, passing a cluster of beehives circled by an electric fence (intended to keep out honey-guzzling brown bears, not uncommon in this part of Greece) and a tiny, unlocked chapel. Inside, saints and angels with gold leaf halos preside over unlit tapered candles. In the village of Vradeto, frogs swimming in the water trough greet walkers refilling a bottle. After a final scramble through shadowy woodland, nature makes its big reveal: the chasm of the Vikos Gorge, filled with spooling mist, the dry riverbed snaking into the distance like the tail of a retreating beast.

Retracing my steps back to Kapesovo, I find the village preparing for a party: the Feast of the Prophet Elias, its patron saint. A grill set up under a canopy of vines is laden with kebabs, filling the air with smoke and the scent of lamb cooked over coal. Grownups chat over cans of Mythos beer while children play chase around the square. As the night wears on, the melancholy songs of the musicians grow gradually more upbeat. When the music has reached a jig-like intensity, the villagers abandon their seats and join hands, twisting at the hips as they dance in ever-larger circles. There’s no plate smashing but a man in his sixties breaks free of the group to dance first on some shot glasses, then inside a baking tray, to laughter and applause from the crowds.

Vikos Gorge is considered to be virgin territory and a haven for wildlife, including brown bears, wolves, wildcats and wild horses
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Find the complete article and many more in this issue of Lonely Planet - July 2016
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