Vikos Gorge is one of the very best places in Europe to hike. This part of Greece hasn`t changed in hundreds of years, in fact the modern world seems to have passed it by. It really is an amazing place for wildlife and hiking. Greece at its natural best!
The gorge lies in an area known as Zagoria. Which is in the region of Epirus, close to the border with Albania, in the north-west corner of Greece.
The capital town of Epirus is Ioannina which is a pretty lakeside town with a really interesting, old fashioned baazar.
The gorge is part of the Vikos-Aoos National Park, one of only ten national parks found on the Greek mainland. The park, created in 1973, covers an area of about 31,000 acres and is made up of Vikos Gorge, Aoos Gorge and part of the Pindus Mountains including Mount Tymfi. Aoos Gorge in the north, is seperated from Vikos Gorge by Mount Tymfi and it is on the southern slopes of this mountain that Vikos Gorge originates.
The Zagoria area has over forty small villages which collectively are called The Zagorohoria. They act more like one extended community rather than individual towns. All are connected to each other by a network of ancient paths and tracks. Modern roads didn`t reach here until the 1950`s.
The name Zagori originates from a Slav word meaning "behind the mountain." Which is incredibly apt.
Vikos has been listed in The Guinness Book of Records as the deepest gorge in the world. However, that is a judgement based on how a gorge is defined. Whatever the truth, Vikos has been created on a grand scale.
It is 12 miles long and at one point the gorge measures 1,100 metres from rim to rim and is over 900 metres deep.
The gorge was created by the errosive action of the River Voidomatis and lies in a general north-west to south-east direction.
The water flow of the river in the upper parts of the gorge is seasonal and it only becomes a year round flow lower down the gorge where a number of smaller tributaries and springs add to the amount of water.
The rocks of the region are mainly soft limestone overlaying a harder Grey Dolomite rock.
The River Voidomatis cut through the soft limestone, as have other smaller streams, many of which have permeated down through the soft rock only to re-appear as springs further down the gorge.
This action on the soft limestone has led to many fissures and deep caves. For example, a cave known as "The Ewes Cave" was discovered in 1965 and is 1,339 feet deep. Another cave, called "The Chasm of Epos" is 1,480 feet deep.
The villages of the Vikos Gorge, and the Zagoria area, have a very distinctive feel to them and all are generally built in the same style. Only local building materials were used and even today any newer building work must be made in the traditional way.
The heyday for the Zagoria was between the 17th and 19th centuries when many families left the area to make their fortunes in towns and cities elsewhere. Many then came back and spent their wealth building large mansions, these often resembled small forts rather than houses. Many of them are guest houses today.
The local villagers are often the direct descendants of two tribes of nomadic shepherds. One tribe were called the Vlachs and were thought to be descended from Roman colonists in Romania to the north. The other tribe were the Sarakatsani who were descended from the Ancient Greeks.
The people of the Vikos Gorge have long been renowned as herbal healers. So many herbs are to be found in the gorge that ancient recipes for curing illness have been handed down the generations. These medicines include the use of St. Johns Wort, Absinthe, Lemon Grass, Lemon Balm and Spearmint, all of which grow in profusion in the Gorge.
This wild and untouched part of Greece is the ideal habitat for many mammals which stay away from more densely populated areas. With only five people for every square kilometre, the area has become a refuge for many endangered species. This is one of the last places in Europe where you can find the Brown Bear. There are also wolves, foxes, wildcats and wild horses living in the Vikos-Aoos National Park.
In a small gorge called Megas Lakos, which runs off the main Vikos Gorge, lives the rare Balkan Chamois Deer. It is a lucky visitor who gets to see one, but they have been spotted.
As well as a wide variety of mammals, there are many birds of prey which have made their home in the Vikos Gorge. You can often see the Peregrine Falcon, the Egyptian Vulture and the Griffon Vulture.
One of the most interesting features to be found in Vikos Gorge are the incredibly beautiful "hump-backed" stone bridges. Some have only one arch, others have two or three. These bridges are to be found near the village of Kipi and are a "must see sight" for visitors to the gorge.
They were built in the 18th and 19th centuries by travelling builders working around the Balkan countries and into northern Greece. The bridges were built as part of the network of cobblestone paths linking one village to its neighbour. The cost of building them would be borne by a local wealthy family who would then have the bridge named after them. The triple arched bridge you see here is named Plakida and is downstream from the village of Kipi.
Although Vikos Gorge is situated in such a remote area it still attracts thousands of visitors a year They come to take part in activities such as mountain biking, rafting, climbing, canoeing and bird watching.
But it is hiking and enjoying the spectacular scenery that most people come for.
Hiking through the Vikos Gorge is not an easy walk. The terrain is extremely rocky and there are many steep climbs. It is advisable to wear and carry all the right gear.
If you intend to walk the whole gorge it is probably best to do it in two or three sections.
This may mean an overnight stay in the gorge. Often room reservations aren`t always neccessary. The people are incredibly friendly.
If you go to the nearest village square and ask for accommodation you will be directed to the nearest pension, guest house or small hotel.
The rooms will always be clean and comfortable. But don`t expect too much in the way of entertainment, most villages don`t even have a taverna. But you will still enjoy your visit.