Home Uncategorized Exploring the Wonders of the Vikos Aoös National Park

Exploring the Wonders of the Vikos Aoös National Park

by Roberto
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One of Europe’s last great wildernesses, the Vikos Aoös National Park is beset with a string of natural and man made wonders. Yet to suffer a tourist boom, it offers a chance to explore a unique virtually untouched landscape.

This wild national park tucked away in the historical region of Epirus of Northern Greece is not one that immediately screams out when you look at a map of Europe or Greece. Frankly it’s not one I had even heard of, before I had booked my flights to Greece. I was travelling to visit Meteora, and with a day to spare I took to the map. That large green area in the north of Greece certainly looked inviting. A little bit of zooming in and the Vikos Aoos National Park stood out from all that was around it in the Pindus Mountains. Why? The region contained the promise of the worlds deepest gorge, and a string of monasteries and stone bridges scattered over the landscape. Sold.

On reflection it’s an area that requires more than the day I afforded it. I would suggest an overnight stay to sample the areas finest hiking, and visit its best viewpoints. Of course its true of just about anywhere, but there is much more here than meets the eye initially. So I hope to guide you to both that seen and unseen by me in this part of Greece.


How to get to Vikos Aoos National Park

The hardest part of visiting. Located some 450 km (5 hours) from Athens and 290 km from Thessaloniki, Vikos is in Zagori and is not designed for day trips. No obvious route by bus or train exists from either. So that leaves driving as the only option on how to get to Vikos Gorge. Or hitchhiking. Of course there is a third option, and that’s travelling here from Meteora. My option.

An arduous 135 km spin took me over the mountainous northern lands of Greece, before I finally reached the Vikos Aoos National Park. The trip took well over 2 hours, and I would suggest Ioannina as a base for an overnight stay. The roads are a real test of driving skills, and if you aren’t comfortable with steep drops, narrow roads, and driving on the left, I suggest you give someone else the keys. My years and experiences of driving in Europe served me well. One road on the route had metal shards protruding from manholes, which I had to drive zigzag through to avoid a blowout. Thanks for the short cut Google Maps!

I did catch a nice sunset on the way back though

Even from Ioannina, its a sharp assent into the mountains. You can expect anything along the way as is common in national parks, the local farm life was on the road on several occasions. However what awaited me at the end was worth every spilled bead of sweat. The Vikos Aoös National Park is a designated UNESCO Geopark, and fully deserving of the accolade.

Vikos Aoös National Park
Holding up the road. What a cow.

Climate of Vikos Aoös National Park

The climate of the area varies drastically over the year. Summers are Mediterranean with temperatures exceeding 40 Celsius at times, while winters veer continental with sub zero temperatures and frequent snowfall. The best months to visit are the shoulder months, from April to June, and September to November. Care should be taken of melting snow early in the year, especially in higher altitudes and around rivers.

forests of Zagori. Vikos Aoös National Park
View across the forests of Zagori

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Village of Monodendri

Perhaps the first stop on the route of many in these parts is Monodendri. This sleepy village is located 1060 metres above sea level, and 41 kilometres from Ioannina in the northern part of the park. Parking is best on the outskirts near the grocery store, and what lays beyond is a stone village trapped in time. Grass covered stone paths climb up to houses in the hills beyond. Monodendri’s centre is a sleepy square, in the shadow of a huge plane tree. Just off the square is the Hotel Arktouros, a suggested option for those looking to stay. For me, it was all about its cafe, where I picked up a delicious baklava. My sweet tooth was satisfied, and I had some welcome energy to walk around the area.

 

There are a number of worthwhile attractions before you leave the village. Just off the main square the Church of Saint Athanasius has beautiful murals, and nearby a modern amphitheater can be visited that plays host to summer shows hosted by the Monodendrites.


Always thinking of my belly, I returned to Monodendri just in time for lunch. It’s hard not to recommend the pork on the spit at Kikitsa’s Pie. For just €8.50 (yep that’s all) you get some delicious pork steak, chips, salad, and a free dessert. If that’s not a wonder, I don’t know what is. They also offer chicken on a spit, and are known best for their mushroom pie.

Kikitsa’s Pie, Monodendri

The Convent of Agia Paraskevi

Less than a kilometres walk from Mondendri lies this convent. Founded in 1412 the monastery served as such until 1778 when it became a convent. I saw no signs it was still inhabited, but much of the building wasn’t accessible, and nuns don’t generally like to hang out. While the monasteries stone structures itself are nice if unspectacular, its setting is anything but. Backed up on cliffs, it hangs on the edge of the Vikos Gorge, our primary reason for travelling here.

Convent of Agia Paraskevi, Vikos Gorge

Vikos Gorge

As I’ve mentioned the Vikos Gorge is the world’s deepest gorge. While that doesn’t mean its deeper than the Grand Canyon for example, it is recognised by the Guinness book of records as being the world’s deepest relative to its width. The gorge runs from Mount Tymfi, whose highest peak is 2500 metres, for around 20 km (12 miles). The depth of the gorge ranges from 450 metres to 1600 metres at its deepest, and is no more than 400 metres wide at the top. In places its only a matter of metres wide. That adds up to an impressive sight, especially that first one from the convent.

Vikos Gorge
Overlooking the gorge from the monastery

Wandering from the convent you can literally walk to the unprotected edge. The drop is fear inducing, as far below the Voidomatis river snakes its way through the gorge, the architect of what you see before you. The river bed lay dry at this mature time of the year. Yellow crocus flowers grow wild on the cliff around, adding their own colourful effect to the scene. If I haven’t painted a picture that what I saw was beautiful then perhaps some photos will help.

Paths from the monastery lead along this section of the gorge. They continued along the rock face and entered a precipice beyond. The limits of my courage meant it would remain a mystery where it led. Let me know if you find out?

Vikos Gorge
Only a small section of the gorges walls. They went up and down 100’s of metres past this

Hiking the Vikos Gorge

One limitation of my time in the national park, was my inability to tackle its various hikes unfortunately. Returning to Monodendri, take the path by Church of Saint Athanasius, which leads down to the start of the gorge trail. The hike is a 9 km hike and descends to the gorge floor, following its path, before the eventual accent to the town of Vikos, from where the area gets its name.

Classed as a moderate to difficult hike, it is indeed an endurance test for the five or six hours on the path. The descent into the gorge is close to 1000 metres on both ends. However a much bigger problem though for anyone wishing to tackle the hike, is the lack of any public transport when you get to Vikos. The only route to Monodendri is either back through the gorge, or over 20 km of roads. The most common solution to this problem is to book a taxi from Vikos, which is said to cost around €20 back to Monodendri.

Vikos Gorge
Looking down into the Gorge which the trail follows

Stone Forest

Within 5 km from Monodendri is this unusual geological feature. Stone slabs, stacked atop each other, form large pillars not unlike trees. It’s another peculiar bi-product of the glaciers that once shaped this region. A visit is worthwhile, but bear in mind there is no parking nearby.


Vikos Gorge Viewpoints

Scattered along each side of the gorge are several viewpoints, with the first being the Oxya viewpoint, located only 2 km from Stone Forest. This is the highest point on the gorge, and is in fact only a short walk from the road too. Further north in Vikos village there are more along the hike to Voidomatis springs.

The other side of the gorge probably contains the best besides that seen at the Convent of Agia Paraskev. The Beloi viewpoint is a 30 minute drive from Kipoi and another further 30 minutes hike to the edge of the gorge. The waymarked trail is rated as moderate, but as in much of this area quite exposed to the searing Greek sun. But the sublime vista makes it more than worth it.


Activities in Vikos Aoös National Park

Vikos Aoös receives more than 100,000 visitors annually and there are a full plethora of activities available. These include rafting, canoe-kayaking, hiking and mountain biking. Of course the most common of all is hiking. Besides those around the gorge, Mount Tymfi in the parks peripheral zone, is the regions highest mountain and has a maze of trails. Several alpine lakes dot its higher altitudes. Who wouldn’t want to visit Drakolimni, which translates as Dragon Lake. How Game of Thrones! Anyone looking to hike this should consult Greek national Trail No 3. The region has a number of mysterious vertical caves, the deepest being the Chasm of Epos at 451 metres. You have to love the dramatic names.

With the difficulties of travelling in the area, it’s easy to recommend a guided tours with a local travel guide. Get your guide has a range of tours available.


Flora and Fauna of Vikos Aoös National Park

Throughout the area of the national park and there are some 1800 species of flora to be found, many of them rare and unique to the area. The forest of Zagori has a broad range of both deciduous and coniferous trees.

Crocus Vikos Aoos
Crocus flowers litter the countryside

As one of Europe’s wildest regions, it has the wildlife population to match. The Pindus National Park has over 150 brown bears, wolves, wild boar and roe deer. If tackling the hikes its best to take the necessary precautions for your own welfare, by avoiding unwanted attention. Mount Tymfi is one of the last enclaves of Lynx in the country. There are many species of birds here too with the Egyptian Vulture being both the most famous and most endangered. In the higher Mount Tymfi the golden eagle still hunts.

Closer to the ground there are ten species of snakes (one of which had the “pleasure” of meeting on a trail in Kipoi) and sixteen species of lizards. The area near Kapesova had the highest concentration of lizards of anywhere I’ve ever been. If you are lucky enough you might catch a sighting of a rare triton.

Vikos Aoos
The locals

Stone Bridges of Kipoi

The “other reason” I travelled this way is the stone bridges. Somehow reminding me of small versions of Mostar Old Bridge, they are a trait of the whole national park. The biggest concentration of them lie close to the town of Kipoi. Therefore having spent the limited time I could at the gorge, I set off to hunt for them. The bridges all take their names from the benefactors or architects responsible for their construction. All were built in the 18th and 19th century, with many rebuilding old byzantine structures that existed before.


Bridge Captain Bear

The first on the approach to the village is called Bridge Captain Bear. A simple but arched construction from 1806, it took its name from a Macedonian fighter who was killed on this spot by the Turkish army. Its within easy reach of the road, but beware. A nest of huge wasps was in one of the pillars. I certainly didn’t fancy a sting so I let them be.

Bridge Captain Bear, Kipoi, Vikos Aoos

Bridge of Kokkorus

The next is the Bridge of Kokkorus (who repaired it) or Noutsos (who built it). With its location, this is as impressive as any. The river runs dry in the summer, but this 1750 bridge loops 13 metres above the bed and is 24 metres long. It runs between two rock faces and is all the more impressive for it. There is a great view from the modern bridge that crosses the road.

Bridge of Kokkorus Kipoi, Vikos Aoos

Missios Bridge

Missios Bridge is about the most difficult to get to. As the road ascends towards Kapesova, there is a smaller road to the side. Ditching the car there, it’s a 2 km hike down to the river floor, and the single bridge. The scenery was quite amazing down here, and the trail was very quiet.

Quiet that is, except for the snake (which I believe to be a viper) that decided to slither right across in front of me. Being the first snake of this size that I’ve had the “pleasure” of seeing in the wild, it scared me half to death. Considering the area was alive with crickets, and birds, and lizards, and who knows what else, it was an uneasy walk for me back to the car.

Missios Bridge Kipoi, Vikos Aoos

Plakidas Bridge

Closer to Kipoi, and down on the right from the road is the Plakidas Bridge. This one is a few minutes stroll from the road and certainly worth stretching those calves one more time. This remarkable three-arch construction is the pick of the area, with cogged ledges, and a smooth flowing form. A monk funded its construction in 1814, and was rewarded with naming rights, before been given to its repairer in 1865. It spans 56 metres across the seasonally dry river bed.

Plakidas Bridge Kipoi, Vikos Aoos
Plakidas Bridge Kipoi, Vikos Aoos

Lazaridis bridge

The Lazaridis bridge from 1764, is the oldest one in the area. Located three minutes down a path alongside the Vikaki stream, on the outskirts of Kipoi, it is easily reached. This single arch bridge is so called after a local teacher. Must have known his stuff.

Lazaridis bridge, Kipoi, Vikos Aoos

Milos bridge

The last bridge I visited was the Milos bridge on the other side of Kipoi. Again this three arch bridge from 1748 is fine, and takes its name from the stunningly set stone mill that lays beyond it.

Milos bridge, Kipoi, Vikos Aoos
Milos mill, Kipoi, Vikos Aoos

Kapesova and the Vradeto steps

The small village of Kapesova is remarkable for a number of reasons. Again built in stone, it sits on the edge of the gorge, with some huge hills to the rear. Another reason why it was remarkable, was on that day I visited, I didn’t see a solitary human. Two cats and a dog crossed my path, but no humans. Perhaps its a ghost town. If your wish is to walk through the sleepiest of villages, then Kapesova is where its at. Two restaurants are within the town but both were also slumbering that day.

Kapesova Vikos Aoos National Park
View over the rooftops of Kapesova

Of course a far better reason to visit is the Vradeto steps. This is a cobble stone pathway that leads out of the village and over the hills to the village of Vradeto. Before roads came to the area, it was the villagers only means to travel and bring livestock. Times were certainly harder back then. Nowadays its a perfect hiking trail, which zigzags up the hills for 1.5 km (1 mile) to the village beyond. As mentioned prior, this area is teeming with wildlife. The trek gives excellent views of the Vikos Gorge. The trail can then be extended to the Beloi viewpoint to make a proper hike of it (5 km / 3 miles round trip).

Vradeto steps Vikos

Ioannina

With an arduous drive back to Kalambaka (where I nearly ran out of petrol), I said a sad goodbye to the Vikos Aoös National Park, and descended to the foot of the national park. Here is Ioannina, my suggested base for the area. A city of 65,000 people it lies on the banks of lake Pamvotis. Settlement dates back here to times BC, but it grew as a Byzantine city from the 6th century. The Byzantines surrendered the city to the Ottomans in the 15th century, and their 400 years of rule can be visibly seen throughout. The city’s name comes from Place of St John, so its a good place for me to find myself.

Much of the city still finds itself inside Ioannina castle, the 10th century walls that still circle much of it. No castle as such still exists but many narrow roads and scattered historical buildings lay within. Not able to pass through without stopping, I found paid parking on the stunning banks of Pamvotis, and ventured within. A string of restaurants occupy the banks with prominent views of the lake. Throughout the city clever use of colour is used on buildings, and it really is a vibrant and eye-catching place. Its a little maze like within the walls but my ramblings took me to south walls, and the city’s top attractions.

Pamvotis Lake Ioannina
Ioannina
An example of the colourful narrow streets

Its Kale

The Its Kale (no reference to the vegetable) Acropolis is an 18th century palace of the ruler of the city Ali Pacha. Much of the palace lies in ruins with only foundations visible at the moment. On the site, the Byzantine Museum of Ioannina was built, an impressive structure in itself, originally as a royal pavilion. The collection is of early christian and byzantine artifacts, and has a modest entrance fee of €3.

Its Kale Ioannina
Its Kale in decay. The ruins of the old palace
Byzantine Museum of Ioannina
Its Kale Ioannina
This old kitchen of Its Kale is a good place to grab a coffee

A separate section of the museum is housed in the Silversmithing Museum. The building is quite noticeable, a two level bastion of Its Kale. Entry is €4 with the exhibits divided between the history of silversmithing in the area, and a large collection of silverware.

Silversmithing Museum Ioannina

Saving the most impressive till last, the Fetiche Mosque, with its striking minaret, was first built as a stone structure in 1611, before a remodeling in 1795 by Ali Pacha. His tomb is now found in front of the mosque. However the interior is now in a poor state of disrepair.

Fetiche Mosque Ioannina

Conclusion on Vikos Aoös National Park

While a day was perhaps a limitation on visiting the area, the national park blew my mind. With dramatic scenery accompanied by human structures that only compliment it, it has a rare power. Forget the sunsets and cocktails of the Greek islands, and come experience the true Greece in its rawest form.

Why not combine it with a trip to Meteora as I did. Don’t know where to start? Perhaps by taking a look at my Visiting Meteora and Travelling to and Staying in Kalambaka blogs? I consider them an excellent resource for anyone planning a trip there.

A pin or share would be greatly appreciated.

Vikos Aoös National Park
Vikos Aoös National Park

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