The Vikos Gorge

The Vikos Gorge is located in Northwestern Greece, in the province of Epirus and its region known as "Zagorochoria" ("Mountain Villages"), a group of forty or so villages that remained largely autonomous during the Ottoman years; the uninformed visitor is free to distinguish them based simply on the "brilliant melancholy" of their roofs: instead of the usual red, you are greeted by grey roof tiles, dictated by local commerce and mineral availability rather than high level aesthetics.

Roughly speaking, the gorge runs from the village of Monodendri ("Single Tree") to the village of Vikos; at least, this is the right way to cross it, as long as you know where you are going. For, exiting (ascending) the gorge at Monodendri should be quite an operation; in fact, I would not even have been able to find the beginning of the path without the help of a Dutchman who in turn was consulting a book :-) The beginning of the path is so uninviting that our "group" lost two members right at the beginning: those young Frenchmen were planning to stay there and search for fossils! While still a non-technical hike, the gorge is not to be taken lightly: the crossing can easily take 6-8 hours, ending in an arduous ascend towards the village of Vikos, rather than in a refreshing swim in the Libyan Sea--as is the case with Greece's other well known (and considerably easier) gorge (Samaria), discussed here not too long ago :-)

Once down at the gorge, you keep going and going ... Through the river's dry bed in the beginning, climbing a bit on the banks later on: for, the round stones that litter the gorge keep growing, until they reach gigantic, unclimbable proportions, silent witnessess to a turbulent past. The dirt path along the bank is well defined, but not very "protected", and there are a few tricky spots where it is "spoiled" ("chalasmeno"); those spots you cross quickly standing "straight up" rather than slightly leaning "perpendicularly to the path", as my Dutch mountain consultant explained--a former Himalayan hiker, he was marching from Metsovo to Ioannina *followed* by his French girlfriend (I joined them for part of the hike).

Generally, there isn't much water at the bottom of the gorge; none at all, in fact, until you reach the source of the river Voidomatis ("Bull-eyed"), a tributary of Aoos River. Through Aoos, Voidomatis leads all the way into Albania, and that valley is nowadays crossed in the reverse direction, on foot, by desperate Albanians (many of them of Greek ethnicity) looking for jobs at the local sheepfolds or, mainly, in the fields of Thessaly; I met two of them shortly after parting with my Amsterdam companions, being rather nervous, only to be asked, mostly with gestures, whether I had seen any "stratiotis" (soldier). Most such encounters are "uneventful", because, I suppose, these people are, however desperate or even hungry, far from being innate criminals; or, perhaps, as a local man put it to me, "if they do something wrong they know that they are not going to leave the gorge alive". Anyway, while they often enter Greece on foot, these Albanians tend to return home by bus, carrying anything from a sack of flour to a TV: indeed, the 5:15 AM bus that left Ioannina for the Kakavia border station that morning (and every other morning, and several more times per day) was packed.

As the path started to ascend towards Vikos (the village), becoming more brown than green, I was able to see the source of Voidomatis from high above, and saw someone taking a plunge into it, and another person sunbathing; it looked absolutely inviting, but I preferred to keep going as I didn't know how far I was from the village. After some misadventures around a "spoiled" portion of the path, I met a young woman whom I first addressed in English, not realizing that she was a Greek teenager from Vikos, on her way to look after some goats. She plainly discarded my complaints about the path, but did answer several questions about the region; she also told me about the colorful kayaks running Voidomatis that the villagers used to watch from that very spot--*when the river had more water, that is*--and pointed out the location where a German rock climber had been killed a few years back. Most important, she assured me that I was virtually at "the village's gates".

Right before entering Vikos I met the people whom I had seen enjoying Voidomatis' source: a young couple from Thessaloniki, the woman slightly embarassed because of, I conjecture, some naked sunbathing; I considered requesting a ride from them to the bigger village (Papigo) where they were going, but chose to find some lodging at Vikos (there are less than ten rooms available, I estimate) with the idea of descending down to the river--without that backpack this time. In the village I met a number of interesting characters, like the guy from San Francisco who now lives in Madrid and an American woman who moved to Istanbul after six years in Athens: a potentially explosive conversation was averted by her departure, together with everybody else, for another village :-)

The descend to the Voidomatis' source was "orchestrated" by a number of barking dogs that were returning to the sheepfolds after a day's hard work. Save for an abandoned hut, there are no signs of civilization anywhere near the source, which, by the way, gradually moves toward ... Albania--as Greece, and not only, becomes drier, that is :-( The water is said to stay at 48F year round, attracting from local boys (later to complain of arthritic pains, I was told) to urban women (mostly from Ioannina) seeking a tighter skin. Plunging into that "silver" pool of cold, pristine water around sunset time--no point in thinking of sunset at the bottom of a gorge, of course--and after "a day on the road" was great fun, but not for too long: once again, I recalled Samaria and, in particular, that warm, gentle surf of the Libyan Sea ...

The ascent back to Vikos was kind of frantic: because of the coming darkness, I opted for an "out of the path" short cut, ending in running up a steep hill on my fours, desperately and momentarily grabbing the bushes (for a better balance): no time to appreciate the exquisite fragrance of some of them, unfortunately. After returning to the path, a routine hike brought me to the outskirts of Vikos, where I took a rest by a tiny "outer chapel" ("ksoklissi"), one of many that dot the Greek countryside, representing all kinds of "tamas" to various saints. I had passed that same ksoklissi when I first arrived at Vikos a few hours earlier, of course, but this time I had a better chance to look at it--together with the moon, that is. And there was a touching surprise: the few bills that were left in it (the financial aspect of the "tama"!) were not Greek, but Albanian! Quite simply, the destitute Albanians take whatever Greek money they find there and replace it by their (worthless in Greece) Albanian currency; that way, the ksoklissi's saint will certainly forgive them (Muslims and Christians) or, better yet, will protect them during their rough, unpredictable, endless journeys ...

Next day I took a walk around the village, trying to comprehend how small it was. I did not see the "goat girl" again, but I kept thinking that she probably was the only girl of that age in Vikos; she had told me, in fact, that she spends the winters elsewhere in order to go to high school. There was very little to see or do at Vikos, not even a cafenion--although the owners of the grosery store do prepare meals for the tourists (in my case, a sandwitch of home-made feta); so, I decided to walk to the nearby village of Aristi, where one can catch a bus back to Ioannina. (I do not think, by the way, that it is even "mathematically" possible to depart and return to Ioannina (by public transportation) *and* cross the gorge on the same day; other ride arrangements have to be made if one does not want to spend a night in the gorge area.)

Aristi ("Best") features a "luxury" hotel, under the very hill where the Greeks stopped the Italian Army's advance toward Kalpaki (November 1940, a turning point in that WWII episode). Relaxing there for a day, I had a chance to meet a number of locals, including the hotel's owner: a limb old man, who had spent years and years, day after day, crossing a large portion of the gorge *twice*, (goat operations, again). While I was having lunch, I saw him receiving two young Albanians with friendly gestures and inviting them in for a free meal and a (shared) beer. The two lads remained totally silent, in a very sad way, both during and after the meal; then they departed quietly, their final destination being Trikala (and the cotton fields, I guess). According to a local young man, their ominous silence was not so much a result of fatigue or depression, as of fear: several locals speak, or at least understand, Albanian, therefore whatever they would have said to each other could be heard and reported (??) The same man explained to me how he deals with the possibility of unwanted, yet inevitable, encounters with Albanians in the mountains: rather than carrying an ax, as he used to do, he now simply wears an old Army uniform, causing the Albanians to lift their arms and cry, fearing immediate deportation: "stratiotis, stratiotis!"; oh well, I myself did not see a single soldier in the greater gorge area. I heard of other ways of dealing with the Albanians, too: like having a loaf of bread handy and swiftly extend it towards them, without any other gestures or words, for example ... Locals have also learned that if they "mistreat" an Albanian, he and a gang of his friends are likely to return after a few weeks or months: it's more or less a frontier zone with its own laws and ethics!

In the evening, over dinner, that kind old man who had crossed the gorge innumerable times and seen all kinds of people passing by, made a pronouncement on the human race, when it came to discussing the war in Bosnia; addressing the young "ax man", he asked him: "if someone offered to you some good evidence of having a solid chance of exterminating the people of ... (a nearby "unlikeable" village), wouldn't you be tempted?"

(Memories from a trip through Northewestern Greece, July 1992)

[Posted on soc.culture.greek in April 1994]

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