VYKOS GORGE / ZAGORI / IOANNINA
Our trip to Greece was nearly 100% unplanned in terms of which regions we selected to visit. We went with the flow and researched destinations as last minute as one hour prior to departing, and just showed up in a new place to see what it was like. That was the benefit of having unlimited time and a rental car, which provided us the flexibility and freedom. Sasha did a bit of research and came across Vykos Gorge, which is one of the deepest gorges in Europe! You would think that this would be more advertised and highlighted in travel publications, but to our surprise, even during peak tourist season, this area was relatively deserted, leaving nature yet again, for us to enjoy in peace.
We arrived to a lovely village called Aspraggeli, which is located in Zagori (near Ioannina). This area is known for its hiking and one of Greece’s most famous gorge hikes, Vykos Gorge. We booked an Airbnb for €32 a night ($36 USD). The Airbnb was in a remote village and our host was from Belgium. He married a Greek woman and spoke six languages. He built the house we stayed in and had been working on it for ten years. It was a traditional stone house, which is the style in this particular region of Greece. Even many of the roofs are made of individual stones. We only had one full day in this beautiful mountainous area, so we set out to do several different hikes based on our host’s recommendations. (This is why we love using Airbnb; when you stay in a room inside a house, sometimes you have the pleasure of meeting the host, who can offer a great deal of knowledge about the area and a more intimate cultural experience.)
The Airbnb was a room in a shared home, and it was one of the most comfortable stays of our entire European adventure. Here is the link to the booking: Cozy Stone House in Aspraggeli.
We opted to hike to various viewpoints and waterfalls of the gorge rather than hiking the gorge itself, because it’s a long, challenging 17 kilometer hike and most people only go down, then catch a (very expensive) taxi ride back to their car. No, thanks.
The day was beautiful and not too hot since we were high up in the mountains. The hike went straight through a quiet village on a cobblestone path leading the way to the next part.
After about two hours of hiking, you arrive to Baloi Lookout, the money shot of Vykos Gorge.
This view reminded me of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.
We meditated here for about ten minutes, as we had it to ourselves, and the sound of complete silence was too perfect.
We headed back and passed the same village, but this time since it was later in the afternoon, we came across an adorable shop/cafe that was open and playing music. We decided to stop in for a refreshment. The place was so cute and decorated like something straight out of Pintrest.
We found quite possibly the only place in all of Greece that served a chai tea latte!! We ate a delicious spinach, onion feta cheese pie (savory pies using phyllo dough are very common in this part of Greece.) Inside the menu, it says, “Come on, do you really need Wi-Fi here?” Touche!
The cafe (called Skalavradetou) was run by a Greek girl in her mid-twenties named Dina. She asked where we were from, and I said “Hawaii” and she flew over the moon with excitement. She said, “Hawaii is one of those places that I just can’t even imagine visiting, it must be sooooo beautiful!” She got really excited and said, “oh! I have a map inside where people put a flag where they are from. Never did I think I would have someone from Hawaii! Would you please add your flag there?” Of course, I gladly obliged. (By the way, Hawaii didn’t even exist on this particular map, so I just added it in the approximate location…)
There were folks from Russia, but none from St. Petersburg, so Sasha added his flag too. 🙂 As you can see, the majority of visitors to this particular part of remote central Greece are from Western Europe (the people who prefer adventure, outdoors and trekking on their holiday over bathing by the sea and doing touristy things.)
This is Dina! Dina is the young girl who owns this little cafe/shop. She makes her own jewelry and head pieces, which she let me wear for the photo.
We ended up chatting with her for half an hour about her life, her future and what it’s like to live in such a remote village in Greece that can’t seem to sustain itself or have much of a future. She said that she stayed here because she didn’t want to make her parents sad, but deep down, she really wanted to move abroad and experience the world. This seemed to be a common difficult decision among millennial Greeks of parents who own businesses and want to pass it on to the next generation. We told her that we had just gotten engaged one week prior on Crete Island, and she was so happy for us. Everyone we met who asked us where we were from, when we replied “Hawaii and Russia”, asked a follow up question of, “how in the world did you meet?” When we say “Seattle”, their heads spun. Dina said that she loves to see couples from different cultures marrying because it just opens up the world even more. She brought me a jewelry piece that says “LOVE” on it, and she saw us off with a hug and said, “may love be with you everywhere.”
I travel and live for moments like these, where cultural boundaries and borders seem to be broken down with kindness and a desire for the same thing: love, happiness and exploration of the world. I hope that Dina’s business succeeds and that she gets to travel the world and live abroad someday. I will forever be inspired and touched by the many situations like these that we had in Greece, the most romantic country in the world with the most compassionate, kind, hospitable and intrinsically happy people I’ve ever met. Thank you Dina for this moment, and I am so happy that we stumbled upon her cafe on our hike.
After the first hike, we drove another 45 minutes to another village to hike Iliochori Falls. Can you spot the little guy below? He camouflaged quite well.
We truly found Greek bliss, and it called us for a nude dip in cold water! Who needs a swim suit for moments like these?
Later that evening we ate at a delicious tavern in Monodendri (the starting point for the Vykos Gorge hike) serving meats on a spit (in Hawaii this is known as “huli huli” (turn) or “rotisserie” in the rest of America.)
From the village there were several short walking paths along cobblestones to beautiful lookouts over the gorge. We went during sunset and I sang opera, which reverberated through the canyon walls, echoing across the village.
If you are planning a trip to Mainland Greece and have any questions about which regions to visit and in which order, feel free to contact me!