Our epic family adventure hiking through Greece’s Vikos gorge | Greece holidays


A cheer goes up as we board our train. We’re catching the Eurostar from London to Paris and a couple so newly married that the bride is still wearing her wedding dress are just ahead of us. Our own excitement may be less visible but it’s just as palpable.

As the train hurtles through the sunny downlands of Kent, I grin at my 11-year-old son, Osian. He is trying to disappear into his hoodie, embarrassed at my trainspotter jokes and the journey’s unexpected romantic twist. Nothing can derail my high spirits, though, at the thought of hiking in one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes, the Vikos gorge in the Pindus mountains of north-west Greece.

There’s also the thrill of getting there. After an overnight stop in Paris, we take an early train to Zurich then catch another to Milan, our noses buffing the windows as we gaze at a rolling diorama of Alpine peaks and meadowed valleys.

In Milan we take a chance on an Airbnb spare room a few minutes’ walk from Centrale station. So magnificent is the historic apartment and so generous is owner Piergiorgio’s hospitality, that I spend too long sipping espresso on his plant-filled balcony next day and we have to sprint to catch our train to Brindisi, the port for our overnight ferry to the Greek port of Igoumenitsa.

The writer and her son, in Zurich, taking a swim between trains

Waking a couple of hours before docking, we rush out on deck for our first sight of the Greek mainland. The Pindus mountains loom as a colourwash ripple along the horizon. Like a time-lapse painting, the detail emerges as we sail closer to land and the peachy whisper of sunrise morphs into bright rose gold. It’s been a long time since I’ve stood on the deck of a Greek ferry with just a backpack and the outline of a travel plan, and it fills me with joy – and relief – to find Osian is enjoying our odyssey as much as me.

A decade spent mothering small children and making peace with the tectonic changes that come with that means there hasn’t been much time, or money, for more intrepid travels. With a big birthday coming up for me and Osian making the transition to secondary school, now feels like the time to strike out further. And to spend some time together one-on-one: soon he may not be so keen.

The writer’s son, Osian, enjoying his ‘epic’ adventure. Photograph: Rhiannon Batten

There are practical benefits to having an 11-year-old in tow, I discover, as we collect a hire car and Osian rigs up my phone to the dashboard screen, projecting our route via Bluetooth before I’ve even fastened my seatbelt. We’re heading for Zagori, a region about 90 minutes’ drive inland whose cobbled villages, dramatic gorges and ancient stone bridges have earned it Unesco world heritage status. We’ve come at half-term, to avoid the full force of the midsummer heat, but it’s still warm as we trace a scenic route into the mountains, skirting errant cows, dogs and sheep and holding our breath as vertiginous drops appear around hairpin bends.

In Kipoi, once the “capital” of Zagori but now a sleepy village, we stay at Hotel Machalas, where bedrooms are made cosy with bright rugs and painted ceilings. At the restaurant opposite, we eat chips, fat beans, homegrown salad and souvlaki so tender that Osian’s eyes widen as he takes his first bite. Breakfast is just as good. Old timers sing along to Greek songs playing softly in the background as we fill up on salty sheep’s cheese, olives, homemade bread and thick yoghurt.

For the next three days we’re walking roughly north, from village to village. We leave the hire car at the hotel and set off with our backpacks for Monodendri, three hours away (the plan is to take a taxi back at the end of the hike to collect the car). The region’s bridges are the highlight of today’s route. Mostly built in the 18th and 19th centuries, they’re all so distinctive, and exquisite, they look as if they’ve been chiselled by elves.

One of the first we come to is Plakidas, a three-arched wonder that ripples like a sleeping dragon across the river not far from Kipoi. From here we zigzag down and up a looping path lined with wild sage and rosemary, the only sound a single cowbell in a distant valley. After we’ve picnicked on spinach pie and oranges by the soaring semi-circle of Noutsos Bridge, the soft drizzle turns into heavy, relentless rain.

The bridge at Plakidas. Photograph: Rhiannon Batten

We’re soon soaked but there’s nowhere obvious to shelter so we carry on, sloshing over Misiou Bridge and up Vitsa steps, a 300-year-old staircase that flows, Andy Goldsworthy-style, up the steep hillside ahead. Even ever-cheerful Osian starts to flag as we pass a sign warning about bears and thunder rolls overhead. Thankfully it’s not much further to Vitsa village, where we’re welcomed to chic Strouga cafe with slices of sticky honey and orange cake and the offer to call a taxi.

In neighbouring Monodendri, we check into Hotel Vikos (doubles from €80). Next morning, fuelled on owner Dimitris’s pancakes, we set out for the Vikos gorge. The world’s deepest gorge relative to its width, this dramatic rocky chasm is what has drawn us to Zagori. We enter it with 45 minutes of steep descent into what feels like the underworld but is really heavy mist.

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For the next 90 minutes we keep our eyes on the trail as it ascends, descends, scrambles over boulders and throws in a stretch of via ferrata. Around halfway, the path levels out and, barring a 45-minute climb at the end, the rest of the six-hour route is an easy ramble. We meet only a handful of other hikers: the gorge is ours to enjoy as the scent of sage wafts up from our feet and wild cyclamen line the route like tiny cheerleaders. By lunchtime the mist has burned off, revealing the gorge’s gigantic walls.

“This is epic,” shouts Osian into the mighty echo chamber as we lie on a boulder, as insignificant as ants, the mountains known as the Towers of Astraka looming 1,000 metres above.

‘Chiselled by elves’: the one-arched Noutsos Bridge, in Zagori. Photograph: Charalambos Andronos/Getty Images

At the end of the trail we climb up to the hamlet of Vikos for bowls of wild boar stew and a night in the pretty, geranium-dotted Vikos View hotel (doubles from €76). So comfortable are the beds and so generous the breakfast that we leave later than planned, returning to the trail just as the sun’s heat is building.

Our final day’s walk is a short hop as the crow flies to neighbouring Megalo Papingo, but the route descends back into the gorge and up the other side and it’s sweltering in the middle of the day. We plan to stop at the bottom for a dip in the Voidomatis springs but waste a hot hour going the wrong way before eventually finding our way to the turquoise pools, where we pull off our boots and plunge our feet into the icy water. It’s a magical spot, with a tiny chapel beside the springs, and a sward of grass perfect for picnicking. Clocking the climb ahead of us, though, I’m nervous about lingering too long this late in the day. Reluctantly, we begin our ascent.

Breakfast with a view on the terrace of the Papaevangelou Hotel. Photograph: Rhiannon Batten

We walk uphill for over two hours, sometimes through forest, sometimes in sheer rock. At one point the trail leads across a scree slope, the incline so steep my legs start trembling. Untroubled by vertigo, Osian strides ahead, enjoying the role reversal as I lag behind, following his instructions to keep my eyes on his back and trying to laugh at the jokes he tells to distract me. It’s a glimpse of the future, Osian’s kindness and courage filling me with pride. How precious this time together is, and how I hope he remembers it.

As we arrive in Megalo Papingo the trees shower us with saffron-coloured leaves, a ticker-tape ending to a magical journey. At our hotel, the Papaevangelou (doubles from €137), owner Giorgios upgrades us to a room with a view of the Astraka Towers. As the sun rises the following morning we sit on the terrace feasting on a stellar breakfast and that epic panorama. How far we’ve come, in so many ways.

Train travel from London to Paris was provided by Eurostar; from £78 return. Train from Paris to Brindisi via Switzerland from £80 one way, and from Brindisi to Turin from £70 one way, both booked via Trainline. Ferry from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa from £34 one way, booked via Direct Ferries. Coach from Turin to Paris from £29 one way, booked via Flixbus



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