One of WT’s Europe specialists, Emily Vernizzi, recently returned from our Greece: Zagoria and Mt. Olympus adventure. Here are her photos and trip notes.
As a lifelong history enthusiast, I was overjoyed at the opportunity to visit Greece on our small group adventure. When people think of Greece, they might picture Athens and the Isles, but there is so much more about this country when you get off the beaten path and into the heart of the culture. From delicious cuisine and friendly locals who welcomed us warmly, to the hiking trails laced with history (not to mention, amazing vistas), our journey was the perfect balance of active exploration and restorative stays in charming accomodations.
After arriving in Greece, we headed to our first boutique hotel in Ioánnina. Set in the hills above the city, it looks like a traditional brick building from the outside, but the interior revealed modern guestrooms with comfortable beds and unbelievable panoramic views. I didn’t want to leave!
Here’s the view from the guestroom balcony. Our group enjoyed a delicious breakfast of homemade breads, jam, and savory Greek dishes before our day’s adventures.
The first full day was culturally focused, allowing us to adjust to the time zone while getting an introduction to northern Greece’s history.
Our main Trip Leader, Kostas Vasileiou, is from Ioánnina, and brings a local’s perspective of the area. He leads our Greece: Zagoria and Mt. Olympus, Hiking in the Greek Isles, as well as our new Great Hikes and Cuisine of Crete journey. Everywhere we went, he knew the people, and his giant personality animated every aspect of the trip.
The weather was spectacular, which is common when traveling to Greece in the fall.
Picturesque, ancient stone bridges marked our hikes as we made our way into the heart of Zagoria, a region whose name means “beyond the mountains”.
Not all of our walks were on nature trails. We would often find ourselves strolling through small villages and passing idyllic scenes like this one in Tsepélovo, a tiny village of impressive masonry buildings. These large plane trees can be found in village centers throughout the region – the original settlers planted them to see where they would grow because it meant water was present and could support a village
Empty trails and fall colors were an unbelievable pleasure during our October trip. (On May departures, travelers can expect vibrant wildflowers and the sound of gushing rivers flowing through gorges). On this day, we hiked village to village, from Tsepélovo to our lunch spot in Kipi, where Kostas and fellow leader, Dimitra, live.
From there, we walked to Vitsa, where we were rewarded with sweeping views from the outside lounge of our guesthouse. This was my favorite town during our trip because of the lush scenery and charming village square.
In Vitsa, we met “Yiayia,” the mother of the guesthouse’s manager. Though I don’t speak Greek, our friendly interactions show that you don’t need to know the language in order to feel welcome.
The trails in Zagoria often took us along old mule paths that meander along the valley floor. Here, we followed a path in a side canyon of the Vikos gorge.
One of our day’s hikes brought us up to the Astraka Mountain Refuge, where we had the option of continuing on a steep and challenging section of trail to the scenic Dragon Lake.
Not the Greece of popular imagination, is it? Zagoria truly is the country’s undiscovered gem.
Platters of fresh, flaky baklava were the ideal treat after a long trek.
Here, Kostas is explaining the history and geology of Meteora. This UNESCO Heritage-listed area is home to six Eastern Orthodox monasteries perched high atop magnificent pillars. It was a thrill to walk up the incline to a peak for a sweeping view of the valley below.
From this viewpoint of one of the cliff-perched monasteries, you can see the village of Kastraki. (If you look closely, you can also see the remains of an old church on the pillar’s ledge on the right of the photo). There are anywhere from one to thirty monks or nuns who reside in these monasteries to this day, and it was amazing to get a glimpse into their life here.
We stayed in Meteora an entire afternoon and the following morning–enough time to see the sights, tour some outstandingly beautiful monasteries, and take in a majestic sunset from atop one of the pillars.
All of our previous hikes had prepared us for this: summiting Mt. Olympus! We began at sunrise from our mountain refuge, and set out on a two-and-a-half-hour ascent to the home of the gods. As soon as you turn the trail’s last corner, the end is in sight. With favorable weather, we were able to successfully summit the mountain. I’ll admit, some tears of joy were shed at the top.
On our descent, we made our way through different landscapes to the base of the mountain, and headed to Thessaloniki for a shower and farewell dinner.
This Greek adventure is challenging, rewarding, and absolutely full of delightful surprises from our Trip Leaders. If you are looking for an active cultural journey in an ancient land, this is it!
—Text and photos by WT Europe specialist Emily Vernizzi, Greece: Zagoria and Mt. Olympus.