The drive from Monodendri to the gorge lookout is through a panoply of every shade of green. Shaggy blue-green boughs of Bulgarian fir and Mountain cypress interlace with the dark green serrated leaves of birch and hornbeam and on low stony hills the silver clothed, Tilia tomentosa, merge with the soft yellowy greens of hazelnut and oak.
Wildflowers blazed along the roadside and through the mossy, spring green gullies that rise up from the road. Little bright pink faces of Silene pindicola mingle with the pale blue bells of campanulas and brilliant purple vetches while azure spires of Veronica orsiniana provide a perfect foil to sprawling carpets of white daisies and golden erysimum
We were in the Zagori, a distinctive region of great natural beauty in the far north west of Greece replete with deeply eroded limestone peaks, cliffs and gorges and remnants of Europe’s once great ancient forests. At its heart is the Vikos gorge, a 20 km long canyon gouged out by the Voidomatis River. For most of its length its walls are sheer cliffs pocked with caves and grooved by deep fissures with patches of dark green vegetation clinging on to impossible places over a tremendous fall of clear blue air.
Despite being only a short distance from Ioannina, the largest town in Epirus, this region remains remote, due largely to its precipitous terrain. In fact the word Zagori comes from the Slavic, "Beyond the Mountains". It is also renowned for its traditional villages built entirely of stone, the most common building material available. Collectively these are known as the Zagorochoria and until recently they were connected only by mountain trails and traditional arched bridges. This inaccessibility enabled the people living there to maintain relative independence as well as a distinct culture since Classical times.
For centuries the population comprised of two tribes, the Vlachs and the Sarakatsani,both originally nomadic shepherds. The Vlachs are considered decendents of Roman colonists and are distinct in speaking a Romance language. The Sarakatsani are believed to be related directly to the Ancient Greeks, Patrick Leigh Fermor describing them as, "true nomads . . . hovering on the outskirts of ordinary Greek life as fleetingly as a mirage". In recent, modernising times, the lines between these two groups has blurred as both have moved into the mainstream.
Our original plan was to drive north to Konista which is at the northern end of the Zagori and base ourselves there for a couple of days. However we were tired after an early start and a long flight so when we reached Monodendri in the southern Zagori, and liked it, we decided to stay. We took the first room we looked at. The converted mansion of Archontiko Zarkarda is built in the traditional mountain style of solid blocks of stone, huge wooden beams and deep, sheltering balconies, an additional protection against fierce wintery weather. It had great hot water, an excellent bathroom, two essential prerequisites, and at only €35 with breakfast it was a steal.
The young woman we spoke to was busy cleaning the room out, it had been only recently vacated and the last one available. She appeared very un-Greek, being slim and fair with a narrow face and pale blue eyes. She could have been Albanian, or Italian or a direct throwback to Aromanian forebears ... it was impossible to say. But she was clearly living testament to the cultural and political upheavals that have beset this region since the dying days of the Ottoman occupation some one hundred and fifty years earlier.
With our booking organized we dumped our luggage and set off again to drive the eight km through those many shades of green to a lookout over the Vikos gorge. The lookout road passes through an area known as the Stone Forest where wonderful rock formations rise up like oddly stacked pillars through the trees. Some of the larger structures look like the crumbling towers of a medieval castle slowly sinking into the surrounding forest while others evoke the sinuous, billowy, living shapes of a Gaudi masterpiece.
These northern parts are a world away from Greece's popular, tourist brochure image. There are no rocky islands floating on a brilliant blue mirror of sea, no whitewashed houses and blue-doomed churches, or olive groves and lemon trees dissolving into that brilliant light. This is another Greece, one of rills and waterfalls gushing over mountain paths, of high mountain meadows rippling with a pelt of fresh green grass, of multicolored flocks of shaggy sheep, grey stone houses and ancient forests.
We are there in late spring when fine days are frequent and the air and the light are pure and each side of the road appears as a great garden risen up from the earth. In open places the mysterious blackish flowers of Ajuga orientalis are conspicuous along with the pure white local form of the bastard balm, Melittis melissophyllum. In bud the Musk thistle, Carduus thoemeri, was an impressive sight with its metalic dark crimson flowers while amongst broken fragments of weathered rock the golden wallflower, Erysimum drenovskyi held court, its clusters of honeyed flowers like tiny flaxen stars. Both Thymus boissieri and Thymus longicaulis were present in numbers, their wide-spreading mats smothered in rosy-mauve blooms. The former carries sheaths of needle-like leaves, much like those on a juniper, and looked magnificent in its natural setting but it's the latter that has proven the much better garden plant.
Here too grows the Heart-leafed globe daisy, Globularia cordifolia. This little alpine is native to the mountains of central and southern Europe but it is uncommon so we were thrilled when we spotted its lavender-blue, feathery flower heads floating above a low mound of trailing dark green leaves.
We stopped short of the gorge to spend a couple of hours clambering around in the rocky gullies close to the road. On the grassy slopes and in partial shade were the scattered dried leaves and seed pods of the golden-yellow Crocus chrysanthus, the brilliant blue squill, Scilla bifolia and the more uncommon spring-flowering version of the autumn snowdrop, Galanthus reginae-olgae ssp vernalis - all vestiges of earlier flowerings some months before when the snow was still retreating.
In shady clearings elegant spires of the Rusty foxglove, Digitalis ferruginea, kept company with Helleborus cyclophyllus its flowers fading to a buttery-green, while its tricorn seedpods swelled into ripeness. Where the sun shone strongest the lovely little Cranesbill, Geranium tuberosum, threaded its way through the undergrowth, its pretty pinkish-lilac and purple-veined flowers smiling up at us happily. Its close relatives, the spicy-leafed, G. macrorrhizum, and the black-eyed, G. subcaulescens were also there but they preferred to scramble about in moister, mossy places, especially around and on top of huge boulders that were common in the area.
The standout species here is Ramonda serbica, an African violet relative that remains as a vestige from a time when this area was tropical. It is a rare Balkan endemic found in locally scattered colonies almost exclusively on north-facing ledges and can be difficult to find. After fruitless searching in numerous gullies edged with large stone outcrops we were delighted to finally stumble across a small group almost at eye level and in full bloom! Ramonda flowers are primula-like, lilac-blue disks, each with a central lemon-yellow eye which is dark at the throat. These are held in panicles above a rosette of deep green spatulate leaves that are crinkled and rukked like an ancient, prehistoric relic.
With our botanising over and time getting on we made our way to the Vikos Gorge lookout. The track from the car park to the gorge edge gives no hint of what is to come. For the most part it runs through a thick screen of beech forest and then in the final few metres the trees thin and suddenly a vast expanse opens out . . . so immense, it takes the breath away. From rim to rim, there is over 1100 metres of uniterrupted space and the drop to the river bed below is just as deep. To the north fold on fold of towering butressess extend into the distance, the late afternoon sun lighting up the farthest ones to a golden glow, while far below the river looped a thin silver line through a quilt of fleecy green.
Apart from a small area around the main lookout, there are no fences, no warning signs, no ropes or rails . . . just a narrow pathway, worn smooth with centuries of use, snaking it's way just below the crest of the gorge, seeming almost to float in mid air. The scale of it all is stupifying , the heights dizzying, plants stream down the sheer cliffs beside us but it doesn't pay to take a step backwards for a better look. Instead, we take the middle aged option and inch our way along to various vantage points, take our pictures and stand silently in awe.
On the way back to Monodendri we were hailed by a slightly frantic woman walking along the road. Initially we thought she belonged to the campervans we had earlier seen parked in a meadow close by, but no, she had walked up a path from Monodendri and been caught out by the time. She had no water, no backpack, she still had six km to walk, so she was not going to be back in Monodendri till very late, and possibly we were the last car. She told us she was Czech, living in France and travelling alone . . . we concluded she should also add foolhardy to her profile!