In the mountains of Epirus (II)

Megalo and Mikro Papingo are two of the most amazing villages in the Zagori area – they are gorgeously preserved, and lie in the imposing shadow of the Astraka towers, huge (about 1750 m. high, and 400 m above the village!) vertical rock formations, part of the Astraka mountain range that looms over Papingo. They are the sort of thing you would expect to see in the Swiss Alps, but maybe not in Greece!

It is a steep and winding road that takes you slowly past the Voidomatis river (precisely at the landing of the Voidomatis rafting crews, we were told) and towards the villages. The views are breathtaking, but these subtle hints on every turn remind you to keep your eyes on the road:

The road takes you past Megalo (“Great”) Papingo – which is, as its name implies, a slightly bigger village (it even has a school! Two whole kids, if you please…more than most greek mountain villages have) – and onto Mikro (“Little”) Papingo, a much smaller and more intimate village. It’s the end of the road, and starting point for most of the trails heading up towards the mountains of Gamila or Astraka.

Before heading for the hills, so to speak, we stopped off at Megalo Papingo to get a room for the night… we drove past Astra Inn, whose very nicely done website was probably what made us decide to stay in Papingo in the first place, so we decided to stop over and give it a try… and we were not disappointed! The guesthouse is lovely. Traditional yet fresh architecture,

…simple but stylish, bright and comfortable rooms (ours even had a little sauna! quite cool), so well designed that you had a brilliant view to the Astraka towers from even the tiniest window. But the nicest thing were the people – and especially Kostas Tsoumanis, part-owner and manager: he was incredibly friendly, full of good humour, and extremely helpful. He knows everything there is to know about the area, and is full of great advice! We wanted to go on a hike, and had been hoping to make it to Drakolimni, or “dragon lake” (named after the alpine tritons, little mountain newts that hang out in it), but Astraka was covered in snow, the Astraka shelter (check out that link! seriously, how amazing can a place be?!?) was closed and we had no proper mountaineering equipment… But, never fear! Kostas was there with all the advice we could possibly need, and he sent us on one of the coolest short(ish) hikes in the area, towards Kokkino lithari.

“Kokkino lithari” means “red rock” in greek – see the reddish spot on the mountainside, under the highest peak? The trail goes along the mountain, past the red rock and onto a little rocky plateau, where one can look down towards the canyons. Kostas promised that the hike would be greatly rewarding, and he seemed to know what he was talking about… so we excitedly drove to Little Papingo to look for the trailhead.

The village seemed almost completely boarded-up for the winter (except for an extremely poncey self-proclamed “eco-luxury” hotel that seemed to focus more on the “luxury” than the “eco” bit). Even the WWF information center was closed, but the trails were easy to spot:

The green sign shows the way to the Astraka summits. We had been told to head past that sign and towards the appropriately red one, going not towards the top but towards the side of the rocky towers, so on we went, past a very very mean tempered watchdog (which we proceeded to annoy by standing in two different places by his fence, thus driving him/her mad – what bad, bad people we are! he/she was so tiny though, and yet sooo grumpy and loud that we couldn’t help it. sorry little dog.), past  boarded-up houses and frozen springs:

Don’t let the lovely blue sky fool you – it was pretty cold (especially by greek standards :-) ) – and by such cold weather, taps and springs are left running all day long (not a particularly eco-friendly practice, though necessary to keep the  pipes from freezing), and the dripping water then creates cool stalagmites everywhere.

The trail was slightly less well preserved than the last one – even a bit scary at times, since we had to walk across a couple of pretty loose looking landslides…

(you can see them by the red rock a few pictures up, as well!)

About forty minutes later, we were at the aforementioned red rock:

and, a few meters down the path, the most amazing view awaited us:

Remember this?

That’s where that amazing view was from (you can see the village of Vikos on top of the rocks on the left canyon wall!). It was so cool to see all that from high above (little did we know that we had even more fascinating views coming our way on that trip…but we’ll get back to that.. :-) ). The canyons look wildly beautiful, and i kept thinking how much i’d love to go back in the summer and explore, explore explore! Kostas was right – it was indeed an incredibly rewarding hike.

We sat there in the glorious winter sun to admire that unique view – we couldn’t get enough of it! We walked around the little rocky plateau, breathed in the fresh cool mountain air, lit the kantilaki (little greek votive light – M. had never seen one before and had no idea how to light it!)

and headed back towards the villages.

We had a little stroll in Megalo Papingo – the village looked so beautiful in the shadow of Astraka…

…especially in the setting sun:

Also, we had some finger-lickin’ delicious local food at a little taverna named after the mountain that so dominates the village – Astraka had great food (try the awesome homemade chicken pie!), good strong homemade tsipouro on the house, and very nice people (and pets! the owner’s dog is a gorgeous and very well behaved blond rottweiler [i think] that is apparently a national champion. Fancy that! We were hanging out with proper celebs).

We ended up having some nice greek mountain tea (me) and some nice greek beer (M.) by the cozy fireplace at our guesthouse:

.. before some much needed and very relaxing sauna time. Oh Papingo. I fell in love with you that day.

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