Greece's Breathtaking Vikos Gorge, The World's Deepest: Spring Break 2016, Breaking Bad on the Looney Front - Part 3

Greece's Breathtaking Vikos Gorge, The World's Deepest: Spring Break 2016, Breaking Bad on the Looney Front - Part 3
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The spectacular Vikos Gorge in northwest Greece, topped by massive rounded cliff buttresses and craggy walls in light grey and orange-yellow, is classified by the Guinness Book of Record as the world's deepest, plummeting some 3,000 feet, a gold based on both depth and width-to-depth ratio.





At one point it plunges 2,950 feet while spanning 3,600 feet from rim to rim, a depth 82% of its width. Many gorges in the world have higher depth-to-width ratio, but are not as deep, or are much deeper like Peru's Colca Canyon at 10,500 feet and California's Kings Canyon at 8,200 feet, but also much wider.



Well, who am I to argue. Anyway, if you judge its depth at its northern edge from the top of Papingo Tower Mountain, it's 5,927 feet, but much wider at its bum, which overall ranges from some 1,330 feet to just a few yards.




Whatever, it truly is a spectacular sight accessible from several vantage points, including the gravity-defying cliff-face monastery of Agia Paraskevi at its southern end and the ridge-top village of Vikos at the other.





Already in my ninth decade and no longer an utter nutter, I don't try the six-hour hike along its 12-mile length, requiring a precipitously steep descent into the underworld and an equally steep egress at the other end.

The gorge is the heart of Vikos-Aoos National Park and Zagorohoria, a region of dozens of sturdy villages of grey slate-roofed houses that cling for dear life to the steep mountainsides. Many here are Slavs - Zagorohoria is a hybrid of the Slavic za gora (behind the mountain) and the Greek horia (villages).



Early spring snow still glistening on the mountainous horizon, its sides peppered with rocky monoliths like giant molars, Vikos tumbles sharply to a narrow stream that glints turquoise in the sun - the Boidomatis, Slavic words meaning good water and more evidence of the area's ethnic tug-of-war.




The purple flowers on the ridges, the white and pink blossoms on the bushes just below the rim, the fresh green of the trees as they begin to reclothe add to the enchantment. The whole limestone landscape was formed some 37 million to 150 million years ago.



And thanks to Lonely Planet's I'm not puking all over Nature's patient handiwork; it warns of the white-knuckled hairpin bends up to the Papingo villages - they are indeed - and I've zonked myself out on Dramamine.



The taxi journey from Kastoria to Konitsa, the park's northern gateway - there's no bus - provides its own interest, with road warnings that you're in brown bear country and the driver's commentary on the massive forest fire of seven years ago.

'For 50 days and 50 nights it raged on,' he waxes biblically, surpassing the good book's famous duration trope by 25 percent. His tale finally told, he tosses his still burning cigarette butt out of the window. Way to go, Zeus! Come on, baby, light my fire!


Konitsa itself is charming, climbing and twisting steeply up the mountainside, the still snow-capped crags of the mighty Pindos Mountains soaring 8,500 feet and seemingly within hand reach, so clear is the early spring air under the brilliant sun.





Vivid violet and yellow flowers dapple its ground, pink and white blossoms garb its trees, and the ladies of the town are into a deeply aggressive ginger hair dye, probably henna. So it's blazing colours all around. I don't even mind the restaurant guy in the main square in a grubby blood-spattered white doctor's gown - come meet the culinary Sweeney Todd.




Vikos-Aoos National Park is a UN World Heritage site, and you don't have to wander as far as Vikos to enjoy its splendours. Just turn left as you leave Konitsa, and you enter the superb Aoos gorge with the rushing pale green Aoos River tumbling wildly down the forested ravine, breaking white around the boulders in its midst.



A steeply arched 19th century bridge frames the gorge, cliffs rise precipitously on either side, stark rock monoliths project upwards from the lower slopes, and soaring mountains loom afar, on this day still with an early spring covering of snow.



Again, if you're an utter nutter, you can hike three miles to a clifftop monastery, including a mile-long steep climb. Well, having lost my nuts at least metaphorically, I decide that about a third of the trail is sufficient unto the day thereof, thank you very much. I can see the monastery way in the distance, anyway.


With deep carmine tree blossoms a-sprouting, golden gorse aflame, purple and yellow flowers a-glinting along the trail, the deep green of the firs, the many lighter shades already garbing their deciduous siblings, the rushing pale blue-green flow below, what more could you want!




Well, I'll tell you what more you could want! You could want the imbecilic drivers to stop hurling all their plastic bottles, plastic bags, drink cans and other assorted garbage out of their cars, vans and lorries. The road from Konitsa to Ioannina is awash with refuse, marring the glorious emerald grass and yellow and purple flowers that carpet its verges.

Listen Arseholes (that ancient Greek name with the last syllable pronounced as in Pericles)! Discard, doesn't mean hurl it out of your car. Save it for your own frigging dustbin at home. But at least I don't have to take out a third mortgage to witness this eyesore. There are buses again on this stretch of the journey.

When I was first in Ioannina 54 years ago I decided to visit Dodona, site of arguably the oldest divine oracle in Greece, where Zeus would speak to the priest through the rustle of a sacred oak tree. As it's only 13 miles away I rented a bike.


What I hadn't taken into account were the couple of mountains in between. By the time I'd panted up the steeper slopes I raised the bike over my head in a rage and hurled it down onto the road, repeatedly, shouting appropriate obscenities, and proving to the locals the old Greek adage that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

Today I arrive in the large, bustling town on Lake Pamvotis in a much more mature - some would dispute that - and quiescent vein. It's a lively place thanks to the 20,000 university students it hosts.


Its old town, or Kastro (citadel), was founded on a promontory by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and has since hosted, willingly or not, Greeks, Normans, Serbs and Ottomans, as evidenced by minarets and mosques from the Ottoman period, and a ruined rounded tower built during the Norman conquest in 1082.




On the lake front there are plenty of present-day refugees and migrants, their features ranging from Afghan Hazara to Arab, while Africans are selling shoes and leather goods.


The wall-to-wall lakeside pavement cafes are chock-a-block full with students. Wow, that's nice! A girl's just kissed a guy on the cheek and he spends the next five minutes wiping off the slobber.





[Upcoming next Sunday: Greece's Vouraikos Gorge Railway, One of the World's Most Spectacular Train Rides]

By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.

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