The Astrakas refuge marked the start of very different country. We were now in the Zagoria , tourist territory, flagged up in the guide books, with information on what to see and where to stay. The footpaths had been well-waymarked ever since Konitsa, and we’d met a few Greek hikers. But now we passed picnic shelters, and groups of foreign tourists puffing their way up to the ridge. We stopped to talk to one group of Israeli hikers, celebrating the end of their military and community service. Signs proclaimed the gruelling Zagori Mountain Run: the longest route was eighty kilometres with over five thousand metres of ascent.
As we came into the village of Mikro Papingo (Little Papingo), we could see the white parasols of the eco-luxury hotel below us. The old stone houses with their beautiful slate roofs had been lovingly restored, with stone paths running between them. We stopped at a more modest guest house for a spinach pie and – wonder of wonders – a proper filter coffee. At the counter were leaflets promoting rafting and other activities. But it was still amazingly peaceful, as we sat and watched a pair of swallows flying in and out above the cafe tables to their nest in the eaves -with a large dustpan hung up underneath to catch the droppings! Here at least, tourism seemed to have brought benefits without destroying what people come to see.
We set off down the Vikos Gorge at midday – same old mistake! We imagined we would be walking in the shade of trees, but the rocky path was exposed to the full glare of the sun.
To make it worse, I had forgotten to fill up my water bottles. It took us two hours to reach the cool of the Voidomatis Springs in the valley far below. By this time I was getting twinges of cramp, in my feet, and in my little finger of all places. Since Alan had succumbed to fierce cramps after our descent into Kastoria, he had regularly been taking rehydration salts. I joined him. You could buy packets of twelve sachets in the pharmacy. Mixed with water, they had a synthetic strawberry taste, but were very effective.
We stayed by the springs all afternoon, enjoying the cool and dipping our feet in the icy water. Above and below, the riverbed was dry, but here the springs gushed up fast, forming a series of pools with little rocky beaches.
That night we stayed in Vikos village, climbing up out of the gorge in the cool of the evening. At the top, there was a shrine, with a sticker declaring “To the bottom of the harbour with fascists and bosses!” A graphic sketch showed a man with cement blocks attached to his feet sinking through the waves.
A lady in striking leopardskin trousers welcomed us to one of the two guesthouses, assisted by her three children. The youngest, aged about four, skipped around the tables outside, singing softly to herself and conversing with her cats. The tourists we’d seen down by the springs were waiting for their mini-bus opposite. Once they’d gone, we were the only strangers there.
The route: Easy downhill path from the refuge, well waymarked with O3 signs. Steep climb up from the Voidomatis Springs to Vikos. Three picnic shelters with water between the refuge and Mikro Papingo, as well as in the village. No further water till you reach the springs. Kilometres: 17.5. Ascent 382m Descent 1567m. Map: Anavasi Zagori 3.1.
Facilities: Guest houses and tavernas at Mikro Papingo and Vikos, as well as Megalo Papingo just off the route. The information centre at Mikro Papingo was closed. No shop.