We had a choice. We could walk up the Koubourianitikos river or over the ridge on the far side and along the dirt roads to Leondito. It all depended on the water level, Dimitri told us, as we set off. “You’ll see when you get to the river. If it’s brown and murky, then there’s been rain up in the mountains and you should avoid it. If it’s clear, you should be fine.” Common sense, really.
It was a glorious day, and as we approached the river, we could see that it was running clear. Alan was still doubtful: “We’ll get wet and be wading up to our waists….” But I was keen to get off the dirt roads and a river walk would make a nice change.
We consulted a man sitting beside his broken down van in the river bed, waiting for a mechanic to rescue him. “You should be fine,” he said. “The water won’t come above your knees, at most. I often go up the river, hunting wild boar. There’s a rough track for the first few kilometres, then you walk in the river bed.”
So we set off, thankful to leave the Acheloos river behind. Just below Petroto, it had been disfigured by massive earthworks, with a vast dam and pylons looping across the valley. Above us was a tunnel, down which irrigation water would be diverted to the plains of Thessaly. On the road were signs of protest: “No Acheloos Diversion!” But the earthworks were soon out of sight, and after a little while, we could no longer see even the telegraph poles marking the road high above.
The peace was perfect. The river meandered along a broad channel of grey white stones,sometimes splitting into two or more rivulets. The plane trees along the banks were gnarled from the winter storms, and yellowing with the first hint of autumn. On the slopes above were clumps of golden sternbergia. The water was lusciously cool and soothing as we crossed, again and again, maybe thirty times or more. It wasn’t too deep and there were stones underfoot. Sometimes the valley widened out. We passed a couple of sheepfolds, and could see sheep grazing in the distance up a tributary.
We were slightly worried that the valley would close in as we got further upstream, hemming us in between steep sides with a deepening river channel. Instead, after about four hours, it widened out, with the remains of old stone walls and a shaded area of grass and trees, bright with autumn crocuses. Suddenly, the stillness was rent by sound booming out down the valley. What on earth was it? Looking up, we could see Spilia monastery, perched on the cliff. A church service was underway, broadcast though loudspeakers.
“I’m sure we can scramble up here,” said Alan, looking at the road to the monastery not so far above. His knees were starting to feel the strain over the rough river rocks, and he wanted to cut off as much of the final kilometres to Leondito as he could. Bad mistake! The rough path got increasingly vertical as we climbed, with loose stones and scratchy undergrowth. We clutched at tree roots and low bushes to stop sliding down, aware that a slip could mean a broken ankle or worse. After a final stretch of scree, we emerged hot and tired on the road.
And then we made our second mistake. To our surprise, there was a cafe and guest house at Ragazia, a kilometre or so further on. We stopped for a cold drink, but then foolishly decided to push on to Leondito as it was only 4 o’clock. The footpath headed uphill to join the main path from the monastery to Leondito. Very soon, we were once again struggling through prickly undergrowth, completely lost, with steep slopes on all asides. Would we land up stranded between precipices, unable to go forward or back? Alan scouted ahead, while I worried that we would we lose each other if he went too far. We had whistles, but the sound didn’t carry very well. We were following the path shown on the GPS, but there was no trace of it on the ground. We hadn’t stopped for a proper lunch, and I was tired, hungry and frightened. My water bottle fell out of the side pocket of my back pack, and I didn’t dare take the pack off to put it back, in case pack, bottle, and maybe me, all fell irretreviably down the mountainside.
At last the animal tracks we’d been following solidified into a proper path, with lopped trunks on either side showing some minimal maintenance. It was dark by the time we reached Leondito, with a buzz of surprised questions as we entered the little cafe in the square. It had taken us over three hours to walk five kilometres. We booked into the village guesthouse for two nights to recover before the next challenge: the Delidhimi pass.
The route: Good route along the river, as long as the water is low. Plenty of water! Steep scramble up to the road at the monastery, to be avoided if possible. It would be worth checking if it’s possible to continue along the river as far as the bridge and road shown on the map, although this is a longer route, with the final kilometres to Leondito on tarred road. The footpath from Ragazia is very unclear, and it would be better to carry on up the road to the monastery and take the mule track from there. Kilometres: 15. Ascent: 711m Descent: 455m Maps: Anavasi: South Pindos 4.2, Northern Agrafa 4.1.
Facilities: Guesthouse and cafe at Ragazia. Guesthouse and cafes at Leondito.