It had been a long day, and we were setting up the tent amidst orchids in a meadow just below the track. Our food supplies were running low, as we hadn’t found a proper shop since Konitsa, over a week before. The taverna in Skamneli had made us a packed lunch, but supper was pasta with a gloopy packet cheese sauce. We didn’t have much water either. There was a stream running down the side of the track, but cows had passed that way and it was too murky to drink – good enough for cooking though.
Two shepherds passed in a pick-up, the first people we had seen all day. “Germany? France?” they shouted as they slowed down to check us out. “Ah, England! Tough people!” But we weren’t tough enough to withstand the mosquitoes, the worst we’d met so far, despite being so high up. We escaped into the tent to read, even before the sun had set.
The first few kilometres from Skamneli had been along tarred road, but there were few cars and we were in the shade of the pine forest. Then we turned off along a forestry track east towards Vovousa, through a green and English landscape. A small stream gurgled below, framed by bracken and wild roses. We stopped to eat wild strawberries, and watch the tortoises crossing the path. Soon, there’d be wild raspberries and blackberries, too.
As we climbed over the pass the next morning, we could pick out where we’d been walking all week. We’d come almost a complete circle from the peaks of Smolikas and Timfi , then round the villages of the Zagoria. We took a last look as we headed down and towards the new massifs of the Valia Kalda.
We were also on to a new Anavasi map. There’d been a gap between the two maps, on both the paper and the digital versions, but the tracks were clear and it didn’t matter. But as we started on the new Valia Kalda map, we ran into problems. We wanted to take the footpath down to Vovousa, cutting off several kilometres of forestry track. We found a waymark at the start, but then it disappeared. We persevered, using the GPS to follow the line shown, but gave up when it petered out entirely in thick undergrowth.
We retraced our steps, then stumbled across the waymarked path again, which was taking a completely different route down the mountainside. At times, the grass and bracken closed above our heads, but the waymarks didn’t fail us. We emerged on the dirt road above Vovousa. Just before the village, there was a wild cherry tree, the tart fruit making a nice change from the strawberries which once again lined the track.
We were hot and smelly when we sat down in the village cafe. This was a Vlach village and the cafe was called La Pounteli – The Bridge in Vlach. Down below was the old stone bridge. I thought about finding somewhere to stay and a shower before lunch, but hunger won out. It was Sunday, and the tables were full, with children running around the square and people coming back from picking strawberries in the forest.
The guesthouse and taverna on the edge of the village had closed down, and so had the information centre and refuge. The pile of droppings from the swallow’s nest above the entrance made it clear that it hadn’t been used for some time. Building had started on a new community guesthouse on the edge of the square, but it wasn’t quite finished.
But we’d already got chatting to a father and son at the cafe. They lived in Ioannina but spent weekends and holidays in Vovousa, and quickly sorted out somewhere for us to stay, with a friend at an adjoining table. The young lad was the table tennis champion for Northern Greece. I asked if he got bored in the village. “No,” he replied. “There’s loads to do – swimming and fishing…”
It was a lively evening. The World Cup match between Greece and Costa Rica was on. It was the first time Greece had ever made it into the quarter finals, and all evening people trickled in, ready for the game. There was still a village school, and there seemed to be children everywhere, riding bicycles around the square and shouting to each other across the river. We didn’t stay till the end of the game: Greece lost. We could hear people going home noisily through the streets afterwards.
The route: Tarred road at the start, then mostly dirt forestry tracks, fairly easy going, with forestry signs at most intersections. Well waymarked footpath for the descent into Vovousa, although the path was sometimes overgrown. Clean water at two springs on the Skamneli side of the ridge, but otherwise water was hard to find. Camping best above the treeline. Kilometres: 30.5. Ascent 1008m Descent 1142m. Maps: Anavasi: Zagori 3.1 and Vlaia Kalda 6.4. The small gap between the two didn’t matter.
Facilities: Cafe and rooms at Vovousa.