The Grammos mountains witnessed the last stand of the Left at the end of the civil war in 1949. The scars of napalm can still be seen on the denuded hillsides, and the forests were sown with minefields. Like Prespa, it became forbidden territory, and the old footpaths reverted back to forest. The three Grammos villages merged into one, now only seasonally occupied, with grazing rights issued by the government.
Even today, it is troubled border country, plagued by cattle rustling, drug and people smuggling, theft and illegal logging. As we walked towards Grammos village, two vehicles passed and stopped to check who we were. The first was the the border police, and the second was the army, visiting the army outposts at Slimnitsa and Grammos. The officers were charming; they invited us to stop for a coffee with the conscripts, and left their phone number in case of problems.
A third vehicle turned out to be George, the owner of the Grammos Lodge, where we’d planned to stay. He had hosted fifty cyclists over the holiday weekend, and was off to the bright lights of Kastoria to recover. The lodge was closed. However, we were welcome to sleep in the porch, and make use of the water, wifi, and picnic tables.
The opening of the lodge symbolised the rediscovery of Grammos, its amazing scenery and rich wildlife enhanced by the years of neglect. For the past two days we’d seen bear prints, big and small, in the mud of the track, and everywhere there were little frogs, giant snails and tortoises. Eagles soared overhead, and the cuckoo called incessantly. Above the village was the alpine lake of Gistova, on the border with Albania. We climbed up to it the next
day, past patches of melting snow, bright with gentians and crocuses in the bleached dead grass. Now there are plans for an all-weather road to Grammos, with perhaps the potential for year-round habitation.
The closure of the lodge left us with a problem. Camping was fine, but we had very little food. Thanassis, of the Rainbow Alliance, strode to our rescue, looking like an old Testament prophet with his long hair, colourful clothes and retinue of four stray dogs. He had been born in Uzbekistan, where his grandparents had fled after the civil war. His granny had been a nurse and his granddad a cook with the Democratic Army. His parents brought him back to Greece at the age of two.
He brought us home-made biscuits, opened up the village toilets and invited us to a supper of home-grown vegetables. We contributed the last of our rice and lentils. He was living in the former guesthouse, the unofficial village caretaker and “mascot”, and the only person to stay in the village throughout the winter. He’d kept in contact via the internet and passed the time making beautiful felt handicrafts.
The route: Dirt forest tracks, mostly shaded and fairly easy walking. New tracks being built can be confusing. There are some road signs, but this is not an official footpath and there are no waymarks. Spring in Grammos village and plenty of streams en route. Kilometres: 20. Ascent: 548m Descent: 269m. Map: Anavasi 3.3 Gramos, Smolikas, Voio, Vasilitsa (1:50,000). Only the digital version covers as far as Slimnitsa.
Facilities: The Grammos Lodge is seasonally open and provides food as well as rooms. It is vital to confirm bookings. Otherwise, there is no shop, cafe or place to stay.