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Alpine villages, jagged peaks - the Greece you rarely see Add to ...

The sound of the baying sheepdogs echoes across the alpine meadow as we follow the steep, ancient path.

The sheep are grazing peacefully, oblivious to the crescendo, but our guide, Nikos Koutsoupas, a tough Greek mountain man, takes their warning seriously and urges us to pick up rocks and stay close together. His warning comes none too soon. The hungry pack of scraggly mongrels, with jaws snapping and eyes gleaming, charge our group, but veer off at the last second when we hurl a hail of rocks in their direction.

The danger is averted and we can relax and enjoy the scenery of this mountainous area close to the Albanian border. This is not the Greece of antiquities and sun-kissed islands, but of pretty mountain villages and soaring jagged peaks reminiscent of the Swiss Alps - without the crowds.

Our hiking adventure starts four days earlier in the village of Monodendri in central Zagoria. It's here where Nikos tests the mettle of our group of seven - one American, four Brits and two Canadians - by leading us down to the bottom of the Vikos Gorge. According to Guinness World Records, the gorge, at about 1,350 metres, is the world's deepest in proportion to its width, and climbing back out is a long, gruelling grind. Our guide keeps our minds off our aching muscles by telling us about the doctors of Vikos - private physicians to the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled this part of Greece until 1913.

"They made special medicines from herbs that grow only in the gorge," he says, urging us to breathe deeply to take in the fragrance of the herb-scented air.

The gorge stretches across the border into Albania, and at night, Albanians anxious to escape poverty make a perilous descent into the gorge to cross the border into Greece undetected, Nikos continues. "Things are better here than in Albania," he says.

After we have climbed out of the gorge, we try a glass of local wine on a taverna patio shaded by grape vines. The 46 villages of Zagoria seem like paradise to us.

"Time has stood still here," says Mike, one of the Brits. Right on cue, an old lady carrying a bundle of sticks on her back passes by on the cobbled street as some men set up chess tables under the plane tree in the village square.

Grand mansions and humble cottages throughout the region are built in the Ottoman style. Ground floors originally for livestock are now used for cold storage as few residents own refrigerators. On the second floors, low shelves covered with rugs and cushions line the walls, serving as sofas by day and beds at night. Floors are covered in Persian rugs - some over 500 years old. Walls are decorated with bright frescoes and ceilings are covered with intricate woodwork. Villages are linked by ancient shepherds' paths and beautiful arched stone bridges so narrow that a bell is placed under each to warn travellers of high winds.

Each day, Nikos leads us high up into the mountains as we continue our linear journey across the Pindos Peaks. Following tracks used by the Vlach shepherds, who still practice the dhiava, an ancient tradition of moving their sheep to higher grazing grounds in the summer, we cross alpine meadows ablaze with wild flowers under towering peaks of limestone and serpentine rock.

A cold hard rain is falling as we slog to the refuge located 1,950 metres up Mount Astraka. The swirling mist obscures the view, but the food, given the total isolation of the place, is amazing. The fresh Greek salad is topped with a large slab of local feta cheese, the main course is an acceptable spaghetti Bolognese, dessert a thick yogurt topped with local honey - truly food of the gods.

As we head to bed in our hard bunks, our guide warns that tomorrow we may meet "savage, vicious Greek sheepdogs." The next day, after making our rocky escape, Nikos leads us over a snow-covered pass and down into the village of Tsepelovo, our last destination in Zagoria, a place where the modern age is a world away.

 

 

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