With its towering mountains and charming villages, the Zagori region of northwest Greece is a paradise for hikers, says Catherine Fairweather in the FT. Particularly “haunting” in the winter, it is blanketed in dense forests that are home to boar, wolves and bears, and through its heart runs the spectacular Vikos Gorge. Cobbled mule paths, or kalderimia, run between its villages, which are home to splendid merchants’ mansions that were mostly built, along with the region’s 64 stone bridges, in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the area grew rich from trade (Napoleon’s sailors at Trafalgar are said to have worn cloaks woven from the wool of Zagori sheep).
From the airport at Thessaloniki, it is a three-hour drive, past Mount Olympus, to the village of Aristi, and the cosy Aristi Mountain Resort hotel. The sense of isolation grows as the road winds past waterfalls and ruined homesteads to the village’s main square, where a taverna, En Aristi, serves regional food in the shade of giant plane trees. Spread across several traditional houses, the hotel has a spa and an indoor pool, and each room has its own wood-burning stove and “rosemary-fringed” front door, stepping out of which each morning is like entering a “dreamscape”. A path leads out onto a wild hillside, past the 17th century Spiliotissa monastery, and down to the crystalline waters and white beaches of the Voidomatis river.
One of the best walks runs through the deciduous woodlands of the Vikos Gorge. In the “cool, green, silent world” within it lie the springs of Voidomatis, which is a lovely place to rest. Lichen “hangs like bracelets from the branches of the hornbeams”, moss carpets the rocks, and the waters of the mineral pools are pure enough to drink, and wonderful for swimming.