Vikos Gorge, Greece: Eye-wincingly magnificent views from top of the world's deepest gorge

We're standing on the edge of a deep ravine in northern Greece, looking across it at an age-old set of stairs that zigzags up the cliff face opposite, a stony, man-made zip created to tame rugged nature.

Up high, a bird of prey rides the warm morning air currents. It looks like a black pencil flick on a painting entitled Here Be Dragons. The bird, we note, is hovering below our destination.

Ron Sharp, my friend of 50 years, glances at me, looks back at the stairs and says, deadpan: "Whose clever idea was this again?"

We are just outside the unassuming mountain village of Kapesovo in Zagori, a remote area famous for its traditional villages where the houses are (by law these days) made only of local stone and topped with grey slates held together only by their cumulative weight.

This is the starting point for a self-guided walking tour which will take us all the way to Papingo at the other side of the Vikos Gorge, a little known but geologically dramatic slash in this craggy country near the Albanian border.

Our destination today is the Beloi lookout, from which we will be able to see the gorge that we'll tackle the day after tomorrow. In our daypacks we have several bottles of water and a packed lunch provided by Joanna Papageorgiou, our host at the beautiful Guesthouse Thoukididis back in the village.

Today's walk is circular, 10 kilometres to Beloi and back, which begins and ends with the Vradeto steps, named after the village at the top. Until 1973, when a road was finally built, these steps were the only connection the village had with the outside world. Carved out of the rockface 200 years ago by local dry-stone wall craftsmen, the 1200 stairs and 39 turns rise 250 leg-burning, lung-busting metres pretty much straight up.

We later discover that the father of the woman who runs one of the cafes in the main square of Kapesovo used to be the local postman and climbed these steps at least four times a week to deliver the mail. If you meet her, do ask to see the old well inside the café and her father, who is obviously part-mountain goat.

It's a good four-and-a-half-hour day, including a break for a gluey Greek coffee in Vradeto and a picnic lunch at the lookout, which is an easy 40-minute walk beyond the village on tarmac and, after that runs out, across country.

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The lookout is spectacular – a natural stone balcony offering panoramic views right down the gullet of the gorge that's going to swallow us the day after tomorrow. It looks quite cute.

Before we go on, it's probably best to backtrack a little. This On Foot Holidays walk actually starts in the charmingly historic lakeside town of Ioannina, where we are met by a company taxi which transports us to Kapesovo.

Getting to Ioannina depends very much on how you arrive in Greece. We came in through the holiday island of Corfu and spent two nights there and one night in Ioannina as a pre-trip orientation to get used to the beer.

On day two we are a lot more confident of the idea of walking out, alone, into the rough seclusion of the countryside, thanks to the wide-ranging documentation provided by On Foot Holidays.

This includes a personal itinerary, individual maps and comprehensive and comforting guiding instructions for each day's trek, a clear plastic waterproof pouch and booklets full of local information, telephone numbers and suggestions of what to carry. On the one-way walks, our main luggage is taken to the next destination by car.

The next day dawns clear, bright and warm (it's July and one of the hottest months of the year) and we set off for the village of Monodendri with smiles on our faces and a song in our heart. Though I'm unsure My Old Man's A Dustman is entirely appropriate.

Today's walk profile says it's a mere 11-kilometre, four-and-a-half hour walk, descending from 1100 metres above sea level to 700 metres and then back up to 950 metres. This is easier said than done, of course.

It's a day that creeps up on you, unlike day one which was in your face right from the start. By the end of it we have clambered up hill and down dale, through forests thick with moss, encountered wonderful old hunchbacked stone bridges over dry riverbeds, admired fairy tale villages tucked into the folds of the mountain, stopped at stone churches full of religious icons and church mice, and trudged up Vitsa's steps, which are Vradeto's craftier, more spiteful brother.

At one point, slogging up the hill towards the village of Vitsa we begin to wonder if this is some surreal joke that the locals play on visitors – because it feels like an Escher drawing where everywhere is up. The views are eye-wincingly magnificent, the panoramas glorious, everything we can see is below us; but then we turn the corner to find yet another hill.

"Remind me again whose idea this was?" says Ron.

Monodendri, where we stay the night at the Arktouros Hotel, is all village square and cobblestones and cafes. But it's been a five-hour, hard-but-satisfying trek and, after a siesta and a hearty dinner, we call it a day.

Part of the Pindus Mountains, the Vikos Gorge is said to be the deepest in the world - 1000 metres down and anything from 400 to just a few metres across at some points – and it is the Big One for which the past two days have been preparing us.

The walk profile says we start at 1000 metres and, over the next 15 kilometres, descend to 600 before climbing out at the end back up to 1000.

It's the hardest walk so far – six hours and 45 minutes in all, if you must know - but also the most rewarding. We plunge through pristine landscapes, raggedy forests of maple, beech, fig and oak, down precipitous slopes to the dry bones of the Voidomatis riverbed, clamber over giant boulders, slither across extensive scree-covered mountainside and pause to drink in bosky dells where bright green moss covers the floor like some massive shagpile carpet.

There are frigid pools where we dip throbbing feet and open, meadow-like sections where birds sing and tiny lizards dart into the undergrowth. And all the time, soaring above us towards that cloudless Titian sky, are the vertiginous walls of the canyon.

It's all very Lord of the Rings – part-Shire, part-Mount Doom, part-Lothlorien -and I find myself calling out to Ron: "Wait for me, Mr Frodo!"

The final climb out is hard going – a long, exposed, sun-scorched series of switchbacks which meanders tortuously up the side of the canyon, across 45-degree gravel slopes, back down to the river and up again to Mordor, I mean, Papingo.

In ancient Greek myth, ambrosia was the food and drink of the gods but a frosty Mythos beer in the main square at the end of the walk came very close.

The profile for day four (Papingo to Astraka refuge and Dragon Lake and back) describes it as 13 kilometres, an ascent of 1430 metres, nine hours walking, and a "hard" difficulty. Or alternatively we can stroll to the natural spring pools just above Papingo and chill out.

Hey, Astraka's not going anywhere soon. We can always come back.

The next day, lounging about in the sun at the rock pools, Ron puts his book down and says: "Whose clever idea was this?"

TRIP NOTES

FLY

All the major airlines operate flights from Sydney and Melbourne with connections to Athens, with onward flights to Ioannina (or Corfu if you'd like to spend some days there). From Athens, the village of Ioannina is about a five-hour drive. From Corfu, you will need to take a ferry to Igoumenitsa and then a bus on to Ioannina (about one hour).

TOUR

On Foot Holidays offers self-guided walking holidays in lesser-known areas of Europe with accommodation in small, family-run hotels. There are walks for all levels of fitness and tastes; the five-night Vikos Gorge walk is graded medium-hard and demands a good level of fitness; there are some very steep ascents and descents. Distances vary from 10-15 kilometres a day, with between four and seven hours of walking. Prices start at £655 (about $A1200) per person including double/twin room, all breakfasts, taxis between Ioannina town/bus station/airport and Kapesovo/Papingo, luggage transfers, three picnics and two evening meals. On Foot also supply a full Walkers Pack with route directions, maps, transfer and background information. See onfootholidays.co.uk

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traveller.com.au/Greece

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of On Foot Holidays.

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