Our epic family adventure: hiking the Vikos Gorge in Greece

There is a cheer as we board our train. We are taking the Eurostar from London to Paris and a couple so newly married that the bride is still wearing her wedding dress are walking just ahead of us. Our own excitement is perhaps less visible but just as palpable.

As the train races through the sunny lowlands of Kent, I grin at my eleven-year-old son Osian. He tries to disappear into his hoodie, embarrassed by my train spotter jokes and the unexpected romantic twist of the trip. However, nothing can derail my spirits at the thought of hiking in one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world: the Vikos Gorge in the Pindus Mountains of northwestern Greece.

There is also the thrill of getting there. After an overnight stay in Paris, we take an early train to Zurich and then another to Milan, brushing our noses against the windows as we look out over a rolling diorama of Alpine peaks and pasture valleys.

In Milan we venture into an Airbnb guest room a few minutes’ walk from Central Station. The historic apartment is so beautiful and owner Piergiorgio’s hospitality so generous, that the next day I spend too long sipping espresso on his plant-filled balcony and we have to sprint to catch our train to Brindisi, the port for our overnight ferry to the Greek port. port of Igoumenitsa.

A few hours before docking we wake up and run onto deck for our first look at the Greek mainland. The Pindus Mountains loom like a colorful ripple across the horizon. Like a time-lapse painting, the details emerge as we sail closer to land and the peachy whisper of the sunrise turns to bright rose gold. It’s been a long time since I’ve stood on the deck of a Greek ferry with only a backpack and the outline of an itinerary, and it fills me with joy – and relief – to discover that Osian is enjoying our odyssey like me.

It’s been a long time since I stood on the deck of a Greek ferry with only a backpack and the outline of an itinerary

A decade spent mothering young children and making peace with the tectonic changes that come with it means there’s not much time or money for more intrepid travel. With a big birthday coming up for me and Osian as they transition into high school, now feels like the time to move on. And to spend some one-on-one time together; he might not be so keen on it any time soon.

There are practical advantages to having an 11-year-old in tow, I discover, as we collect a hire car and Osian props my phone up on the dashboard screen and projects our route via Bluetooth before I’ve even fastened my seatbelt. We’re heading for Zagori, a region about 90 minutes’ drive inland whose cobbled villages, dramatic gorges and ancient stone bridges have earned it UNESCO World Heritage status. We’re halfway there, to avoid the full force of the midsummer heat, but it’s still warm as we follow a scenic route into the mountains, past wandering cows, dogs and sheep, holding our breath as dizzying drops appear around hairpin bends.

In Kipoi, once the ‘capital’ of Zagori but now a sleepy village, we stay at Hotel Machalas, where the bedrooms are made cozy with light carpets and painted ceilings. In the restaurant across the street we eat chips, fat beans, home-grown salad and souvlaki that are so tender that Osian’s eyes widen when he takes his first bite. The breakfast is just as good. Old-timers sing along to Greek songs that play softly in the background while we enjoy salty sheep’s cheese, olives, home-made bread and thick yogurt.

For the next three days we walk roughly north, from village to village. We leave the hire car at the hotel and set off with our backpacks to Monodendri, a three-hour drive away (we plan to take a taxi back at the end of the walk to pick up the car). The bridges in the region are the highlight of today’s route. Built mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries, they are all so distinctive and exquisite that they look as if they were chiselled by elves.

One of the first we encounter is Plakidas, a three-arched wonder that waves like a sleeping dragon over the river, not far from Kipoi. From here we zigzag down and up a winding path lined with wild sage and rosemary, the only sound being a single cowbell in a distant valley. After a picnic of spinach pie and oranges near the high semicircle of the Noutsos Bridge, the gentle drizzle turns into heavy, relentless rain.

We’re soon soaked, but there’s no obvious place to take shelter, so we press on, plodding over the Misiou Bridge and up the Vitsa Steps, a 300-year-old staircase that, Andy Goldsworthy style, climbs the steep slope rises for us. Even the always cheerful Osian starts to falter when we pass a sign warning of bears and thunderstorms overhead. Luckily it’s not much further to the village of Vitsa, where we are welcomed into the chic Strouga cafe with slices of sticky honey and orange cake and the offer to call a taxi.

We can enjoy the gorge as the scent of sage wafts from our feet and wild cyclamens line the route

In neighboring Monodendri we check in at Hotel Vikos (double rooms from €80). The next morning, fueled by owner Dimitris’ pancakes, we head to the Vikos Gorge. The deepest gorge in the world in proportion to its width, this dramatic rocky gorge is what drew us to Zagori. We enter with a 45-minute steep descent into what feels like the underworld, but is in reality dense fog.

For the next 90 minutes, we keep our eyes on the trail as it rises, descends, clambers over boulders and throws in a section of via ferrata. About halfway through, the trail levels out and, apart from a 45-minute climb at the end, the rest of the six-hour route is an easy walk. We meet only a handful of other hikers: we can enjoy the gorge as the scent of sage wafts from our feet and wild cyclamens line the trail like little cheerleaders. By lunchtime, the mist has lifted and the gigantic walls of the gorge are visible.

“This is epic,” Osian shouts into the mighty echo chamber as we lie on a boulder, as insignificant as ants, while the mountains known as the Towers of Astraca loom 1,000 meters above the ground.

At the end of the route we climb up to the hamlet of Vikos for bowls of wild boar stew and an overnight stay at the pretty geranium-strewn Vikos View hotel (double rooms from €76). The beds are so comfortable and the breakfast so generous that we leave later than planned and return to the trail as soon as the sun starts to shine.

Our final day’s walk is a short flight to neighbouring Megalo Papingo, but the route descends back into the gorge and up the other side, and it’s blazing hot in the middle of the day. We plan to stop at the bottom for a dip in the Voidomatis springs, but waste a hot hour heading the wrong way before eventually finding our way to the turquoise pools, where we remove our boots and dip our feet in the icy water. It’s a magical place, with a small chapel beside the springs and a grassy area perfect for a picnic. But with the climb ahead of us, I’m nervous about lingering too long this late in the day. Reluctantly, we begin our ascent.

We walk uphill for over two hours, sometimes through forest, sometimes over steep rocks. At one point the path leads over a scree slope, the slope so steep that my legs start to shake. Unhindered by fear of heights, Osian steps forward, enjoying the role reversal while I stay behind, following his instructions to keep my eyes on his back and trying to laugh at the jokes he tells to distract me. It is a glimpse of the future, Osian’s kindness and courage fill me with pride. How precious this time together is, and how I hope he remembers it.

Related: All stations to Athens: travel through Europe by train and boat

As we arrive at Megalo Papingo, the trees cover us in saffron-coloured leaves, a ticker-tape ending to a magical journey. At our hotel, the Papaevangelou (doubles from €137), owner Giorgios upgrades us to a room with a view of the Astraka Towers. As the sun rises the next morning, we sit on the terrace and tuck into a fantastic breakfast and that epic panorama. How far we’ve come, in so many ways.

Train journeys from London to Paris were provided by Eurostar; from €78 return. Train from Paris to Brindisi via Switzerland from £80 one way, and Brindisi to Turin from £70 one way, both booked through Trainline. Ferry from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa from £34 one way, booked through Direct Ferries. Coach from Turin to Paris from £29 one way, booked through Flixbus

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