When in Metsovo, most people settle for a walk around the landmarks within the town, in the square and the tavernas, and miss out on the unique natural beauty surrounding them. And yet, everyone can walk through forests filled with beech and fir trees without being mountaineers; they can study unique rock formations, visit lakes that look like Norwegian fjords, and spot rare plant species, amphibians, cows, foxes and wild horses.
This is a truly extraordinary landscape, especially now with its autumn hues on display. The routes are well signposted and can be followed either by bicycle or on foot; some begin even from the hotel reception! Yet mountaineering aficionados also have nothing to worry about. Lefteris Fafalis, the champion cross-country skier from Metsovo who returned to Greece with his German wife, Viola Bauer, holder of three Olympic medals in cross-country skiing. Together they created the outdoor activities company Go Active.
I visit their office in Metsovo square and, inspired by the photographs lining the walls, I cannot wait to check out this natural wonderland.
“Today we will begin from Grand Forest Metsovo and go on an easy two-hour hike. Would you like to come?” they ask me. “Would I like to come? Of course, let’s go!”
We head to the path through lush verdant fields, admiring the view of the town which every once in a while gets lost in a big cloud. Lefteris offers the group, about 50 smiling Germans from a startup company, information about what we see.
He explains that the vineyards of the Katogi Averoff winery at Ginietsare the highest vineyards in Greece (at an altitude of 900-1050 meters) and this is where international grapes varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah were first cultivated in the 1950s.
The route continues along a dirt path. We meet the Papasi family on a plateau, with its seventy-odd sheep, and a bit further down we run into young Aggelos feeding his cows.
We follow the dirt path, which extends all the way to the bridge crossing the Metsovitiko River. At the bottom of the village we pass by the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, dating to the 17th-18th century, a convent that takes you back to a bygone era. Time seems to have stopped here.
After the walk, the village uphill incline terminates at the wooden tables of the Pente Fi grill house (Friend, Fetch Friends, Feast, Leave) in the main square. Soon the table is filled with sheep kontosouvli (spit roast), tender kokoretsi (lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal), sausage and chicken with house spices and herbs. The group does the spread justice, with lots of laughter and tsipouro.
I ask Lefteris how he ended up in Germany, and he explains that first he studied to be a gymnast at the University of Munich, and then committed to athletics. A cross-country skier with distinctions in the Balkan Athletics Championships who competed in four Winter Olympics (1998-2010), twice being the nation’s flag bearer – these are achievements worth mentioning!
And while the bus was waiting to take us back, we all preferred to return to the hotel on foot.
From the Fallen Heroes to Karakoli
The next day I accompany Lefteris and his family on their nearby Sunday walk above the village. The 1.5 hour-hike begins from the main gate of Metsovo, by the Monument to Fallen Heroes of the Greek-Italian War. We cross a gate fashioned from tree trunks, which signals the beginning of the Ursa Trail.
Entering the thick forest, the colors of autumn abound. We quickly arrive at an outdoor “living room” with tree trunks and an awe inspiring view of the Pindus mountain range. A bit further down, my attention is captured by the web of a huge “spider” made of wire and stones from the river. A creation of artist Ilias Tsoris, it is part of a creative project by Giorgos Houliaras (professor at the School of Fine Arts) and his students, who created a series of artworks infused in the natural environment along the course of the Ursa Trail.
Soon, a sweet sound disrupts the silence of the forest. Lefteris’ youngest son hits a gong made from local materials – cedar wood, bronze, traditional bells, antlers – a work by young sculptor Andreas Vernardakis.
Huge beech trees, chestnut trees and mushrooms sprouting, for as far as the eye can see. I think to myself that Hansel and Gretel should be coming out of their hiding places at any moment.
We cross the highest point of the cable car, a project funded by the Tositsa Foundation and inspired by an idea by Evangelos Averoff. The Metsovo cable car was one of the first to be built in Greece. Reaching an altitude of 1500 meters, we are captivated by the magical views of the golden-red forests and fields stretching out below.
We follow the downhill route of the “Karakoli” ski resort, created in 1966 by the Tositsa Foundation. The cyclical route terminates where it began – at the Monument of the Fallen Heroes.
Valedi Liosani and Politsies
After a break for a snack, the divine savory pies we procured from Tampas bakery, we continue with another hike that is accessible for all. Walking in line through the forest we hike through fields, clearings and beech trees until we reach “Kaligomeno aloni” at an altitude of 1600 meters.
On the Vale di Liosani plateau we encounter a herd of sheep, while the architecture and cool running waters of the Kria Vrisi spring impress us. From here, we follow the cross-country skiing course that features wooden bridges and clearings.
As we exit the forest, we arrive at the downhill course of the ski resort Politsies, or Profitis Ilias.
The end of the cyclical route brings us to the starting point. We make a stop at the Country Grill Café, a restaurant/café after Metsovo on the way to Katara. Its owner, Dimitris, gathers mushrooms for us from the mountain and sautés them– a divine meze!
Soon enough an exceptional pepper beef head arrives, followed by well-cooked soutzoukakia (oblong meatballs with cumin and garlic served with tomato sauce) and traditional sausages. We accompany with lettuce salad; everything is delicious and well-priced.
Aoos Spring Lake on e-bikes
The next day begins with a drizzle, but the weather does not daunt us. Starting from Politsies we traverse an enchanting 40 kilometer route without getting too tired thanks to our e-bikes.
Wild vegetation accompanies us along the entire stretch, which is fairly level without any steep inclines. The colors of autumn greet us on every turn. The black pines, beech and fir trees are reflected in the waters of the lake, which is a refuge for dozens of bird species, and fish.
In a meadow we see a herd of Thessalian horses galloping free and undisturbed, away from fences and barbed wires. Reaching a height of almost 1.5 meters, these impressive animals belong to Alekos Topis, a Metsovo local.
The artificial Aoos Lake (or Aoos Springs Lake) was created in 1987 on the foothills of Mavrovouni for the production of electric power. Who would imagine that at an altitude of 1350 meters, a stone’s throw from Politsies, man and nature would collaborate so harmoniously to create this uniquely beautiful alpine landscape? During the summer months a variety of activities are organized here, such as overnight camping in tents and picnics, traversing Valia Calda and even SUP rides on the lake.
Where have the sheep gone?
The Metsovo locals were traditionally exceptional stockbreeders, tseligades (owners of many sheep and goats) and proud nomads. They would spend the winters in the valley with their animals, and return to the mountains in May. Yet in recent years this age-old tradition is waning, and sheep are being abandoned for cattle. Aggelos Kostamenos, a young stockbreeder from Metsovo, explains why:
“When you have sheep, you need to be there at 6 o’clock in the morning, to milk them and take care of them until the evening. Cows do not need so much care. The calves drink their mother’s milk until they grow up, and therefore the work of the stockbreeder is minimal, who breeds them for their meat. It is also more profitable: beef is sold for 5-6 euros, while lamb goes for 2 euros. This is proportional to the value of each animal of course, since a cow costs 1000 euros and a sheep 200.”
Giorgos Tsobikos, director of the Tositsa Foundation, comes from a stockbreeding family and offers a more general perspective: “Stockbreeding has always been a family affair; everyone contributed to taking care of the animals, from the grandmother and grandfather to the mothers and fathers. When we were young, we would stay here in Metsovo with our aunts because my mother would go down to the valley with my father for some time. Now, no woman wants to follow this profession, nor do they want to follow their husband because of issues concerning the children’s schooling and other responsibilities. This year, for instance, only one herd came up.”
So what will happen as a result of this decrease in stockbreeders? For instance, how will they produce the famed cheeses of the Tositsa Foundation if there is no milk? “In 1990 we had 45,000 sheep, and in 2020 we have just 5,000. If the state does not intervene, you can imagine what will happen in a few years…”
Mavrovouni – Flega
The sun had just appeared in triumph when we departed from Metsovo to traverse the route to the Aoos Springs Lake on our electric bicycles. We head to the starting point and on the open grazing fields we see cows, horses and… a cute squirrel. It quickly hops along the level ground and once it reaches the first tree, it scrambles up the tree trunk so quickly that I do not have enough time to take a picture.
We leave the cars on the side of the road and begin the uphill ascent to the Mavrovouni refuge on our bikes. After every turn, the lake is revealed in all its grandeur, all the unique perspectives we could not grasp from below.
From the Mavrovouni refuge at an altitude of 1860 meters we continue into the forest and arrive at the southern edge of the Pindus National Park (Valia Calda), where we cross a small alpine lake. Soon we enter the subalpine zone, following the centenarian robola pine trees. Here you will find some of the oldest trees in Europe. In fact, there is one (Pinus heldreichii) that is more than 1000 years old. Scientists have studied its rings to calculate its age, but they do not want to disclose the exact location of “Adonis,” as they have called this particular tree.
We stop at a spring and Christos, a friend of Lefteris, gives us some tsipouro and apple to warm us up. We follow the serpentine, well-trodden path with views over the artificial lake until the fog thickens and we cannot see each other anymore. We left climbing to the peak for next time, but you could try it, weather permitting. Flega peak is about 1.5-2 hours from the Mavrovouni refuge, and on clear days you can see almost all the mountains of mainland Greece.
The end of the day finds us at Gnision, the brand new delicatessen in Metsovo exuding a sophisticated aesthetic that reminds you of the French Alps. Owner Konstantinos Zouvgias will explain everything about the famous Tositsa Foundation cheeses and will continue with wines from Katogi Averoff, completing the gastronomic tour with wine tasting and snacks.
We enjoy the rich flavor of the finest Greek Cabernet “Rossiu di Munte-Giniets” accompanied by the divine Ressana Tossizza parmesan from Metsovo. I cannot imagine a better epilogue to our experience here.
URSA TRAIL: ON THE TRACKS OF THE BROWN BEAR
The Ursa Trail is a 40-kilometer mountain hiking route around Metsovo. It is accessible throughout the year and hosts the “Ursa Trail” and “On the tracks of the Bear” mountain running races organized by the Metsovo Athletic Association. Its goal in designing the route is to bring participating athletes closer to the natural environment of the brown bear and raise awareness for the protection of the environment.
The Ursa Trail was cleaned, sign posted and is maintained by the Metsovo Athletic Association and volunteers, with the support of the Municipality of Metsovo. In 2016 it received the international certification of a Leading Quality Trail – Best of Europe from the European Ramblers Association (ERA), which ranks Metsovo as one of the most important hiking destinations in Europe.
Metsovo is located 446 kilometers from Athens (4 hours 45 minutes). For fuel and tolls, estimate 90 euros one way. From Thessaloniki the distance is 218 kilometers (2 hours 30 minutes) and the cost of fuel and tolls is approximately 30 euros one way.
Katogi Averoff Hotel (Tel. (+30) 26560.42505, katogiaveroffhotel.gr). In addition to the warm setting created by the collection of artworks by contemporary artists decorating the hotel spaces, the hearty breakfast is also rather remarkable. Maria and Alexandros Ioannou, who have recently taken it over, spare no expenses – you can try all the cheese produced by the Tositsa Foundation among others, homemade jams made with raspberries, blackberries and cranberries, the exquisite butter of the Tositsa Foundation, a variety of cakes for all tastes, as well as traditional Metsovo pastries such as with cassata, wild greens and cheese. Double rooms with breakfast from 90 euros.
Grand Forest Hotel (Tel. (+30) 26560.29001 to 4, grand-forest.gr). Calm and relaxation in the pine forests of the Pindus mountain range – this is what this five-star hotel offers. Double rooms with breakfast from 135 euros.
Olympic Hotel (Tel. (+30) 26560.41337, olympic-metsovo.gr). A family hotel that offers warm hospitality and a very good breakfast in the heart of Metsovo. Double rooms with breakfast from 50 euros.
Galaxias (Metsovo Main Square, Tel. (+30) 26560-41202). A classic option for food, offering the entire range of Metsovo’s gastronomic wealth.
To Koutouki tou Nikola (Tositsa 6, Metsovo, Tel. (+30) 26560.41732). Following its expansion, it offers a large dining room with a view. The cuisine remains of good quality, with tasty dishes and savory pies.
Pente Fi (Averof 1, Metsovo, Tel. (+30) 26560.41843). The famous grillhouse is known for its lamb kontosouvli and its grilled meats.
Country Grill café (Politsies, on the Metsovo-Katara country road, Tel. (+30) 6932.430.202). Dimitris takes full advantage of the exceptional local produce to create simple, well-cooked meals.
To Gnision (VasiliouZaousi 1, Tel. (+30) 26560.42765, cheese-wines.gr). Purchase the cheese products of the Tositsa Foundation and other delicacies at this elegant delicatessen.
I Thea (Anilio, Tel. (+30) 26560.42050). Grill house with divine lamb chops and a great variety of local wines.
Go Active (Tel. (+30) 6942.569.618, goactive-metsovo.gr). Programs in the natural setting of the wider Metsovo area, ranging from day trips to multi-day experiences. Ideal for families, couples and large companies. The electric bicycles are a highlight.
For those interested in wine tourism, the Katogi Averoff vineyard (katogiaveroff.gr) offers unique tours of the facilities, guided by oenologist Maria Dimou.
During the winter, three ski resorts operate in the Metsovo region: Anilio, Profitis Ilias and Karakoli. You can also opt for the Metsovo ice skating rink, where visitors and locals practice their skills on ice.