Harsh, rugged dolomite
peaks and mountainous landscapes ripped, cut and carved over millennia of
geological shifts, this is Zagori – a 1 000km2
northwestern Greece near the Albanian border, far off the tourist path and majestic
in its isolation.
Slavic for “beyond the mountain”
, Zagori is Greece’s
best kept tourism secret, a land of natural beauty quite beyond expectation,
and home to what has become the country’s most popular trail running ultra, The
North Face Zagori TeRA (Tymfi Endurance Race) 80km.
The brainchild of race
organisers Mara and Vasilis Kalogirou of the Fifth Element running store in the
Epirus region’s largest town Ioannina, the race is now in its sixth year, and I
can say first hand that it quite easily matches, and in many ways improves
upon, the best of European ultras.
And for those trailers
who love an adventurous running experience in an exquisite part of the world,
this one’s for you.
Modelled on the
concept of incorporating sights and villages of an area into a route, the Zagori mountain run is
circular, starting and finishing in historic Tsepelovo, the largest of Zagori’s
46 mountain-clinging villages.
|Narrow stone road of Papigo, one of the villages on the route|
I knew to
expect great scenery, but I really hadn’t visualised the dramatic, jagged
beauty I saw. Much like the Alps, the Vikos-Aoös
National Park is a grizzly maze of towering dolomite and limestone peaks with steep
shale fringes and forested valleys. It’s a UNESCO Geopark, recognised for its geological
heritage, and exploring it is a privilege experienced by fewer than 80 000
tourists annually. That’s not many, considering South Africa’s Table Mountain scores
well over 10 times that number. This place is special, and as far as tourism
goes, relatively undiscovered.
That, of course, makes
it a fantastic trail running playground! As much as 80% of the first 40km of
the route are run on single track that was specially cut (read hacked, not
mown) for the race. Until 10 years ago the area was used only by hunters, and
paths through the thick vegetation were scarce.
I ran beneath towering
cliffs and along the edge of precipitous drop-offs. I wound my way 12km along
the gnarly meandering forest path of the Vikos Gorge, a 38km long canyon that,
with its depth of 1 300m, makes it the deepest gorge, in proportion to its
width, in the world.
I drank from the
Spring of Voidomatis, source of the river renowned as the cleanest natural
water in Europe.
|Drakolimni or "Dragon Lake" of Tymfi|
I circumnavigated the alpine
lake Drakolimni or “Dragon Lake”
Tymfi at 2 050m where, according to local folklore, the lake was inhabited by
dragons who fought each other using rocks and pine cones as weapons, resulting
in the peculiar, bleak landscape around the 5m deep crystal clear lake.
I passed over cobbled stone bridges built in 1400. I ran through the
village squares of seven of Zagori’s most picturesque stone villages, most of
which are more than 500 years older than me, oozing with history, and all with
populations of about 30 people.
|Kalogeriko bridge near Kipoi village|
With 219 other
runners, I slogged up – and down – 5 100m of ascent and descent. Those 80km
hurt, my legs whinged, my lungs burned. That’s what running ultras are about. And
it was worth every single bead of sweat, every smidgeon of exhausted pain. This
was the best of pure mountain running, and the exhilaration of the experience felt
higher than the peaks that watched us from above.
|Greek ultra champion Dimitris Theodorakakos|
The race was won by Greece’s
ultra-distance champion Dimitris Theodorakakos
(Salomon athlete and Greek navy seal)
in 9:24:22. First woman home was Katarzina Cekoska in 11:49:06. Both smashed the
respective men’s and women’s records by 10 minutes.
|Happy to have made the top 5 women finishers|
Labels: Aoös, Dimitris Theodorakakos, Dragon Lake, Drakolimni, Epirus, Fifth Element, Ioannina, Kalogeriko bridge, Mara Kalogirou, Papigo, TeRA, Tsepelovo, Tymfi Endurance Race, UNESCO Geopark, Vikos, Voidomatis, Zagori