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April 24, 2007

The Grand Canyon of Greece

The roofs of Papingo, Greece

We shall now turn our attention to the matter of roofs.

Roofs say a lot about a place. I'm not sure exactly what it is they say, because the quality and beauty of roofs, which tend to go hand-in-hand, as it happens, turns out to be almost impossible to predict. But roofs say a lot.

Take the USA as an example. The USA is considered by many to be the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world, and yet most of the time the roofs are made out of tar shingles. Tar shingles are ugly, bad for the environment, and they don't last long. But they are cheap. Now take China. The roofs in China are made from fired clay tiles. They are beautiful to look at and their lifespan is measured in decades. David Spindler finds intact clay roof tiles on the Great Wall that are hundreds of years old. Water's Head village, which has a median income of $40/month and is among the poorer villages you're likely to find in China, has nicer and better roofs than New Jersey. Go figure.

The nicest roofs in the world, however, aren't to be found in a very rich country or a very poor country, but in a country you might call upwardly middle class: Greece. Not every town in Greece has nice roofs. Many of them just have pleasant tiled roofs. But some of the towns in northern Greece, the ones situated high in the mountains in particular, have the most amazing roofs anywhere. The roofs are constructed out of thick rectangles of flagstone. The stones are laid in rows, one on top of another, and are a fitting compliment to the houses' stone walls, not to mention the stone walls of the surrounding mountains, too. These roofs, I am told, last "forever." They are not maintenance-free, which means you're not likely to see them in industrial subdivisions any time soon. Every year, a roofer needs to come and spend a few hours putting errant stones back in place. The flagstones, you see, are held down by nothing other than the force of gravity, and a conspiracy of forces misarrange them: wind, rain and, foremost, cats.


I saw my first flagstone roof in a Greek town called Papingo, which is more beautiful even than its name. All the homes in Papingo have stone roofs, and any future houses will, too, because it is the law. I made it to Papingo after a nine-hour caffeine-addled drive across Northern Greece, five hours of which I spent driving in the wrong direction. (It wasn't five straight hours, mind you. There were many wrong turns.) It's hard to imagine feeling worse than I did at the tail-end of that drive, and it's also hard to imagine feeling better than I did after laying eyes upon Papingo.


The setting sure doesn't hurt. Papingo sits in the shadow of an immense wall of rock, and by immense I mean magnificently and toweringly huge. There is only one direction you can walk in Papingo without being rendered dumb with awe. The houses are of such a beauty that if you were to see a painting of Papingo, situated as it is beneath the bluff, you'd think the artist was being a tad too fanciful. You would be sure that no place can look quite so pretty, and you would be wrong.

Certainly, one of the nicest things about Papingo is that you can spend many hours on end indulging your newfound roof fetish by wallowing in a vast wonderland of roofing material. I am speaking of the Vikos Gorge, which gets my vote for the most unheard of natural wonder in the world. Picture some unknown branch of the Grand Canyon, transport it by Sikorsky helicopter to northern Greece and you start to have a pretty good idea.

Vikos Gorge

The funny thing about hiking through a narrow gorge with breathtaking pink walls is that you don't spend nearly as much time in rapt appreciation of those walls as you'd think. If you look at them and try to walk at the same time, you become dizzy or trip, sometimes both. The result is that you plod along--staring at the river, the white rocks, the multitude of wildflowers in bloom--and every now and again, you raise your eyes and are gobsmacked by some new and ridiculous vista. You turn your head in the other direction and it happens again.

Enchanted forest

Halfway through the gorge, we entered an enchanted forest. I don't use the word "enchanted" lightly, by the way. The path was surrounded by trees whose sun-dappled branches arched over the way ahead in a manner that suggested the whole thing had been landscaped. The air was perfumed with the aroma of wild herbs. Strongest among them was anis, which is used to make ouzo, and I thought what a curious coincidence it is that when ouzo is poured over ice it turns the same color as the walls of the gorge.

My guide Nikkos at the gorge

Later, we ambled into a meadow. My guide, Nikkos, grabbed my arm and brought his finger to his lips. He pointed behind a tree, where a horse was rolling on the ground, scratching its back. It wasn't a wild horse--it lived, Nikkos said, up in the town of Vikkos. But it was almost wild. We attempted to get close, but the horse, without looking at us, would slowly clop away, never letting us get within 20 feet. I decided to give my apple to the horse. I had been planning on eating it, but now I wanted the horse to eat it because I have seen horses eat apples before, and it's invariably a far more entertaining event than the sight of a human eating an apple.

Who wants an apple?

I held the apple out in front of me and began stalking the horse, making tsk-tsk sounds with my mouth. It didn't work. The horse walked down towards the river. It turned right, moved through a wall of brush and into another meadow. I followed, and in that other meadow were more horses, all grazing idly. My horse walked behind a white mare and next to her was a little, fuzzy-haired foal. The foal was lying down in the wildflowers, on its side, sacked out in the sun. I took a step towards the mare, and she was not happy about this. The foal woke up. I held out the apple. I stood there for five minutes, hoping that familiarity would breed familiarity, but it did not.


I took the apple and set it on a big rock, but not so big a rock that it would be out of reach of the foal. Its discovery will go something like this: A horse will be nipping at grass next to the rock. It will crane its long face over the rock, pause, then pluck the apple in its tactile lips. With one stroke of its equine jaws, the apple will be crushed and a stream of juice will leak out the side of the horse's mouth. After a few more powerful and satisfying chews, the apple will make its way down that horse's long and soft gullet. I will never get to see which horse finds the apple, but it's a scene I like to imagine in my mind over and over again.



Wow - some absolutely stunning pictures today. Glad to hear you're having a good time, harassing the local wildlife :-)

What a gorgeous place. I hope to visit there someday. Could you please tell us how you find guides in each area you visit?

wow, great off-the-beaten-path spot. btw, i would love to see more pictures of your advetnure.

i love the picture with the apple! beautiful!

on that note, every picture today was amazing!

OK That does look like Paradise

Why are the GPS coordinates (posted from)no longer included

Awesome post, it is so nice to hear of things off the beaten path, to talk to real people and not tourist guides.

click to post a comment >

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