Northern Europe may come to mind when you think of crystal-clear lakes and tall, snow-capped mountain peaks cloaked in myth and legend, but there’s a bit of mountain magic closer to the Mediterranean as well. Greece, in fact, is home to a secret, fairytale location all its own—the drakolimnes (literally, dragon lakes). These crystalline, alpine lakes dot the high mountain ranges of Epirus, a region in northwestern Greece marked by mountain ridges, alpine wildlife, and historical villages. The dragon lakes were formed by prehistoric glacier movement, and local legend contends that each lake once had its own resident dragon. The most famous of the dragon lakes is the Dragon Lake of Mt. Tymfi, whose resident dragon was in a huge feud with the neighboring dragon of the Dragon Lake of Mt. Smolikas (the two were allegedly prone to throwing rocks at each other). While the dragons may be long gone, the picturesque lakes remain, inhabited by alpine newts and reachable only by a long hike into the region’s mountains. The Dragon lake of Mt. Tymfi is conveniently reachable from Mikro Papigo, one of the villages of the famous Zagorohoria (a chain of fairytale-esque stone villages in the Epirus mountains). The complete hike takes about five hours along a marked route, with a stop at the Astraka mountain refuge along the way, where many hikers choose to spend the night on the return trip. Like many a mythical treasure, it’s well worth the journey.
When to go: Spring or Autumn. The heavy snow makes hiking impossible in the winter, while Greece’s famously strong sunshine will make a summer walk uncomfortable and sunburn-inducing.
What to see: Mind-clearing meadows and breathtaking mountain panoramas. Goats and sheep frequently cross the mountain paths, while ibex and other mountain mammals may make an appearance around the lake. You may also notice that the shores of the lake are black and scattered with white stones. This is explained as being a result of the dragons’ heated rock wars (hence, the shores of the Dragon Lake of Mt. Smolikas are white and scattered with black stones).
Other tips: The hike from Mikro Papigo to the Astraka refuge is around four hours, while the hike from Astraka to the lake is one hour, and significantly more uphill. Swimming is safe in the lakes, but expect to greeted by alpine newts (and cold temperatures). The Astraka refuge is clean, friendly, and has a well-stocked menu of power-up dishes. If you want to spend the night (they have 51 beds), be sure to bring your own sheets or a sleeping bag.