Thursday, 8 July 2010

Two great Greek walks

There are nations that 'get' hiking and nations that don't. The British, the Germans, and about forty percent of Americans do. The Greeks don't.

So don't expect beautifully marked hiking trails (though on Santorini, at least, some trails have been marked out, I couldn't find a map referring to them or any reason why the trail numbers seemed to change every few kilometres, and some of the tracks were in a very poor state).

But the landscape is amazing. And the best way to experience it is still on two feet (or possibly, donkeys and mules being as surefooted and hardworking as they are, on four).

Santorini - the loop from Perissa to Vlihada

We did cheat for the first part of the walk and took a bus along the long, straight, built-up road that leads from Perissa to Emporio. At Emporio, time to head away from the modern centre, up past the huge cathedral, into the heart of the kastro and the ancient village, and then out past the almost pyramidal Ottoman tower to cross the main road and take a small road leading towards the windmills you've already seen high on the ridge opposite the town.

The road curves and jinks as it goes upwards and soon you're walking past the windmills, with marvellous views over the fields to the south and towards the Profitis Ilias summit to the north. Then the way slowly sinks, till you come to the end of the road at a little whitewashed church with views over Vlihada and its harbour.

Here you could give up. We went on, finding scratchy paths through terraces, a painted red dot irregularly marking the way; the path became more and more scrambly till it gave out altogether just before the road, a few hundred metres before Vlihada.

(Now I am not absolutely sure that this is a legitimate hiking trail, though the red paint appears to indicate that it is.  However it's still a nice hike if you simply return down the ridge with the windmills to Emporio, make your way to the coast from there, and hike the coast road to Perissa.)

Vlihada is the 'working' harbour of Santorini - fishing boats rub shoulders with yachts, and there's not a ferry or tour ship in sight. From here, take the road that runs along the coast (there's a steep set of steps taking you up to it from the end of the harbour), somewhat inland to start with. Hike at dusk and you'll see pigeons flying out from the tiny pigeon-houses in the fields to be fed; they're well trained enough to fly back in on their own once they've completed a few wheeling turns in the sky. Once you come to the main road junction, take a right, which leads you to the coast road, and from here it's plain sailing (or walking) into Perissa, past beach bars and restaurants on one side with the black sand and the sea on the other.

For a four-hour walk, this has incredible variety and a selection of marvellous views.

The grand Meteora hike

It would be easy to be disappointed in Meteora. The big tour buses, the crowds of tourists, the postcard sellers and the huge road that cuts through the middle of this once mysterious area. It's difficult to feel the purity of the early ascetics when you're standing in a frescoed church with a buzzing swarm of hot tourists fresh off the coach. Still more difficult to feel the hardness of their lives, the hard toil and privation, when you know you have a souvlaki and ouzo coming...

But Meteora hides some memorable hiking. Start off in Kastraki - a little village we got to know very quickly (including the little ouzeri on the main street, whose owner sings as he serves and even went out for five minutes to fetch the eggs to make our saganaki - 'from the chicken! I wake her up!'). Up the main street, past the church, follow the signs for St George Mandilas (St George of the Handkerchief - a hermitage in a sheer rock face  strewn with Greek flags, football shirts, and somewhere in among all that, probably a hankie or two). Keep going as the road turns to a track, and at the road crossing, turn left to St Nicolas Anapafsas. (In a field on the right you pass the monastery's beehives; wax for candles, and honey for the monks.)

This monastery is worth a visit for the frescoes by Cretan painter Theophanes; the breath of the Italian Renaissance seems to have touched them, with the Giotto-like rounded forms and the individualised faces. In the narthex, hermits in their caves make spoons or pray; aged hermits ride on lions or donkeys or their apostles' shoulders to attend the funeral of St Ephrem.  In the church itself, the key scenes of the New Testament are summed up in tiny jewel-like scenes - the standard Byzantine iconography, but somehow rarified and miniaturised. A peacock, a partridge, fine foliage decorate the chapel, making it seem fresh and alive - far from the solemnity of most of the other Meteora frescoes.

From St Nicholas, carry on down the road for a small way before taking the track on the right. This track will carry you onwards through valleys flanking the Meteora rocks, through pastures where shepherds and their dogs guard flocks of sheep, where the sheep bells ring perpetually, where you can hear water rushing from fountains under the shade of oak trees. Past a couple of farms, their ramshackle corrals empty in midsummer, and finally to the turnoff on the right (firmly barred to traffic) to the hanging monastery of Ypapandi.

Ypapandi is closed; 'for restoration' apparently, though there was no sign of any recent work or access, apart from a single cigarette trodden into the gravel. It's still a majestic presence, its tiny church and monastic buildings ranged along a ledge in the rock. Leafy shade, a place to rest before the route swings back towards Kastraki.

From Ypapandi you can see the 'hero monk' on the bare, round rock to the north. Keep along the track, and it's a ridiculously easy ascent - given the sheer rock faces on three sides - to the statue, with views all around, down to the lowlands and up past Ypapandi to the heart of Meteora. But to continue on the trail, you need to come back about half way to Ypapandi, where a narrow path leads off to the left (as you come back - right if you're still going towards the 'hero' rock), uphill.

From here, follow the little cairns (and add to them, if you're sure you're on the right path), as the path leads towards the Great Transfiguration monastery on the Broad Rock. There are marvellous views of the rocks, of a ruined monastery above Ypapandi, of mountains and valleys. Several times I saw wild tortoises galloping noisily through the undergrowth.  It's only at the last minute that the path becomes indistinct; and any way down will get you to the main road, though the final metre is a scramble, a leap, or an undignified arse-first descent to the road, wherever you do it. (Going the other way, note that the wayside shrine - a little red-painted model chapel on a pillar - indicates one of the main tracks leading upwards.)

(One of the strangest things about the route is that you can't see the Great Transfiguration monastery until you're nearly on top of it. Unlike Varlaam, Roussanou, or St Nikolas Anapafsas, which are visible for miles, the greatest of the monasteries seems to hide itself, from wherever you approach it.)

At this point, turn right to visit the Transfiguration, and then left to visit Varlaam. From Varlaam, you can leave the road once more - take the steps that lead down past the ascent tower of the monastery (to the left as you come out), and from the bottom (the 'works yard') there's a clear path that descends through oak forest, past caves and springs. There are some nasty patches of scrabble where the path has given way, but most of it is easy walking in the shade. Once you come out on to the road you'll probably recognise the track back to Kastraki on the other side - an easy quarter of an hour back to the ouzeri.

It's a long day; we started at eight and finished about half past four, and only visited St Nicholas Anapafsas that day (we'd already seen the other two monasteries). But it's worth it. Not just because if you've done this, you can understand the solitude, the hard life of the hermit, the loneliness of the landscape, and perhaps the slight edge of madness that affects people who live in a vertical world, where there's a steep drop on every side and nothing to hang on to. It's worth it for the sound of the cold springs; for the shade of oak trees; for the dark of narrow valleys and the sun beating down on the black rock under our feet. And for the ouzo we felt we absolutely deserved when we got back to Kastraki.

  • The route from the old area of Kalambaka, near the Byzantine cathedral, to Agios Triadha is also well worth walking - and better maintained than the stretch up to Varlaam. Maps seem to indicate you could loop around to Roussanou and walk back down the other side of the valley. Some covered walking in shade, some fine views, and Agios Triadha - off most of the coach tour itineraries - is a rather fascinating small monastery with an intimacy that the others generally lack.

  • There's also a good hike from Kastraki up past two small churches to the 'Roca', the thin needle-like rock that dominates the area between Kastraki and Kalambaka.

  • I regret not hiking up to Agios Pneuma, the hermitage of the Holy Spirit above Kastraki - there's a great account on walkopedia.  This is a quick hike if you're staying in Kastraki, though effortful.

Despite the helpful man at the Tourist Office in Kalambaka (definitely worth stopping there), and maps handed out by the campsite in Kastraki, we found it difficult to navigate. The Greeks don't get walking. I sometimes wonder whether they 'get' maps, either....

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