Here is how it goes: wake up early, before the Greek summer heat. Get out of bed, put on your boots and walk. I usually leave breakfast until the first uphill is over or until the first spectacular view. Everything tastes better when you are surrounded with beauty.
My schedule for this morning is , well, to walk. That simple. Minimal as it gets, it is meditation at it’s purest. One path, one direction, two legs. I walk until it is too hot, by which time – if I got my planning right – I am in a quaint Greek mountain village taverna. Wash, drink, eat, relax, maybe even take a siesta, play some card games to kill time until the afternoon when my son says the UV index is ok to walk some more. You really get to know a place when you spend so many hours there midday. Then more path pleasures until the sweet dusk.
This is the best holiday because it is the most efficient. I am wasting no time looking for parking near the beach or waiting for a waiter to bring me a cocktail. I don’t have to “get back” to the room to prepare for a night out. I just stop walking, have a light dinner if I feel like it and climb in to bed for the best sleep of my life. I walked 200 km in a week and yet every morning I woke feeling more relaxed and stronger than the day before. A friend who walked with me last summer claims that even now – a year later – he feels energized by the memory alone.
This is the world of long distance trail walking. Unfortunately it is completely inaccessible to most people.
Please don’t imagine I am some die hard mountaineer or wild man who only hikes. I have enjoyed the best boutique hotels on the planet, traveled to more than 40 countries and tried every kind of holiday. From cruises in the Caribbean to luxury yachts and from the top of Kilimanjaro to road trips in California. From the joys of all inclusive resorts to historic tours of Syria (before the war destroyed everything I was fortunate enough to see.) No, the reason you can’t enjoy long distance trail walking is because there is no infrastructure for normal people.
Tourism is one of a few activities that require government regulation. I am as liberal as they come, I don’t believe in big government. But like my friend Charles from the sea turtle protection society said to me 40 years ago “tourism will destroy everything it touches if you let it.” I am doing it my way and it is illegal, risky and takes years of practice. It shouldn’t be this hard. For starters I am sleeping outdoors wherever my day ends. “There are wolves up there!” warned the locals. I have no idea if they were exaggerating. I slept fine. Another night it was by a church, just in case it rained. The next to an abandoned building site because we were too late leaving the village and that was the best we could find. Most of the time it is in the middle of nowhere, forest, peak, whatever. I can do that because I have spent most of my life exploring. Nobody else should have to gather 53 years of experience in order to get a good night’s sleep.
So here is my plan: convert the hundreds of abandoned churches that litter the Greek countryside into makeshift hospitality stations. Don’t even open the can of worms that is allowing free camping (currently illegal in Greece), focus on making it easier for people with no wilderness knowledge to just walk. It is a bit like “bed and breakfasting” in England. You just need to reach the next little church to find something to eat, something to drink and a place to rest. Churches are already in a legal loophole. It could easily be expanded to include basic accommodation, preferably non permanent structure, possibly even traditional ones, a kind of glamping. (The “vlahoi” nomads even have their own reconstructed tents in a few places now and are quite trendy, think of it like a yurt with a twist.) Theoretically you are not allowed to build anything in forest or mountainous areas in Greece. In practice people freely bulldoze roads wherever they like, graze whatever animals they won’t anywhere and dump rubbish of every kind even at the most remote places. Getting more tourists there would serve to protect the countryside.
The closest real life example we have in Greece is mount Olympus where a network of mountain refuges serve to make it easier to scale the spectacular peaks of the Gods. It is a monumental effort kept together by a shoe string and a lot of effort on the part of the heroes up there. Thousands of visitors enjoy a beer and Greek salad in almost hotel level services at an altitude of more than 2000meters. We know there is demand. It is currently restricted by the draconian and highly hypocritical Greek laws about wildlife preservation which only seem to have two conditions: either nothing is permitted or everything is. Big mountain ranges need something better than that. They need a management plan. It’s not rocket science, it started with the big US national parks and all over the world we now know how to do it.
I can’t pretend to be able to solve this in a day. But the plan to convert abandoned remote churches into accommodation centers for long distance paths can be implemented immediately and easily and will instantly help divert tourists from getting bored on beaches. The modern tourist wants to actually do something, they want the feeling of achievement, something Instagramable. You can walk to lose weight or to meditate. You can walk just to say you walked X miles, you can walk for charity. You can walk to reconnect with old friends and chat along the way or to meet new ones. The fact is that millions of people around the world are on a treadmill right now paying more for their gym membership than the church would be charging them.
Get off the treadmill. Come to Greece and walk a long distance path with me.