Navigating greek trails

Trails still regularly used by festival pil­grims or other hikers are frequently marked with red – more rarely blue or yellow – paint splodges. Occasionally, painted metal discs or squares are used, and piling rocks to make a cairn (kutriimbulo) is also practised. Cryptic initials with arrows, or summits shown schematically as triangles, can be crit­ically important: eg ΜΠ and ΗΠ can translate as Monastiri Prodhriimou and Profitis Ilias. Similarly, hieroglyphics can be dangerously meaningless, as is the common Κ plus a number, a surveyors’ mark signify­ing Ktima (plot) such-and-such. Power or phone lines often serve also as waymarks, since rural electrification and telecommuni­cations projects long pre-date the current craze for roads – and the linesmen got into the bush using the nearby trail, of course.

Old cobbled trails (kalderimia) usually lead somewhere, though sometimes no further than the nearest hilltop shrine. If you need to know the dedication of a particular rural church (ksoklisi), as when matching it to a name on a map, the patron’s ikon is usually on a raised dais to one side of the temblon or altar screen. Well-used trails descending from grazing areas become heavily oxbowed over the years, just like old rivers, with multiple, potentially confusing interconnections and shortcuts. Just follow the general bearing of the path.

The unsignposted fork is the hiker’s perennial nightmare; you may have to choose among three or even four turnings. Goat or sheep traces, speckled with their droppings and often criss-crossing a hillside in a fish-net pattern, are usually bad news – there’s no guarantee that humans have ever been that way. Manure from pack animals is a good sign – they rarely march anywhere unaccompanied by humans. A path with weedy or overgrown sections has not neces­sarily been abandoned. Conversely, beware of the trail that looks too good to be true: it may merely lead to a chapel, spring or private dwelling and stop there. The correct path is often the one that’s visible from afar but seems to vanish under close inspection; that has recent, but not too fresh, lolly and cigarette wrappers ground into its surface (you may, for the first time ever, be relieved to see rubbish in the wilderness); and thai trundles on meadow after meadow, always skirting extinction in a network of aimless livestock traces or abandoned terraces, but somehow continuing miraculously in the right direction.

On the islands, many trails lie between double dry-stone walls or (less likely) along­side a single boundary wall. Many isles, especially in the KikMdhes, have old loop paths located roughly halfway between the shoreline and the island’s summit. Convo­luted or long islands, logically enough, often have old foot routes paralleling the long axis, slightly off centre. If you have gone astray on an island, don’t try the old trick of follow­ing watercourses downhill; you’ll likely as not end up in a blind cove, with the prospect of a climb back out.

Don’t plan a cross-country traverse through apparently trackless regions without a good map and compass, plus preferably Greek language skills and enough prior experience in such terrain so that nothing takes you completely by surprise. Impass­able, yawning chasms and sheer cliffs are common Greek topographical features, and the presence of either will obviously add hours to what would seem from a road map to be a relatively straightforward point-to- point trek. Such obstacles are especially common in the southern Pindhos, the Agrafa, western Tai’yettos and Crete’s Lefki 0ri, where completing itineraries may involve vertiginous ridge walks.

Many locals will express surprise at finding you hiking by yourself, if that is your preference. Greeks are notoriously gregari­ous and to them there is something suspect about people who prefer their own company, but their distress is partly motivated by concern for your safety.

It bears repeating again and again that the Greek mountains can be lethal – every year a handful of both Greek and foreign climbers die, the latter lulled by the apparent mildness of the climate into taking chances with the unforgiving terrain. Don’t – and if you choose to go solo, tell someone where you’re headed. The disadvantages of going alone are evident, but if you want a greater chance of glimpsing wildlife, and more extended interaction with those you meet along the way, there’s no better strategy.


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