Where to go

Getting lost is an integral part of the Greek backcountry experience. No matter how uood a trail sense you possess, it’ll happen to you eventually—it even happens to the Greeks unless they’re denizens of the mountain or island in question. Of necessity you become a competent tracker of the correct route after a spell in the Greek woods, but until then (and forever after) mental toughness and a sense of humor will serve you in as good stead as boots and pack. A light attitude sure helps when you’re trudging through a drizzle, uncertain whether still on the trail or on a natural rock lodge, with darkness and hostile dogs approaching. At such moments rescuers in the guise of hairy-cloaked shepherds with portable radios(!) and coffee thermoses tend to materialize out of the mist, but it’s not good to tempt fate. The following pointers may help you stay on course.

Bona fide trails were originally built, and primarily continue to serve points of economic or religious interest (more recent construction of mountain huts has kept other paths alive). Thus, alpine paths tend to cease at the highest summer pasture; from there on it’s usually cross-country scrambling. If a mountain has a summit path, It’s probably because of a shrine on top. In the case of two villages on opposite sides of a mountain, a point-to-point foot route generally survives, but it’s often badly deteriorated if autos can easily skirt the range. Worse, the old paths were often so well designed that they provided the right-of-way for new roads and now lie bulldozed under tons of rubble. In luckier instances tfie old trail may persist, paralleling the new road or cutting across its switchbacks. Even where there are no roads, many old paths were dynamited and blocked by the central government during the 1946-49 civil war to hamper the movements of the insurgents.

Trails still regularly used by festival pilgrims or other hikers are frequently marked with red, or more rarely blue or yellow, blazes; the convention of piling rocks to form a cairn is also honored. Cryptic initialings with arrows can be critically important: e.g., ΜΠ and ΠΗ can translate as “Monastiri Prodhromou” and “Profitis llias.” Similarly, they can be dangerously meaningless, as is the oft-encountered “K(number),” lumber surveyors’ marks signifying “Mima (plot) such-and-such.”

Old cobbled trails (kalderimia) are usually a safe bet to 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 platform to the left of the front door, Inside. Heavily used dirt trails descending from grazing areas become heavily oxbowed overtime, just like old rivers, with multiple, confusing interconnections and shortcuts. Just follow the general bearing of the path.

The unsignposted fork is the perennial hiker’s nightmare; you may have to pick among three or four bearings. Goat or sheep traces, studded with their droppings and often crisscrossing a hillside in a fishnet pattern, are usually bad news—there’s no guarantee that bipeds have ever been that way. Manure from donkeys or mules is 9 good sign—these animals rarely march anywhere unaccompanied by humans. A trail 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. In today’s Greek mountains 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, candy and cigarette wrappers ground into its surface (you may, for the first time ever, be relieved to see rubbish in the wilderness); and that trundles on meadow after meadow, always seeming to be on the point of expiring in a network of aimless livestock traces but somehow miraculously continuing in the right direction.

On the islands, many trails lie between double walls or alongside a single wall. Many isles, especially in the Kykladhes, have old loop routes for foot circum­navigation which are often located roughly halfway between the shoreline and the island’s summit. Convoluted or long islands, logically enough, often have old rights- of-way paralleling watersheds or the long axis, slightly off-center. If gone astray on an island, don’t try the old trick of following watercourses downhill; you’ll more likely than not end up in a blind cove, with the prospect of a climb back out.

If you plan a cross-country traverse through apparently trailless regions, posses­sion of an ESY or Korfes topographical map for the area is imperative. Impassable, yawning chasms and sheer-sided cliffs are common features of Greek topography, and 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 south Pindhos and Agrafa, where your itinerary may be completable only by tiptoeing along, or near, the summits of connecting ridge systems, all the while peering down into fearsome canyons on either side. Western Tayettos and the summit area of Levka Ori on Crete are also potentially dangerous. All of these areas should be attempted only by experienced cross-country trekkers equipped with map and compass, Greek language skills, and a heavy dose of common sense.

Many locals will express surprise at finding you hiking alone, if that is your preference. Greeks are exceedingly 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. The Greek mountains can be lethal—a handful of rock climbers and hikers die each year, though most of the fatalities known to me occurred within a group. If you choose to solo, you should be at least passingly conversant in Greek, have enough prior experience in the type of terrain so that nothing takes you completely by surprise and be conservative in route decisions. The disadvantages of being without a partner are evident; in compensation, though, you have complete freedom, a greater chance of glimpsing wildlife, and more extended interaction with those you meet along the way.


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