Sunday, 25 July 2021
Dimitsana, Arkadia, Greece
After a winter of lockdowns Anna had to visit her family and, whilst I wanted to go further afield, the paperwork looked too onerous so we decided to spend our holiday in Greece. As it was the paperwork was still pretty laborious. I had made sure I had my second vaccination a few weeks before we travelled and then I had to upload the vaccine certificates and the Greek passenger locator forms to BA to check. We had a bit of a panic when we realised Anna's vaccine certificate was in her maiden name and her marriage certificate was stuck at the DVLA but surprisingly it all went through and we managed to get on the plane and through Greek customs without a hitch.
We spent the first week in Volos then very early on Sunday got a taxi to Athens. Taxis were to be a big feature of this holiday as Anna's driving license was stuck at the DVLA because of a COVID related strike and we had no time to refresh my poor driving skills so we could not legally rent a car. From Athens we got the 1130 bus to Tripolis and then another taxi to Dimitsana almost 1000m up in the Menalon mountains in the centre of the Peloponnese. We got to our hotel around 1400 and decided to go for a walk to explore.
Dimitsana is a fairly spectacular town. Situated on the end of a spur over the gorge of the Lousios river its several churches and singular clock tower are very reminiscent of a town in Tuscany. We had arrived however during the Dimitsana stage of a motor rally so it was initially not as tranquil as it later proved to be. We mooched around town, had a beer then went back to our room for a siesta. That night we had dinner at Sto Kiopu, a restaurant which had unfairly suffered from bad TripAdvisor ratings. I had rabbit stew and I really liked it.
Monday, 26 July 2021
Dimitsana, Arkadia, Greece
We had come to the Menalon mountains to walk the 75km Menalon Trail, an eight stage walking trail which is one of three in Greece approved by the ERA (European Ramblers Association). The first day was a five hour walk from Stemnitsa back to Dimitsana. We had arranged with the taxi driver who picked us up in Tripolis to ferry us around for the week. So he picked us up at our hotel, then dropped us down the valley in Stemnitsa .
The first part of the walk was to traverse the slopes of the Western Menalon mountain to get to the gorge of the Lousios river. Whilst it was mainly walking through scrub this was scenic as we had a view of the entire planes around Megalopolis. After the traverse you drop into the gorge. The gorge is fairly deep and has a lot of trees so the walk was mostly cool, however the path crossed the river a couple of times which created a bit of work going uphill and down.
Very soon we came to Moni Timiou Prodromou, the Monastery of John the Baptist, hidden in the cliff face. The gorge is known for its monasteries so we stopped at this one and the next, the New Philosophers Monastery. The monks were more friendly at the second one, giving us some Turkish delight and chatting to us, so we stayed quite a bit longer. The last section of the track was hot. It was later in the day and the trail criss-crossed the river and then climbed up to Dimitsana. By the time we got to the clock tower we were gasping for a beer and were very glad to find an array of bars overhanging the top of the gorge.
After a shower and quick rest back at the hotel we set out to explore Dimitsana. Wandering around the back alleys, whilst we found a few ruins, it was clear that there had been a lot of recent regeneration with guest houses dotting the whole hill. We then returned to the centre of town for an excellent dinner overlooking the gorge and turned in early ready for the next section.
Tuesday, 27 July 2021
Vytina, Arkadia, Greece
Today was set to be a very long day. The Menalon trail officially has eight sections but some of them are only a couple of hours. So to fit it into six days we would have a couple of double stage days and this was one of them. We did not need a taxi since this stage started in Dimitsana. We were able to set off at 0600 and started climbing the hill to Zygovisti . In the end we were fairly glad we did not spend a day on this stage as it was a fairly uneventful walk over the plateau separating the two villages. Zygovisti was a fairly pleasant sort of place and we were able to coax a fairly surprised looking cafe owner into giving us pastourma (a local omelette with huge hunks of bacon) for breakfast.
The next section was set to be the most scenic of the whole trail. First was a slow climb up into the mountains behind Zygovisti. We stopped off at a shrine and fed its resident cat. We then entered the forest. This was to be delightful, woody trails interspersed with alpine meadows. Everywhere hundreds of butterflies flitted between the trees and beams of golden sunlight. Anna managed to find some incredible red wood lilies. We saw nobody the entire time and it felt so remote that you felt sure that you could see wood nymphs out of the corner of your eyes.
Our taxi driver had told us of the only clearing high enough to get mobile reception and we phoned him from there. We made a bit of a rookie blunder in arranging to meet him not on the Menalon trail but where a crossing trail met the road. Unfortunately this trail was nowhere near as well maintained as the Menalon and we spent half an hour blundering down a stream to emerge at a small clearing by the side of the road where thankfully he was waiting for us. We had covered 19kms in seven hours.
There is no great source of information on where to stay when doing the Menalon. In retrospect we probably should have stayed in Dimitsana for at least another night but instead we relocated to Vytina . A ski resort in the winter it had quite a few decent restaurants (a lot of which were shut until Aug 1st) and a nice hotel the Art Mainalon. Our taxi driver took us back to Dimitsana, we picked up our bags and then had a pleasant drive back through the valley to Vytina. Here we checked into our hotel and recuperated with a shower and a siesta.
Vytina, whilst a bit dull, has a top notch platia with four huge cafes. We installed ourselves on a sofa and people watched the rest of the afternoon. We then went for dinner at the Red Pot, one of the few places open, which was excellent and managed to produce the most perfectly cooked steak I have ever had in Greece.
Wednesday, 28 July 2021
Vytina, Arkadia, Greece
It was a fairly easy 9km day so we had breakfast in the hotel. Our taxi driver then picked us up and took us to where we had finished yesterday's walk, just outside Elati. Here we filled out water pouches at a very well maintained roadside spring and then set off along the river. Although a short section, Elati to Vytina is very scenic. You start off following a river with immense trees providing welcoming shade. At one point we found a pool populated by iridescent blue dragon flies. You then cross under the road to Dimitsana and into the gorge which Vytina sits on the lip of.
We stopped for lunch at a ruined watermill near the top of the gorge and shoved our feet in the river. From this point the gorge got deeper and at the bottom of it we found the Zarziou bridge, an immense arched span from the 18th century. Back then it had been vital for getting around the region but now was abandoned. The vegetation from this point started to get a lot drier with trees being replaced by arid and very spiky scrub. The trail ascended up the wall of the gorge past a rocky pinnacle and from there took us into Vytina.
After a refreshing dip in the hotel pool we returned to the village square for some more afternoon people watching. Dinner that night was in a place which claimed to be an ouzeria but whilst serving the stuff was more like a regular restaurant. After that we went to the town cocktail bar which was to become quite a feature of our nights in Vytina.
Thursday, 29 July 2021
Vytina, Arkadia, Greece
It was another double stage day so we set off super early. We dropped back into the gorge and then followed it to Nymphasia . This was another valley floor town, marginally more scenic than Vytina but not as lively. We had a very hearty breakfast of Pastrouma and then set off again. The first stage involved crossing over to the Panagia Kernitsis nunnery. We had read that visits had to be arranged in advance but when we got there a very odd chap tried to convince us to visit. We declined but stopped by a shrine to eat some fruit.
After this the going was relentless, probably the hardest stage we had to do. We had to cross a fairly barren plateau just beyond the nunnery which took a couple of hours and at around eleven the heat was pretty intense. We were very grateful when the trail plunged into a wood and we found the delightful Sfyrida Sanctuary hidden in the bend of a valley. There was a spring and we refilled our pouches and soaked our hats in the cool water. Resting a while Anna was approached by a lizard. She panicked and threw a stone with the intent to scare it off but it accidentally hit its tail which parted company with its body. Whilst they grow back she was a bit upset and this was not helped by the fact that the tail was twitching for a good five minutes after the incident.
After this was a fairly nice ridge top walk with stunning views out over the valley. We encountered some other walkers just beyond the shrine who were the only others we saw on the entire 75km. We got to Magouliana at about one. At 1365m this is the highest village in the area and thankfully had a terrific village square with several bars looking out over the valley. After 15km we deserved a beer and the locals were happy to oblige. Somewhat reluctantly we summoned our taxi driver up from the valley floor below.
Back in Vytina we fell back into our routine. After cleaning up we installed ourselves on a sofa in the square and read for the rest of the afternoon. Then we could not resist another meal at the Red Pot followed by a cocktail and then to bed.
Friday, 30 July 2021
Vytina, Arkadia, Greece
The second to last day saw us dropped off in Magouliana early in the morning where we filled our water pouches from the square's spring. We then set off along the trail to traverse the slopes of mountains in search of the next destination. Today was advertised as a relaxing 7km walk in woods between two equally lovely mountain villages and setting off in the sun it certainly seemed like that.
It did not go 100% to plan however. About two thirds of the way through we got to a point where we heard the clunking of cattle bells. In Switzerland this would herald some delightful bucolic scene, but walking in Greece it means goats or sheep which in turn means sheep dogs. This is something to be worried about as a Greek hillwalker because rather than some intelligent collie a Greek sheepdog is typically an unattended pack of rabid mongrels intent on savaging anyone within a mile of their flock. Anna grabbed a stick and some stones and then sort of froze on the top of a hill trying to work out where they were. It took us about half an hour to get moving again. We found the herd in a forest clearing and thought for one minute that we could get past without being spotted. However about two thirds of the way across the dogs spotted us, starting howling and running at us.
Thankfully at the last minute they stopped short. It being the Menalon trail the shepherd had been a bit more considerate and had fenced the clearing in. Still it had put us on edge and it took us a while to relax. When we finally popped out above Valtesiniko it was about an hour after we had estimated. We traipsed into the village's wonderful platia and parked ourselves under an ancient tree rooted in the central spring and set about our beers with great gusto.
It was idyllic sitting in the shade looking out over the valley on a terrace cunningly built over the extensive five basin spring. We delayed calling for the taxi so that we could enjoy it the more. In a way we were a bit disappointed we had not moved hotels to either here or the next village Lagkadia, and it was with some reluctance we went back down to the valley floor.
That night however we managed to forget all about it. Vytina's restaurants had all opened up ahead of August and we had booked ourselves into one of the best, the Klemetaria. It had a lovely courtyard and served a range of local dishes, all making for a really good night.
Saturday, 31 July 2021
Kourouta, Ilida, Greece
The trail was not going to let us off lightly on the last day. Instead we had a 14km hike to the last village, Lagkadia, ahead of us. We got up relatively early, checked out and loaded our bags into the taxi. Since Lagkadia was part way towards our next destination our taxi driver was going to take us there after the end of the walk. He then drove us up into the mountains and deposited us in the village square of Valtesiniko.
Here we filled up out water pouches in the Roman bath-like water spouts tucked under the village square and we set off into the mountains. A steep climb past rows of beehives got us up onto a ridge which we then skirted around. The ridge apparently had a couple of Frankish forts hidden in the trees on top of it but we did not venture up to find them.
After this we had a leisurely descent through cool forests some holiday cabins in a clearing on a roadside. There were some tourists staying in them, probably the only people we saw the entire day. Then it was up and over another ridge before we found ourselves on a scrubby plain. Here we found a village which had been lovingly terraced but abandoned many years ago. Climbing past the terraces we found ourselves at Draina Panorama, a saddle with a breathtaking view of Lagkadia , our final destination.
However a word of warning to any fellow hikers, whilst the end is in touching distance you still have an hour to go from this point. Worse, the last few kilometres of the 75km are not particularly easy, descending sharply down through arid scrub. It took us a while to work our way down but we finally popped out in a back alley of the town.
Here we met an old man from whom we asked directions. We got chatting and it turned out he was somewhat of a local historian. He told us how the Franks had wanted to build forts in the area including Akova and so had shipped in stone masons from Zagora in the north of Greece. It was these masons who founded and settled in Lagkadia. It took a while to explain this because he very patiently waited between every sentence for Anna to translate into English.
By the time we got to the central square of Lagkadia we were exhausted and more than ready for a cool beer. And what a beer it was! Lagkadia is known as the hanging village of the Peloponnese, because it it perched on one side of a steep valley with fantastic views of the leafy slopes of the opposite side. We choose a cafe and cooled down with a beer or two and waited for our taxi driver to turn up.
It turned out getting the taxi to take us down to the coast was a good idea on all fronts. Whilst a bit more expensive than returning to the and from there to Tripoli and the motorway, we probably saved five hours of travelling in the hottest part of the day. But we also got to enjoy the scenery of the descent from Lagkadia to the coast. It was a very leisurely drive along twisting mountain roads and it took a good hour before we emerged on the plains close to Ancient Olympia.
Down at the sea we were staying at the gorgeous Dexamenes hotel in Kourouta. We checked in then went to the beach to enjoy what remained of the afternoon sun before having a fantastic dinner in the hotel's incredible restaurant.
Sunday, 1 August 2021
Kourouta, Ilida, Greece
We then spent a very relaxing three days at the Dexamenes. It's a very unique hotel with each room built inside one of a series of old concrete wine storage tanks which date back to 1910. The origins of the complex are rooted in the great wine blight. Wine makers in France were forced to import huge amounts of currants from Greece to carry on producing wine. However when the French vines started to recover an alternate use had to be found for all the currants and so the Greeks began making their own wine, and this rather industrial complex was built to ferment wine and pump it out to ships for transport.
Our days were spent sunbathing and walking along the coast. We went to a fish taverna at nearby Palouki harbour one night and on another had a Greek wine tasting and sumptuous meal at the hotel. All in all it was the perfect way to rest and recuperate before I flew back to the UK. Anna followed me a few weeks later.
One last episode worth remembering was the relative ease of getting back to the UK in the midst of COVID-19. I had to get a PCR test which involved us popping into Amaliada one day. Here we found a small lab where they swabbed my nose literally in the car park behind the clinic. As rudimentary as it seemed they were able to get me my negative results that night. I then showed this to the check-in desk before flying and that was pretty much it. At Heathrow I went through the facial recognition lanes and all I saw was a small note saying that they assumed we had completed all necessary tests. None of the massive queues at immigration reported in the press - it was all very easy.