Monday and I resorted to the plan originally pencilled in for Sunday, a long walk from Gerolimenas taking in some tower-house villages and a mountain top.
My ambition for the whole trip has been to travel by public transport rather than hiring a car and, with some swift thinking and changes of tactic, have more or less succeeded. Taking a taxi to Vatheia was a compromise but worth it. Tuesday begins the Exit Strategy so come Monday I was determined to do one last good walk.
First leg was to I walk up to a village on the lower slopes of the mountain shown on the map to have a Byzantine church at the point where the road runs out and a footpath begins. The church is at the lower edge of a small cemetery of the ‘beach chalet’ style and very difficult to access. It is clearly very old but, as is so often the case, locked behind new wooden doors. Apparently some of these old churches date back to the 12th Century. I’m pretty sure that the churches I found in Ochia on my first day in Gerolimenas could well be that old but I’m not sure this one goes back that far. It’s difficult to tell, information being generally completely lacking, and many structures, as in the UK and elsewhere in Greece have many later ‘add-ons’. Whatever, this church was as impressive from the outside as was Likaki monastery in the Viros Gorge but was obviously being cared for and in much better state of repair.
From there I dropped back down to a track contouring the mountain to a point between two other ‘tower-house’ villages with the intention of heading up a footpath to a mountain top for a spot of banana and nut-bar. That’s where the plan began to unravel.
One of the major problems with EU funding, and corresponding national government ‘match funding’ to suck in the opportunities the EU money affords, is that it only covers capital projects. If you are clever enough at filling in the 3-inch thick application form to meet the criteria set for the particular fund you are trying to access you can get oodles of money for building or erecting lots of different things. But there is no money whatever for maintenance and ongoing running costs.
Why do I mention this? It seems clear that the municipal councils in the Mani have got funding for erecting footpath signs. They pop up all over the place in Greek and Greeklish. But, with the exception of the area around Kardamili there is no additional support on the ground. In short, and finally getting to the point, I took what I thought was the path going up the mountain … and had yet another epic. Which I’m going to bore you with.
The initial problem was a herd of about 50 free range cows which seemed to panic at the sight of a human. Maybe it was because I exuded Welshness and not Greekness and they sensed the superiority of Welsh Blacks as a breed. However, they ran everywhere including out through a gate onto the mountain onto what seemed to be path. In the absence of any other indication of the path shown on the map at more or less this point I went for it. In short, it wasn’t.
I have never before come across cow-paths on a mountain. I have been misled by goat paths and sheep tracks before but never cow paths. And have you ever wondered about the similarity between the words ‘path’ and ‘pat’. Try following a cow path up a mountain and the similarity will strike you immediately. And have you ever wondered about the thickness of a cows hide compared to human skin? Pushing up through the thorn bushes clearly presented no problem for them but it did for me. The lacerations on my legs and arms multiplied exponentially.
Eventually, after several hundred metres height gain I gave up trying to follow the cows and took to the rocks. I’m much more at home climbing rock than scrambling up loose scree covered in cow poo. Isn’t everyone?
I climbed up to the visible crest, knowing full well it wasn’t the summit but at least a clear and obvious target …. and hard, sharp edge limestone all the way. It wasn’t the top. The top was clearly in view and under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have hesitated and continued up the last 100 metres. But I had been conscious of a few things: it was unusually hot; there was no breeze; it was the middle of the day; my legs had been complaining they were tired; I needed to eat; and last but no means least I knew that the walk down would be far more problematic than the walk up. I sat and ate my banana and nutbar on the rocky crag I had reached and, having a second attack of commonsense this trip, decided that enough was enough and headed back down.
Though very steep, the first bit was easy, hopping, albeit in a very focused manner, from rock to rock. That dropped me down about 150metres. I gave up on trying to find the cow path after yet another slide in which a thorn on a stout branch impaled my finger as I continued to slide. Difficult extraction job as my hand had to move upwards as I was hanging from the impaled finger while my feet continued slithering on the scree..
Instead I opted for thorn-free scree running. When I was younger I used to go scree running a lot in the Lake District (Green and Great Gable in particular) and in Snowdonia on Cadair Idris. There seem to have been few opportunities in recent years because the practice caught on and all the scree got pushed to the bottom. There are two techniques. One is to drive in the inside edge of the downhill foot and slide with the scree until it slows up and then jump hard onto another loose patch and set that in motion. The second is to hop on board a big chunk of rock, preferably flat, and surf. Crazy fun. But not in sandals on virgin scree!!!!
For years I have defended the advantages of sandals over boots for walking in the Greek mountains. This was the first time in 12 years that sandals have been a problem. But it was only for 40 minutes (though it seemed a lot longer) and I arrived on the track at the bottom with only superficial cuts.
I decided to head down to Koita, the larger and lower of the two tower villages nearby but fist stopped in the shade of a tree to clean up the blood on my arms, feet and legs. I couldn’t appear in a village looking like an escapee from Dartmoor or Alcatraz. I hoped that Koita would have somewhere to buy a frappé, I felt in desperate need of a cold drink (my bottled water was by now warm) and a caffeine fix. It had, I found a tiny ‘locals’ Kafenion and had two frappés!! With the second one I was given a 1½ litre bottle of water with a core of ice in it. My thirst must have been very evident.
I returned to Gerolimenas by the route I had come, partly because I didn’t want to walk along the main road, the alternative, and partly to return to the Byzantine church to take photos with the sun at on a different side of the building.
Then what has become the usual pattern in the few days I have been here: swim; shower; beer. It still niggled me that I didn’t reach the summit of the mountain, ‘pretty close’ doesn’t do it for me. But I took some small consolation from the fact that even the guy from the hotel thought it was particularly hot today.