Tilos: a walk beyond the fringe.

Once a week there is the opportunity to do a walk on Tilos which I have intended but not got round to doing for a number of years. It’s a truly ‘wild walk’ from Agios Pandeleimon, the large monastery dedicated to the patron saint at the north end of the island, around the flank of Profitis Ilias, the highest mountain, to Eristos, the longest beach.  With the mountain on one side, the sea on the other and no settlements, there are no escape routes.  You either go on or you turn back.  Though apparently once a well made stone-paved path there is now no trace of it and parts of the route are known to be difficult to find and follow.

At 11.00 every Sunday the bus leaves Livadia for the monastery, stays an hour and then returns.  Since the demise of the island’s taxi service it’s the only way to get there as the start of one of two possible walks.  On my second Sunday on the island I climbed on the bus and, alighting at the monastery 45 minutes later, asked for «ένα απλό», a single (you pay when you get off, not when you get on).  The die was cast.

When we first went to the monastery nearly 15 years ago a number of elderly local ladies got off the bus clutching bags full of empty 1½ litre water bottles which they filled from the spring gushing out of the mountain at the side of the monastery entrance, ready to take back on their return. It was a weekly ritual. The water is wonderfully sweet and cool though whether it has the beneficial health effects some attribute to is another matter.  The ladies were certainly considerably older than me and had no problem lugging half a dozen or eight full water bottles around, so …. maybe ?!?!?!?.

This time the whole monastery was buzzing.  The following weekend was the major festival on the island, the name-day for Agios Pandeleimon.  But this Sunday there were what seemed to be preparations for a baptism.  In the entrance courtyard trees and the spring were decorated with ribbons and there were symbolic displays and laden tables.  The level below was a hive of activity with food preparation and long tables laid out with elaborate place-settings.  Clearly large numbers were expected.  As I was only using the bus one way I could have waited to see what was going on but I regard that as voyeuristic. This was a celebration for local people, not tourists.  I could have engaged people in conversation to find out what was occurring (an expression familiar to followers of ‘Gavin and Stacey’ or residents of Barry, South Wales) but I’m afraid I didn’t.  I was here for a walk and it was already into the hottest part of the day. I needed to be on my way.

The outer courtyard of Agios Pandeleimon Monastery

The outer courtyard of Agios Pandeleimon Monastery

The spring

The spring

I have to be honest here.  I had intended to follow the path from the monastery to Agios Antonis, the small harbour at the north end of the island, a dramatic walk under high, craggy cliffs on a recently improved path.  It would be a pleasant amble on a Sunday afternoon allowing plenty of time for a swim.  But that was what sat uneasily with me, it would be a Sunday afternoon stroll on an almost urbanised path with park–type seats at strategic locations. I fancied a bit more of a challenge.

So on the spur of the moment, standing with a crowd of tourists waiting on a balcony walkway around the monastery, waiting to take the iconic photo of the red pantiled roofscape, I changed my mind.  No dithering.  Decision made. I was going to tackle the path to Eristos.

The iconic red pantile roofscape

The iconic red pantile roofscape

First a few more deep swigs of water from double-cupped hands under the spring gushing out of the rock by the entrance, conserving my bottle of iced water for later.  I quickly found the start of the path, up a short flight of wooden steps to the left of the main gate and then along the high back-wall of the monastery enclosure.

From the monastery the thin but clear path meandered up towards the crags towering above, crossing scree, curving upwards and around a natural bowl to reach a rocky shoulder at about 430 metres.  I stopped on rocks on the shoulder to have my banana and nutbar with views across to neighbouring Nisyros, grey and faint in the haze but with the white of Nikia, one of the crater-rim villages, clearly visible.

Climbing higher and looking back to the monastery

Climbing higher and looking back to the monastery nestled under the crags

Zooming in

Zooming in

The thin path tracing a meandering line under the crags and across scree slopes

The thin path tracing a meandering line under the crags and across scree slopes

A thin but clear path

A thin but clear path

.... squeezing between rocks

…. squeezing between rocks

Looking across to neighbouring Nisyros

Looking through the heat haze across to neighbouring Nisyros

From there the monastery was out of sight and I was on my own, no sign of any settlement or activity.  The sense of isolation was invigorating, focusing the mind. More than usual on the islands I was conscious of the fact that if anything went wrong it could be serious.  The narrow, path winding up, down, and around the mountainside, occasionally marked by small cairns, increasingly rarely by fading red dots, was like a tenuous thread linking me to civilisation.  I was confident that if I lost the path, or if it petered out, I now had enough experience of going off piste to find a way but it would be slow going, not a welcome prospect.

The path dropped down close to sea level and reached a small spring.  Trickling out of the ground into a muddy pool there was no useable water for me but it was an oasis for the goats.  The result was a myriad of paths radiating into that one point.  I cast around to find a marker of some kind but found none.  I followed the clearest of the paths steeply up rocks, polished to indicate the passage of many feet … or hooves.  It was wrong but took me higher up the slope and from a rocky outcrop I could see that it went no further and that the more likely line was lower down.  I backtracked to the pool and took another line which turned out to be correct, marked by a small cairn after a couple of hundred metres.

From the shoulder the path begins to drop back down

From the shoulder the path begins to drop back down

Over the shoulder of another spur and I dropped down again to an isolated, abandoned chapel.  I guessed it was the only feature marked on the map, Panagia, a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and therefore just over half way along the route.  Another two hours to go if the path remained clear.

Approaching the isolated, abandoned chapel of Panagia

Approaching the isolated, abandoned chapel of Panagia

Climbing up again now towards another col and the path changed nature.  Rather than trodden earth and loose rubble it went over craggy rocks, the meandering line marked by small cairns.  Hopping from rock to rock, walking along narrow ledges, it was matter of identifying the next marker before moving on.  Brain really focusing now but perhaps the most enjoyable and satisfying part of a very enjoyable walk.

Along a narrowing ledge marked by small cairns (centre)

Along a narrowing ledge marked by small cairns (centre)

Up rocks and onto a rough path towards the col

Up rocks and onto a rough path towards the col

The shoulder of the mountain reached and Eristos Bay came into view. Easy to become blasé at that point, the end clearly in sight, but the meandering path still needed to be traced.

In some mountains this would be worrying, but here it's only a pick left by workmen

In some mountains this would be worrying, but here it’s only a pick left by workmen

Eristos Beach, the end of the path and a refreshing swim in prospect

Eristos Beach, the end of the path and a refreshing swim in prospect

It was still another hour before I reached the track behind the beach and plunged into the crystal clear water for a very welcome and refreshing swim.  Then a swagger past the prostrate, sweltering bodies on the beach to reach the bus turning point and a cold beer to fill the half hour wait.

Marvellous!!  I would do it again tomorrow but will have to wait for another Sunday on Tilos.

If you fancy a walk on Tilos but aren’t sure about wandering into the back of beyond on your own then contact Iain and Lyn, very experienced professional guides who have lived on the island for 17 years and know it very well.   

Contact details: http://tilostrails.com/2.html

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