Nisyros: on the lava trail

Nisyros is a volcano, classed as ‘potentially active’, and it is therefore not surprising that its rocks are entirely volcanic in origin.  Perhaps most dramatic are the lavas.

After a couple of days re-acclimatising to the heat I put together a longer walk around the inside rim of the caldera passing some of the most spectacular of the lava pinnacles and crags, a ‘lava trail’.

From where the bus stops in the square at the bottom of Nikia, one of the two caldera-rim villages, a concrete path goes downhill passing the Museum of Volcanology.  It very soon turns sharply to follow the edge of the caldera affording dramatic views across the active craters including the largest, Stephanos.

From 300 metres above, the people who venture down the winding path onto the crater floor are smaller than sugar ants, difficult to see unless they are moving.  Immediately opposite, two kilometres away, is the highest part of the caldera rim, the mountain block of Oros Diavatis.  It’s difficult to imagine getting blasé about the scale of the place though I guess you may do if you lived here year round all your life.

Looking across the caldera and its craters from the start of the Lava Trail, 300 metres above

Looking across the caldera and its craters from the start of the Lava Trail, 300 metres above

The concrete ends abruptly, as concrete paths tend to, a stone-paved path diving off steeply down leftwards towards the caldera floor, a narrow dirt path with 2-metre high stone walls above and below continuing straight ahead.  Agricultural terraces rarely more than 5 metres wide step steeply up to the right, down to the left, now straw coloured, grasses and wild cereals parched by nearly 4 months of sun and drought.

Looking back towards Nikia the first of the lava pinnacles stands proudly erect like a beaked creature  haughtily keeping watch.

Lava pinnacle like a beaked creature haughtily keeping watch haughtily

Lava pinnacle like a beaked creature haughtily keeping watch 

The terrace which carries the path is barely two metres at its widest with tough, drought resistant holly oak, leaves about a centimetre long and ferociously prickly, encroaching from both sides.  I was expecting this and had a pair of secateurs in my rucksack for a little judicious clearing.

When the path splits it is clear that the majority of what little traffic there  is goes right, heading up to the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos.  The path onwards becomes increasingly blocked by the ferocious oak scrub, reaching a point where I give up on the secateurs, needing loppers and a saw, and climb the stone wall to the terrace above.  Much easier going.  After a few hundred metres I can drop down again onto the path.

Soon I pass under overhanging, contorted lava crags.  Rough steps lead through them to the monastery above with its carved lava bell tower.

View from the top of the lava crags

View from the top of the lava crags

After scrambling around the crags for a while, I drop back down to the path which soon passes at the foot of yet another overhanging lava crag and then the view opens out. On the right is the bulk of the mountain named after the monastery, the shoulder of lava spikes of Parletia on the left, the reason for the gleam in my eye.

A minor problem along here was balancing the urge to look around at the fascinating lava structures, watching where I was placing my feet, and minding I didn’t scrape my head on overhanging holly oak. The col between the main mountain and Parletia is, not surprisingly, made up of softer rock and the path into it becomes loose, in places slipping away steeply requiring care.

Approaching Parletia

Approaching Parletia

Parletia is the highlight of this walk.  It is claimed to be a Medieval fortress but my guess is that it is considerably older than that.  It occupies a very defensible position reinforced by stone walls on the side into the col.  The path leads to this  point and the access into the fortress crag itself involves a rock scramble requiring that every hold on the added fortification be tested first.

Lava pinnacles reinforced by stone walls, the approach to the ancient fortress of Parletia

Lava pinnacles reinforced by stone walls, the approach to the ancient fortress of Parletia

Once up there it is awe-inspiring.  Amazing rock pinnacles and sculptured shapes plunging down near-vertically to the caldera floor about 250 metres below.  Great place for a banana and a nutbar and to just sit, scramble around, and soak in the sense of antiquity.

stone carvings indicate that this was more than just a rough fortress hideout

stone carvings indicate that this was more than just a rough fortress hideout

The pinnacles at the highest point

The pinnacles at the highest point

Looking down between the pinnacles to the caldera floor 300 metres below

Looking down between the pinnacles to the caldera floor 300 metres below

Lava beast about to chomp on the crater-rim village of Emborios

Lava beast about to chomp on the crater-rim village of Emborios

The whole slab

The whole slab

Relaxing on the edge looking down the length of the caldera

Relaxing on the edge looking down the length of the caldera

Reluctantly I had to leave, I still had a long way to go.  One of these days I’ll get myself sorted and spend the night up there, trying to capture the sunset over the crater, watching the Eleanora’s Falcons gathering to feed on the insects in the rising evening air …. and get a sense of those for whom Parletia was once home.

Having down-climbed to the col and regained the path, it is evident that this route is not for the trepid or the navigationally challenged.   After a few tens of metres the path crosses a 20 metre-wide band so loose it would be flattering to call it a scree.  The material is fine dust and small stones at angle of rest with a faint trodden line curving across it and a drop to the left best not looked at.  Keep to the exact line the width of one sandal and try to place each foot on what might be more solid pieces of stone embedded in it and hope they don’t break free.  Caution and confidence are essential.

From there the path continues more solidly until it disappears into a medley of animal tracks and ‘old ways’ under overhanging trees and a bit of casting around is needed to find the through-route.

Breath a sigh of relief once back on another section of narrow dedicated path a metre wide, again with 2 metre stone wells above and below. But the fun is not yet over.  In a couple of places the retaining wall of the terrace on the downside has collapsed and short sections require rock climbing traversing skills on the upper wall.  OK, so I could have dropped down onto the terrace below but the challenge was too good to miss. All the while surrounded by lava landscape.  I was unable to avoid looking back at the Parletia crags silhouetted against the western sun.

Looking back to the silhouetted pinnacles

Looking back to the silhouetted pinnacles

From here a pleasant, easy-going amble around the eastern end of the caldera, visiting a line of red/purple caves in softer lava and then traversing above them to join the tarmac road from Nikia for a couple of kilometres.  The boredom of trudging the road is relieved by cuttings through outcrops of obsidian, a black volcanic rock so hard and sharp that it has a long history of use not only for weapons and tools but for surgical instruments.

At the junction with the road down to the crater an old, stone paved path rises steeply  over the lava outcrop adjacent to Emborios, the other caldera-rim village, and the opportunity for a drink or a meal at the Balcony Taverna looking along the length of the caldera and surrounded by contorted lava crags.

A climb up to the castle and then the path passes at the foot of another dramatic geological  structure, a lava bubble towering 20 metres high, a massive shallow overhang created by gases exploding out of the molten lava which then cooled in amazing patterns.  Looking back as the path rises to reach the upper edge of the caldera other lava bubbles can be seen above it.

The 20 metre high lava bubble

The 20 metre high lava bubble

Detail of part of it

Detail of part of it

Looking back it is clear that the large lava bubble is just one of a series rising up the crag

Looking back it is clear that the large lava bubble is just one of a series rising up the crag

There is much else to see on the remainder of the trek but the main structures are now passed.  Very much to be recommended as a lava trail.

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