I kid you not, this walk/trek/hike takes some beating. But it’s not a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. Some short sections are loose scree, route-finding can be difficult, it’s sustained, and it’s wiltingly hot in summer. However, it’s a very good investment of five or six hours effort.
Get off the island bus from Mandraki in the chaotic car park in Nikia, one of the two villages perched on the rim of the caldera and take a little time-out to recover from the stress by a visit to the Volcanological Museum which amply repays the small entrance fee. Then, heading back towards the taverna, drop down broad concrete steps on the right. Turn right at the T-junction and try not to fall over backwards gazing up to the lava pinnacles towering on the right or fall over the low wall looking down to the caldera and the Stephanos Crater over 1000 feet below on the left.
Where the concrete steps end, hairpin left onto an old stone-paved kalderimi. And follow it zigzagging down to the caldera floor. The views are dramatic. Pause to gawp at the Parletia lava pinnacles with their ancient fortifications and the smaller lava boulders alongside the path. Towards the bottom a strong smell of sulphur indicates an active area with small fumaroles hissing out gas.
Rounding a boulder the size of a small house in a dry stream bed at the end of the paved path, head diagonally across the arid caldera floor towards the oasis, in this case a taverna with a coach park for day-trippers with a 1 hour time-slot. First opportunity for shade, a caffeine-fix and direct contact with volcanic activity.
This is no dead volcano, it’s still huffing and puffing and there is plenty of evidence. Between one batch of coaches leaving and the next arriving there is about an hour of relative quiet to drop down the winding, dazzlingly white path and explore the sulphur encrusted fumaroles breathing hot gases and the boiling mud and water bubbling to the surface on the floor of the large Stephanos crater.
Equally, if not more, rewarding is to follow the path from the back of the taverna up to the smaller but just as active Polyvotis crater with its sulphur hot-spots and a mini Grand Canyon.
There are other craters in the caldera but there is still a long walk ahead, so on to something else. After all, seen one hissing, sulphur-encrusted fumarole, seen them all!!!
Shunning the tarmac and instead finding a way through the scattered trees and around the fenced enclosures to the other end of the caldera reveals a different, abandoned world,.
Indicating continuing seismic activity, is a split in the ground varying from 30 cms deep and wide to over 7 metres deep and 8 or 9 across, zigzagging indiscriminately for a couple of kilometres. Whole trees fell in when these fissures opened up in 2003, taking everyone by surprise. It happened before the tourist season began but needless to say it didn’t stop the ‘Volcano Trips’ in the summer.
The ground is parched, dead trees lie everywhere. Everywhere also there are old houses, single roomed, stone-built, barrel-arch constructions, surprisingly many with 6 or even 8 feet headroom, family homes for large families. Some are free-standing structures in the middle of the caldera floor, others are built under the agricultural terraces along its flanks. After a while they become familiar, part of the background, almost unnoticed, but to see them for the first time is eye-catching Some were lived in certainly until the 1950’s but now most are abandoned, a few used for agricultural storage. One cluster of houses towards the eastern end of the caldera features large stone artefacts and a ‘throne’ carved out of a large boulder. It breathes history just as the craters breathe sulphur gas..
From here an old stone-paved path 3-4 metres wide rises up gently through the terraces partly on embankment , partly between stone walls, achieving an easy gradient for people and laden donkeys. Though now intersected by the tarmac road to the crater-side taverna oasis, it continues upwards, increasingly steeply, to Emborio, the other ancient village perched on the caldera rim. It’s a taxing pull up in the heat of the day but at the top is the Balcony Taverna, breathtakingly cantilevered out at the eastyern end of the caldera. Shade. Another caffeine fix. Good quality traditional Greek food. Stunning setting.
Not immediately apparent but there are indications of continuing volcanic activity here too. Some of the old houses in Emborios have underfloor heating in the form of thermal vents from the volcano. Proof? On the approach to the village from the bus turning point is a natural sauna; stick your head inside and even an outside temperature of 400C seems cool when you emerge.
At the top of the village are the remains of a castle, currently being partly renovated, the white-painted stone entrance perched on the edge of a vertical drop into the caldera with the active craters 3 kilometres in the distance. Next to it is a small monastery with a very fine traditional hochlakos courtyard and spiral stone steps up to the bell tower.
The onward path is narrow and winding but very clear, contouring around the inside lip of the caldera. Shortly after leaving Emborios a 20 metre-high lava bubble towers overhead, the inside covered in patterns like alien hieroglyphics.
Another short rise up over loose ground, passing within inches of a cave entrance and an ancient sterna (water tank sunk in the ground) then it’s over into the smaller and now inactive Kato Lakki caldera and downhill back to Mandraki.