People don’t visit Nisyros for the beaches. There are beaches, very pleasant for a swim after a trek in the mountains, but not of the best. People visit Nisyros drawn by the allure of ‘The Volcano’, by which they mean the Stephanos crater in the main caldera. About four kilometres across, the rim of the caldera rises to just short of 700 metres ASL in Oros (Mount) Diavatis and drops to a low point of 200 metres. Much of it is fringed by dramatic lava extrusions.
There is a high level route around the inside of much of the rim, mostly between 300 and 400 metres ASL, though not the precipitous western flank.
For three weeks I have been walking into, along and across the caldera at various points by a variety of routes, some longer and more taxing than others. Coming towards the end of my stay on the island I decided to string a number of these together and trek around the whole of this high level route, starting and finishing in Mandraki.
Knowing it would be a tiring walk, some of it over difficult terrain in the midday sun, I set out at 08.30, earlier than usual for me. The day dawned cloudless and stayed that way.
The first part of the trek is up the old, well-trodden stone-paved kalderimi to the Paleocastro which is impressive even after many visits.
A short section on the road and then onto paths and kalderimia (mule trails) which meander upwards through ancient agricultural terraces before reaching the bulldozed dirt track which destroyed the ancient routeway in order to provide access for a (failed) geothermal energy scheme.
After a mile or so the track reaches Agios Stavros Monastery perched on the southwest corner of the caldera looking down into the Stephanos and Alexandros craters. A good place for a water and photo stop. For most of the next 6 miles the craters will be in sight, the smell of sulphur in the air.
Dropping down to a low point in the col at the southern end of the caldera, the track dives off left down to the taverna at the edge of the Stephanos crater. Leaving the track at this point, a path goes off to the right crossing a 9-inch diameter steel pipe laid to pump sulphur from the crater to the small harbour at Agios Irini from where it was exported across the Mediterranean for treating vines.
This path leads to a stone-paved kalderimi zigzagging 200 metres up to Nikia, passing jagged lava outcrops and ancient barrel-arched houses built into the rocks and under agricultural terraces.
After 3 hours walking, a pause to look at the craters from the viewpoint as the path comes into Nikia and a brief chill with a frappé in the tiny, peaceful, hochlakos (black and white pebble mosaic) floored plateia (square) at the top of the village.
Then the next stage of the trek, down the narrow main ‘street’ to the lower plateia which, because the alleys of the village are too narrow for vehicles, serves as car park and bus terminus. Dropping down concrete steps the route joins another kalderimi leading northwards high along the eastern flank of the caldera passed spectacular lava pinnacles and extrusions.
So far the path, though narrow and very broken in places, has presented no problems. This next section is not so well preserved with many collapses and is not for the trepid. In fact, soon after leaving Nikia the path, constricted between stone terrace walls two metres up to the right and two down to the left, is blocked by unfriendly holly-oak, small but very prickly leaves making a scramble up a collapsed section of wall onto the terrace above a wise move.
Below the Agios Ioannis Theologos monastery, with its bell-tower of carved lava blocks, a flight of stone steps drops through natural lava sculptures back down to the path, the skyline fringed with jagged lava pinnacles.
The next staging post is Parleta, an ancient fortification built into the top of a lava neck jutting out into the caldera and plunging down near vertical on three sides. The climb up to it is a moderate rock scramble, a stone wall built into vertical lava slabs reinforcing the naturally defensive position. On the top, a narrow platform with some of the most spectacular lava pinnacles. Perfect for a banana stop and a wander with the camera.
Leaving reluctantly but knowing there is still a long way to go, the next obstacle on the route is crossing a short section of very loose scree. This year for the first time there is a line across it the width of a foot.
Losing itself in a small cluster of ancient dwellings and terraces the path eventually re-emerges rising gently and easily until it is taken out by a small landslide as the retaining wall below to the left has collapsed. It is possible to scramble down and across but as a climber and with a personal principle that, unless there is no choice, I don’t go down if I have to go back up again, I traversed above the collapse using small hand and foot holds in the terrace wall above. One of these days I’ll come a cropper but thankfully not this trip.
Eventually the path reaches the road from Nikia to Emborios, necessitating a mile or so trudging tarmac. I’ve looked for ways of avoiding this but not yet found an alternative. Though I did find a fig tree with ripe fruit.
A climb on yet another stone-paved kalderimi over the shoulder of the mountain, short deviation to look at another shoulder sticking out into the caldera, a drop down into Emborios, climb up to the remains of the castle and picturesque monastery, and now only 3 or so miles back to Mandraki, passing the immense lava bubble and other lava contortions before leaving the main caldera and traversing above the smaller Kato Laki caldera.
At the end of Kato Laki, a final stop at the Evangelistra monastery to finish my 1½ litres of water, a drop down the path cutting off the hairpin bends in the road, and back to the hotel for a hot shower and a beer.
A total journey time of 7 hours and a route of just over 12 miles. Very satisfying.