Nisyros:  into the crater

I‘ve often said that Nisyros has some of the most spectacular walking routes that I know in Greece.  Treks around the caldera rim, including the one in the last Nisyros post on Barry’s Ramblings, offer views into the craters in the caldera a thousand feet below. But they are upstaged by getting up close and personal with the craters themselves.

The largest, Stephanos, is the most visited. Some years it is very dramatic with sulphur-encrusted fumaroles puffing out steam and gas as well as cauldrons of bubbling grey, gloopy mud at boiling point.  The crater floor is a crust of varying thinness and integrity.   Each year an area is roughly cordoned off with a single strand of rope to keep visitors away from the parts of the crater floor which it is judged may give way.  At times those brash enough to venture across the cordon have found to their pain and discomfort what the dangers of a semi-dormant/potentially active volcano can be.  One visit I stood too long to compose a photo of a bubbling mud-hole, only to suddenly find that, even though I was well inside the ‘safe‘ area around the perimeter, my sandalled feet were depressing the soft crust and boiling water was overlapping to marinate my toes.  I hopped quickly away.  Lessons learned?  Spend time coming to know what different surface textures mean practically.  Don’t stand still for too long.  Tread softly.  Be prepared to move quickly but lightly.

Viewed from the crater rim, this year Stephanos looked less interesting than previous years.  The cordoned-off area in the centre was very small.  There was little sign of fumarole activity around the edges.  And there were coachloads of visitors crocodiling single-file down the narrow path to the crater floor.

But back to the beginning of this trek. Again, this is not a description of how to find the route but a sample of interesting things to see on the way.  The first part of the trek is Walk 3 on the Greek Islands Walks page of this blog, taking option 3 part way down the first page.

The next stage of the walk is very definitely off-piste and I’m unlikely to include it in Greek Island Walks for reasons of safety. The third stage I may well write up.  The final stage links up with the route in the last blog, joining the track below Stavros monastery.

The island bus, though often free of charge but this year costing €3, deposited the few of us who had travelled up from the harbour to Nikia in the small triangular square at the end of the road.  The kalderimi down to the floor of the caldera begins here so rather than starting the day with a frappé in the square at the top of the village, turn right at the side of the Museum of Volcanology (well worth a visit) to the top of steps heading down to the caldera, the 4- kilometre-long hole in the middle of the island.

The start of the walk is overlooked by the newly built Agios Nektarios church on top of the mountain behind the car park, and by a voracious volcanic beast.


The mountain behind the car park. Agios Nektarios perched on top with newly improved path up to it on the right of the photo and a spectacular lava plug on the left


…. zooming in on the lava plug


… which in reality is a petrified roaring beast.

From the main path which leads to the Agios Ioannis Theologos monastery the craters are clearly visible a thousand feet below.


The oval Stephanos crater in the centre, the two Polyvotis craters and Alexandros behind.  In the background the highest mountain on the island, Oros Diavatis, the tiny church of Profitis Ilias a white speck on top.

Turning left off the main path, the first part of the kalderimi is well stone-paved.


The stone-paved kalderimi is cambered to allow cornering at speed.

The kalderimi zig-zags down the side of the caldera.  From one of the hairpin bends the jagged lava outcrop of Parletia is clearly visible.  The crags, a highly defendable location, have long been fortified, including by the Crusaders.  But that’s another trek.  (see for example:

However, you can’t ignore the view of another lava monster looking imperiously over the caldera.


The lava ‘neck’ of Parletia


…..  zooming in

Further down the zigzagging path is a large rock with holes and recesses blown by escaping gas and softened by weathering. I’m a sucker for weird shaped rocks.


From one angle the rock looks like the head of an inscrutable alien


Looked at from the opposite direction it’s a harmless but intriguingly shaped rock with the craters in the background, reminder of where I’m heading

As it reaches the floor of the caldera the path turns onto a dry stream bed, squeezed between the high stone wall of an old agricultural terrace and a 20-foot high boulder


The path, now a stream-bed squeezed between stone wall and huge boulder

From here the route is diagonally across the caldera floor towards the oasis of the taverna surrounded by large eucalyptus trees.  There is no path to it but myriad potential lines to follow through the desert environment, white ‘soil’ reflecting the heat from nearly-overhead sun, sparse, scraggy vegetation and occasional stunted tree offering no shade.  Keep your eyes fixed on the oasis and salivate at the prospect of ice-cold drinks in the shade.

But it’s worth deviating off the most direct line to climb the rise to look down into the floor of the Stephanos crater.  Visitors the size of ants walk down the steep path to the crater floor and cluster around the unstable area in the centre even though the most interesting sulphur-emitting fumaroles and boiling muds are around the perimeter.


Looking along the length of the Stephanos crater


Zooming in on the unstable area in the centre


…..and on the crocodile of people on the path down

The large area of shade at the taverna lasts throughout the day as the sun moves and so creates a microclimate with a refreshing breeze. But can’t linger long.  It’s a long way back to Mandraki.

It’s gone noon when I leave the oasis. Now I’m into the heat of the day. The route I take most often is to follow the concrete path from here and then join a white-dust track towards the end of the caldera.  But on this occasion I have something different in mind.

The next section of the walk is most definitely off-piste and not at all for the trepid. Instead of visiting the floor of the Stephanos crater I opt to head for the Polyvotis craters.  Behind the taverna is an enclosure where the guy who runs the taverna grows figs and olives, though I don’t know how they survive, let alone fruit, in this aridity.  Facing the enclosure and the colourful flank of the Alexandros crater, there is a path to the left, well-trodden at first.


The colourful flank of the Alexandros crater

A few of the more adventurous on the bus trips take the short climb on the narrow path, improved since last year when it had been damaged by winter rains, to reach a narrow ridge between the two Polyvotis craters.  This year, no problem and to my mind always very good value for effort.  The smaller of the two craters is more volcanically active and I have always fought shy of trying to climb down into it. The surface is unpredictably unstable and with gases at boiling point hissing out of the sides it’s not worth the risk. The larger, seemingly less active, of the craters is steep sided.  The action is higher up.

I go into the mountains on my own and my guiding principle is to take responsibility for my own actions not to depend on others getting me out of trouble.  Especially with no one else around, climbing down into either of the Polyvotis craters is just too much of a risk.  Though one day, when I’m not so pressed for time, I hope to suss out a route into the larger crater ………  Watch this space but not too closely.


The narrow ridge between the two Polyvotis craters, colour added to the basic barren white by red and yellow sulphur deposits.


Looking along the length of the larger of the two Polyvotis craters.  Note especially the narrow cleft centre right in the far distance

I’m heading for the cleft at the far end of the larger crater.  From the ridge between the two, a very narrow path, barely the width of my foot, goes off to the left.  It’s always a bit loose and unstable so care is required.

Then a really fun bit!  Up to the left as you traverse the narrow path, an even narrow, more unstable ‘path’ heads up towards an area of fiercely gassing bright yellow sulphurous fumaroles, gases backlit by the sun.  A photo opportunity not to be missed.  I never have, and I didn’t this time.  It’s different every year.

The ground is very steep, extremely unstable, and very hot.  As always, I’m wearing walking sandals so every footfall has to be carefully assessed.  Walking in boots would arguably be easier but would also be more damaging to the extraordinarily fragile volcanic environment. Even in sandals I couldn’t completely avoid setting the surface in motion.  Camera in hand, I spent about half an hour inching my way around the hissing hot spot.

Eventually and reluctantly I tear myself away and backtrack carefully to the ‘path’ and head for the far end of the crater and the cleft between the mountain at the side of the caldera and the flank of the craters.


From the far end, looking along the ‘Grand Canyon’ towards the crater

Turning my back on the canyon at the end of Polyvotis crater I head up the narrow cleft.  From here there is no semblance of a path, not even a goat path. No animals venture here. There is nothing for them.  Only mad dogs and Welshman.  Probably not even the mad dogs.

No photos.  They would show only white, yellow and ochre rocks.  And in any case, it’s imperative to concentrate on both route-finding and foot placement.  Many times, it’s the angle of your foot and its position on the rock which ensures security.  Even though outside the crater, there are still a few fumaroles hissing away and washed-out sulphur deposits.

I have never been to the moon, obviously, but I guess its surface could hardly be more desolate, barren and devoid of life.  It’s awe inspiring, a privilege to be here.  Though only a few hundred metres in  a straight line from the hundreds of people at the taverna the sense of isolation is profound.

The ground rises steadily between the mountain which forms the northern rim of the caldera on the right and the outer flank of the Alexandros crater on the left.  Reaching the top of the gully and though now the floor of the caldera is in view, route-finding becomes even more difficult.  Not so much determining where you are aiming for, that’s fairly obvious, but in terms of how to get there safely.

A stream bed cuts across the route it’s necessary to take, if anything even more unstable and unpredictable.  But no major issue. I’ve been this way before.  Continuing with the extreme care necessary so far, the tactic is to aim for a small animal enclosure. Head for the ‘stream-bed’ and a large boulder, then cross to the other side of the gully and climb carefully up the opposite flank.  I work on the premise that If there is human activity out here, there must be some kind of path or track to it from the farm at the southwest corner of the caldera below the Stavros monastery.

It is with relief that this proves to be the case.

It’s a good to reach the arid, white-dust track running from the taverna to the farm.  Even though only for a short distance, it’s relaxing to not have to choose every footfall, just step out and keep the loose grit out of sandals. As it reaches enclosures, the track bends rightward through 90 degrees into a rough farmyard, thankfully with no free-range pigs wandering it on this occasion, and leads to the bottom of an old kalderimi winding tortuously upwards.

At first there is a raised causeway carrying the path up through disused terraces, fallen into disrepair and overhung by trees but easy to follow.  But then the route is lost, winding its way upwards, twisting and turning between rocks, fallen trees, landslips and terraces.  It’s difficult to find but can be picked out by careful observation, aided by the occasional red spot.

This is walking up through history with abandoned houses, threshing circles and sternas, testimony to what must have been a small but significant community.  Amazing that people should have chosen to live here.  A surprising amount of original structures have survived intact despite being on the inside of the caldera of an active volcano, thanks mainly to the stone-built, barrel-arched architecture..

It winds upwards for a kilometre through a narrow valley, much of it in shade which is a welcome relief in the heat of the afternoon, emerging below overhanging cliffs on the bulldozed track on the Mandraki side of Stavros monastery.

From here the route is on the track and paths described in the last Nisyros walk on Barry’s Ramblings and in Walk 6 on the Greek Island Walks page.

The steady climb on the track to the col offers no shade at all, no respite from the heat. The shade and ice-cold drink at the crater-side taverna is a fading memory but once at the col, though still in the full glare of the sun, at least it’s downhill from here on.

Fly over the route:

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