On the Path of the Ancients: A Walking Trip in Greece

Kardamili and Exochori
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Kardamili is a quiet coastal village lapped by the Ionian Sea and shadowed by Mount Profitas Ilias—at 7,933 feet, the highest mountain in the Taygetos. I was surprised to see snow covering its peak. Somehow, I hadn't pictured snow when I'd been sitting back at home imagining olive groves and vineyards and the ancient ruins of the Mediterranean world.

We started walking a few kilometers from Kardamili in Exochori, a village built into steep olive-covered slopes plunging from the mountains of the interior down to the sea. As we wound through the narrow alleys that led up through the village, we couldn't help but notice the quiet. Even on a holiday weekend, the village seemed strangely deserted. Welcoming us in perfect Australian-accented English, a local woman told us that she, like so many other Greeks, had lived abroad. It was something we would hear again and again in the rural countryside. The population of Greece is about 11 million people; of that, more than 3 million live in bustling Athens. A diaspora of several million more lives abroad, mostly in the United States, Australia, and Canada.

"Young people go to the cities," the woman said. "There's no work here and the cities are more exciting." Exochori, she told us, had once numbered 7,000 people; now, less than 500—mostly elderly—remained.

We followed an aged goatherd up narrow paths that fed into a dirt road and overlooked the Viros Gorge, a steep-walled cut in the earth. Overhead, Mount Ilias shimmered. Jonathan told us that on the saint's feast day, a candlelit procession of the faithful made their way up the steep, rocky slopes on old goat paths.

The path we were following was blazed for hiking, but in fact it was an old trade route that had been used for thousands of years. We climbed down into the gorge, then up the other side to the village of Tseria, where we lunched on an assortment of mezedes (Greek appetizers), including—among other things—tzatziki (yogurt with cucumbers and garlic), dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), bread, olives, feta cheese, and a traditional Greek salad made of the kind of tomatoes and cucumbers that tasted like they came from a garden, not a store.

After lunch, we descended into the gorge. The path became an ankle-twisting obstacle course as we made our way between the steep-walled cliffs on either side. We paused to visit a ruined Byzantine monastery, a collection of small crumbling buildings in which remnants of brilliantly colored frescoes reminded us of a centuries-old devotion. Many of the old Greek Orthodox religious sites were vandalized during the reign of the Ottoman Turks, Jonathan said. In some of the old frescoes, you can still see where the eyes of painted saints have been poked out. Old wounds have long shelf lives in this part of the world.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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