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

Ancient History
  |  Gorp.com

My guided walk was billed as a "Culture Walk," and you couldn't ask for more as far as truth in advertising was concerned.

Each guided walk, I was learning, has its own character, depending on the tour company, the terrain, and the nearby places of interest. The walk through Greece was less of a hike than I was used to, and the group's pace was, to put it mildly, leisurely. But this was for good reason. Almost at every turn, cultural and historic sites called out for us to tarry and explore.

Arriving on Good Friday of Easter weekend, we were just in time for the most important celebration of the Greek Orthodox year. Easter here lasts at least four days. On our arrival in Kardamili, we had observed the traditional candlelit processions of celebrants making their way to Good Friday observances. On Holy Saturday—our first day of hiking—we heard fireworks as we ate the traditional pre-celebratory meal of Magirepso (lamb giblet soup). Since our second day of walking took place on Easter Sunday, exercise was shortened in favor of eating. After a morning's walk in the hills near Kardamili, our group convened for an afternoon of feasting on the traditional Easter dinner of spit-roasted lamb.

The third day's excursions highlighted the region's history—and one natural wonder. Leaving Kardamili, we drove south to Cape Tenares, the tip of the Peloponnesian peninsula's central finger. The land of the Mani, people reputed to be descendants of the ancient Spartans, it is a harsh place, sere and rocky, blanketed with the dull gray-green of the ubiquitous olive trees. From time to time, we passed silent villages presided over by stone houses built in the shape of towers. The buildings looked like they could withstand a siege, which was exactly the point: Centuries-old feuds once defined the social structure of the region. But today, many of the villages are abandoned.

Our morning walk started at a trailhead near a ruined building—the temple of an oracle of Poseidon. Two thousand years ago, you would have come here to ask for advice and wisdom and received riddles in return. A few hundred yards after starting along the path, we looked down and saw a mosaic floor, its colors faded but visible. These were the remains of a building thought to date from Roman times. Jonathan told us that the entrance to Hades is believed by locals to be nearby, but that the same claim is made in about seven other Greek locations. We saw no signs of the mythical underworld, the River Styx, or Charon the ferryman. Continuing on, we followed the rocky path to a windswept lighthouse on the tip of the peninsula, which marks the division between the Ionian and Aegean Seas.

Walking stirs up an appetite—as Karen Lancaster had told me, on a walking trip, you can try the desserts every night, eat everything that appeals to you, and still lose weight. So, guilt-free, we headed off to lunch in Porto Kaiya, a small fishing village, to indulge in freshly caught calamari and fish.

In the afternoon, we turned from walkers into more traditional tourists. We were near the Diros Caves, an underground fairyland of stalagmites and stalactites. The floor of the cave is flooded, so flat-bottomed boats are poled along, taking you from one fantasy chamber to another. It's not the best-run tour in Greece—the boatmen are surly, the tour is too short, and the cost is higher than usual—but it's worth the entry fee to see what nature can do with a little limestone and water. After driving to the seaside village of Porto Itilo, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the ruined Turkish castle of Kelefa, which guards the town, before hiking back down to the sea.

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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