Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Rewards Of Leaving The Beaten Path

One of the pleasant surprises of visiting the Greek island of Andros in May this year was seeing the number of foreign tourists taking advantage of the island’s unique system of ancient foot paths that wind around the steep hills and down into the deep, heavily forested ravines cut by rushing streams.

           I came across one happy group of about 15 British hikers with what looked like an average age of 55+ resting briefly on an ancient bridge before setting off up a steep cliff walk and then down again to a small seaside town where they were promised a good lunch. I didn't have the heart to tell them that lunch was a good two hours away. At least they had a coach arranged to bring them back.
            In previous years I usually had these trails to myself as I struggled to follow poorly marked paths that should be there, only to have to them disappear and then re-appear on the other side of thick thorn bushes. It took a fair amount of perseverance and bush-whacking to make your way along the trails. But the perseverance was always rewarded with glorious views, fields full of brightly coloured wild flowers, beautifully constructed stone bridges, stone walls and stone paths, and poignant reminders of former settlements and water mills.

            Now, thanks largely to a group of volunteers organized into a non-profit project called Andros Routes, many of these trails are being cleared, adequately signposted and maintained. The group recently published an excellent guide called Hiking On Andros that not only describes several of the trails but also discusses the rich and unique ecology of the island.

            The guide notes that Andros, in the Cycladic group of islands in the North Aegean, has had human settlement since the 4th millennium B.C. Although there has been considerable depopulation since World War II there are still more than 80 inhabited settlements today. Many of the older residents of the islands can recall when the extensive network of trails was the only link between these settlements. You can still find people who remember taking these trails from remote villages to school in one of the main towns.

            Andros has also been well known since antiquity for its water supplies, Histories of the region are filled stories of seafarers, including Odysseus, stopping at the island to replenish their water barrels. The scenery is incredibly varied with high, steep hills, fertile valleys, small forests and numerous beaches – many of them inaccessible by car.

            Although the island now has a fairly extensive network of paved and semi-paved roads, the best way by far to see and appreciate the ecological diversity and the wide variety of rural architecture is to put on a sturdy pair of hiking shoes, long trousers, a hat and take to the trails.

            And there is no better way to explore these paths than with one of the leaders of Andros Routes, Olga Karayiannis. Olga has walked over most of the trails on the islands and has a deep appreciation of the history and biodiversity of Andros. I have had the exhausting pleasure of joining a small group of friends on two walks with Olga who has shown us places unknown even to the locals.
View from the beginning of the trail
           Last weekend she led a small group from the remote mountain village of Vourkoti to the lovely beach at Ahla on the east side of the island. We could see the beach from the village and foolishly assumed the walk couldn’t be that difficult. Wrong! Ten kilometres and four tiring, but fascinating, hours later I staggered from a beautiful grove of plane trees along a river bed onto the beach where, mercifully, one of our friends had arranged a boat to take us back to town.
Grove of plane trees near the beach

            The path was steep, mostly unmarked except for small red dots on some rocks, and was fairly difficult in parts. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, unlike anything one normally associates with a Greek island. We passed countless rare plants that Olga identified for us. There were well built terraces and old stone buildings. Ultimately we descended to the bottom of the ravine and came on a large, well-built stone bridge that passed over a stream lined with large flat rocks. No one seemed to know exactly how old the bridge was. It is in the middle of the forest and seems to come from nowhere going to nowhere. The only possible explanation was that it was associated with very old mining activity nearby.
The well hidden ancient bridge
         From there we struggled up to the monastery of Agios Nikolaos where we refilled our water bottles and rested for a few minutes before setting off for the beach that didn't seem to be getting any closer.

            As we came closer to the elusive beach Olga led us into a small farm house where a friend of hers had prepared some delicious unsalted goat’s cheese and traditional lemon sweets to give us energy for the last 20 minutes of the walk.
The goal of the beach at Ahla

            Many of the islands I have visited on both the Ionian and Aegean sides of Greece have their own charm. Travellers willing to go beyond the crowded beaches with head-splitting techno noise will be well rewarded with a new appreciation for the history, the ecology and diversity of this unique part of the world.

            Hikers interested in more information for treks on Andros can go the website or send an email to The group can also be reached by calling +30-697-733-4334.

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