Monday, March 29, 2010

Mountain Marathons

I'm lovin' it again! As the last of the burnt skin of my arms, neck, face, ear tips (youch!), and shins peels away, I've climbed back into the cool mountains and have been much happier about everything.

I seem to have been training for these last four months for the challenges I now face. The mountainous landscape is gorgeous but the paths quite rugged. The streams are bank-full and then some with cold meltwater from above. The most difficult part is the infrequency of the villages - no where to socialize and find refreshment... like that's such a harsh punishment, ha! Notice the sidebar - 128 km in three days! And those were enormous mountain kilometers... my map can only show the closely spaced 100-meter contour lines, the altitude of the passes and peaks are so much higher than the valley floors. I upped and downed more than 800 spectacular vertical meters (2,600 ft) countless times each of those days. I can hardly believe I can do this! Sure, my legs are fatiqued spaghetti strands after the major descents, but even I'm amazed I can do this so easily.

When I do arrive in one of the isolated high-perched hamlets of goatherds and foresters, generally lacking a cafe, someone has always invariably invited me to sit with them in a shady spot to admire the view and have a beer. (Beer's great in Greece, as long as you like Amstel.) They are completely incredulous of the distance I've walked, though a quick glance at my exposed calves is the clearest demonstration of proof, enormous and muscularly cut (Irish genes!). 'You must walk around the mountain, not over it', they advise, 'it's not safe for a woman.' Hahahahahahaaaa! Yeah, right. The crowd in Gravia told me it I must walk around the mountains because the distance to Delphi requires three days to walk - they know from experience - and since there are no villages, it would mean camping out, which is out of the question because of the dangers, blah, blah, blah... cold, woman, alone... ugh, how tiresome this has become. So I walked the 50 km in one day and cherished every step of it.

How can I walk kilometer after kilometer? People ask me this all the time. I'm always curious about what's around the next bend, what I'll see over the next rise, or, often reflecting on Benny Hill's mispunctuated line: What's that in the road? A head? I see lots of things on the road, sometimes, indeed, there is a head - the skull of a deer or goat or cattle. Sometimes roadkill - badgers are particularly common here in Greece... sometimes the roadside shrines that look like miniature churches that someone tends regularly to keep the oil lamp lit. I've realized that these are generally placed as markers where paths intersect. Around one bend, then another; over one rise, down a valley, over another rise; into a village always full of quirkly village amusements... what's there not to like? I thought I was ready to be done three weeks ago, but that was the off cheese talking; then last week, but that was the distraction of the oppressive sunny heat... I'm nearly ready to be done, but these mountain experiences - long as they may need be - have been terrific. I've been keeping right below the snowline on these mountains. The soles of my boots are about as smooth as ballet slippers and the leather tops as cracked as a desert riverbed. I'm not done yet, but my boots will go the distance.

I witnessed a Nature moment on the dirt track high in the mountains aromatic with spruce and juniper trees... in the soft ground, clear deep footprints of a, well, giant dog, I'd prefer to think, met on the path by slightly smaller footprints of a wolverine, or some other creature with pointy toenails. Signs of a scuffle, uh oh, and then only the dog pawprints next to dragmarks of something broad and heavy... no more pointy-toed marks into the grassy verge below the rocks. Alas, nature.

I've been flirting with the heart of Greek mythology, up high in the clouds looking for Pan and his crowd. I've seen more goats in the mountains than bus-pilgrims in Meteora, but no Satyrs or Centaurs (yet). I climbed over the famed Mt Parnassus - sacred to Apollo, setting for Ovid's Metamorphoses, home of Pegasus... all that stuff from high school classic lit class - and descended into Delphi, the 'navel of the Earth'. Like my approach into Meteora, coming from the north, over the mountains is not the typical entrance. From above, Delphi looks like a small village on grassy slopes with the ancient ruins off to the side - a stadium, an amphitheater, some columns of various temples, the sea beyond the mouth of the valley; later, from the valley floor, I could look back and see the more typical view of the ancient place. From the stream amid the olive groves far below, the white houses with red-tile roofs hug the top of the slope just below the (nearly) impassable vertical rockfaces that soar into the clouds, dominating the landscape. Perspective says a lot.

People continue to be full of kindness for me. I walk in the wilderness and take advise from beekeepers and oliviers on what unmarked path to take to get to my next destination. I've been invited to share in many a meal of lamb on the backyard spit, with overly sweet delicacies oozing with honey from the numerous hives that dot the landscape. I find myself on challenging routes, and I'm fit for the challenge. I talk with people who have never met a pilgrim before. Nuns have joked with me when I ask for a night's accommodation - 'you must be Catholic, no Orthodox would do such a thing.' I've never been turned away. It's all still a lot of fun.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pilgrims by the busload!

Encountering other pilgrims was bound to happen, but by the busload was a little overwhelming. That's what I found at the famed Meteora monasteries - busloads of 'pilgrims'. Mostly German.

I've been traveling through the beautiful and rugged countryside - mountains, steep fields of grazing goats and sheeps and the particularly protective dogs who keep them together. I've picked up bits of the E4 European hiking trail for some off-road excursions but have popped back down to roads to get to the villages otherwise bypassed. From this northerly approach, the steep descent to Meteora took some of the mystery out of the collection of 16th-century monasteries perched on pinnacle outcrops as more typically first seen from the valley below. Nonetheless, busload upon busload of religious tourists crowd the monasteries like nothing I've seen so far on the journey. At the women's monastery of St Stephenus, I humbly asked for lodging for one night. An English-speaking nun apologized profusely for their inability to host me... too many nuns, not enough beds, I was told. I was given instead a blessing and a voucher for a hotel below in the next town. The main street of the town, full of icon factory outlets and other schlock trinket shops, was lined with hotels to accommodate the busloads. Exhausted from the 46 kilometers of the day's hike, steeply uphill until the last 5 km of hazardous descent, I stopped in the first hotel and expained that I'm a pilgrim but the monastery was full, so take the nuns' voucher and please provide me with a room and a meal or tell me who could. The hotelier was happy to oblige and squeezed me in with a group from Heppenheim, Germany, coincidentally quite near to where I used to live.

As I ate my banquet meal of 'typical' Greek cuisine that Germans would like, others from the group spied me as a newcomer and pressed me in their reserved manner for details of why I'm suddenly with their group. I explained myself and in a short time was told emphatically that I'm not a real pilgrim because I wasn't with a bus tour, spending a whole week touring the most famous Christian sites in central Greece. Besides, I was told, pilgrims by foot go to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, not to Greece. They were all pretty happy with themselves for 'setting me straight' and were up and ready at 7 am with their luggage assembled in the lobby to go on to their next site - Delphi. It would take me another 6 days and them 3 hours to get there. Meanwhile, the hotelier prepared a bag lunch for me to take along with me and sent me off with hugs and promises of prayers.

Summer has hit with a force and I got sunburned within a few hours. It just can't be helped when I'm perspiring under the direct rays with no where to hide... How can anyone be a summer pilgrim??? For three days, the temperatures soared into the high 20s (80s F). I'm dying out here! Carrying everything, wearing next to nothing and getting burned as I sweat buckets. Even the dogs are disinclined to bark at me and chase me, instead staying sprawled out under the nearest olive tree. The last two days have been a pleasant light drizzle in the mountains again; I'm much happier. But spring has arrived; the winter pilgrimage is coming to an end.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Still Here!

During this long pause between blogs, I have continued to walk walk walk but haven't found too many opportunities to blog blog blog. The landscape is beautiful and the people to match, but somewhere in there I got hold of some bad feta or something and was rather under the weather for many days... days of snow, mostly, ugh! I'm so strongly determined to be in Patras on April 3rd that giving up was never a thought that crossed my mind. I just kept my head down and walked, preoccupied with the search for Mother Nature's powderrooms in response to the constant rumblings of the thunderstorm in my digestive track. I lost my appetite, and thus my energy was drained, but, funny thing, during this time, really nice people kept crossing my path, waving me into a cafe for a cup of tea and making it easy to find places to sleep - sometimes for 12 hours at a go. I walked through a lot of history, too, and took passing note, but didn't get too consumed. I walked by Philippi, but could see from the hillside above that the ruins were completely covered in wet snow, and being a Monday, was closed anyway. Oh well. Onward I trekked.

I recovered fully in the days it took to walk around Mt Olympus, just below the snowline. The sun has returned in force, as has my appetite, and the home of the gods is now behind me. I'm happily in the mountains, green and lush from the recent moisture, a day from the perched monasteries of Meteora. Calculating my actual route, I can eliminate the swing through Corinth and take the bridge or a ferry across the Gulf of Patras and recover my schedule to offset the greater-than-planned distance. Though my Greek language skills are still very limited, using mostly German, I explain to people what I'm doing. 'Patras is too far to walk to,' they tell me, 'you must take a bus.' Isn't that a hoot! I show them my credenziale, completely filled with stamps from so many of the places where I've stayed, and they begin to get it. Otherwise, the concept of pilgrimage by foot is completely foreign. They quickly conclude that I must be Catholic because an Orthodox simply wouldn't do something like this.

More soon, but I'm alive and well and found an internet cafe to post.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Trippin' on History

Compared with everywhere else I've walked, history is pouring out from all directions. Still, like in Turkey, small villages that have been there forever are full of modern houses in stark contrast to similar villages in France or Italy or Spain, for example, where the age-old houses have been compasionately modernized and still retain their quaint old appearance. Nonetheless, the route I've been on through Greece follows quite closely to the Hellenistic road, Via Egnatia, built in the 3rd century BC and improved by the Romans in the 1st century. I'm not sure if St Andrew walked this way, but if he did, he certainly would have used this road. Great stretches of it are cordoned off and have descriptive information signs, in Greek and English. Cool.

I've gotten a bit lazy - everyday since I've been in Greece, I haven't had any trouble finding someone who speaks German; consequently, I haven't been too motivated to learn a whole lot of Greek. I wander into a village, go to the tea house filled with old men playing cards, and immediately gain the attention of everyone present. Someone always speaks up in German to offer me some 'tea' (a vile sweet pinkish instant drink, like hot Kool Aid), Greek coffee (exactly like Turkish coffee), instant coffee, or a 'frappe' of instant coffee frothed with milk. I generally enjoy the company of the old men. When I tell them I began my journey in Kiev, they invariably come back with 'oh, Russia'. Their error is forgiven - geographic boundaries have changed a lot during the lifetimes of most of these men. This is the underlying reason, they tell me, that the villages are full of modern houses - after 1924 when everyone in northern Turkey and eastern Greek was repatriated with their ethnic homeland, neither group was content to live in an old house previously occupied by the other group, so down the houses came and up the new ones sprang. It's funny that the modern houses in both Turkish Thrace and Greek Thrace look alike. And they've all got indoor plumbing =)

The old men in the villages as well as the priests I speak with to get advice on how to get to my next stopping point all give me the predictable misguidance: 'take the highway', they all insist, 'it's the fastest and easiest way'. They're nuts of course - walking alongside a highway has got to be the worse route for a pedestrian... do they think I can suddenly skip along at 8 kilometers per hour instead of my usual 5? I had the most glorious walk of the trip between a brand new convent in the village of Panorama on the Aegean, and a tiny village of Xylogani along the coast to the west. I stuck to the shoreline along the ancient route now dotted with archeological digs of settlements from prehistory. I literally tripped over some stones and saw that they were part of a Hellenistic theater. Medieval watch towers occupy each high crag. For more than five hours of brisk walk under a sunny blue sky through centuries-old olive groves, my company was herds of goats, each equipped with a small clanging bell. This was the route everyone warned me not to take - 'it's too dangerous' they say, because they're afraid to walk in the forest - wild pigs, they say. Teeheehee, I say.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Hey, I've reached Greece! On the one hand, I've come a very long way to get here. On the other hand, it's like having a new starting point. Observant ones out there might have noticed that my original estimate on the distance to Patras was a little off - I'm close to 3,400 km already and have at least 800 to go. No worries - I've got plenty of time until Easter and will chose a route that fills every available day. My plan is to arrive in Patras on 3 April. There's so much to see in Greece that I'm sure I could wander around to a new place every day for a few years, but I'll take a month to see what I can.

It was a rainy river crossing from Turkey. (To tally it up: two borders across rivers - no pedestrians permitted - and two borders across mountains; three in heavy snow, one in pouring rain; at each one, a pilgrim is an oddity.) My last days in Turkey were glorious - rolling hills, farm villages every half dozen kilometers, good food, nice people, barking dogs... the fruit trees are in puffy bloom and daffodils make every garden sparkle. The one day of rain, heavy as it was, was soft, warm and cleansing.

What to expect in Greece???? I arrived late in the afternoon on an empty highway lined with concertina wire and a noticable lack of signage. I saw a village, Kipi - white washed cottages with red roof tiles - and headed to it across a field of baaing lambs crying for their ewes and mooing cows wanting to be milked. In the village center, a church stands whitewashed with twin belltowers, a small school building, a minimarket, a covered block of post office boxes, and maybe 50 houses radiating from the juncture of five packed-dirt roads...

I started at the cafe - a dozen old men sitting quietly drinking small cups of tea or coffee, some playing cards on green felt mats spread on the table for the purpose. Of course, everything stopped when I walked in. I took off my pack and set it on a bench, then consulted my map and flipped through some documents searching for my Greek language 'cheat sheet' (to no avail - what could have happened to it?) A man approached and politely asked in German if I'd like a cup of tea. Sure, I would! - but it was served heavily sugared - blech. After a few moments more, I saw the priest arrive to the church next door - yippee! (except I don't speak Greek and couldn't find my helpful list of words). I dashed out to talk to him nonetheless, but alas, he speaks Greek and no English, German, French, Italian, nor >gulp< Russian... I even tried some Turkish. He pointed to the cafe and then to his watch and I was duely dismissed for the time being.

Back in the cafe, I asked the general crowd (which grew in my absence) if anyone speaks English. Not a word. Then if someone speaks French. No takers. One gentlemen shouted out 'Deutsch' like it were a game show, and we were off to the races. I explained that I'm a pilgrim on my way to Patras following the route of St Andrew - and unlike everywhere else I'd been so far, Patras is a place well known - and would need a place to sleep for the night and guidance on my next stage toward my destination. All of this was disseminated through the body of men and we all sat and waited until the priest was done with his evening service.

The German speaker grew inpatient and took me to the church to interrupt the four elderly women and the young priest. Foot pilgrims, it seems, are not common in this village. In the end, the priest gave me the key to the side room of the church where there is a room with a sofabed. Perfect for me. He stamped my credenziale. In the cafe, with the fire roaring in the pot-bellied stove, souvlaki, tomato and cucumber salad, french fries, and yogurt spread before me, and after such a long sad drought on my liver, a bottle of local red wine. Everything a pilgrim could want. If every village in Greece has such a church with the small sideroom, this last stretch of the pilgrimage will be stress-free and lovely.