Friday, April 16, 2010

As an Alternative to the Camino?

The route I took in Greece from Thessaloniki to Patras is about the same distance as from St Jean Pied de Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostelle. It begins at sea level on the Aegean climbs through the pass beside Mt Olympus (the highest point in the country), across some lovely plains, then over a few more mountains, across broad valley of cotton fields, then into more mountains including the pass beside Mt Parnassus, finally descending for a walk along the Gulf of Corinth to Patras. There's a similar balance between mountains and plains on this route to Patras and the Camino Frances to Santiago.

While there is a full absence of foot-pilgrim tradition in Greece, I found plenty of options for accommodation - monasteries, churches with side rooms with a couch or two, pensions, hotels, agritourism, as well as unlimited camping opportunities. The E4 hiking trail, part of the transEuropean network, weaves through the region and there are numerous farm or forest tracks with minimal traffic; only a small part of the route I took is along any roads with significant traffic, along the Gulf of Corinth, but always with a very wide shoulder, and always with a gorgeous view. The E4, by the way, runs from the Straits of Gibraltar to Crete through Spain, France, Italy, the Balkans, and central Greece. The sections I walked on were fairly well waymarked with obvious care regarding such amenities as resting stations, shaded picnic tables, drinking water fountains, etc.

One silly challenge in the route is in crossing the Haliacmon River, the longest river in the country, which empties into the Aegean just outside of Thessaloniki. As far I could tell from the maps and from asking around, the only bridge crossing is via a major highway, barred from pedestrians, and for good reason. I resorted to flagging down a car to get across the river. (The driver, an enthusiastic English-speaking archaeologist, as it turned out, filled me in on some fascinating historical facts about the area.) The route can be easily modified to begin on the right bank of the river rather than the left (Thessaloniki).

If a modern pilgrimage is taken to be a trek through beautiful landscape, steeped in ancient, world-significant history, with daily stages spaced 15 to 30 kilometers apart, leading toward a specific destination, then this route between Thessaloniki and Patras by way of Meteora and Delphi, studded with centuries'-old monasteries that offer accommodation to pilgrims, makes for a wonderful alternative to the Camino.

If there is a desire to walk as a pilgrim on a specific path that has been used by millions of pilgrims throughout the millennia who left their collective mark on the landscape, then this route has no particular meaning. There's no indication that St Andrew himself visited these places. I connected the dots of places legend says he visited between Kyiv and Istanbul, but after that, I found no easy references of how he ended up in Patras where he was martyred. It didn't matter much to me, being more interested in the history and the landscape rather than St Andrew's specific route through the area. I made my way to Patras by connecting the dots between places that existed in the first century, places where he could have traveled to. For these reasons, the route I took cannot really be called 'The Path of St Andrew'. Unlike the Camino to Santiago, there was no tradition through the Middle Ages of pilgrims to use the same monarch-sanctioned route to get to the saint's tomb, which is what made the Camino so famous, even up to modern times.

Of the entire length of my pilgrimage route, this 725-kilometer section was far and away the most beautiful, and with such a wonderful balance of climbs and flats, mountains and sea, villages and forests, oh, and the wonderful food, plentiful water... I found it overwhelmingly harmonious to walk through. There are countless options for specific daily routes, so it's adaptable for any skill- or fitness-level. Averaging almost 33 kilometers per day, it took me 22 days to walk this route. It could be done by bicycles, too, road or mountain, and no doubt, horses or mules for those so inclined, just like the Camino. People I met along the way were surprised but receptive to the idea of a pilgrim passing through on the way to Patras. I was treated extraordinarily well with daily kindnesses from villagers, monks, nuns...everyone. It would be remiss of me not to recommend it as an alternative. Go pilgrims, go.


The Solitary Walker said...

How could I not be convinced by this? One day...

Sylvia said...

Your blog opens up possibilities to so many!

In some sense we are all pilgrims, with our our journeys. Wouldn't it be so great if we all learned to treat eachother with the kindness you have been shown as you walked along?

God bless the pilgrim in us all!

J F F GrandsLieux said...