Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Hiking through Paradise

Lesvos is not that well known as a paradise for walkers. But it is one of the best secret walking treasures of Europe: it is never overcrowded, least of all by walkers. Only a few travel companies promote the island as a destination for hikers and there are a few books with walks on Lesvos.

The lush green nature and the agrarian character of the landscape of Lesvos make it a landscape of many varieties with open fields and terraces, oak, chestnut and pine forests and, of course olive groves. On every walk there are hills or even mountains offering grand views of the landscape, the sea distant Turkey or other islands such as Chios. Secret tiny archaeological sites can easily be the highlight of a walk. Or tiny churches and little rural villages that give you the opportunity to have a break in the shade. The landscapes are so different you are bound to encounter more than one on any walk.

The roads can be single donkey paths (monopathis), to centuries old half-forgotten kalderimis (the old, with big stone paved main roads of the island), to the broader sandy or dirt roads, and of course, if there is no other way to get there, you can take to the asphalt or bitumen. You will meet farmers travelling by pick up or donkey to or from their land holdings and many of the ‘farms’ you pass may be just a few wooden sheds with iron utensils holding water for goats, sheep and sometimes cows or pigs. Wandering chickens will not be bothered by you, some dogs might happily greet you, unless they are tied to a chain, and cats? Oh yes, some will be scared of you but others will harass you for a cuddle. Then there are always song birds, or the occasional lonely tortoise or hedgehog, the only living creatures you run into.

Impressive huge plane trees, century old and whimsically formed olive trees, impenetrable hedges of strawberry, laurel or mastico trees linger along the roads. Dark green ferns hide in shadowy places, bright exotic flowers light up the scene near waterfalls, and in spring orchids glimmer in fields mostly filled with other spring flowers. In autumn there are fig trees, wild apple, chestnut and wild wine branches all presenting you with their hearty bounty of health-giving fruits. Does this not sound like paradise?

It’s a paradise that will only be disturbed should you get lost. But however quiet the landscape may seem, in most places you are never so far away from where people live and work and in most areas there will be always a farmer in his field who you can ask for directions.

Most walkers are not happy when their walking tour book turns out to have wrong information in it. If a walk that takes some kilometres just gets you lost and wandering for several more, it’s not surprising people are reduced to tears. It happens, but it may be that they didn’t read the directions properly. Writers do make errors (and plenty can go wrong when their descriptions are translated) but there’s another facet —the landscape is always changing. Lesvos is an island that moves on. A fence may be suddenly closed with a chain, a friendly field may be walled in, a side path made invisible by overgrown vegetation, a ‘dry riverbed’ you have to cross may now be full of water, a road completely washed away, or, when the book clearly states that it must be a dirt road next, you suddenly find yourself on concrete.

Serious people writing about walks regularly check them and re-issue new versions or put changes on the internet. The English walker Mike Maunder is such a writer and does a comprehensive job updating his walks. He published his first walking book in 2000: Mithimna Walks (Mithimna is the other name for Molyvos). A year later came the second edition with corrected and new walks: On Foot in North Lesvos. The third edition was in 2003.

Mike has never stopped walking and looking for new things to say and new walks to try. Last year he teamed up with a Dutch walking companion, Sigrid van der Zee, who lives on the island, and only last week they published a joint edition (the fourth) ‘On foot in North Lesvos’ and next year they are putting out a book of walks for the whole island.

If you want to walk all over the island, there is also ‘Lesvos, Car Tours and Walks’ by Brian and Eileen Anderson (ed Sunflower). If you are afraid of getting lost, you can go with a guide. The German Eva Trauman offers accompanied walks in the North-east, the centre and south of Lesvos.

You can always can walk on your own, without a guide, an organisation or a book. But I feel sure you would then most likely miss some of the beautiful places the walk lovers have found and described for you. Walking on Lesvos is walking in paradise, but it is always good to know where you are heading.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

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