Holly oak is an improbable bush, with acorns nestling among shiny green holly leaves. It forms an impenetrable and prickly scrub across the dry mountains of the Peloponnese, encroaching on pasture and making footpaths impassable. Even where it has been cut back, a path lined with holly oak is not to be tackled with bare legs. I was still following the E4, through the foothills of Mount Chelmos, high above the plains. Looking down, I could see for miles, so I couldn’t get lost, but the swathes of holly oak hid the exact lines of the path.
There were goat tracks everywhere, and although the waymarks were good, I lost the path a couple of times, until it eventually petered out completely. What to do? I headed down a comparatively open valley towards the road below, only to find a sheep pen and fence at the bottom. The holly oak formed a very effective hedge along the ridges up the sides. Sheep were clustered around the entrance, and I struggled to find where the fence had been attached to the prickly bushes, so I could undo it and get out. After ten minutes of wrestling with the prickles, I escaped – just as the sheep dogs awoke and rushed out barking. Lucky I wasn’t still on their side.
In fact, the last time we attempted to walk this section of the E4 a few years back, the paths had been completely overgrown, and we had to give up. The trail was rescued by Rolf, an expatriate Swiss, living in Githion, the little port at the southern end of the E4. He’d started by writing a simple guide (in German) to the E4 in the Peloponnese, then embarked on a heroic venture to maintain, waymark and promote the whole trail from Diakopto to Githion, co-opting support from guesthouses along the way. We were told he passes through twice a year to make sure the paths are clear.
I reached the cafe in the village of Planitero in the late afternoon. The old lady who owned it was grumbling about the new property tax. “Our land is just mountainside, and we’re too old to work it properly now, anyway,” she complained. The peasant economy and access to enough land to be self-sufficient has always been a safety net in terms of hardship, and I wondered if the old patterns of land ownership would be eroded by the new taxes.
I asked about a room for the night, and once again the village network sprang into action. The cafe owner shouted across to her neighbour to phone the guest house, then commandeered another friend who was walking down to feed her chickens to show me where it was. I thought I’d probably be the only person staying, but then got chatting to an Australian woman on the adjoining balcony. She was from the village originally, and back with her daughter to visit all her old friends and family.
The route: Tarred road for the first few kilometres from Kalavryta, then a combination of dirt tracks and footpaths. E4, mostly well-maintained and waymarked. Water at Ano and Kato Lousio. Kilometres: 17. Ascent: 803m. Descent: 785m. Map: Anavasi 8.2 Chelmos-Vouraikos.
Facilities: Cafe at Kato Lousio. Guesthouse and cafes at Planitero, and trout farm with taverna below the village at the Aroanios springs.