We reached the Ostrakina refuge mid-morning, after a steep three hour climb up through misty pines and pastures. The door was unlocked and inside a fire was blazing, but there was nobody around. No matter. It was cold. I was wearing my thermal vest and most of my clothes. We sat down by the fire to warm up.
Suddenly, there were shouts and laughter and half a dozen young boys burst into the room, followed by their fathers. “Welcome, stay and join us!” they cried. “Have some tsipouro, cake, lunch….” The lads all played football together, and they had rented the refuge for a weekend away – boys only, no wives or daughters. One of the fathers had done a Computer Science degree in London, and we sat and chatted. He’d never thought of walking long-distance before, but maybe he and his son would try one day.
But we couldn’t linger too long if we wanted to reach Alonistena by dark. We had spent a week waiting in Kalamata – a week of storms and flooding, with cars washed away in Athens. Snow and sleet had been predicted for high up in the Mainalon. November used to be a fine weather month in southern Greece, with only the occasional day of rain, but climate change means nothing is certain any more. We’d reluctantly decided not to take the high level route through the Taygetos, but would walk west through the Mainalon, then south down to the sea at Kalamata.
Our friend Lani had joined us for a few days. We’d hiked the Lycian Way in Turkey together, and it was this which had really got me thinking about doing a long hike in Greece. I loved the Turkey walk, but the frustrating thing was not being able to talk to the people we met in the mountains. By the end of the month, we’d learnt about fifty words of Turkish between us. We could say hello, order some food, and ask the way. It wasn’t enough. Walking isn’t only about enjoying the scenery and the exercise. Talking to people on the way, getting a glimpse of a different lifestyle, finding again and again what good, hospitable people there are in the world – that’s important, too. You miss so much if you don’t speak the language. My Greek isn’t fluent, but I can get by. A long hike in Greece was the obvious next step.
The path from the refuge led in and out of forest, across rocks and scree slopes, with bright patches of yellow sternbergia and white crocuses, firmly closed, waiting for the sun. The mist swirled around us, with occasional patches of blue sky. There was no bird song, it was very silent and slightly eery.
We reached Alonistena by mid-afternoon, and checked into the Alonistena guest house. It was a lovely room, traditionally furnished with wood panelling, fireplace and rug in rich autumn colours. The owner was a jolly middle aged woman, comfortably overweight with a mass of dyed blonde hair. Her husband came from the village and they had returned from Athens nine years ago to set up the hotel. She thought more and more people were leaving Athens to return to the countryside. No, they didn’t feel isolated – Tripoli was only twenty minutes drive away, and they often got away for trips elsewhere.
We lit the fire and settled down with a glass of tsipouro.
The route: Excellent path, clearly waymarked and well-maintained, although steep and rocky in places. No water till the refuge. Kilometres: 11.5. Ascent: 1044m. Descent: 757m. Maps: Anavasi 8.5. Menalo. Also see the Menalon Trail website and app.
Facilities: Good choice of hotels, restaurants, shops etc in Levidhi. The Filoxenia self-catering flats are good value. The Ostrakina refuge is only open for groups with prior booking. There are two tavernas, cafes and and a few guesthouses in Alonistena, which are mainly seasonal. No shops. As in other villages in the northern Peloponnese (eg Dhara), hotel prices tend to be higher than in northern Greece, since they’re popular with weekenders from Athens. Boutique hotel traditional decor is some compensation. In small towns, like Levidhi, competition keeps prices down.