In theory, the E4 trans-European footpath was just what we wanted, meandering down through the Greek mountains from the northern border to the southern port of Githion. But actually, we had our own ideas of the places we wanted to see, and the E4 didn’t go to them all. There was the E6, too, of course, and national long-distance paths, like the O3. We followed them all from time to time, but combined them with local paths, often cobbled mule tracks that led from village to village long before cars were invented. Occasionally, we headed along a river bed or followed the track of an old railway. If the official route followed the tar, it was sometimes possible to skip off down a side route.
We had a rough route in mind before we set off, but we adapted it as we went. Day to day, it depended on several different factors. What was the weather like? Did we want to find a cafe or somewhere comfortable to stay for a couple of nights? Did we need to find a cashpoint? What did the locals advise?
We were surprised at how many paths were well-maintained and waymarked, and even the E4 is gradually being improved. As roads penetrated deep into the mountains, the old paths fell into dis-use or were destroyed. Modern shepherds have pick-ups, and no villager would walk if he could drive. But there’s now a new generation of Greeks who enjoy hiking, appreciate the old paths, and work hard to keep them open.
In popular areas, such as the Zagoria, the old cobbled paths are valued for their appeal to tourists and seen as an important part of local heritage. Regular annual marathons or cycle tours help keep them open. Occasionally, it’s a handful of heroic individuals who have made a real difference. Rolf Roost, originally from Switzerland, has opened up the impassable trails of the E4 in the Peloponnese, while the Club of Arcadian Mountaineers and Ecologists have created the new seventy four kilometre Mainalon Trail. See Maps, guides and GPS.
But just as often, the paths were hard to find, and we had to fan out to find waymarks. Tree trunks blocked the way, or we struggled along scree slopes with a steep drop below. High up above the treeline, the path sometimes disappeared in the short turf. It didn’t matter, it was easy to pick out the route ahead – until the weather came down. We always asked if paths were open, or had perhaps been destroyed by a landslide the previous winter.
I loved the inventiveness of waymarks. Cairns, official yellow European signs, modern signs on robust metal poles – there were those in plenty. But soft drinks cans and plastic streamers were also pressed into service. My favourite was jam jar lids! The snows and gales of winter aren’t kind to waymarks, though. The waymark itself is blown away, and sometimes all that remains is a metal post.