Thick fog, drizzle, cold. My instinct was to retreat further down into my sleeping bag. Instead, we warmed up with a quick coffee and set off down the mountain in the hope of a hot breakfast at Grameni Oxia. As we got lower, the fog cleared a little, with autumnal views of rusty bracken slopes, woodland and pasture. The road builders were almost the only traffic.
We stopped to talk to a shepherd. “You slept out alone? Don’t you know there’s bears and wolves in the mountains?” He carried on to extract all the key details about us in a quick five minute interrogation: Alan’s age (he was obviously looking it!), how many children we had and what work we did. In exchange, he told us that he had two hundred and fifty sheep and thirty cows, and employed two Albanians to look after them. Down in the plains, he also had a vineyard, producing five hundred kilos of wine a year, for family use. It was clear from his pot belly that he didn’t do too much hiking over the mountains himself any more. He was bemused when we declined his offer of a lift into the village.
The cafe in Grameni Oxia was warm and snug. For the first time during the walk, the wood burning stove in the centre of the room was lit, and the chill of the night left our bones, helped by a strong coffee and Greek salad.
The rest of the way was on tarred road, but nature was fighting back. Brambles and old man’s beard spread out from the ditches, softening the edges, and in places, the surface had subsided and green shoots were pushing their way through the cracks. Chestnut trees lined the road, their spiky husks and gleaming nuts carpeting the ground below. We stopped briefly at the Monastery of St John the Baptist, where there was a memorial to Athanasios Diakos, a hero of the War of Independence, but it was too cold to linger.
It was still cold and grey when we reached Artotina, a sprawling village with three cafes in the central square. There were rooms for rent, too, although it was one of the most basic places we’d seen: dark, with a single light bulb, and not even a chair. On request, the landlady found us an electric heater. The forecast was for more rain, so we were thinking of staying two nights, but it was not a welcoming spot. The cafe was better, buzzing with people playing cards, watching TV and chatting, while children ran in and out. And there was chickpea soup, a nice change from grilled meat.
The route: By now, the road will almost certainly be tarred all the way from the Saradena refuge turning to Artotina. Our route rejoined the E4 at Grameni Oxia, which was fairly well waymarked, with a footpath alternative from Grameni Oxia down to the bridge. Easy walking, little traffic. Water at Grameni Oxia and the Monastery. Kilometres: 20. Ascent: 452m Descent: 1041m. Maps: Anavasi 2.3. Giona, Iti, Vardhousia.
Facilities: Cafe at Grameni Oxia. Cafes and rooms at Artotina.