One ‘M’ after another, daubed in red paint on rocks and trees, guide us out of dark woodland and up between two rearing crags. Above, the wings of buzzards carve arcs into the sky. We might as well be buzzards ourselves as our eyes prey on blue-grey peaks and razor-sharp shadows.
The daubs are waymarks along Menalon Trail. My wife, Hennie, and I are hiking this newly designated path stretching 45 miles (75 km) across Arcadia, the wild hinterland of the Peloponnese peninsula.
Stitching its way between wilderness and nine traditional villages, the trail follows ancient mule tracks and paths for driving livestock up to summer pastures.
It is the first in Greece to have won the European Ramblers Association’s gold standard ‘Leading Quality Trail’ status for excellence in scenery, waymarking and benefit to local communities.
British company On Foot Holidays has been quick off the mark to offer a six-day, self-guided itinerary, hiking from one village guesthouse to another.
Taking the high road: Martin Symington and his wife hike the Menalon Trail, which stretches across the Arcadia region of the Peloponnese. Above is hilltop Dimitsana, the couple’s final stop
We set off each morning with route notes, water bottles and picnics in our day packs. Dora, our first hostess in the stonemason village of Lagadia, wraps up wedges of her home-baked spanakopita (spinach and feta pie), honey-glazed walnuts and huge, glossy oranges.
Our daily walks vary from short and sweet to strenuous, but On Foot helpfully offers shortening options which take us part of the way – in the same taxis they use to transport our luggage between villages.
Menalon is the name of the central massif where we watch buzzards soar. As well as wild, open uplands, the trail takes us through dappled forests and meadows alive with the hubbub of birds and insects. Beyond the villages, people are few but the character of these mountains reveals itself.
Above is one of the ‘M’ signs which guide ramblers along the route
The Menalon Trail is the first in Greece to have won the European Ramblers Association’s gold standard ‘Leading Quality Trail’ status
We pause at shrines and hermitages, some abandoned, others not. Strangest is the tiny Sfyrida cave church, hewn out of the side of a steep ravine.
It is a warm day and a sweaty climb from the trail, but somehow I shiver as I enter. Do I sense the unseen presence of Pan, god of the wild? The Arcadia region is a wellspring of Greek mythology.
We are joined one day of the walk by Ioannis Lagos, a founder of the Menalon Trail and a resident of Stemnitsa, a village of tight alleys between terracotta-top houses, famed for its goldsmiths.
‘People said we were crazy: “Foreigners would not come to these depopulated mountain villages,”’ Ioannis tells me, as we criss-cross a stream via newly built wooden bridges. ‘But the villagers believed. Some opened tavernas and shops and converted spare rooms. Others are guides and volunteers maintaining the paths, which have been there for centuries. The trail is breathing new life into old communities.’
The hospitality we receive is warm and kindly. At the end of each day we are welcomed into a village home, not a business. Effusive hosts greet us with fresh figs or sweet chestnuts from the garden, before showing us the en-suite room where we shower and rest before heading to the village shop.
Suppers are as local as local gets – typically barbecued lamb or rabbit with roasted vegetables. We gulp down jugs of home-grown rosé. Rough stuff for sure, but who cares?
Martin is joined on the trail by a resident of Stemnitsa (above), a village of tight alleys between terracotta-top houses, famed for its goldsmiths
On the last day, Martin passes Prodromos Monastery (pictured), which ‘clings impossibly to the rockface’
Fish does not feature on any menu. This reminds me that my previous trips to Greece have all been to islands or coastal resorts. Down-to-earth life in the Peloponnese interior, by contrast, feels off the edge of the holiday map.
Our last day’s hike starts at Stemnitsa and follows the sheer Lousios River Gorge to the surprise of Prodromos Monastery, which clings impossibly to the rockface.
It’s Greek Orthodox, of course, but reminds me of Buddhist temples in Bhutan. Monks still live there, though it is deserted when we inch into a cool empty chamber of fading frescoes painted on bare rock.
The last leg of the trail plunges to the gorge floor, crossing rapids and swirling whirlpools before climbing hundreds of stone steps to a ledge with dizzying views towards hilltop Dimitsana, our final stop.
If there is a more uplifting way to end a five-day walk, I don’t know it.