As autumn rolls in, I feel the impulse to hunker down. It is the end of my guiding season and I have to slow down and spent at least a few weeks in a row without traveling. But it’s also, the perfect time to plan a long weekend in the mainland. The weather is ideal and the changing of the leaves prompts even the more lazy among us to plan a road trip. Are these excuses enough? So, this time we chose to visit Arcadia in Peloponnese, a district only three hour drive from Athens.
According to Greek mythology, Arcadia was the domain of god Pan, the virgin wilderness home of the god of the forest and his court of dryads, nymphs and other spirits of nature. During Renaissance Arcadia remained popular artistic subject both in visual arts and literature. Images of beautiful nymphs frolicking in lush forests have been a frequent source of inspiration for painters and sculptors. European Renaissance writers, like the Spanish Garcilaso de la Vega, often revisited the theme, and the name came to apply any idyllic location or an edenic paradise lost. But the question still lingers, what Arcadia stands for today?
With a dense fir forest, rugged ridges, deep river valleys and gorges, plateaus and barren summits interrupted by the human activity, Arcadia is for us an outdoor paradise. And as it seems many people shared the same vision. In 2015, the Menalon Trail, a 75 km long mountain trail, situated in Gortynia, the western part of the Arcadia district, became one of the fourteen paths in Europe certified by ERA.
The trail runs mount Menalon connecting villages through fir forest in the uplands and bush lands in the periphery. There, somewhere between forest and rural areas, in locations naturally fortified or prominent, human settlements rallied and flourished. Having all these in mind I couldn’t be more excited for our three days excursion in the region. The plan was to hike for two days and take a rafting trip on the third. In this way we were able to explore the area through the land and the river!
The first hike was the most strenuous one. We hiked the section three of the Menalon trail, a stretch via Zigovisti, across the mountain pass Bilani to the remote village of Elati. Walking for 15 Km, deep in the fir covered uplands of mount Menalon, we found the “heart” of the mountain. For the whole hike we were surrounded by forest, quite unique and rare to find in the Greek mountains. But apart from the beautiful landscape the trail has also cultural value. You get to visit two quite distant villages Zigovosti and Elati, the chapel of Agios Georgios and the immense Vlachika Plateau where shepherds, a couple decades ago, used to graze their animals.
The next day, we walked from Philosofos Monastery to ancient Gortys. This 5km idyllic route which pass through Monasteries, rivers and ancient ruins is a must. The diversity of such a short hike is hard to believed. After visiting the New Philosofos Monastery, we took a detour to see the old Philosofou Monastery which is the most historic and oldest one in Arcadia and also one of the most ancient Byzantine monuments that exists in Greece. It was founded in 963 by Ioannis Lambardopoulos, the eponymous “philosopher”, who served as secretary of the emperor. The monastery took its name from his nickname.
To approach Prodromos Monastery we had to descend to the bank of the river and cross it by using a bridge. Of course whatever goes down must come up! So after the steep downhill we had to climb up again. The view and the monastery were outstanding and rewarded our efforts. Built on a huge vertical rock inside Lousios river gorge is one of those mad places that only faith can explain.
The end of the hike was at the ruins of ancient Gortys. At a short distance from the banks of the Lousios river, the French Archeological school discovered the foundations of a temple of Aesclepius and its thermal baths, as well as sections of the city of Gortys. The thermal baths at their height they could serve around 30 patients at the same time, under the protection of Asclepius, god of health. While the importance of the sanctuary of Asclepius is attested by a visit of Alexander the Great!
After this amazing hike and with our expectations being really high we decided to take a break from the trails and go rafting in Lousios river. The name of the river derives from greek mythology and in Greek stands for a place to bath.When Zeus was born, his mother Rea in order to protect him from her husband Cronos trusted the new born god to three nymphs Agno, Thysoa and Neda. The three nymphs hide Zeus in the valley of Lousios river where he was frequently having his baths.
So, we decided to follow the steps of Zeus and participate on a rafting trip in the most popular rafting destination of Greece. The descent started from the bridge of Atsicholos where our river guides prepared us for the activity. As we paddled through class 2 rapids we enjoyed the lush vegetation and the continuous action. Arc bridges and springs of water, coming out from tree roots, welcoming us along the way. After 3km we reached Alfeios river, which is the largest one in Peloponnese. Alfeios is calm in the beginning but don’t get mistaken, exciting class 3 rapids will soon follow and get your adrenaline pumping. At the end of the trip our guides had a wonderful surprise. After a small stroll in thick vegetation of a creek we visited a 17m waterfall. There we stood wondering how nature can be the most imaginative sculptor of all!
I am never going to lie again, I need a trip at least once a month! A weekend in the woods is my way to slow down and calm!
Written by Nefeli Papageorgiou