The Other Side of the Mountain
It was a morning in May, sometime in the early 1980s, and I'd set out from Nissaki to walk to Old Sinies and - I hoped - beyond. This was my first excursion on Mount Pantokrator, except by car on the then-gravel road as far as Strinilas. Further, the road, now asphalt all the way to the top, deteriorated into an obstacle course of boulders and bumps. On the other side of the massif, Old Perithia was just about accessible by car, as long as you were prepared to risk shredded tyres and damaged undercarriage. A few settlements in the foothills were reachable by road, but otherwise, the Pantokrator range was only foot-friendly.
The steep, twisting road led up from Nissaki to Viglatsouri; today, if you drive, it's still full lock on the steering on some corners, and a tight squeeze between the stone walls of the many villas which have sprouted there in the last three decades. But then, at Viglatsouri's last house, the road suddenly ended, and the only way forward was on a footpath between the sage bushes.
In days past, this old path was the 'donkey M1', the main route over the mountain, which allowed the shepherds of the high settlements access to the sea. With no coastal road, the harbour at Nissaki was their doorway to the markets of Corfu Town, where they could sell their cheese and meat, and perhaps a few wool products. The path led to Old Sinies in its dark valley, then up over the high col to Old Perithia, and on to the north coast near Acharavi by way of the Parigori Gorge.
On this May day, I found the way easy to follow. Still showing evidence of its original cobbled surface, it ran straight up the valley, then turned behind the shoulder of the hill. Now the sea was out of view, and all I could hear was the sound of bees rummaging in the flowers, and a far tinkle of sheep-bells. The path descended to cross a steam bed, already dry, then squared its shoulders for the attack on the mountain proper. Here, the cobbles were intact, leading up in a series of disciplined switchbacks past a large stone sheepfold and towards the high horizon.
This was a way I would take on many future occasions, both on my own and with groups. Once, I encountered a large Alsatian-type dog, who was sitting firmly on the path ahead. Such dogs are often trained to protect the herds, and they can be very fierce and aggressive; it looked as if my walk was over. But I thought I'd give it a try: 'Hello, doggy!' His ears went back, his tail went waggly, and he trotted down to me. Then that goat-guardian turned into a person-guide, and he accompanied me all the way up Pantokrator and back, keeping close at my side, and cuddling up to me as he shared my sandwich and water. By the year of that walk, they'd already pushed a track over the col. But back to my first attempt.
The high horizon turned out to be a ridge. Reaching the top, at an old threshing floor (though I didn't know what it was then), the sea was suddenly back in view behind, and ahead was a great bowl containing a stone city. At least, that's what it resembled to my virgin eyes, until the shock wore off and I realised that it was just a very extensive but low density village, with little groups of houses scattered across the flanks of the bowl, all abandoned.
Old Sinies - for that's where I was - has a very spooky atmosphere, unlike Old Perithia, which feels bright, light and friendly. Even on a sunny day, I never liked to stay long. But here the lovely path gave out, and instead of there being a clear way forward, it branched and sub-branched into an infinite network of little goat trails between the brambles and old walls. On this day, not yet confident of the terrain, I headed back; and it took me several attempts before I found a way out of the bowl and on up to the col; a way which involved a long scramble on shale up a steep gully, until the path became clear again swinging round the next bowl-like valley.
The first time I reached the high col it was a wilderness. I had reached cloud-base a few minutes back and, driven by a speedy wind, the mist was being funneled over the col. I took shelter behind a ruined hut, where now there is a wide gravel road with benches so that people who've made no effort to arrive can rest.
At some stage - whether it was that day or later I can't recall - I negotiated another maze of goat-trods and found the onward route to Pantokrator, a fine rough mountain path which took me onto the monastery access road just before the last push to the cone-like summit.
The path's gone now, a victim of a parallel road bulldozed just above. Boulders and screes created by the digging work crashed down onto the venerable path and hindered easy passage. In any case, everyone - even hikers - began to utilize the less taxing track.
By the time my explorations had turned to finding the way from the col down to Old Perithia, this track had already 'civilized' the once-wild mountainside around the col. Though you can now drive (with a little care) down to Old Perithia from Pantokrator, a section of the old path still remains. It crosses a little flat valley where signs of cultivation endure (threshing floors, a ruined farmhouse), then plunges down a ravine to the village. Here, the cobbled surface is in evidence in some places.
Beyond Old Perithia, the original route to the coast, before they constructed the road in the parallel valley, was down the mighty Parigori Gorge, which channels all the rainwater from the north side of Pantokrator into the sea near Almiros. Except after rain, the riverbed is dry, but I am told it is a spectacular sight when in flood. In the upper part of the gorge, the path runs on the bare mountainside, but after a tiny shrine it plunges into thick forest, where you expect to meet Pan. Thanks to the efforts of Fried Aumann of the St George's Bay Country Club, this long-forgotten path was rediscovered and cleared, and it makes superb walking.
Once you reach civilisation again - bizarrely at a portaloo - the course of the old M1 footpath falls victim again to a need for vehicular access. But the very last section, between Portes and the coast road, still exists as a footway, running down a beautiful oak-shaded valley.
When creating the Corfu Trail, my explorations of Pantokrator's old footpaths - the cobbled ones are known as 'kalderimis' - proved vital. It would have been easy to utilize the new network of mountain tracks, which were bulldozed with EU money in the 90s; but I wanted to give walkers the authentic experience of Corfu's high places, as people had traversed them in the 'old' days (that is, before the track-building orgy of the mid-90s). Thus, the first rendering of the Trail's course descended on part of the old 'M1' from Nissaki - the 'disciplined switchbacks' where I had encountered the friendly goat-guardian, and the section between Old Sinies and the high col (though for those who wanted to avoid the hairy scramble down the shale gully, I allowed the track as an alternative route). But even though thousands of walkers have hiked the routes since the Trail's inception in 2001, the paths have fallen victim to time, the elements and - like the path from Old Perithia to Pantokrator - bulldozing.
For decades now, no-one has repaired the cobbles of the 'kalderimi' switchback path below Old Sinies. No goats graze to keep encroaching shrubs at bay. The path - that beautiful path in whose stones were written the socio-economic history of the region - is no longer passable, and walkers now must follow the long, dreary contour-track, in and out of small gullies and taking miles to get back to a spot less than a kilometre away across the valley. Donkeys could do steep, but cars can't.
Because this is such a long grind - and in the full sun - the latest version of the Corfu Trail guide makes it optional. Unless they particularly want to walk in the North East Coast area, independent Corfu Trailers may descend from Pantokrator to the high col, and go directly down to Old Perithia, thus cutting out a full day. Those on a pre-planned itinerary (groups or self-guided) will be offered only the quicker option, with the possibility if they wish to walk a circular route on the flanks of the North East Coast, which more or less follows the original Corfu Trail through the region. But no longer my first, lovely way to Old Sinies.
At least the wonderful path down the Parigori Gorge remains. However, this has been 'gentrified' by the local council, who obtained the absurd sum of nearly 100,000 euros to 'establish a seven kilometre walking route between Old Perithia and Krinias'. Having myself in the past been involved in studies to create walking routes, a major part of a the budget for the proposal is earmarked for the clearing of the way. But it didn't need clearing, having been re-established by Mr Aumann ten years ago, and walked by thousands since! Waymarking comprises another large part of the budget; it didn't need waymarking, having been already marked not only with Corfu Trail signs, but with Mr Aumann's 'Blue Route' guides. Enough of them to point the way, but not so many to impinge on the natural environment. Though the Corfu Trail signs were part-funded by the EU Interegg II programme, the local council workers took them down and replaced them - every hundred metres - with metal pipes stuck in the ground (without cement so you can just pull them out), each with a sign roughly wired on that tells you how many hundred metres along the seven kilometre way you have gone! Too much information, patronising to walkers, and a blight on the beautiful countryside. Dave Hancey, a recent Trail walker whom we feature elsewhere on this site, wrote in his blog: 'They are overmarked in my opinion... a large pole with a sign saying distance every 100 metres.'
To top this... silliness (to use a very mild term), the council has constructed rustic seating areas, but the year after their emplacement, most had been knocked down by the semi-wild cattle that range the area... And the portaloo (in an area characterised by bushes) is locked. Presumably, you have to go to the Town Hall in Acharavi to collect the key if you want to use it...
Readers, this is where your taxes go... Certainly not, at any level, for anything which enhances either tourism or the habitat it exploits.
And on a final note, the 220 kilometre Corfu Trail was created using a fifth of the budget designated in this case to seven kilometres of already existing and marked footpath. I wonder where the money really went?
photography by Dave Hancy web design by truetype web solutions