Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Walking is very good

A walker’s dream

Henry Shukman

Financial Times 17 July 2010

The most beautiful settlement I know on Crete is also the smallest. It has one church, one taverna and one inhabitant, Giorgos, the taverna’s bare-backed owner. The only way to get here is on foot – either a four-hour hike along the coast from the little town of Loutro to the east, or a two-hour trek from the next town west, Agia Roumeli. It sits in the middle of a long grey pebble beach on the south coast, at the foot of a 2,000ft escarpment. Pines stud the slopes, until the hills rise precipitously in walls of orange cliff, and the trees give up.

It’s called Agios Pavlos, after the church, a slightly crooked cruciform less than 20ft end to end, built in 954 to commemorate the shipwreck of the apostle Paul. Its little dome leans towards the sea. But whether or not the saintly foot ever trod this shore, it’s a holy kind of place.

The only sound is the rhythmic thump and crash of the Mediterranean on the shingle, which sweeps through the tiny church like a continuous absolution. The sacred edifice could use a more material sweeping, with its crumbling paintwork and plaster littering the floor, but there is usually a flame flickering somewhere inside, along with a scent of incense and wax. Its frescoes have mostly fallen away in the sea air but a few survive, and some newer icons lean against its walls, which are built, according to the well-informed Giorgos, of stone from Santorini.

In the evening I stand and watch as the sun slips behind the mountains beyond Roumeli and they seem to turn into grey smoke. The sea becomes gelatinous, tinged with a peachy gloss, while the graphite line of the horizon dissolves in the pale sky. Some hikers were here earlier but have pressed on, and I’m the only one for dinner.

Giorgos keeps a few goats, and what’s left of one is in the fridge. An educated young guy, he keeps leaving the kitchen in the midst of preparing my meal to talk to me about a book he’s reading on Freud and Nietzsche – an amusing and important book, he says. He studied philosophy in Athens, and is eager for a little philosophical debate. But both that and the dinner preparations are interrupted by a rattling groan from the beach. His little boat, used for supply runs, is hitting the shingle. He springs down to the beach and wades out into the surf to adjust its anchor.

When the goat chops finally come – in all shapes and sizes, fatty, lemony, covered in olive oil – they vindicate the wait. With a tumbler of rough, red-brown wine sloshed from a blue plastic 10-gallon container, I can’t believe how good the meal tastes.

There’s nothing like the mellowness of the Aegean in the evening. What makes this western stretch of Crete’s south coast so blessed, though, is that hardly any roads make it here. Travelling south from the airport at Chania, you come to the White Mountains. Once you see their bare southern slopes, the vegetation thins out and you understand how they got their name. They look like a desert of cement; giant slag heaps of pale grey sand and gravel, sweeping down towards a sea the blue of kindergarten poster-paint. The mountains have had the welcome effect of slowing development: much of the area is empty not only of vegetation, except for pine and thyme, but habitation too. The mountains drive right down to the coast, where they shear off in vertiginous cliffs that fall to sea-pounded rocks: a road-builder’s nightmare; a walker’s dream.

You can walk from Sfakia west to Palaeochora, and on to the south-west tip of Crete, some 40-odd miles as the crow flies, and hardly set foot on a road the whole way. Almost the only economic activity for millennia has been goatherding among a few vines and olives. On cliffsides, in gorges, jangling flocks still stare out from a time before the Bible, their fleeces dragging. But there is some tourism now – mostly hikers but also “cultural tourists”. For the past five years I’ve been coming for a fortnight to Loutro, a town a few miles west of Sfakia, to teach poetry. We sit out at the tavernas around the bay, drinking iced coffee and discussing Pound, while the life of the little town goes on around us.

Outside these sessions, I spend every minute I can on the footpaths. Loutro may one day have a road but until then the only way to get here is to take the ferry from Sfakia, which takes 40 minutes, or to walk, for three hours . It’s a peaceful place. Among the ring of tavernas that line the bay the only sounds are the scattered babble of talk, the lapping of boats and the lovely sibilance, so rare these days, of human footfalls. And as long as you’re up for heart-thumping climbs – unless you’re following the coast path, half a mile of vertical climb awaits you whichever way you go – it has some of the best walking around.

After my goat dinner at Agios Pavlos I spend the night under the stars on the beach, and first thing in the morning I pound uphill inland, trying to make it up the 2,000ft escarpment before the sun reaches it. Even so, after only half an hour sweat pours from my face. I’m so wet it’s as if I’d just risen from the waves, though I’m half a mile from the sea and maybe 1,000ft above it. I’ve already wrung my shirt out once and it’s only eight o’clock. But all the above feels resoundingly good. I can’t imagine anything I’d rather be doing. I look back at a vast bay, some seven miles wide, vivid in the morning sun.

If it were possible to turn life into one long hike, with a rich local meal at the end of the day, would it ever grow dull? Sometimes I long to follow the example of the Japanese poet Nanao Sakaki, who took a vow as a young man in the 1960s not to stop walking until he died. He rarely slept under a roof, and left poems behind wherever he went on his worldwide pilgrimage, which only ended with his death in 2008.

Why is walking so good for the soul? Why does it remind us, if we have forgotten, that whatever the neurochemistry of it may be, we do have something called a soul? Why is it so good to see little signs under olive trees directing you from the path to restaurants and rooms – signs that can only be there for hikers? And to drop if only for a few days into a world governed by walking alone? No carbon, no petrol, no fumes, no tarmac, no engine sounds.

Maybe it’s to do with the many millennia during which our human bipedalism kept us alive. Apparently we evolved upright hips so we could cover large distances on the ground, when we swung out of the trees. Or is it to do with some ancient rhythm of the blood that only walking can lull us back into? Could walking actually restore to equanimity the nervy, jumpy human race? Sometimes it feels like it. (Emphasis added)

As the White Mountains stomp down to the sea they fissure into gorges. The most famous is the Samarian Gorge, one of the deepest in Europe. Hundreds of tourists traipse down it every day, dropped off by fleets of buses at the upper end, whisked away by the ferry when they debouch at the mouth. But there are other gorges in the region; the Imbros, Aradena, Sfakia.

Within 20 minutes of climbing towards the plain above Loutro, I’ve swigged half my water. The rock face radiates heat straight back at me, but an inner engine kicks in, and I power up on a random gust of energy, loving every minute. Next thing I know, I’m opening the wire gate in the goat-fence at the top.

Time and again, the landscape here is straight out of Tolkein. Usually it’s rocks, trees, cliffs, gorges; now, it’s a sudden gentle valley filled with green fields, orchards, a village of white houses with red roofs and cypress trees, olives, morning glory festooning the walls. A clutch of goats sit methodically chewing the cud. At a taverna I buy more water, the bottle sweating with cold.
You can’t see the Aradena Gorge until you’re a few feet from it. The plain suddenly opens up, a red wall of rock appears, and there at your feet is a vast sheet of cliff plunging down. A Lord of the Rings-like staircase built of grey stone zigzags impossibly down the opposite face. There’s another rock staircase on the near side, the two plunging down either cliff like a ceremonial portal to a land of dwarves or orcs.

The walks here never end. There are ancient paths all over the terrain. You could spend months on end threading between the mountains and the sea, among the goats. One day, I just may do it.

For information on travel and accommodation see http://www.loutro.gr/; for poetry courses in Loutro see http://www.worldspirit.org.uk/

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