One hundred and fifty sheep and goats parade in front of us. The procession is overseen by a shepherd who stops for a chat. He tells us about the breed of his stock, smiling broadly, while two of the four dogs guarding the flock come to check us out. One is an elegant hunting dog, the other a shaggy Greek sheepdog, who cuts an unassuming figure with his lazy gaze and shapeless body, but is known as one of the best sheepdogs, an invaluable companion to shepherds.
The meeting began so pleasantly, with such innocent chat… and I wish it had ended on the same note. Instead, shortly before bidding us farewell the shepherd warned us to watch out for “the jackals on the path,” which, he claims, are hungry and may even attack a human. I have no idea how likely this is. It has the slight ring of exaggeration coming from a professional who has become overprotective from guarding his flock against poachers.
In any case, the mere thought that we could find ourselves all alone on a trail where, while admiring the plane trees and the elms, we could fall prey to hungry animals, only to end up spending the next few weeks stuck on the sofa nursing our wounds, is too much for us – and there a change of plan. Instead of walking our intended route (Oinoi tower–Marathon dam, 8.2 km, 3 hours, circular), we decide to head for Schinias, where there is another trail through the pine forest (Schinias pine forest–Observatory 2, 5.7 km, 2 hours, circular) also maintained by the Hellenic Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage.
We park the car in the empty Olympic Rowing Center carpark, and head towards the sea. In a small track between Schinia Αvenue and Gorgonas Street we see the orange sign marking the start of the trail. We continue in silence, hearing only barking in the distance. The landscape is dreamlike, with sand dunes, cyclamen, wild pistachio bushes with tiny red fruit, pine trees and tall stone pines with their characteristic umbrella-shaped branches.
We are lucky to be in a part of the forest dominated by stone pines, unlike the section towards the Kynosoura peninsula, which is dominated by the more aggressive but less hardy Aleppo pine. The Schinias forest is one of the two most significant pine forests in Greece, along with the Strofilia forest in the Peloponnese. Over the next two years there is a plan to plant around 600 more stone pines.
In the silence I hear two birds singing, one lively and prolonged, the other short and sharp, like a leader calling his followers close. Their tunes are so different, it is as if they are speaking different languages. The Schinias-Marathon National Park is home to hundreds of bird species (including peregrine falcons, buzzards, little grebes, endangered ferruginous ducks), which either pass through on their migration routes or next here, attracted by the nearby wetlands which are located slightly to the north of here.
At one point we decide to take a detour from the path to the observatory and head for the beach. It is astoundingly beautiful, empty and more minimal than ever. We count just four people out for a stroll. One of them has taken his shoes off and is walking barefoot on the wet sand, following his own “quarantine route” as if he hasn’t a care in the world. Looking at him walking calmly between the lush stone pines and the sea, against a backdrop of thick clouds pierced by blades of bright winter sun, I am almost convinced that is the case.
The well-preserved Oinoi tower and the Marathon dam
Our change of plans worked out well for us, in that we got to know more than we had planned. In addition to the Schinias forest, we drove past the two landmarks marking out our original route, Oinoi tower and the Marathon dam.
Oinoi tower is a well-preserved tower built from stone and mud brick, possibly dating to the 13th century, once used to control the area. Today it stands as a historical remnant of an era when people with fewer means and less knowledge constructed buildings whose value only increases with time.
The Marathon dam is one of finest public works in Greece, a true work of art due to the fact that it is dressed in Pentelic marble. It was built by the US company Ulen 91 years ago in order to create the artificial lake of Marathon, which supplies Athens with its water, after the population of the city swelled with refugees from the Asia Minor disaster. Its completion in many ways confirmed Greece’s status as a modern state.
At the base of the dam is a copy of the Athenian Treasury, symbolizing the victory of Athens over drought, in the same way that the original Athenian Treasury at Delphi commemorated victory over the Persians.
This article was first published in Greek on kathimerini.gr