With Covid-19 casting its long shadow over many aspects of daily life, this summer the great outdoors have gotten even greater. Indoor spaces and crowded environs are to be avoided; sunshine, fresh air and wide open spaces are the order of the day.
And that’s precisely what self-guided hiking holidays on the Greek islands offer in abundance, with plenty of natural beauty and opportunities for refreshing dips thrown in for good measure.
Independent hiking is a healthy social-distancing-friendly activity, and a great way to enjoy the Greek countryside. Even the most popular of the Cycladic islands retain a bucolic atmosphere in their interiors and have extensive networks of traditional paths – once the main thoroughfares for farmers and shepherds.
And happily a new book is here to make exploring some of the more popular Greek islands on foot easier than ever: Walking on the Greek Islands – The Cyclades (Naxos, Paros, Amorgos and Santorini).
Greek Island Hiking Pioneers
The guide’s English author Gilly Cameron-Cooper and her husband Robin lived in Athens in the early ’90s, where Gilly worked as a journalist and travel writer. Ten years later, they gave up demanding London jobs and “downshifted” to set up a walking tour business based out of the island of Naxos. They later added programs of guided and self-guided walking trips on Paros, Amorgos and Tinos.
“When we set up Walking Plus Ltd, the islands offered virtually untapped potential for outdoor activity vacations.” says Gilly. “Way-marking and mapping were minimal, and there wasn’t the competition from other tour operators that you’d find in established hiking destinations such as France.
“We wanted to open up the relatively unknown hiking territory of the Greek islands. And we felt we were also taking a small but significant step for sustainable Greek tourism, an alternative to the short-season, lazing-on-the-beach rut it had got itself into.”
After 16 years of running Walking Plus Ltd., the Cameron-Coopers sold the business and put their Naxos “Villa in a Vineyard” on the market, to settle permanently in their home country.
I asked Gilly more about why she wrote the book and what is in it.
“The book is a closure of our time in Greece, and the logical progression of the walking trip business. It makes use of and creates something lasting out of all the information I researched, and the hundreds of kilometers of walking routes I tramped and plotted.”
What’s in the book?
“More than 300 kilometers of walking routes – enough for several weeks of exploring – including the 52km, coast-to-coast hiking trail ‘Naxos Strada’. In fact, it’s the first book to publish it. There are detailed route directions, with insights into what you see along the way (including wildflowers, landscape features and archaeological sites). Practical travel information, maps and route summaries help you plan your vacation in advance, and there are about 200 color photographs as well, and some Greek language tips.”
Why these particular islands?
“From each island, you can see at least one of the others. They’re linked by location, history and ferry routes, although each one is an iconic Greek world of its own, with its own particular characteristics. All four islands have networks of traditional paths, landscapes ranging from dramatic to gentle, and interesting stories to tell. Together, they give you the whole, intense Greek experience.”
What makes each of these islands unique?
“Naxos is the largest island in the Cyclades, with the most wonderfully diverse landscape, scattered with traces of ancient history. There are mountains of marble and granite, broad inland vales of olive groves and farmland, year-round streams, and unspoilt stretches of coastline.
“Paros has a softer, more cosmopolitan ambience: monasteries that are oases of calm in secret folds of countryside, and some of the finest examples of paved ‘Byzantine’ paths.
“Amorgos is remote, insular, and sensual, with a stark, rugged beauty and dizzying cliffs plunging down to the beautiful waters that inspired Luc Besson’s film The Big Blue. It also has the most potent aromatic shrubs in Greece.
“Santorini is sensational for its volcanic rim that rears up from a sea-filled caldera, for a Bronze Age city excavated from layers of ash, cave houses cut into cliffs, and for interesting ways of growing tomatoes and grape vines on barren, waterless land.”
Where in Greece do you dream of returning to, once the restrictions for UK travelers are lifted?
“Throughout the lockdown in London, visions of island countryside and nature would pop into my mind and I’d hold them there. I hope to be able to get back home to Naxos in autumn; it’s a fabulous time for walking, when the weather is gentle, the sea is still warm, and the autumn bulbs are like gems of color in the dry earth.”