Stemnitsa: The Story of Arcadia’s Trail Revival

We followed the people of the Menalon Trail, an internationally recognized trail network in Arcadia, along paths of unparalleled beauty.


It’s early Sunday morning, and while the church in Stemnitsa is still in service, a commotion starts in the square just outside as young men arrive with saws, spades, and pruning tools. An elderly woman greets them, joking that they don’t rest even on Sundays.

They don’t want to rest and neither do we. We follow them as they make their way down the mountain just outside Stemnitsa. A day of arduous trail clearing begins in the mountainous region of Arcadia.

 

Greece has seen a surge in walking tourism in recent years, and an increasing number of local governments are building trails throughout their areas. However, since contractors build these trails, it’s frequently challenging to perform the routine upkeep needed to keep them accessible. The Menalon Trail in Arcadia was created by Giannis Lagos and George Koulalis, two friends who envisioned a network of trails similar to those found in the countryside of northern Italy and established the “Menalon” Social Cooperative Enterprise ten years ago to bring their vision to life.

The beginning

The team’s initial goal was to build a 75-kilometer route connecting nine mountain villages in Arcadia. The first thing they needed to do was bring the residents of the communities together so they could get to know each other and collaborate. Like any other endeavor, there were challenges at first, but by establishing an engaged core of individuals in each village, a team of about 100 volunteers was formed, and the project was finished in less than a year. The funds needed for the equipment, signage, and other materials amounted to just 9,000 euros, and the trails were built to a really high standard, becoming the first in Greece to be awarded a European certificate of quality.

Giannis Lagos explains that the first three years spent clearing the trails of undergrowth were the most difficult. Nature, like the Lernaean Hydra, would respond to every twig and branch cut by regenerating new twigs and branches. Today, trail maintenance is easier, but any trail must be used on a regular basis to remain clear and accessible. And, as George Koulalis points out, the Menalon Trail’s European certification, which it received in 2015 and maintains today, is an important factor in attracting international hikers. The certification indicates that the trail is on the European Ramblers’ Association’s lists.

 

This, in turn, attracts the attention of foreign magazines, travel agencies, and hikers. From early spring to the end of autumn, the region’s trails and villages are packed with international visitors. Sensors installed last year in the Lousios Gorge recorded 6,500 passes over ten months.

Trails bring people together

A little further down the trail, I come across a family of four doing clearing work. Their mother, Christina Papadimitriou-Moropoulou, explains that her children are accustomed to rural work because the entire family is involved in winemaking. Personally, her involvement with the trails has provided her with the opportunity to meet other professionals from neighboring villages and, finally, put a face to the voice she hears on the other end of the phone when she calls to have hikers’ luggage transferred from the lodge she runs in Stemnitsa to the next lodge along the hiking trail.

Originally designed to allow villages to communicate with one another, the trails now appear to bring people together on a deeper level. When you see a volunteer from Stemnitsa driving to Lagkadia to pick up a bag containing about fifteen dog repellent devices, you can see the “chain” that has been formed, with the most important links being the people who work in tourism. “We have marked the areas where hikers may encounter wild dogs and equipped them with ultrasound-emitting devices so that they can safely pass through these areas. The hikers then leave the devices at the taverna so that we can return them to the tourist information center in Stemnitsa,” explains hotelier Vasilis Maniatis from Lagkadia.

 

Similarly, when hikers he was transporting informed a taxi driver in Stemnitsa that a sign had fallen along the trail to the Filosofou Monastery, he contacted the tourist information center right away. Within an hour, a volunteer had repaired the sign. “If we went the official route, we’d have to contact a public service and complain that it’s taking too long to complete its tasks. We’d spend more time trying to find the person in charge than if we fixed the problem ourselves,” says Gianis Lagos. The team also manages the hiker support hotline for any issues that may arise along the trail. I witnessed this firsthand while sitting in Katerina Meimeti’s truck. Katerina, an agriculturalist by profession, cultivates zoulitsa (a type of grain) and runs a restaurant in Stemnitsa while also answering calls to the hotline. She manages to “squeeze” a lot of things into her day, but she always does so with a smile. The “Menalon” Social Enterprise’s ambitions are more clearly reflected in the comprehensive study that it has prepared and submitted for approval to the regional services for the creation of a thematic network of trails spanning 1,000 kilometers across the Peloponnese.

A little horseback riding

It would be unfair if we only discussed the trail’s business model and ignored the beauty of the surrounding landscape or its connection to the region’s cultural elements. One of the trails that stood out to me during my visit to Arcadia was one near the village of Elati that could be crossed on horseback. According to Christos Simopoulos, a woodcarver and horse enthusiast, horses were the first major mode of transportation used to traverse the region’s trails and served the needs of the nearby villages for centuries. I get on the back of a beautiful horse named Leila and follow Christos on a trail that leads through towering fir trees to an old spring where the water still flows, fresh and cool. When you cross the trail on horseback, you feel as if you’re floating through the trees, admiring the panoramic view of the mountainside that abruptly descends to the river.

An equally memorable experience is the hike to the cave, which, according to local legend, was once used as a lair by the bandit Lygos. The “Robin Hood of Menalon,” as the locals still refer to him today due to his compassion for the less fortunate, hid in a massive rock behind 40-meter-high fir trees. And, while he probably would not have been pleased to see his lair on hiking maps, I’m sure he would have been pleased to see one hundred volunteers working to keep Arcadia’s trails alive.

 

This article was previously published in Greek at kathimerini.gr.

Get ready to hike

The Menalon Trail covers 75 kilometers and passes through the villages of Stemnitsa, Dimitsana, Zygovitsi, Elati, Vytina, Nymphasia, Magouliana, Valtesiniko, and Lagkadia.

Each trail between the nine villages, the majority of which have an easy to moderate difficulty rating, is approximately 4 to 15 kilometers long and takes two to five hours to complete.

 

There are several accommodations along the trail that collaborate to help hikers transport their belongings from one village to the next.

For more information: menalontrail.eu

Tel.: (+30) 695.100.4305, info@menalontrail.eu



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