Monday, 2 November 2009

Day 6 - Nearing the Border

The last update saw us balanced mid-way between Arnea and Ierisos, at the village of Megali Panagia.

We awoke fairly early, and made our way to the starting point on the path to Athos. This time we made sure that we were on the correct road - in our enthusiasm the previous evening, we had trotted out of Megali Panagia with a spring in our step, and only realised we were heading the wrong direction when we were all there admiring the sunset and someone piped up "doesn't the sun set in the west?".

At least we hadn't tramped too far from our route, and we were able to backtrack to the village. It had been a relief to return, as it had become instantly cold the very moment the sun had dropped over the horizon. It gave us renewed respect for your navigation skills - we are equipped with all manner of maps, compasses, GPS navigation deviced, and yet we still made a simple error in our haste to get on.

It was perhaps a good lesson to learn, and this time we wanted to make sure we were on the right track. After a quick coffee in the square, we canvassed the locals - and the results were interesting. It seems that Megali Panagia lies on the old monks route to the Holy Mountain, and once we were shown the paved track we all felt sure that you must have been directed to follow this route. We bid goodbye to Dino, our Greek guide and driver, who faced the long drive back to Athens!

The old path is now poorly maintained, but here and there we came across the old surface, paved with flagstones and boulders. The track starts in the olive groves on the edge of the village, and heads south-east through the wild oak forest, skirting plunging ravines and mountain eyries. We set a good pace, with Tyson (now fully recovered) striding out ahead with his relaxed stride.

Although the route was fairly clear, we were relieved to come across a spring in the bend of the track. We had told to find this on our way, and it confirmed that we were heading in the right direction. We were pleased to be on the path, as the forest here is particularly thick - a jumbled mass of vegetation, with trees even growing out of the sheer rock sides of the ravine.

We stopped at a small church a little way off a right had fork in the track. It was whitewashed inside and out, the sparten furniture outlined in a halo of woodworm dust. It looked in terrible condition, but it was so isolated that it was understandable. We didn't stay long, and pressed on to our next stop - the village of Gomati.

We were just nearing the edge of the village when a maroon van overtook us at speed, bucking wildly on the rocky track. It was Christos Galatsanos, who had met Lawrence at the Oxi Day celebrations in Arnea and who was anxious to capture us on film. We crested a rise, and below us was an arched bridge over a small stream, all shrouded by tall plane trees. Christos took a few snaps as we crossed over the bridge and walked on to the outskirts of the village.

A few hundred meters up the path, we were met by the village president - Hristodoulos Yiovvanakis, a friendly man who had stopped working in his fields to come and meet us. He presented us with a large pot of honey, and walked with us the short distance to the village of Gomati.

We stopped in Gomati for a coffee. We had intended to have some lunch, but it was easier to just press on. We were just lining up for photographs in the square, when with a screech the ET3 TV crew arrived. We now had two camera crews trying to get shots of Tyson (which he hated). Great fun, and I am sure we are now household names in Greece.

The ET3 crew are great fun - lead by the impossibly named 'John Striker'. They have already done a 10min special on you for Oxi Day - "Sandy Thomas, the man who said Oxi". It was great - we watched it in a bar in Arnea and cringed when the locals spun round to point at us when we were on the television. Tyson is a natural - better get him an agent when he gets back!

The next few miles were a bit of a slog. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the tarmac road was simply radiating heat. For some reason we can travel all day on a rough track, but people have quickly had enough after a few miles on tarmac. We had to climb quite high before beginning the descent to Ierissos. The old path has been obliterated by the new road, and the deep cuttings make it impossible to cut the corners. We had to follow the road and cope with the speeding cars hugging the kerbs - quite a risky business.

Over another ridge we caught sight of Ierissos far below, laid out in a distinctive grid pattern. The village was quiet when we arrived, and we headed straight for the main square - now planted with tall trees. We stopped in front of a war memorial in the centre of the square, and Tyson was filmed placing a wreath in rememberance of the Allied serviceman and those who had helped them on their escapes.

It had been a long day, and we finally managed to get a meal in the main square. It had been a long time since that small coffee in Megali Panagia!

Tomorrow we make the short hop to Pyrgos (now Ouranopolis) and steel ourselves for our time on Mount Athos.

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