submitted by Gaye Hegeman on 20.09.2011
The travel agent's remark as we stood up to leave his office, "just follow the blue dots," seemed incidental to the instructions we had received, and I wonder if we had not known about them how much harder and less exciting our task might have been. Images of ancient treasure maps on parchment immediately sprang to mind, as we left in search of clues.
We had come to enquire about the Trifyllianika to Paliochora walking trail, once an important link between these two communities at the north-east corner of the Island. The track represents a colourful if not turbulent place in the Island's history and is said to have been an escape route, used by those lucky enough to have survived the ferocious attack by Barbarossa and his murderous band of pirates, in 1537. Frank, who is the author of a modest publication, “Kythera on Foot,” is employed by Ross Travel. They share an office with another agency next door to the Potamos Hospital.
That afternoon as we walked back to Trifyllianika, we began to find things, casually woven into the fabric of the landscape that had previously escaped our notice. On the corner opposite the hospital, our first clue came to light among three weather beaten metal signs. One of these, an old hand painted sign in the shape of an arrow, written in Greek script, pointed in a the south-easterly direction and bore the name, "Paliochora."
With Spring drawing to a close, the excitement and celebration associated with Easter came and went in a flash. Visitors from Athens had departed while the specialist biscuit maker at the lower end of Potamos had shut up shop, a sign on his door to this effect. A small flock of sheep, each wrapped in a thick layer of multi-coloured fleece, lay tethered by the side of the road where the grass was thick and green. Huddled together in a circular shape like a large flokati rug with eyes, they silently stared back at us as we passed by.
The path to Paliochora begins at Agios Ioannis, a small but very old church next to the platea, believed to predate the 15th century, in the tiny community of Trifyllianika. It is an easy walk from the Potamos turnoff to this point, taking about ten minutes. Our instructions were to follow the dirt road that turns right at the church. Already familiar with this road, we had investigated it as far as the cemetery days before, admiring the many varieties of spring flowers growing along its border. Nearing the building opposite the church we found our second clue, another hand painted "Paliochora" sign, this time with the addition of a blue dot. The ‘blue dots’ began to take on a new significance.
This part of the Island is exposed to the elements and one look at the vegetation reveals the effects of prolonged buffeting by fierce winds. The trees grow low, their canopies spread wide. Small leaves cluster thickly on the branches and at this time of the year their unobtrusive foliage and tiny flowers attract myriads of bees. Each tree sounds like a mini factory buzzing with activity. A broad expanse of dark green vegetation, dotted with pin cushion shaped trees, stretches far into the distance until it reaches two mountains, Dhighenis standing at 489 meters and Koutsokephelo at 468 meters, backdrop to the Kythera Airport. It is said that over a million years ago, this wide central plateau on which the airport rests, was once a shallow sea and the mountains, islands in this sea.
Frank's publication details thirty-two carefully selected walking routes around the Island, including a step by step description of the Paliochora track. In 1991 when Frank spent a two week holiday at Kapsali, he and his partner loved it so much they returned every year until 1997 when they purchased a house at Potamos, renovated it and since 2003 have lived on the Island permanently. Initially he explored the walking tracks at the southern end of the Island, having read about them in a walking book written in German by a Swiss nature lover who lived on the Island in the 1980's and 90's. It was the Swiss author who was responsible for the blue dots of enamel paint discreetly daubed on rocks along the walking paths. Significantly, each of these walks is based on the traditional footpaths between villages.
A 2009 map of the Island, published by Terrain Cartography purchased at a Potamos bookshop for seven Euro, lists several walking trails, the first of which is the one between Trifyllianika and Paliochora. It is described as one of the most enjoyable hiking routes on Kythera, a smooth trail without big altitude differences which leads to the Island's most interesting sight. About 1.7 km and forty-five minutes later, after crossing two ravines, the authors explain, you will arrive at the impressive ruins of Paliochora castle, then suggests that you either take the same route back, or have a friend fetch you with their vehicle, since a dirt road also leads to Paliochora.
All of this information was well and good on paper we thought, but the true test was to walk the trail and determine for ourselves whether it was as 'smooth' as the map’s information suggested, or as 'difficult' as Frank's notes implied. Spring has to be the best season to walk on the Island because of the abundance of wild flowers. Like colourful jewels on a tapestry background, they are scattered at random next to and beyond the track for its entirety, giving us a good reason to keep our cameras within easy reach. A brief inspection of the start of the trail days before revealed a loose unstable surface of various sized rocks, so we prepared a walking pole each, from some garden refuse, to steady ourselves on the downhill parts of the walk.
We decided to make an early morning start, leaving the house at about 7.40 am, the dampness in the morning air still fresh. We wore sturdy walking shoes, carried a small back pack, a bottle of water each, a small first aid kit, a few snacks, cameras, mobile phone and most importantly Frank’s guide book. Walking was slow, we wanted to be careful but also there was so much to photograph. Anxious to reach the second ravine where we knew there was a stream, we continued on until we heard the loud trickle of running water at the bottom of the hill. A strange sound like the bark of a small dog caught our attention. This, we guessed, must be the frogs mentioned in the guide book and it wasn't long before we were treated to a chorus of strange sounding 'croaks.' The visual relief of ferns, rushes and sedges along the water course, was very welcome and the regular placement of blue dots along the path reminded us we were going in the right direction.
Ancient rock walls define at least one edge of the narrow path for most of its distance and in one place at the top of a hill, walls on both sides of the track create a passageway effect. A pleasant change, which added contrast to the scenery were the isolated patches of dark green, elegant pencil pines growing on sheltered hillsides. We were glad to have worn sturdy shoes with socks, long sleeve shirts and trousers because of the presence of thistles and thorn bushes beside the path. A treat of a different kind, was the beautiful aromatic scent of wild thyme, which filled our nostrils, whenever we brushed against these inconspicuous low growing plants.
After we had crossed the third and smallest ravine, the path began a steady uphill climb threading its way until it opened out with a view of Agia Barbara where a family of nimble footed goats played. The size and nature of the gorges that surround the Paliochora site are quite spectacular and caused us to stand still in wonder. None of our photographs did justice to the view. The morning sun highlighted the uneven features of the northern face of the gorge and lit up small bushes growing among the rocks with a red glow. It was hard to imagine that five centuries ago the city of Agios Dimitrios flourished here.
With frequent stops for photographs it had taken us close to two hours to reach our destination and by the time we had explored those parts of the site open to the public, the sun had crept higher. There was a sting in its heat, even at 10am in the morning, and knowing we had no option but return home by the same route we had come, we set out completing our journey in less time than it took to get there.
Our verdict: was it an 'easy' walk, as the map information stated, or 'difficult' as described in Frank's guide book? We both agreed that it was a fairly difficult walk, mainly due to the rough nature of the track. Our one major mistake, other than underestimating the length of time it would take to complete, was not to carry enough drinking water. One 600 ml bottle of water each was not enough. At least 1.5 litres would have been more sensible. There is little to no shade along the trail and by late morning when we arrived back at our starting point, it had become quite hot and we felt very dehydrated.
Never having walked this trail before, the regular placement of blue dots helped guide us in the right direction, and walking enthusiasts may gain great benefit from the diagrams and instructions in Frank's guide book. Although in terms of distance it is a short walk, this experience allowed us to see a unique and unspoiled part of the Island, rich in colour and texture. The path and the rock walls that border it are the only real indication that it was once a major communication link between villages. We both agreed that the day we dropped by the travel agency for information, had brought us a step closer to understanding a little more about the history and culture of a beautiful Island.
(My sister Leah and I spent five weeks on the Island from March to May 2010, our plan being to learn more about our Andronicos and Panaretos ancestors. We stayed in Tryfillianika.)
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