Island hopping in steps

It's all action in Greece: Michael Williams sets out on foot, while, opposite, Louise Jury succumbs to the lure of the sea

Let's be blunt about touring the Greek islands. If you didn't have to get around by boat (with your head full of adman's copy about timeless places, the wine-dark sea, tavernas and fishing boats), you would not willingly visit the ragbag of concrete villages that comprise the island ports.

Admittedly, people have been known to cry at the first sight of Symi at nightfall, with the lights in the windows of the tiers of Neo-Classical villas staggered around an almost perfect marine amphitheatre. And then there's the entrance to Rhodes harbour through the imaginary feet of the Colossus, or the smack-in-the-face sheer cliffs of Santorini's volcano. But most island ports are drab affairs full of dust, rucksacks and the smell of overcooked souvlaki. The answer is to walk away. Literally.

A walking tour of the Greek islands may sound like the equivalent of a boating holiday in the Himalayas, but it is not as absurd as it sounds. Regard the islands for what they are - a palaeolithic mountain formation, where the sea has filled the valleys - and with judicious use of feet and ferries you can see the real Greece that is puffed in the brochures, but almost invariably disappoints when you disembark.

The perfect case is Folegandros, a spiny 15km island in the southern Cyclades. After 10 gut-wrenching hours on a pensioned-off cross-Channel hulk, you pull in at the little port of Livanassi, with a concrete pension, a couple of shuttered tavernas and a shingly beach lined with limp palm trees and covered with what look suspiciously like sea urchins. You would probably stay on the boat were it not for that glimpse of a whitewashed village spread like icing sugar on the distant clifftop.

Like many Aegean islands ravaged by centuries of pirate raids or Turkish invasions, Folegandros has preserved her treasures in the interior. An hour's trek along a dried-up stream bed takes you to Chora, the capital, with gleaming houses spread out like a snow bank in a fold of the hilltop. Every stereotype of the perfect Greek island village is here: cats snoozing among geranium pots, old men in the kafeneion under the plane tree, black widows scurrying from the bakers with sticks of bread.

Tempting though it was to stay - easy enough, when I visited, as the only bus had been dispatched to Athens for repair - this is the place to start some serious walking. (Well, not that serious: the rules for Greek island treks are a swim at the end of every day and a bed of sorts every night. Both are easy to achieve.)

Striding across the humpback of Folegandros is like being in a low-flying aircraft, with the eye-scorching glimmer of the Aegean on both sides and the wind beating like a slipstream round your ears. It is also like travelling back in time. In the hum of a hot afternoon, following a mule train of what looked like moving haystacks, I met Nikitas Marinakis, one of the last barley croppers of the Cyclades, following a trade that Odysseus would have recognised.

Including a night's stay in a taverna on the coast, and another up by the windmills in the hilltop village of Ano Meria, you can get to the northern tip of the island in three easy days. This, for me, included swimming from a sandy beach inhabited only by a naked, Pan-like figure who lived under a cypress tree. The locals said he was a bit touched; I thought, probably touched by good fortune.

From here you can see Sikinos, your next mountain, rising out of the sea. You have to hike back to the Folegandros port to get the ferry, but this can be done in a day along the main road, and the ferry is only half- an-hour's ride.

You can walk across Sikinos in two days, and tempting though it is to stay (this is one of the most unspoilt islands, having had a ferry landing stage for only a couple of years), you should round off the trip with one of the best walking islands in Greece.

Though the mountains of Amorgos can be seen across the horizon, it has no direct link with Sikinos, and a night must be spent in Naxos changing ferries. But it is worth the trouble: the hike along the ridge from the port of Katapola in the west to Egiali in the east is among the best in the islands, and from here you can plonk yourself into a ferry berth back to Piraeus to recover.

Even easy hiking like this should take account of certain safeguards: go preferably in spring or autumn, and even then seek out a handy olive tree at midday; always carry at least a litre of water; wear a hat and cotton trousers rather than shorts; and never assume that the bark of a Greek country dog is worse than its bite.

Though one suspects that most island Greeks would be happier if their islands were ploughed up for A-roads so that they could exercise their Mitsubishis and motorbikes at full tilt, there is still an atavistic respect for walkers. After the statutory inquiry about how many children you have, the next is always: "How did you get here?" Even if you cannot report that you have any sons, the answer, "Me ta podia" - on foot - will always be a response that delights.

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