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.

News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own