Our country hasn’t cornered the market for great hiking spots.
There are well-known trails around the world that are popular and beautiful. I have never heard anyone say that the Inca Trail in Peru is a bad trail. It receives rave reviews. And the Scottish National Trail and the West Highland Way in Scotland are two must-sees. The Tour du Mont Blanc crosses the Alps through France, Italy and Switzerland. And the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand is one of the best in the world, as many of my hiking friends have heard.
But what about Greece? I can now tell you that there are some great hikes in Greece. My wife and I had the opportunity earlier this month to trek in the Peloponnese region of Greece to hike the Menalon Trail. We always wanted to visit Greece, which is actually my great-grandfather’s homeland, and when the opportunity arose, we took advantage of it.
We took a 10 day trip with GRAB, a program for adult hikers run by John Regentin, who is a resident of Gettysburg and ran the experiential learning program at Gettysburg College. John organizes trekking programs a few times a year, and the group often treks to less traveled and unique international locations. This fall our group consisted of 26 people and it was a bonding, hiking, dining and learning experience for all of us.
The journey began in the city of Athens, which is steeped in ancient history. Incredible ancient history. It was a cultural experience that I had wanted for a long time. It didn’t disappoint, but Athens is a big city. It’s dirty, noisy and very busy at all times. The Acropolis, with the Parthenon, overlooks the metropolis. He seems to despise the city with an air of smugness and superiority. If the Acropolis could talk, I can imagine it saying, “You can all do whatever you want there, but here the gods have ruled for thousands of years. You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me.
Honestly, the ancient history was absolutely fascinating. I still don’t understand all that was going on in 440 BC, but it was serious stuff. The Parthenon itself was built in honor of the goddess Athena. It was also built to celebrate and thank the Greek victory over the Persians in the Greco-Persian Wars. There was a lot going on at the time.
After our surreal visit to Athens, we headed to the Peloponnese Peninsula and the Menalon Trail. This trail is one of the most varied and beautiful trails I have seen. It is around 46 miles long and winds its way through the heart of the Peloponnese. The Menalon ranges in elevation from over 1,300 feet to just over 5,000 feet. It is wonderfully maintained and well marked, earning it an official designation as one of the best hiking trails in Europe. I suspect this is the best hiking trail in Greece.
The path takes you through canyons, significant mountains, along rivers, through beautiful pine forests and through nine picturesque villages nestled in the hills. Additionally, the trail visits historic monasteries, ancient ruins and offers truly spectacular views.
Our hiking group was also really interesting. We were between 44 and 81 years old. Most were there as a couple and most of the group members already knew each other. As this is a recurring release, many had participated in it before. But by the end of the trek, we all felt like we had known each other forever.
Along with the variety in ages, there has been variety in hiking ability and speed. One of the goals of the trek was to travel together as much as possible as one group. As some of the hikes were quite difficult, this was often a particular challenge. A few of the less experienced hikers opted out of some sections, but that didn’t matter, as there were alternative hikes available almost every day. Really, completing the trail wasn’t the end goal. The journey, the experience, and the camaraderie was the destination, and my wife and I agreed that we had reached that destination.
Often the trail reminded me of the Appalachian Trail, through the woods and switchbacks up the mountain. Other times I thought of the Rockies, harsh mountains and deep valleys. But most of the time there was no doubt that we were on a track in Europe. The rocks were different. Much of the Peloponnese is made up of metamorphic rocks, but also includes sandstone and limestone. It certainly does not look like the United States. Much of the vegetation is scrub, but there is deeper woods, especially on the way down into the gorge. And the olive trees! They are everywhere.
Once the hike was over, we returned to Athens for another day before heading home. The only thing I didn’t see earlier in the trip was the old Olympic Stadium. The Panathenaic Stadium in Athens was the stadium that hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. These marble stands were first built in 330 BC and then renovated in 144 AD. It fell into disrepair soon after, but was resurrected in 1869 and was used for those first modern Olympics.
The stadium, which was the finish point of the Athens Olympic marathon in 2004, is now an attraction and that really impressed me. When I was young, I dreamed of participating in the Olympics. As I started running, that dream stayed alive in college until the point where I reluctantly realized I wasn’t that good. So my lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics never came true.
I had another lifelong dream, which I started dreaming about in eighth grade, and that was to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. This dream actually came true in 2014. And don’t think it wasn’t on my mind as I walked around the Panathenaic Stadium.
One of the best-preserved elements of the stadium is the tunnel that leads from the old dressing room to the track. I was able to get down the tunnel track, about 150 feet through the opening and onto the track. I wore an earphone that described the experience, and through it I could hear the crowd getting louder and louder as I approached the track. This real feeling is one I will never know, but now I can imagine.
So the trekking and the Olympic site all got me thinking – finishing the AT was like my own personal Olympics. But it wasn’t the thrill of competition and victory that I felt. Rather, it was the fulfillment of participation, satisfaction in the effort, enjoyment of the moment, and connection with those who had a similar goal. Our whole trekking trip in Greece was all of these things.
And the beauty is that I can still feel all of those things every time I hike and trek. The trail provides it, and I have to go.
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