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Fantasy Fortnight: Greece is the word for Mike Cullen at i-escape

Mike Cullen is one of the co-founders of i-escape, the Bristol-based travel company that has been seeking out boutique hotels and hip hideaways all over the world for nearly two decades.

So when lockdown is over, where would he like to get away to?

The answer is Greece, a country he knows so well he's literally been there, done that, written the guide book.

Below, he talks us through his recommendations for a two-week hiking holiday along The Peloponnese Way.

"Four years ago this month, to celebrate my brother’s 50th birthday, he and I started exploring the 225km hiking trail that eventually became the Peloponnese Way. Two weeks of mountains, mule paths, monasteries, river-gorges, wildflowers, cave chapels - and the Aegean Sea to start and finish with. It's this kind of memory that keeps me going through these frustrating indoor days, and which I dream of repeating once they are over.

So, to keep my – and your – travel bugs alive and kicking, I'm sharing some of my favourite views and spots from the trail, divided into its 15 days of trail walking. The first day's hike weaves up through the narrow limestone Vouraïkos gorge, walking alongside a tiny rack-and-pinion railway that has been carved out of (and sometimes seemingly glued onto) the orange-grey cliffs. Normally you wouldn't see anyone passing by (except for the two tiny daily trains), but we happened to pick the one weekend of the year when the entire population of Kalavrita - the town at the head of the gorge - walks down it, chatting loudly and smoking furiously. A surreal start - especially as we barely saw anyone else on the trail throughout the remaining fortnight. The day ends at the Monastery of Mega Spileo, set below a cliff and ancient fortress where local freedom fighter Nikolaos Petimezas held off the Ottoman troops of Ibrahim Pasha in a fierce battle of 1826. If you have planned ahead, you can stay in the Orthodox guesthouse – with magical views over the forested valley.

Day two is a long one – 6 hours, 18km, 800m of ascent and descent – so I hope you've got your imaginary bootlaces firmly tied! We cross the forested flanks of Mt. Helmos (the first of four 2000m ranges on our route), over meadows carpeted with wild tulips and daisies in April, passing below the deserted ski centre (Dec-March is the season here). There’s still plenty of snow on the tops of Neraidovouni (Nereid Mountain). Then we snake down through fir-shaded meadows, that could be the Alps or the Jura, to the tiny hamlet of Ano Lousi (1 taverna, 1 inn, 1 road). Phew. We reward ourselves with a well-earned goat stew and a carafe of golden wine, followed by homemade yoghurt and homegrown walnuts around the woodburner.

Mercifully, day three is gentler, and much of it downhill. After skirting the lush plateau of Lousi with its pretty chapels, we earn fabulous views over the hills of Arcadia - which is an actual place, the central-northern part of the Peloponnese, still blissfully rural, peopled by shepherds and nascent rivers and, I suspect, Pan. There’s the opportunity to visit the Cave of the Lakes, energy permitting: a sequence of subterranean pools decorated with dripping stalactites and linked by a (very manageable!) path. The route continues to the village of Planitero where the Aroanios river leaps into life among a forest of wild plane trees, in whose shade villagers sell herbs and fresh rainbow trout. The final section into Mazeika (Kato Klitoria) offers lovely views over pointy hills and green valleys; look out for iridescent scarab beetles. And, when you start flagging, just focus on the hotel swimming pool that awaits.

On day four, we enter the real backwaters of Arcadia, where the icy Lousios river leaps magically from dry ground, attracting beautiful dragonflies. Let's hope the rickety bridge is still there otherwise it's a deep and chilly wade. We pass shepherds huts tucked into mountain folds far from the road (my, what blue eyes she has!); then climb an ancient path over a rocky spur to finally reach Kordopati guesthouse (no website; truly we have left the 21st century) in the village of Daras, where three relentlessly solicitous sisters ply us with an endless stream of homemade snacks, herbal teas, raki shots and quirky questions - until we are even more exhausted than when we arrived.

By day five, we're into the heart of the Peloponnese: the forested foothills of Mt Mainalo. But first a confession: rather than walk all the way from Daras, we hitched a ride to the village of Kamenitsa (I know I know, but when you see the photos you'll forgive me) as it allowed us to hike a lovely loop past the nunnery of Kernitsis, with its verdant river valley and wild swimming pools, and to explore the narrow cleft of the 'Black Boulder' gorge, before arriving at the surprisingly busy town of Vytina, whose squares were full of moustachioed men in woollen cloaks (it's cold up here at 1200m) selling honey and homemade pasta, and arguing loudly over thick black coffee.

Day six takes us up and over Mt. Mainalo - and if my photos make it look like the Austrian Alps, that's because it does! Lots of fir forest, dappled shade, grassy tracks, and the odd bald rocky summit - one of which (Sfendami, 1900m) - marks our picnic lunch spot. It’s slightly disconcerting to be walking once again under a winter ski lift, now clanking in the spring breeze. Then comes a long descent to Kapsia watch out for those blisters - where (even more disconcertingly) we find ourselves staying at a swanky hotel in the midst of a medical conference. I'm not sure if the besuited delegates were gawping at our dusty boots and bedraggled backpacks in pity or in envy. No matter: another swimming pool awaits!

At the end of the first week – day seven – we reach the midpoint, the town of Tripoli, which also offers handy bus links to Athens and Kalamata if you want to bail out and do the second half another time. But first, a gentle walk through flowering meadows to a backdrop of goat bells, with plenty of wildlife to enjoy. Today's photo gallery is all about the beauty of thistles, the intense colours of crinkly cistus, the rare thrill of seeing butterflies mate, the detail of a pyramid orchid, the story of the goat's beard (the floral version), and the joy of slowing down to tortoise pace for once. There is birdlife too (cuckoos, buzzards, wheatears, woodpeckers, songbirds, maybe a hoopoe if you're lucky), and evidence of boar and martens - but my limited patience and the enthusiasm of local hunters mean you will have to imagine those. I also give a grateful nod of thanks to those who maintain the E4 signage (Rolf Roost, Giorgos Kanellopoulos), which my route follows in large parts. Leaving Tripoli (again, a short taxi ride is called for), we start the second half of the Peloponnese Way. Crossing the watershed above Doliana, we're officially in the southern Peloponnese: these valleys below us drain to Sparta. We follow the sweeping summit line on dusty dirt tracks, with 50km views to north and south. Goats have given way to sheep, fir forest to walnut groves, monasteries to fire lookout cabins. Finally, soles aching, we see the village of Agios Petros below us; and behind it the looming bulk of Mount Parnon - the next challenge!

The next day’s hike (day nine) is probably my favourite in the entire 15-day trail: the ascent (and descent) of Mt. Parnonas. We start from Malevis nunnery - very smartly decked out, with lots of locals attending Sunday morning mass when we passed. It then climbs through pine and fir cover to the flower-carpeted summit zone: the habitat of wild cyclamen, black billy goats and - no doubt - mountain nymphs. Imagine the scent of resin, whistle of wind, fabulous views over the whole Peloponnese from 1900m altitude. A long but idyllic descent brings us out at the tiny village of Vamvakou, hidden in folds of a forest, where (with a bit of clever googling and persuasive phoning) the warden has come up from Sparta to open the village hostel for us. The bush telegraph was also buzzing: all of Vamvakou's 8 residents came to check us out over fried-egg-and-sausage supper at the cafe. Stin iyasas!

Day 10, and we continue downhill from the remote mountain village of Vamvakou, detouring briefly along a lush valley to a secret chapel-in-a-cliff where locals hid out during Ottoman (and other) persecutions. It’s an eerie spot – cool and clammy – full of ghosts and crag martins. Then down the ever-broadening valley - look out for wild boar and rose-chafing beetles - to Vassaras in the foothills outside Sparta. Here the path dies completely; believe me, we persevered till our limbs were lacerated and the moon was rising! So you have to get a lift into Sparta. We can recommend the village priest's pickup truck; great views as you ride.

Sparta's (very) ruined ancient theatre is laid out at the foot of the Taygetos mountain range, which marks the fourth and final mountain range to be crossed. First, it’s worth spending a morning exploring the Byzantine palaces and still-occupied nunnery of Mystras, capped by a Frankish castle. Afterwards, the trek continues up the breathtaking gorge of Parori to one of the most sublime and peaceful spots in the Peloponnese: the cliff chapel of Langadiotissa, Virgin Mary of the Ravine (yes I have a thing for cave chapels :-). This is also the spot where the ancient Spartans abandoned their malformed babies: any which can crawl out of here deserve to survive. Onwards and upwards to the monastery of Faneromenis, also occupied (by just one monk), before reaching the lovely village of Anavriti. This is one of my favourite overnight spots, partly for its spectacular setting halfway up to the jagged peaks, but mainly because of the presence of Mary and Giorgos Kanellopoulos, who run their 4-room guesthouse with such warmth and generosity (not to mention homemade cakes and moussaka and bouzouki songs and raki) that every time I visit, I want to stay forever. Day 12 starts with breakfast looking over the steeple and rooftops of Anavriti, and a sighting of the nattily patterned spurge hawk moth caterpillar. We then climb steadily under fir and pines - take it easy folks, deep breaths now - to 1500m altitude, before contouring beneath the marbled, still-snow-capped peaks of Taygetos. The astute among you will notice that my hiking companion has morphed from my brother into several different men and women (low cloud with my bro meant no photos, so I'm rewinding back to 2006 with another lovely group). The destination is the same: the mountain refuge of Varvara at 1600m, where genie-like Giorgos magically appears at dusk with backpacks, a tin of red wine, a tray of hot moussaka, yummy-sweet baklava, and his bouzouki! Poor guy, he still has to drive 2 bumpy hours back to Anavriti - bless him and his Romanian 4WD – while we unroll our sleeping bags and settle into the bunks. In this sharply cool mountain air, silent but for the occasional contented snore, we sleep like those resin-scented pine logs in the woodburner. Spectacular day 13 is the highpoint of our two-week virtual hike across the Peloponnese, as we summit the 2400m Ai-Lias peak of the Taygetos range. It's an optional day, very weather- and energy- and snowpack-dependant, which is why once again I'm digging further back into my photo archive to get good pics (hence the different set of models, including my lovely wife). It also explains why the trail lasts 14 days in the Cicerone book and 15 days here - as I'm sure lots of you have been wondering! As for the ascent, you simply zigzag steadily upwards for 850m (3 hours), negotiating some vast dripping snowbergs, and crocus clumps which emerge from the melt, until you reach the very roof of the Peloponnese, with its plunging views over the plains of Sparta and the gulf of Messinia (those serrated peaks are the Deep Mani). There's a crumbling stone chapel up here where, every 19th July, locals from both sides of the mountain congregate to give thanks, sing mass, share soup and sleep out. Clouds roll in at dusk to form a woolly carpet at your feet; you wake at dawn to the biggest skies imaginable. A moving experience if ever there was one - put it in your diary now for next year!

After one (or two) nights at the refuge, the penultimate leg (day 14) takes you through a deep forest of fir and century-old black pines, with cyclamen, wild boar, aubretia, cascading mountain streams, an ancient stone chapel at the 1600m highpoint, and spectacular views back up to the snow-dusted summits of Ai-Lias. But my favourite bit - and this may be in part because I worked hard to bring this old path back to life - is the latter part of the descent to Arna village, where the trail is almost etched into a rockface in one place.

The final leg of our 15-day hiking adventure across the Peloponnese is another tough one – plenty of down and up, and then down again – but we know that the sea beckons, the restorative blue sea at beautiful Pantazi beach in the Outer Mani. First we have to climb 500m up to the monastery of Panayia Yiatrissa, with its recently frescoed chapel, 2 monks, 12 cats - and a vast car park for its August feast day. Thankfully there is a well graded, stone-laid pilgrims path in the shade of yew trees and holm oaks; and loukoumi with strong Greek coffee to restore us. Then, bidding farewell to Lakonia (the 'county' we have been in since day 9) and hello to Messinia , we wind down a series of increasingly angular barren valleys, past the village of Milia, to the coast. Thoroughly cleansed, with feet tingling and hair matted, we wander into the picturesque harbour of Agios Nikolaos - a great spot to recover for a few days. Or you can jump on a bus to nearby Kardamili - a favourite haunt of mine, with fabulous seaside tavernas and tasteful hotels to hole up in.

So: 15 days, 225km, 4 counties, and four 6000-ft mountain ranges crossed. It’s a wonderfully satisfying feeling, not only for the sense of achievement but also for those new discoveries and zany encounters and endless horizons and Mediterranean scents and snapshots of wildlife, all of which throw a completely new, liberating perspective on home life. For me, this is real travel.

Thanks Mike!

The Peloponnese Way

All photos are Mike's own

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