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  • Writer's pictureNora Studholme

The Long and Spiny Road

Admittedly, when we set out on the hike we didn’t know much. We had a painted sign, in Greek, that Google Translate told us pointed toward the mountain town we were hoping to get to that night. Only 15km too, not too bad. We had a WhatsApp from our Airbnb host (actually, from her daughter, who lives in Germany and speaks perfect English, so is in charge of the “technical” elements of the reservation) — she mentioned it as a pleasant hike, 2.5 hours uphill on the way there, faster on the way back. No matter to us, we weren’t planning to go round trip anyway: we’d reserved a guest house that night in Koronos, our alleged destination, so that we could enjoy this fabled mountain village, three times the size of Apollon, with a population that surged in the early 1900s due to the discovery of an emery mine.

And great food and local wine and all that. Of course.

So we set out with high spirits. The first thirty minutes of our hike we followed the sparse trail signs, which led us further and further into the underbrush and away from a road until we emerged at last on the road where we started. Not a great start, but funny and now we could just follow Google Maps, which miraculously had our little dirt path through the mountains marked on it. Easy, no mistakes possible from now on.

Our Airbnb liaison was right about one thing: It certainly seemed to be uphill on the way there. The grade was unrelenting, even with switchbacks there seemed to be no flat resting points. The sun slammed down on the scalped scrubby mountainside, and I imagined what we must look like from below as we rose further and further from the achingly blue sea: little crawling dots against a brush of dust that etched a curve onto the barren hill. After another hour or so, our spirits lifting after eating the nectarines we’d packed, we realized the road had finally evened out a bit. We could even see it leading to civilization — civilization! We’d probably reach the first town, Komiaki, within an hour or so, stop and have some lunch at a taverna looking out over the folds of mountain below, and then continue the last 30-40 minutes to our final destination.

Except. After 40 more minutes, nearing the little house and cars we’d been following like an oasis on the cliff in front of us, we stopped to watch two hawks spiraling. They turned and dipped, and when they flared their tails to catch themselves the sun shone through them in golds and reds like stained glass, or a palm against a lightbulb. And then, since we were stopped anyway, we checked our phone.

We’d been going the wrong direction for 40 minutes.

Ah, well, at least it wasn’t so steep getting here, we turned around and began to walk cheerfully in the other direction. At last, we reached the place where we’d stopped to eat our nectarines an hour and a half ago (we were hungry again already, but we’d only brought the one snack, being that it was just a simple 2.5 hour hike). But there wasn’t a clear path to follow. One, clearly the most in use, went the direction we’d come from, our little hawk detour. Another veered back down the cliff toward Apollonas, so not that one. A few meters forward, we finally found a third option, nearly vertical, closed off by a low-slung chain and clearly in disuse. The path was so thoroughly choked by underbrush that it was barely a suggestion, and the only way we could see where it was was by identifying the little river of plants that were a few inches lower than those on either side.

According to Google Maps, that was our route.

We started up the path, the most vertical yet.

Let me stop and explain something about plants in the Cyclades islands, for those who have not been. I think perhaps I should call them “plants.” There’s nothing green or leafy about them. Unless you’re near a spring or a river, there are no charming shade trees or cute little clover leaves like cartoon bubbles. In fact, everything has only one shape, and that is pointy. The mountains are brown dust pin-cushioned with endless spines. They come in beautiful shades, admittedly — tough, wide-hipped silvery-purple blade bushes, low little explosions of yellow stingers, gray and red scimitar-studded trees.

I explain this not to disparage these plants — which you can see from these photos are actually quite stunning in their own unique and dystopian way — but to give you the sense of what it was like to march up this endless, impossibly steep road, reclaimed by its ferocious floral denizens, who stabbed valiantly at our mesh-sided Nike’s. It took us almost another hour to walk another half mile, tiptoeing and yelping our way up the mountain, knowing that turning back would take just as long as forging forward, and finding ourselves occasionally doubled over with laughter at the absurdity of our situation (and perhaps also from creeping delirium caused by heat and hunger).

Finally, the spines finished, and Google maps told us we had only — only— another hour to go. Already 3.5 hours into our 2 hour leg of the hike, blistered by sun and skewered by spines, we limped our way up further into the mountains, on and on. My left leg tightened up and we had to stop every few minutes to stretch, making our progress even slower. By the time we arrived in Komiaki, our first stop, I was dragging my leg behind me like a parody, but painful.

The town was tiny. We staggered down the steps, seeing only one or two people, winding our way down the whitewashed alleys. We asked a teenage boy cracking sunflower seeds where the Taverna was. “Down the stairs, take a left when they end, it’ll be right there by the church. And to the other side of the church, not a taverna, but another cafe.”

Salvation! We staggered down the stairs, hailing the sight of the approaching church like sinners approaching our absolution.

But the Taverna was closed. Little blue tables had been tucked against the wall, chairs upside down on them. We dragged ourselves the last few feet to the cafe, and were relieved to see someone sitting on the porch, and four rowdy Greeks eating and drinking at a table under the vine-draped veranda. But when we asked the host if he had food, he shook his head.

“Only drink,” he said, frowning.

We glanced over at the boisterous Greeks, who raised their glasses of Ouzo to us. They had platters of tapas, fruits, and cheese in front of them. We looked back at the owner. “Do you have fruit?” Paul asked.

He shook his head. “Gifts from a neighbor,” the owner insisted.

Too tired to argue, we ordered Ouzos and sat down, planning to walk down to the grocery store to get sustenance as soon as the alcohol made our feet stop hurting. The boisterous Greeks called to us, asked us where we were from. We always say “New York” because it’s easy and recognizable. It worked well this time — the man stood and began singing “New York, New York!” To a vaguely familiar tune. Paul asked them how they got their food, and they laughed. “Tapas! He can give you tapas,” they shook their head at the owner, and we looked at him. “Oh, you want tapas?” He asked, without a hint of chagrin. Obviously, we want tapas! We shouted internally, Obviously you wanted to finish your cigarette and not work the hours between lunch and dinner. But instead we just nodded vigorously and hungrily and he disappeared.

By the time he came back with our Tapas, we’d finished our Ouzo and ordered another. We devoured the food— incredible tasting, really, even if we weren’t starving — and I saw a glimmer of appreciation. Soon he’d disappeared and come back with fruit, apparently from the generous neighbors again. We raised our glasses to the boisterous table again, and they reciprocated enthusiastically. So enthusiastically, in fact, that soon another round of drinks appeared at our table. “From —“ the waiter nodded at the young woman at the tables. We considered them. Two sets of couples, a man and woman about our age, thin and clearly drunk already. The other couple were two pleasantly large people with cheerful faces and bodies animated by joie de vivre. They were all drinking pitchers of wine and cups of some liquor (which we soon learned was raki, distilled and fermented wine) and seemed to be highly animated and jovial. We had enough energy in our feet to walk over and thank them for the round of raki, and cheers our glasses together.

And with that, something magical happened.

First, we were just standing near them and talking, and there was that magical; surge of energy when you’re talking with people you feel comfortable with. Then there was the sharing, please eat, handing us chunks of salt dried cheese and figs and grapes. There was something so sincere and familiar about them, the kind of people you feel yourself around, almost like family, this strange and unreasonable assurance that they will love you no matter what.

As we chatted, we learned that the four of them, the one young couple and one older, didn’t even know each other until 5 hours ago — we also learned they had started drinking and eating and chatting when we started hiking. They seemed as baffled and delighted by this as we were.

The older couple from Athens were on Naxos visiting their daughter who opened a cafe here, and were on their way to go swimming in Apollonas when they stopped here at 11:30am for “just a quick coffee.” The younger couple from nearby, opened a pizza shop after they got married last year. They were proud of their work, and seemed even more proud to be taking a whole month off.

By this time, we’ve been invited to sit down, we’re being fed bits of fig with dried salt-cheese. More rounds have been ordered and drunk. We’ve asked about how to get to the next town, where our guest house is, and they’ve insisted they’ll drive us. We’ve laughed, we’ve talked about philosophy, we’ve discussed each of the older couple’s children and their motivations and fears. We’ve talked about our own motivations and fears. They’ve explained the festival of St. Augustine when the church bell starts tolling behind us, a few hours later after the sun goes down. The young man grabs us by our hands and pulls us into the church, where an all male choir is singing in the dim, flickering gloom. We light candles from a central candle, place them in a pool of sand, and each make our own form of prayer.

We return to our table, and stay there until late into the night, another three or four hours. The older man orders us grilled meat, pitas, sausages, lamb. He and the younger man fold up gyros and pass them to us, insistently. There is no hesitation, no pleasantries, no holding back. It’s so easy and gentle and comfortable that it feels utterly impossible that we’ve only just met each other.

And they feel the same. By the time we finally drive to the next town — fortunately the man has stopped drinking wine and only poured it for everyone else — we’re all almost teary at leaving each other. And by almost I mean, we are. We exchange numbers, we talk about getting together the next day to cook carbonara.

But somewhere in my heart I know we won’t, because this was perfect enough. This was too perfect to add to. This was family found and loved and nothing held back. We fall asleep the minute we get into our guest house bed.

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