Magazine article The Spectator

Head for the Hills

Magazine article The Spectator

Head for the Hills

Article excerpt

After its Olympic success, new improved Athens is still one of Europe's most chaotic capitals and anyone in town for more than a few days will soon crave some breathing space. Only a short taxi ride away, Mount Imittos, on the eastern flank of Athens, offers just that. Rising 1,026 metres from sea level and covered in scented bushes and trees, it is a mountain suited to good long walks during mild Greek winters. For a taste of what it would be like to arrive in Athens on foot like a warrior returning from Troy, I took a bus from the city centre to the village of Peania on the far side of Imittos. From there, the plan was to walk over the top of the mountain and descend into the city in triumph.

The first diversion on the route is the Koutouki cave, half an hour's walk uphill from Peania. On the outside it looks like a heavily fortified army bunker in keeping with the colonels' junta that ruled Greece when the cave was opened to tourists in 1968. But deep inside it is a multi-storey grotto of stalactites and stalagmites that makes Disneyland look restrained. Rocks seem to bubble like broth into shapes ranging from gothic cathedrals to Jabba the Hutt lookalikes.

My tour guide informs me - her only client - that the cave is two million years old, that a rock column grows one centimetre every 100 years and that the temperature never strays from 17°C. She is giggly with fear about a snake spotted earlier that morning. It was seen slithering along the knobbly floor towards the cave's original entrance, which a boy discovered in 1926 when looking for a goat that fell down a crack in the mountainside.

My guide and I cannot inspect this crack because of the snake threat, so we wander around in the damp air and she tut-tuts at sooty stains on the fragile rock surface caused by grimy human hands. Then, at the flick of a switch, the lights cut out and red, green and yellow lamps start fading in and out, much to my surprise. A tinny speaker hidden in a dank corner strikes up some classical music. We stand in the cool darkness and listen to the orchestra against the background drip, drip, drip of water that is still shaping the cave's interior. It is the unexpected finale of my tour and a strange scene to dwell on as I leave Koutouki and head up a rutted track along the eastern slopes of Imittos.

This side of the mountain is so quiet that it is impossible to believe that a city of four million people lurks just over the brow. The view to the south stretches across the retsina vineyards of the Mesoyia plain to the vast new airport, which is far enough away so that planes glide silently on to its runway.

To the east, the island of Evia shimmers in the haze of the Aegean Sea. Bells from unseen farm animals echo up the valley and magpies flutter in pairs. After overshooting a crucial turn that must have become overgrown, I get badly lost, put hours on to the trip and fear I will be forced to return to Athens by bus, my quest abandoned.

However, I eventually stumble on a pothole where ropes lead to climbers busy deep underground. I resist giving the ropes a tug to ask for directions but find a promising path. It leads straight up through thick woodland and, after a strenuous scramble, the trees suddenly thin out before I burst on to the top of the ridge to see all of Athens laid out below me. …

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