Walking and talking on largest Cycladic island, travelers learn much about the ways of Greece

Out of the gloom and doom that has hung over Greece’s tourist industry in recent times has come a new buzz word, quality tourism. Freely bruited by media and tourist industry representatives, it evokes more than a whiff of yearning for those elusive upmarket (read well-heeled) tourists who will pull the sector out of the doldrums. Much of the talk seems to be just that, talk. But one British couple based on Naxos managed to take Greece’s unique combination of sea, landscape, culture, history and traditional agriculture and come up with a walking tours operator that enshrines the concept. Walking Plus, the brainchild of Robin and Gully Cameron Cooper – the former the erstwhile director of a major advertising company and ex-SAS soldier, the second a professional writer, and both ardent walkers and seasoned travelers – was designed with a view to avoiding large, unwieldy groups (no more than 13 guests are taken on at any one time, or as many as a Ford van can fit). Guided with sureness (and some firmness) along scenic kalderimia (old paved walkways) and goat tracks, and taking in Venetian tower houses, remote chapels and ancient sites along the way, walkers are regaled with smatterings of botany and geology, snippets of history and culture, as well as the stories and myths that abound in Greece. As Gilly said, «We show you the essence of the island… we reach the parts that other tourists can’t reach.» Kathimerini English Edition joined the Cameron Coopers for three days to sample one of their walking tours, most of it over gently hilly country or through the olive groves of the famous Tragean plain. The tour Day one, and after breakfasting on fresh bread, we – three couples, the Cameron Coopers and I – were taken to the trailhead near the foot of the imposing Mt Zas, the highest mountain in the Cyclades, and sauntered up a track amid scrub and oak. Poking out of the dry earth were tall, pointed, multi-floreted plants. Gilly pointed them out. Maritime squills, she said. A tall imposing building, partly screened by a large tree, soon came into view, the oldest fortified monastery on the island, Fotodotis, built in the style of the Venetian tower houses common on Naxos. Soon we were scrambling up the steep steps to the front door. Disabled access not being a priority in those days, many tower houses, so Gilly informed us, lacked steps altogether, with a ladder lowered to serve (more harmless) visitors. It was now Robin’s turn to lead, as Gilly headed back to the van (the couple took turns driving). The way now led over a hill and down into the green valley of the picturesque village of Apeiranthos, not without some fig trees providing luscious distraction on the way. Combining spiritual with earthly pleasures, we then visited a rustic, abandoned church of undressed stone dedicated to St Pachomius – derived from the Greek word for fat. Within, the faded faces of fresco saints looked down with medieval serenity, one done so naturally that one could picture the young man that might have served as its model. The small aperture above the door, Gilly explained, was where exceptionally thin babies were passed through in a ritual that hopefully would turn them into fat and healthy ones. Our own fattening ritual – an omelet lunch – took place in Apeiranthous. It was followed by a visit to the small archaeological museum and the even more fascinating geological museum – appropriate on an island that, according to Gilly, was a «textbook example of contact metamorphism» (metamorphic rock being rock whose texture and composition has been transformed by heat or pressure, she explained, to my intense gratitude). Sand and sea may not have been the focus of the holiday, but neither were they spurned: A full morning was followed by a swim in turquoise waters off one of Naxos’s splendid sandy beaches. Rounding off the physical, cultural and educational experiences of the day was a purely hedonistic evening at the Axiotissa restaurant – arguably boasting one of the best cheese pies in the country. The walk on day two took us past Geometric grave circles, set amid shapely granite boulders, up the imposing Venetian fortress of Epano Kastro, through the verdant village of Meso Potamia, followed by a visit to the Kouros of Melanes, a 2,500-year-old unfinished statue that still lies in the place where it was being carved, possibly, said Gilly, «because the bottom dropped out of the market.» Some members of the party then chose to do some more sightseeing with Gilly in the van. The rest of us headed back up round the base of Epano Kastro, through a wide, lonely valley with stunning views of the castle on its brooding height. Day three, and we wound our way through Kermes oak and lush terraces from the village of Halki to that of Moni. This was a fruitful walk, in every sense, as September grapes, blackberries and figs posed an irresistible temptation along the way. As did the picnic produced by Gilly, with green salad («the peppers are from our landowners’ garden»), feta, fresh bread and her first attempt at an aubergine salad. It was pronounced delicious. A zigzag path then climbed to the chapel atop the sheer-sided Mt Fanari, Naxos’s second-highest peak. Right on cue, a couple of large eagles (or possibly vultures) appeared and wheeled majestically above the peak. Leadership Walks with a group of strangers are never easy, and their success or failure depends in large part on the leaders. But Gilly’s inexhaustible knowledge and enthusiasm was more than complemented by Robin’s urbanity, quiet humor, raconteur’s skills, attentiveness and tact. The other walkers gave the tour their seal of approval, with «entertaining» and «well-organized» being favorite adjectives. While it might seem too structured to some, and not strenuous enough for others, the holiday was ideal for those who wanted all the pleasure of walking and none of the hassle of getting to trailheads, and who appreciate care and attention. Guests are accommodated at the Oasis hostel at Mikri Vigla on Naxos, whose owner, Manolis Salteris, had his own concerns about quality. («He may raise prices on occasion, but he has always introduced improvements beforehand,» Gilly said wryly.) On arrival, each guest is supplied a welcome basket of fruit, the program, explanatory environmental notes and a quick-reference history of Naxos. Walks are carefully graded and flexible, and guests were reassured (in a pep talk on the first day) that they were not under compulsion to do them. A day off also gave people the freedom to do things on their own. Both environmentally minded, Robin and Gilly refill bottles from springs and pick up as much rubbish as possible. They also want to contribute to the island, Gilly said, which involves, as far as possible, using local produce (Gilly grows vegetables in her garden). This is only a start, they hope. The 2005 program will include the option of a guided tour on Tinos. (They may also go downmarket with a backpacker’s special.) A botanist has been lined up for the spring tour in April. Perhaps in two years’ time, they said, they may have expanded the season (now April-beginning of July and September-October) to other islands – which just shows what enthusiasm, hard work, and organization can do with a great concept in a virtually virgin market.