Xenophon Hasapis believes the Athens Strollers group represents something unique. Head of the walking club since 2009, Hasapis sees their strolls as more than just an alternative to the treadmill. ?It is an answer to the general symptom of loneliness in a big city. At the same time, it offers a nice mix of physical exercise while making friends and dining, in the true Greek spirit of combining ?business? with pleasure.? During the walks, Hasapis always notices a ?a good mix of Greek- and non-Greek-speaking strollers.?
Many of the Greeks in the group have returned to the country after living abroad. Some foreign members of the group are in Athens permanently, married to Greeks; others work at various embassies while some are in the country temporarily as visitors.
Walks are a good way of getting to know hidden and not-so-hidden parts of Attica up close. Dionysos, Fili, Kareas, Kouvaras, Kessariani, Kryoneri, Marathon Lake, Mount Parnitha, Mt Pendeli, Philopappou Hill, Stamata, Varibobi and Voula are places the group often picks for walks, usually a short drive from the city.
?I have found the perfect way to balance body and soul,? said Dutch-born Oda van der Kemp, a recent addition to the club who finds the Athens Strollers a ?wonderfully welcoming, international group of people.?
Van der Kemp joined at the urging of an acquaintance. ?I complained that I was totally bored on weekends in Athens,? van der Kemp said. ?She suggested I join Athens Strollers.? What van der Kemp found was a group whose ?love of the outdoors and enjoyment of the physical exercise hiking offers is the common denominator for people from very different backgrounds.? She has come across lawyers, geologists, diplomats, students and retirees while on the walks.
?I am getting to know the area in and around Athens,? van der Kemp explained. ?I never cease to be amazed at how many beautiful walking trails there are in the proximity of Athens, offering vistas of the urban sprawl of this city in all its ?bella bruttezza.? Especially in spring, with the display of wild flowers and butterflies.?
So far, van der Kemp has taken part in Saturday walks in Varibobi and on mounts Pendeli and Hymettus. She has also been on two of the group?s Sunday walks with her husband: one in the Peloponnese, along the cog railway track between Diakofto and Zachlorou and another on the island of Evia, which began at the village of Ano Steni on Mt Dirfys.
English is the group?s lingua franca and members are informed of the upcoming walks through a newly launched website as well as regular e-mails. Some people have since found out about and joined the group online. But most of the publicity is by word of mouth.
The club is split roughly 50-50 between Greeks and non-Greeks. India, South Africa, Ireland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, the UK and the US are just some of the countries represented at the walks.
The club was set up by Nigel Copage in 2000. Since then, walks have been held twice a month between October and May, with a break between June and September, when the weather gets too hot. Hasapis took over when Copage moved to the Peloponnese last year. Led by a number of new and old members, walks are scheduled on alternate Saturdays and start around 2 p.m. The club also organizes all-day trips and short city center walks on Sundays.
Walks end with an optional visit to a taverna. ?We?ve cleared our minds, stretched our limbs and satisfied our healthy appetites… we enjoy each other?s company and the Greek countryside,? said van der Kemp.
This summer, organizers have more events in the works, including an evening excursion to coincide with the full moon on June 26 as well as daytime beach excursions in July.
At the core of the Athens Strollers is belief in the dual benefit of exercize and companionship. Hasapis first joined the Athens Strollers because he wanted his child Christos, who is now 14 years old, to have a more active upbringing.
?When he was a little boy, I made a conscious decision to show him a different way of life than that of watching TV or playing with electronic gadgets, which do not help a child?s creativity nor do they make a child sociable,? he said. ?Now Christos enjoys the outdoors and even invites friends to our events.?
The walks are ?a breath of fresh air in the metropolis,? Hasapis concluded. ?It brings us together. We move our muscles for a while and then we get to talk and socialize.?
Van der Kemp added, ?These social structures and activities provide a real lifeline when one arrives in a new, overwhelming city such as Athens.?
Participants are well informed about what kind of terrain they will encounter beforehand via e-mails and website updates: Upcoming walks are graded as easy, intermediate or strenuous; details are given on information such as the the walk?s terrain, views and whether the trail will suit young children and/or the elderly.
Xenophon Hasapis coordinates carpooling so that members who don?t drive won?t be at a disadvantage. Van der Kemp also noted that members are given very accurate descriptions of the meeting points, so that ?even people who are not familiar with driving in and around Athens can still make it.?
As for what kind of physical shape people need to be in to take part, Hasapis explained that the group caters to different levels.
Most accessible are the short Sunday morning walks that last just an hour. Saturday walks are a step more challenging, lasting two-and-a-half hours. More dedicated walkers can take part in the all-day walks.
Age is usually just a number when it comes to who attends each type of walk. Often families with young children come along and Hasapis recalled that during one walk, a 70-year-old man was nimbly jumping over brooks and tree trunks.
There is one requirement, however, that Hasapis is strict about. ?Shoes! Some people come with indoor gym shoes or fashionable shoes, which aren?t safe for outdoor walks. It is very important to have a good pair of walking shoes.?
To find out more, visit www.athens-strollers.gr. Information about each walk is also sent out by e-mail a few days ahead of the walk, including directions and a map (where possible) to the start. There is no charge for taking part in the walks.