After dropping one pair of Aussies off (Alexander and Eoin, at school), we proceeded to the crossroads at Lithakiá to pick up another. Louise, who runs the Zakynthian tradition, food and culture facebook group, and her sister Julie, had arranged to meet us there and come walk the Marathiá coastal trail with us this fine May morning. In fact, it’ll soon be too fine to do this sort of walk, so Tina and I have had to be diligent in getting as many walks in Zakynthos done as we can, while we can.
As we got out of the cars at Botsolo Taverna, the starting point of our walk, a fifth member of the group jumped out of the boot of Louise’s car: Mishka, a huge female rottweiler. Well, as Louise explained, ‘mishka’ means baby bear in Russian, so Mishka is well-named indeed.
Today’s 8km walk was going to take us in a loop around the lower slopes of the easternmost part of Cape Marathiá, a part of Zakynthos Tina and I were unfamiliar with. Louise lives on the island, has done for twenty-five years, and had never been out here; nor had Julie (who just got here from Australia, and is staying for 10 days or so), nor, to the best of my knowledge, had Mishka, so we were all guaranteed to be seeing new things.
Our excellent guidebook to Zante told us to be on the qui vive for a memorial to Ágios Dionysios, the patron saint of Zakynthos, soon after we started, and indeed we found it after about ten minutes’ slogging up a concrete δρομάκι with fancy looking villas dotted all around. Louise explained that the small shrine was probably a τάμα (táma), a dedication to the saint in recognition of a favour granted. I supposed the Greek characters inscribed upon it said something along the lines of “Cheers. I owe you one.”
The map of Zakynthos
On we trekked, through the olive groves, with the occasional gorge falling down to the sea on our left. We soon left the groves behind, and that’s when the countryside opened up for us. The higher we went the more we could read the geography of Zakynthos.
Immediately in front of us as we looked back the way we’d come was Marathoníssi island, a natural turtle-shaped totem which attracts the caretta caretta species of turtle from all over, or so it seems it should do with its uncanny resemblance to the reptile that has become an icon of Zakynthos. Behind it was Yérakas peninsula, of particular interest to me since it’s over Skopós, the highest mountain on that peninsula, that the sun rises every morning from Koukla House, at around 7am at this time of the year. To the left of the peninsula the hill of Bóchali conveniently marked the location of Zákynthos town, lying directly behind Laganás and Kalamáki from our elevated perspective. Off the island, we could see Mount Aínos, on Kefaloniá, and even the Peleponnese mainland in the watery distance.
Sage and limestone arches
On some sections the going was tough, as the thorny burnet habitat closed in around us. In the vanguard, it was Julie who got up close and personal the most with the wildlife today. She witnessed the small, everyday drama of a lizard getting chased into a bush by a ‘big’ snake. In my experience, if an Australian calls a snake big, you can rest assured it’s big. And later on, she nonchalantly pulled out a tick, to the consternation of her sister, which had worked its way onto her neck.
Ah, but it was mercifully quiet up there, especially since nobody had decided to illegally hunt turtledoves that particular morning, unlike on previous walks we’d made in this neck of the woods. The warmth brought out the smell of thyme and sage – flowering, pretty in pink – on the air. At a lookout at the furthest point on our walk, we took photos of the ‘Bow of Marathiá’ limestone arch, a flying buttress supporting the Cathedral of Marathiá. Julie was sure she saw something surface in the sea below. If so, the guidebook suggests that it was a monk seal, not a turtle, which is what our natural assumption was. Mishka topped up on water from the basins left out for the goats before we pressed on.
Louise and I chatted about something most people probably wouldn’t find riveting – Greek grammar – but as we agreed, either you’re serious about learning the language or you’re not. I am. She had tamed Greek, and advised me, when I told her I was thinking of getting lessons, against taking on any Greek teachers whose English wasn’t up to snuff. Wise words. Native Greek speakers may be able to speak the language, but they often have no idea whatsoever why they’re saying what they’re saying, which makes them lousy teachers in my experience.
The ferry sounded; it must be leaving i chóra for the morning run to Killíni on the mainland. The noise of its horn traveled the ten or so kilometres from Zakynthos port, over the shoulder of Skopós, through the heated air of Laganás Bay, and over the top of turtle island, reaching our ears a full second later.
The crossing of the strait
On the homebound leg now, all of us feeling the bonhomie of a tough walk whose end was in sight, when we came across another kind of shrine, this one a ‘close-call’ shrine according to Louise. It was tellingly positioned at a slight bend on a loose-gravel road, a bend one might easily miss it was so slight. And in so missing, lose control of one’s car, motorbike or tractor, plunge off the road, roll down the hill, and end up in the bay with the turtles. Well, at any rate (if that sounds a bit far-fetched), one could end up injured and stuck half way up a mountain. But the shrine, if you knew how to read it as Louise seemingly did, told a happier story, one of salvation, and gratitude.
The reflected sunlight on the ferry, making good its transit of Zakynthos Strait, shone like success, miraculously visible to us over the virtual isthmus formed by the shoulder of the Yérakas peninsula from our perspective. But, step by weary step, we closed the window on that sliver of sea, visibly dwindling now as we began our final descent, until it flickered out completely in the blue haze.