Exploring sublime landscapes on foot

From high-altitude lakes to ghostly glaciers and monasteries perched on monumental rocks, seeing the world on foot has therapeutic qualities way beyond the physical, says Charlotte Sinclair

Dramatic clifftop monasteries are a star feature of walks in Metéora, Greece
Dramatic clifftop monasteries are a star feature of walks in Metéora, Greece | Image: Getty Images

Four hours into my hike into the base of northern Greece’s Vikos Gorge, and a herd of grey, belligerent-looking clouds has massed overhead, blocking out the sun. In an instant, the rock face turns black, a lunatic wind sends the trees into a frenzy of whipping branches, and rain begins to fall in dense, dark columns. As my guide Apostolis Demertzis and I rush into our waterproof jackets, thunder cracks across the sky. (Moments earlier we’d passed a stone tribute to a beloved wife, felled by lightning in this forest some years ago. A fact I put firmly to the back of my mind.)

Hiking through the wilderness of Vikos Gorge
Hiking through the wilderness of Vikos Gorge | Image: Alamy Stock Photo

We continue walking through a dripping tunnel of trees, the rain soaking every layer of clothing, because… well, why not? It’s epic and wild and fun – the great outdoors in riot. (Also, Demertzis assures me, we’re too low for the lightning to find us. Considering this is a man who has mapped 19,000km of trails in Greece, I trust his judgment.) Following the drenched footpath is like entering the heart of an emerald, every shade of green refracting crazily in the wind and water, from the moss-covered boulders studding the sloping undergrowth to the vivid hues of plane, fig and beech leaves. Down here, several hours from civilisation, it’s easy to imagine the spectacle as the work of an angry god: Zeus having a tantrum.

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Vikos Gorge, 12km long and 1,200m deep, is the work of 160 million years of geology. From its heights spread the undulating peaks of the Pindos mountain range, straddling this northwest region of Epirus into neighbouring Albania, its tail eventually crumbling into the Peloponnese. The canyon slices through a pristine terrain of oak forests, rivers, gulches, alpine lakes and 46 hill villages that together comprise the Zagori region. Part of the Northern Pindos National Park, the area boasts Unesco Geopark status, its environmental purity preserved in part by its remoteness. You can drink straight from the Voidomatis River that twists through the gorge – the water cool and hard as marble – and thriving populations of wolves, wild boar, golden eagles and bears inhabit the area. Ways of life are also preserved by remoteness here: on the drive up to the village of Monodendri, marking the gorge trailhead, I spot a shepherd wielding a wooden staff, directing his flock of longhaired goats up the slopes, an image so archaic it might be a daguerreotype come to life.

The Annapurna Circuit consists of tranquil high-altitude trails in the Nepalese Himalayas
The Annapurna Circuit consists of tranquil high-altitude trails in the Nepalese Himalayas | Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Earlier in the day, with the sun shining, Demertzis declared: “All this nature is for you!” and swept his arms to encompass the towering limestone corridor and the dry riverbed. It’s hard not to believe I have been gifted the place – especially as we encounter only a single fellow hiker all day. There’s nothing but the sound of birdsong and weather. The secrets of the landscape are revealed with each step, the scenery changing hour by hour as the gully drops and narrows. At this speed, there’s time to study, at a crouch, the tiny butterflies decorating the lacy flowers of a stand of wild carrot, or to pause in the church dim of an overhanging rock.

Guests at Explora Valle Sagrado hotel, Peru, visit the Inca archaeological site of Moray
Guests at Explora Valle Sagrado hotel, Peru, visit the Inca archaeological site of Moray

Hiking is a slow study of a particular geography, like a conversation that unfolds over several hours. Walking in nature is especially soothing to a city brain, frazzled by concrete and adrenaline. “There’s no news down here, no economic crisis. You can escape the world,” says Demertzis. “Hiking is the only way to understand a place.” He’s perhaps more on the money than he realises, because walking is the new frontier of experiential travel. Or rather, the old frontier. No motorised transport, no rush, no phone signal, travelling at the speed of your own two feet – a journey of the most personal kind.

Relaxing rooms await after a Kii mountain ramble at Amanemu – Aman’s new Japanese property
Relaxing rooms await after a Kii mountain ramble at Amanemu – Aman’s new Japanese property

Tour operator Original Travel, which has organised this trip for me, has seen a surge of interest in walking journeys. “We invented the Big Short Break, which was all about getting as much done in the shortest time,” co-founder Tom Barber tells me. “Now we’re talking about the opposite. People want to slow down and connect with nature, and there’s no better way to do that than walking.”

Intrepid guests at Terminal Neige – Refuge du Montenvers hotel in Chamonix can join a mountaineer for a glacier trek
Intrepid guests at Terminal Neige – Refuge du Montenvers hotel in Chamonix can join a mountaineer for a glacier trek | Image: AFP/Getty Images

The benefits are psychological as much as physical. The classical notion of solvitur ambulando, or problem solving via perambulation, was famously championed by Henry David Thoreau, Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh Fermor (the latter did some ambulando here in Epirus). One’s thoughts take an equally far-reaching journey on a long walk, the brain entering the territory of impetus thinking: grand plans are formed over large distances. (It was rambling in Snowdonia that apparently prompted Theresa May’s ill-fated decision to hold a general election.)

One of Shakti Himalaya’s private village houses, overlooking the Indus River in Ladakh, India
One of Shakti Himalaya’s private village houses, overlooking the Indus River in Ladakh, India

Suitable for all ages and fitness levels, it is a very democratic means to adventure. In the Nepalese Himalayas, a few years ago, I trekked the Annapurna Circuit over three weeks with my then-65-year-old father, who zipped up the high-altitude trails with far more vim than did his breathless daughter. As the days passed, the route inexorably ascending, the walking assumed a quasi-spiritual quality: the sweet spot between torture and the sublime. (Although this could equally be credited to a lack of oxygen.)

Monastero Santa Rosa is the starting point for dramatic walks on the Amalfi Coast
Monastero Santa Rosa is the starting point for dramatic walks on the Amalfi Coast | Image: Maurice Naragon

To walk in the knowledge of comfortable beds, good food and a hot bath waiting at the end of the trail is, for most of us, probably something closer to the sublime. In Epirus I am staying at Aristi Mountain Resort + Villas, a rustic hotel with welcoming fireplaces, delicious meals of grilled chicken and tzatziki, charming country service and a tucked-away spa in which to soothe aching limbs.

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Elsewhere, the digs are not just comfortable but world class, as high-end hotels catch on to ambulatory pleasures, pitching walking as a fresh way for guests to engage with location, as well as a therapeutic extra to conventional hotel spa services. At Amanemu, Aman’s newest property in Japan, guests can embark upon a four-hour ramble into the Kii mountain range, visiting sacred sites along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. Wellbeing and environmental consciousness are cornerstones of Six Senses’ hotels and resorts, so when the group opens five satellite lodges in Bhutan at the beginning of 2018, hiking promises to be a key attraction: each outpost will boast a signature trek led by experts on wildlife, geology and the country’s history and culture. One such outing involves a trek up to Talakha Monastery, through fragrant forests of blue pine and rhododendrons.

In Europe, debuting this summer at Sibuet group’s new Terminal Neige hotel in Chamonix, intrepid guests can join a mountaineer for a trek across the Mer de Glace glacier, with a panorama of Alpine summits. Down in Italy, at Monastero Santa Rosa on the Amalfi Coast, adventurous types are guided on several iconic walks, including the Path of the Gods, the spectacular sea-and-sky route inscribing the hills far above Positano, and the Valle delle Ferriere trail, passing hidden monasteries, waterfalls and abandoned mills on the way into the lush mountain interior of the Lattari range. Antonio Sersale, the owner of Le Sirenuse in Positano, grew up exploring these byways. “The tremendous effort needed at the beginning of the walk, which is always upwards, brings the reward of a mesmerising view of the endless blue sea – and the aroma of rosemary and summer,” he says.

In some places, explorations on foot assume a sense of mission. For Jamshyd Sethna, chairman and MD of Shakti Himalaya, walking is a fundamental aspect of his enchanting village houses in Ladakh and northern India. “The slow pace, the lazy, gentle interactions with village folk one invariably encounters, the pleasure one experiences from the feeling of immersion in one’s surroundings in a non-intrusive way… all in the shadow of great mountains and in landscapes of immense beauty. It has a restorative quality.” Capitalising on this therapeutic aspect, Shakti recently launched the Head in the Clouds programme. Inner journeys are prioritised via silent walks led by yoga and mindfulness gurus, and, in Ladakh, a 3km hike to mountain caves chaperoned by a monk, imparting a unique insight into the region’s spiritual life.

The right company can make a merely good walk extraordinary. Last year, I visited Explora Valle Sagrado, the impressive new hotel in Peru’s Sacred Valley, and Explora’s first outside Chile. The company is known for the quality and scope of its wilderness expeditions – and the immense comfort of its hotels. Here it is intent on offering guests a complete engagement with nature via daily walks of scaled difficulty. I hiked to high-altitude lakes with a Quechua guide whose discussions of local culture and beliefs brought vivid colour to an already exalted experience.

But walking is not only about the wilds; cities are inimitably suited to exploration on foot. In London, SideStory, which launched in 2015, is shaking up the fusty image of the walking tour, offering innovative, expert-led pedestrian itineraries, including a guide to London’s brutalist architecture with Trellick Tower-based artist Charlie Warde. At Belmond Villa San Michele, Florence’s Renaissance art circuit is given a welcome jolt of irreverent energy by way of new graffiti tours of the city with practising street artists: guests are led through Florence’s less-visited urban spaces and alleyways to see Botticelli’s Venus in a scuba mask. In Naples, Italian specialist Bellini Travel works exclusively with tour outfit Looking for Lila: using the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels as inspiration, writer and documentarian Sophia Seymour escorts her charges through the neighbourhoods depicted in Ferrante’s writings, the books – and the walk – framing a unique insight into Naples’ food, architecture, art, politics and Mafia culture. Meanwhile, in New York, where exercise is next to godliness, Viceroy Central Park has teamed up with Fit Tours NYC to offer sunrise yoga walks, combining brisk ambles with restorative yoga poses and stretches in the city’s green heart.

Back in Vikos Gorge, and soaked to the bone, I follow Demertzis down to a tiny 16th-century monastery, set in a clearing of wildflowers. He gestures for me to scramble down the meadow’s edge, to a spot where, beneath drooping plane trees, the river has formed deep rockpools. Mist scuds along their surface, the water glowing an otherworldly aquamarine. “This place is like a fairytale,” says Demertzis. The same could be said of Metéora. From the plains of Thessaly rise extraordinary monolithic towers of sculpted sandstone, pinnacles carved with caves and gullies, into whose couloirs and high plinths monasteries have been built. These buildings possess all the precariousness and impossible beauty of birds’ nests: cloisters in the sky. For the Orthodox Church, Metéora is a sacred spot second only to Mount Athos in significance. Monks have inhabited caves here since the 9th century, with the first bricks-and-mortar monastery built in the 14th century. Aided by agile members of the local populace, dubbed “rock riders”, the monks completed the constructions over decades by means of rudimentary climbing equipment, ladders and winches. Today’s climbers – bags of chalk hanging from carabiners at their waistbands like sporty sporrans – can be spotted in Kalambaka, the town of scruffy charm that skirts Metéora’s base.

Six monasteries remain of the 41 monasteries and hermit caves that once existed here, but despite the romance of their eyries, the monk population is dwindling. A contributing factor is surely Metéora’s status as a premier tourist destination. Indeed, a guide informs me, these monasteries receive upwards of 3,000 tourists a day in high season, which is hardly conducive to the withdrawal from life the monks seek. Nevertheless, the place retains its magic. One morning, I ascend ancient shepherds’ trails through groves of ash and beech to a flat promontory where I sit and admire a deserted monastery pressed into the vertical cliff face, as if conjured there by willpower alone: an act of faith as much as of canny engineering.

My guide that day, Dimitri Litaris, has a uniquely local perspective on the rocks: “If you grow up next to the ocean, you learn to swim; if you grow up here, you learn to climb.” He points to a vaulted rock like a cathedral roof cresting the highest summit in sight. “That was our initiation as teenagers. We had to climb up there. No equipment. It was terrifying,” he grins. As we walk, slowly and thoughtfully, to a retreat contoured into the cliff base, Litaris gestures to a monk sitting on an upper balcony. Swathed in black robes and hat, with a long, grey beard, he looks as antique and weathered as the rock above. We slip away along the trail without disturbing his peace.

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