Detailed and Honest Guide to the Menalon Trail
I just got back from our Grecian trip which involved more than a 100 km walk in the mountains and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had! When I travel, I usually do it in a very convenient and comfortable way which means I usually get transport from one place to another to avoid any hassles. This time though, I opted to go backpacking for a different sense of adventure and how marvelous it was!
I originally planned to go to Crete but I suddenly changed my mind knowing that it will be very busy with tourists and judging by the pictures, there is very little vegetation in Crete much like Athens from the plane window, brown with little green patches and dry. Although Crete has got beautiful beaches like the pink beach in Elafonissi, I still preferred the lush vegetation of the Peloponnessian Mountains.
When I came across the Menalon Trail, I was sold. I knew that I had to be there and experience the trail for myself. I read all the descriptions of the 8 sections over and over again because I planned to walk all 8 and seeing that the difficulty is 2/5 I thought why not? I could probably do that and so I went.
The Menalon Trail is one of the highest-rated and most acclaimed walking trails in Europe which is found in the Arcadian Region of Peloponnese, Greece. This 75km stretch of beautiful mountain landscape encompasses 8 major villages (from Stemnitsa to Lagkadia) with varying difficulty. The trail passes through some of the most dramatic sceneries I’ve ever seen! From the Lousios Gorge, the Mylaon River, the western slopes of the Menalon Mountains, valleys and the Gortynian Mountains. The trail was completed by volunteers in May of 2015 and the trail indicators are generally well-placed although having a GPS with you would certainly be helpful.
How to get there:
From Athens, we decided to take a taxi to the first village which is Stemnitsa. It was a very beautiful ride and it took us 4 hours including a few stops at cafes and the Corinth Canal. Other ways to get to Stemnitsa are by bus (which can take 3-4 hours), by train (this will involve a taxi or driving by car as the train doesn’t stop anywhere near Stemnitsa) and by self-driving a car (which can take 2-3 hours).
The first village and the convergence of all the routes, Stemnitsa sits at a height of more than 1000 meters above sea level. We stayed in one of the guest houses in Stemnitsa that we booked directly but found through AirBNB. Many of other guest houses in Stemnitsa were not actually listed online so there is nothing to worry in case you did not book anything in advance. When we were there (May 2018), we didn’t see any tourists and the roads were so quiet to our amazement. I guess the busy season has not yet started so we were lucky. We stayed in Stemnitsa for 3 days. The weather was good with some rains in the afternoon. There were some “tabernas” – local dining places – that can be found in the center of the village but the one at the back of the belfry was our favorite.
The initial plan was to carry our backpacks with us throughout the walks but we were advised by our host that they can also arrange transport for our luggage as the first walk Stemnitsa to Dimitsana is the most difficult bit. There are only 2 taxis servicing Stemnitsa and it was easy to book because we were the only tourists in the area who would actually do the walk (most tourists are only day tourists on buses and some are weekenders with their own cars).
Stemnitsa - Dimitsana:
Length: 12.5 km (13.5 km door to door)
Time: 5 hours
The first section is 12.5 km from the starting point which is actually located 500 meters outside of the village. So from the belfry at the village center, it will be 13km (and if we add the 500 meters from our B&B then we walked 13.5 km). We brought our day packs with us (smaller backpacks with 1 liter of water each, some bread and sandwich, first aid, sunblock, sunglasses, rain jacket, GPS, phone, DSLR, chargers, toilet paper and plastic for trash). The trail starts with a descent (with some very steep ones along the way) into the Lousios Gorge until we came across a tarmac road. We followed the well-placed signs to the Church of the Transfiguration. Here, we stopped at the view deck to take pictures of the beautiful views of the entire Gorge. Then we followed the cobbled pathway and stairs leading down and up to the Podromou Monastery. This place is awesome! It was built on the side of the cliff rocks and it dates back to the 16th century.
From the Podromos/Podromou we followed the path to the Philosophou Monastery and from the small bridge it was all uphill. The most dreaded uphill…I almost cried at the sight of the never-ending stairs to the Old Philosophou Monastery (10th century and is one of the oldest Byzantine monuments in Greece). My asthmatic self thought that I couldn’t make it anymore especially when you have to go up again towards the new Philosophou Monastery. The uphill climbs were steep, I tell you and there is no way it is at 2/5 level of difficulty in my opinion because from the lowest elevation (420m) you have to ascend more than 500 meters in a span of 7km to reach Dimitsana at 964 meters. The ideal time according to the guidebooks is 5 hours to complete the 12.5km. We managed to finish the 13.5km stretch within 5 hours and that includes a lot of stops for picture-taking, drinking, refilling and eating. For more adventurous people, there is also a pathway leading down to the Ancient Gortys from the Podromos, we didn’t take that route because the Philosophou Monastery was our target and it was in the opposite direction plus we were rushing through time because the monasteries would be closed from 13:00 to 17:00.
The second village and is considered to be the center of the region, Dimitsana is a busy hub for tourists. We didn’t see any tourists in Stemnitsa but in Dimitsana, we saw a lot of tourists and we found a couple of big tourist buses in the square. Dozens of guest houses and tabernas and cafes line the square along with souvenir shops and grocery stores. We stayed in a simple B&B called the Kazakou and it was very lovely. It was easy to go to because it is along the Menalon trail to Zygovisti and is only a hundred meters from the village square. We stayed in Dimitsana for 3 days with a short walk to Zygovisti.
Dimitsana – Zygovisti:
Length: 4.2km (8.4 km return)
Time: 3 hrs. (12km)
This section is the shortest of all if you will not walk back to Dimitsana. The 4.2-kilometer walk to Zygovisti is a welcome rest after the difficult Stemnitsa-Dimitsana walk. Zygovisti is located at an elevation of 1160m which is one of the highest villages in Greece but the trails are not difficult. The slope is gently ascending and there are many beautiful meadows along the way. When we reached the village, we decided to walk a little bit more on the route going to Elati (which is the next section) and we stopped when we saw the first landmark. We decided to go back to Zygovisti because the weather was not looking promising that day and we still have to walk all the way back to Dimitsana. In total, we walked 12km that day for 4 hours.
If Stemnitsa were quiet, Zygovisti felt like an abandoned village. We didn’t see a lot of people in the village except for the 3 men inside the taberna where we had our lunch. Zygovisti was literally a very sleepy village with only 2 tabernas and no guest houses. Most of the houses were closed, run down or abandoned. There was no menu at the taberna and so we were served with only what they have in the fridge and that was delightful nonetheless. Since the village is very high, even in sunny days, it can still get chilly so make sure to always bring a warm jacket and a rain coat with you.
Time: 6 hours
This is supposed to be the longest walk among the 8 sections but we chose not to walk for several reasons. 1st, the weather was not great; 2nd, there was no place to stay in Elati at that time. The Chalet Elati was the only accommodation in Elati and was still closed for the season as we were told so we didn’t see any point of walking the 16.8km if we have nowhere to stay there; and 3rd, we sampled the first part of the trail from Zygovisti and we didn’t think it would be very interesting. Distance was never a problem for us and we know that it wasn’t really a difficult trail because the ascent was gradual for the first 5 km (which we did by the way) and from there it would be mostly downhill with some short but steep uphill. We though that we could make up for the lost 17km by doing another walk somewhere else. So what we did is we took a taxi from Dimitsana to Elati and from Elati we walked to Vytina.
This small village has only one guest house, the Chalet Elati and it was closed when we were there which; was the main reason why we skipped the Zygovisti-Elati section. There were no tabernas in the village as well and we didn’t see anyone at all when we started our walk to Vytina. No tourists, no local…just me and my partner in that beautiful part of the world. We were really amazed at how quiet some of the villages were. It was pure remoteness and we loved it!
Elati – Vytina:
Time: 2 hrs.
This was supposed to be an 8.5km walk only and is probably the easiest walk if we managed to follow the route perfectly. It was supposed to be downhill for the first 6 kilometers and a steep uphill climb for the next 2km and then it will be more or less levelled for the remaining distance to Vytina. However, my partner (who’s got the GPS but very terrible with names) decided to follow the route on the opposite direction because he had Zygovisti in his mind instead of Vytina. I followed of course because I fully trusted his navigation skills plus he’s got the GPS. After 4 kilometers of walking uphill, (it was very beautiful by the way but also very steep in some sections) we started to question whether we were on the right path or not. We saw signs to Zygovisti in the direction of Stemnitsa and my partner was still thinking we were on the right track as he was thinking of going to Zygovisti all along. We felt wrong because we were supposed to go downhill from Elati but we were going uphill instead. And so he checked his GPS and I pointed out to him that I don’t see Vytina anymore on the signs. That’s when he realized he’s got the wrong name in mind! We laughed at our own stupidity and decided to trace our footsteps all the way back to Elati. Fortunately we saved 1km as we saw where we should have gone.
The Elati-Vytina trail is the most beautiful section in my opinion. We walked beside the beautiful Mylaonta River and we also got stuck in the fir forest because of the heavy hail storm for 10 minutes before we continued on our way.
The center of commerce I would say, Vytina is also a very busy hub much like Dimitsana. Numerous tabernas and cafes and souvenir shops can be found in the center of the village. There is also a big school and botanical forest at the center. The village is much bigger than Dimitsana in terms of area and the houses are scattered. There are numerous guest houses and majority cannot be found online. We stayed for 2 nights at Archontiko Nikolopolou guesthouse which is close to the center and shops.
Vytina – Nymfasia:
Distance: 5.6km (plus 3.4km to and from the center of Nymfasia to our Hotel)
Time: 1 hr.
This walk is the shortest among all the sections that we’ve done and it wasn’t difficult. It started with a short walk on the main road and the trail descends to the small Gorge and continues on to the river bed where there is a bridge. From the bridge, it will gain an altitude from 814 m to about 967 meters over a course of 2 kilometers which is gentle but can be steep in some sections until it is more or less levelled to Nymfasia.
There is no guesthouse available within the village itself and so we stayed outside the village at the only 5-star resort and spa known as the Nymfasia Arcadia Resort. The resort has a swimming pool, sauna and massage services and when we were there we were the only guests on our first night. The resort is 1.7km away from the village and so we always have to walk whenever we want to have lunch in the village and back. There is nothing much in the village except for 2 tabernas but we did see more people there than in Zygovisti or Elati.
We were also informed by the hotel reception that if we want to walk, we can go to the Kernitsa monastery which is 5km from the village and can be accessed thru the main road. We took the main road for 3km and then we saw a shortcut using the Menalon trail posting which cuts the trail to about a kilometer uphill climb. It was tedious but shorter and more shaded and much more scenic. The Kernitsa monastery is a very popular spot in the area and so we recommend it to everyone. It is inhabited by the nuns and it is beautiful. We took the Menalon trail all the way back and it was only 3km instead of 5 on the road (it is mostly uphill though). So in total we walked 7km to and from the monastery instead of 10km.
Nymfasia – Magouliana:
We already did the Kernitsa Monastery the day before we left and so we decided to skip the Nymfasia-Magouliana route altogether. There was also no guest house booked in Magouliana because there is not much in the village. I read somewhere though that the trail to Magouliana consisted of very steep and long sections of uphill and downhill as you have to ascend 250 meters in one kilometer. We took a taxi from Nymfasia to Magouliana and got off at the village square to walk from Magouliana to Valtessiniko.
Just like Elati, we didn’t see anyone not even a local in Magouliana. It felt empty and creepy like an abandoned village straight from a horror film. There is a beautiful fountain underneath the village square that acts as a water-refilling station. It was very refreshing.
Magouliana – Valtessiniko
By this time we didn’t take a lot of pictures because the scenery is pretty much the same as with the others we’ve seen and it was really just a short walk and not difficult at all. To be honest, I can’t even remember how the trail looked like as it was less interesting than the one’s we’ve seen. It is still beautiful don’t get me wrong but there wasn’t much of a landscape or view that we haven’t seen in the previous trails. The last one kilometer ascends from an elevation of 1019 meters to 1116 meters so it was a little bit steep in my opinion with 10% incline.
We stayed in Valtessiniko Studios which is about 700 meters away from the village center and so we always have to walk 1400 meters to and from the place which is good because it all adds up to our total kilometers walked. There were other guest houses in the area although we were not sure if they were open to tourists. We saw some locals in the only café in the square, mostly older men. There were 2 tabernas, one school, one grocery store and one spa. Less tourists in this part and although local tabernas open at 2pm there was one time when we were literally consumed with hunger as the two tabernas did not open until 4pm; maybe because there were no tourists that day…
Valtessiniko – Lagkadia
The last section of the Menalon Trail challenged our knees the most. It started with a steep ascent on the stairs from the village square passing by the school leading to the upper peripheral road of the village. And then it flattens out a bit on the road until we needed to ascend again for 250m in a span of 2km which is quite steep in my opinion. The first 5 km will be uphill and after which, it will be mostly downhill up to the last kilometer. The last 2 kilometers are very steep downhill almost as steep as the first 2km uphill. It wasn’t difficult but it wasn’t easy either but we still managed to finish 2 hours ahead of the ideal 5 hours thanks to our practice from previous walks. I did feel my sides hurt during the first part of the walk and it was due to improper breathing. But for the rest I was fine...
Lagkadia is similar to Dimitsana and Vytina. It is bigger and busier with a number of tourists every day. We stayed in Kentrikon Hotel and dined at their restaurant with a beautiful unobstructed view of the mountains. There are a number of tabernas and restaurants in the village, there are also cafes, souvenir shops, hardware stores, junk shop, grocery store and antique shops in the village.
After 2 weeks of our wonderful Menalon journey, we left Lagkadia on a taxi to Athens. Travel time was 2-3 hours.