“The beauty of Andros lies hidden within the topography of its landscape; walking its paths is like unwrapping treasure,
” says Olga Karayiannis, the force behind Andros Routes
It's not difficult to find architectural riches on Andros, every route we followed yielded archaic beauty: the Hellenistic tower of Ayios Petros tucked into the folds of the valley; the sunken remains of the ancient capital of Paleopolis visible beneath the clear waters of its bay; the remains of the Venetian castle of Chora atop its rocky outcrop at the foot of the town. But it's the hidden pearls that Andros Routes are concerned with, the architectural and cultural treasures that were once the cornerstone of life on Andros and are now in danger of disappearing – the folklore relayed by villagers as they journeyed on foot; the stone bridges that criss-crossed the island's streams, and most of all, the beautiful stenes
, or stone paths, that provided the only means of travel around the island.
“Before the first roads were built towards the end of the 20th century, the paths were everything,
” Olga explains. “When cars arrived and people stopped walking, the paths became overgrown, the bridges overrun by vegetation and the life stories of residents, never written down, in danger of being forgotten. By restoring the island's paths and chronicling the heritage of locals, we hope to reconnect and restore all that history and beauty.
Since the beginning of 2010, a team of dedicated volunteers, affectionately known as Route Angels, have been restoring and waymarking the island's paths under the auspices of the Andros Routes project with the aim of attracting hikers and creating sustainable, small-scale tourism. To date, over 170km of paths have been cleared and restored by the project, including a 100-kilometre, long-distance path that runs from the north to the south of the island and which has been certified by the European Ramblers Association.
History set in stone
It's on our second day on Andros that we first notice the beauty of the paths. As we cross the headland from Paleopolis to Batsi, the narrow dirt path we've been following morphs into wide, flat stones that are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the feet, their pale surface shining almost white in the stark sunlight, a perfect contrast to the shimmering Aegean below.
The next day, as we cross the island from west to east, Paleopolis to Chora, we once again find ourselves treading smooth, flat slabs of stone, this time lined by elaborate dry stone walls. A series of large, vertical standing stones held in place by wedges of dry stones, the walls are known as xerolithies and have been used on Andros for centuries, marking out terraces and boundaries. The combination of vertical and horizontal placement of the stones lends the walls extra stability against prevailing winds, and their durability is testament to the skill of the masons and the care and attention given to their construction. They're also delightfully decorative in parts and a far cry from the more demure dry stone walls that tapestry the hills of Yorkshire and Derbyshire.
For Olga and her team, it's critical that the people of Andros recognise the value of the architectural and cultural treasures that are bound by the paths and for them to understand the importance of preserving them. “When we first started looking for the old paths, we asked residents if they could show us where the paths were and they told us just to take the road; they couldn't understand why we would want to walk when we didn't have to!”
As the project made progress and locals began to see a trickle of visitors walking the routes, buying coffee at the village kafenion, staying in small guest houses and bringing much-needed income to the villages, they began to buy into the concept of what Andros Routes are trying to do. Today, many locals have joined the ranks of the Angels who regularly embark on route clearance walks armed with secateurs and gardening gloves, curbing enthusiastic brambles and ensuring the paths and their waymarking remain clear. Their monthly walks regularly uncover treasure – old bridges long forgotten and reclaimed by nature, species of flora that were thought to have died out, abandoned hamlets lost in the landscape.
Thanks to the Route Angels, the island is now a delight for hikers, its natural beauty made accessible by clear, waymarked tracks and paths that skirt streams alongside old mills and meander through pretty mountain villages and lush valleys awash with wild flowers.
And the best thing is, just by being there, you're helping to ensure the ongoing success of the project.