15 JANUARY 2005, Page 26

Head for the hills

Ben Sheppard

After its Olympic success, new improved Athens is still one of Europe’s most chaotic capitals and anyone in town for more than a few days will soon crave some breathing space. Only a short taxi ride away, Mount Imittos, on the eastern flank of Athens, offers just that. Rising 1,026 metres from sea level and covered in scented bushes and trees, it is a mountain suited to good long walks during mild Greek winters. For a taste of what it would be like to arrive in Athens on foot like a warrior returning from Troy, I took a bus from the city centre to the village of Peania on the far side of Imittos. From there, the plan was to walk over the top of the mountain and descend into the city in triumph.

The first diversion on the route is the Koutouki cave, half an hour’s walk uphill from Peania. On the outside it looks like a heavily fortified army bunker in keeping with the colonels’ junta that ruled Greece when the cave was opened to tourists in 1968. But deep inside it is a multi-storey grotto of stalactites and stalagmites that makes Disneyland look restrained. Rocks seem to bubble like broth into shapes ranging from gothic cathedrals to Jabba the Hutt lookalikes.

My tour guide informs me — her only client — that the cave is two million years old, that a rock column grows one centimetre every 100 years and that the temperature never strays from 17°C. She is giggly with fear about a snake spotted earlier that morning. It was seen slithering along the knobbly floor towards the cave’s original entrance, which a boy discovered in 1926 when looking for a goat that fell down a crack in the mountainside.

My guide and I cannot inspect this crack because of the snake threat, so we wander around in the damp air and she tut-tuts at sooty stains on the fragile rock surface caused by grimy human hands. Then, at the flick of a switch, the lights cut out and red, green and yellow lamps start fading in and out, much to my surprise. A tinny speaker hidden in a dank corner strikes up some classical music. We stand in the cool darkness and listen to the orchestra against the background drip, drip, drip of water that is still shaping the cave’s interior. It is the unexpected finale of my tour and a strange scene to dwell on as I leave Koutouki and head up a rutted track along the eastern slopes of Imittos.

This side of the mountain is so quiet that it is impossible to believe that a city of four million people lurks just over the brow. The view to the south stretches across the retsina vineyards of the Mesoyia plain to the vast new airport, which is far enough away so that planes glide silently on to its runway.

To the east, the island of Evia shimmers in the haze of the Aegean Sea. Bells from unseen farm animals echo up the valley and magpies flutter in pairs. After overshooting a crucial turn that must have become overgrown, I get badly lost, put hours on to the trip and fear I will be forced to return to Athens by bus, my quest abandoned.

However, I eventually stumble on a pothole where ropes lead to climbers busy deep underground. I resist giving the ropes a tug to ask for directions but find a promising path. It leads straight up through thick woodland and, after a strenuous scramble, the trees suddenly thin out before I burst on to the top of the ridge to see all of Athens laid out below me.

On the far left, the port of Piraeus and the Saronic Gulf. To the right, Mount Pendeli where the Parthenon marble was quarried. Ahead, thousands upon thousands of low-rise apartment blocks, beautiful and calm, filling the whole Attica basin. And, in the middle, the Acropolis is just visible, looking like a crumbling brown sugar cube. The arches of the Olympic stadium rise out of the northern suburbs, and the grumble of traffic on the new shiny black ring-road drifts up the mountain.

I head along the ridge towards the summit, which turns out to be a fenced off military zone of radar dishes and antennae listening for the Turkish invasion. But the path leads up a rocky side route to a small plateau away from the road. There I gulp down a bottle of water, looking over 20 miles of concrete rooftops towards Mount Parnitha on the other side of Athens. It is a huge national park with serious rock-climbing, remote ravines — and a 24-hour Bond-style casino perched on one peak.

If you’re into that sort of thing, Parnitha also has a climbers’ refuge at 1,140 metres, with 50 beds lined up in basic dormitories. The crowd there wear stout boots and talk of crampons and belays, even though the city is visible in the distance from the dorm windows.

I set off down the western side of Imittos towards the Athens outskirts that lap against its lower slopes. Halfway down I meet a fire warden — the first person I have seen since the Koutouki cave. During the summer months he spends every day in a hut raised on stilts looking for telltale signs of smoke from the dry brush.

As with so many Greeks, he speaks perfect English, having worked abroad in his youth. He says that after being in Canada for 14 years he saw a clip about Greece on television and felt so homesick he returned at once. But then he lost his new job in a textile factory and took this solitary post, gazing out over Athens and listening to his radio.

‘I love it up here,’ he says. ‘But last summer one idiot — a mental case — lit fires every day until we caught him and gave him to the police. And one night last week Albanians smashed all the windows of my hut. There’s nothing in there to steal, so they just threw everything around.’ I wish him better luck next summer and head on down to the 11th-century Kessariani monastery. Hidden in the folds of a steep valley and just outside the city, it is the final enclave of peace before the crowded streets begin. Streams from the mountain feed terraced gardens and olive groves as they did in Jesus’s time, and a chapel dug into the rock is decorated with gilded icons, candles and cheap plastic flowers.

The walled monastery itself consists of a tiny Orthodox church, a ruined bathhouse and living quarters surrounding a courtyard filled with flowerbeds. Many Athenians remember it fondly from Sunday school outings and they return for family picnics on holiday weekends.

After a rest in the shade I trudge on, exhausted, into Athens at last and the old refugee district of Kessariani, named after the monastery. It has the city’s best fish tavernas in Anagenisseos Square, where I mark the end of my little adventure with sharp white wine and calamari.