Travel Greece's Ionian Sea Trail on Horseback

Join columnist Melissa Birks as she discovers the Greek way of life from horseback on an Ionian Sea trail ride.
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Join columnist Melissa Birks as she discovers the Greek way of life from horseback on an Ionian Sea trail ride.
Melissa Birks with Koula. The Greek ride was Melissa's third European equestrian journey, following France in 2002 and Italy in 2003. All were organized through Cross Country International. | Photo by Antonis Potamitis

Melissa Birks with Koula. The Greek ride was Melissa's third European equestrian journey, following France in 2002 and Italy in 2003. All were organized through Cross Country International. | Photo by Antonis Potamitis

Tell me, O Muse, of the three Americans who met in Greece for a horseback riding adventure. Tell me of Antonis, lover of horses, whose steeds take tourists through mountains, towns and the river Evinos. Tell me, too, of Panos, worker for Antonis, who drives guests each day to the stables as fast as the wind even on narrow two-lane highways that wrap around mountains.

OK, now that's out of my system.

I can tell you the truth, that the "Ionian Sea Trail Ride" was not the stuff of epic poems.

It was the unmistakable rhythm of a horse's hooves hitting dirt, of chocolate chip cookies at picnics, the Parthenon jailed under scaffolding, and columns and castles. It was Panos' fearless driving. It was Antonis' smile as he introduced us to horses the way one would introduce a new spouse to the family.

We had no noble cause when we signed up for this vacation. In a small way, I suppose each of us did find something at the end of our odyssey. Terri found that she could take a spill off a running horse and recover. I found out that I could gallop. And Pilar, who had not been in the saddle since November 2003, rediscovered a love she had lost.

Leading a horse to water: Pilar Bauta crosses the river Evinos. | Photo by Antonis Potamitis

Leading a horse to water: Pilar Bauta crosses the river Evinos. | Photo by Antonis Potamitis

And so it begins
Pilar Bauta, Terri Theiss and I meet at Hotel Akti in Nafpaktos late Sunday afternoon, May 2004. Pilar, 30, is studying homeopathic medicine in New York City. She has two horses at her family's farm in Connecticut, but they're old and released from the rigors of being ridden.

Terri, 37, is a business consultant in Boston. Terri took an equestrian vacation in France the previous May; she has not ridden since. She has with her a 30-something-year-old chocolate-colored buttery-leather saddle owned by her father. She brought it back to life with love and leather restorer.

When we meet Antonis Potamitis later that day, he asks what kind of horses we'd like. Pilar ends up with Dream, a leggy, finely sculpted creature who dislikes standing still. Terri takes Nikkos, a handsome bay with attitude. I ride Koula, a sturdy "original" Greek breed, almost pony-sized, 12 years old. "She is a good horse, a safe horse," Antonis tells me.

We start our first ride around 7 p.m. with temperatures in the 70s, a breeze, no bugs. About a half-hour into the journey, Antonis calls for a gallop. I think maybe that's Greek for "slow, comfortable canter." I'm wrong. He means gallop, same as in English. This, as a Saturday morning equestrian, I've never done before.

I feel Koula's legs shift from the canter to a full-throttle gallop, like a car moving from fourth to fifth gear. The other horses, all taller, fly past Koula. With the determination of any respectable herd animal, she moves as fast as her legs will take her to be with the group.

Somewhere along the trail, maybe after ducking under a tree branch, I realize that Koula is at her full speed. I allow myself a slight taste of relief because I'm still upright in the saddle. She slows when she catches with the others. The first gallop is complete. I pet her mane and thank her.

Put your ego aside
Over a glass of ouzo in a tavern in Trikorfo, Antonis tries to put into English his advice for horseback-riding tourists. Antonis says he is different from many in Greece, where equines are beasts of burden and not companions. Asked if he's married, he jokes that his "wife" is one of his favorite horses, Malina. He tells of visiting Cuba and almost eating horsemeat before asking about the item on the plate in front of him. He still doesn't eat much meat today.

For years, he's offered riding to locals and children at his stables, located on the outskirts of Trikorfo, population 400. He estimates his horses have carried nearly 1,500 riders.

He can remember only two people falling; the second was Terri, who tumbled off Dream.

Antonis welcomes riders of all levels. If they're not comfortable on trails, he'll give lessons. For their part, visitors must trust the horses and not "have a bigger ego than the horses."

They should forget their troubles. Here he struggles with English. Panos translates. "He says, if you want to discuss something, do it with the horse, whisper it to the horse. At the end of the day, after discussing with your horse, you will find the solutions to problems by yourself."

A guide and a gentleman
Panos Gadalos, 26, picks us up each morning after our breakfast of breads, hard-boiled eggs and hot tea. He ferries us out of Nafpaktos to the stables, about a half-hour drive.

Traffic wardens make him cringe. Slow drivers frustrate him. Why can't they move to the side? "I should be overtaking him," Panos declared more than once on the two-lane mountain highway that rubs shoulders with the sea. He drives the silver Opel like a painter with swift, sure strokes.

Panos has many duties in the employ of Antonis. In addition to being chauffeur, he's in charge of choreographing picnics on the trail rides. He and other staff, in a truck, meet us at designated points. They pull out a fold-up table with chairs and bust out a spread of water, cookies, bread and one day, Antonis' own rose wine.

He escorts us to dinner and usually ends up ordering. "You want meat? What kind of meat? You want burgers? Just tell me; leave it to me," he says, then conspires with the waiter.

Panos is never wrong. We get a banquet of appetizers, heaps of French fries ("It's just standard," he explains with a shrug), salad and the main course. He tells me how to eat lamb chops. Not with a knife and fork. With your hands.

Panos is captain of the kayak on the day we paddle to an ancient temple of Saint Nicolas, patron of sailors. It's built into a cave on a bluff and can be reached only by sea. Once we land on the beach, he directs us up the 60-degree slope with switchback trails. Georgina Argiropoulou, a 17-year-old summer worker for Antonis, joins us. She declines to wear shoes on the rocky terrain. "She is so stubborn." By the time we are heading down, her feet are filleted. Panos lifts her onto his shoulders and carries her.

End of the story
We have walked in the footsteps of those who sought counsel at the Oracle at Delphi in the 4th century BC. We have kayaked in the rumbling Gulf of Patra. We have sat upon crumbling ramparts of the castle that overlooks orange-topped homes in Nafpaktos and the unreal blue sea too beautiful to be described. We have galloped our horses on trails designed with cliff walls on one side and dropoffs on the other.

It is Friday morning, and we are waiting for Panos to take us to Athens for the last day of the journey. We look back on the past five days. Terri encourages future riders to be physically prepared.

"I would be utterly terrified to get on a horse again after that spill. I would never have known that it was recoverable. We're in another country, we don't speak the primary language. It's kinder to the animal and yourself to be trained."

Pilar and Terri both say they expected more time in the saddle. We rode about three hours a day. Both advise tourists to ask questions about the itinerary and understand their own expectations about the journey. For instance, Pilar struggled with the late-night dinners, sometimes at 9 or 9:30 p.m. But the odyssey was worth it for her. "I've rediscovered my love of the sport."

Melissa Birks is a former assistant city editor for The Fresno Bee. She is the metro editor at the Rockford Register Star in Rockford, Ill.