In the footsteps of Aristotle: A Greek walking tour around the stomping ground of the one of the world's greatest philosophers
‘I’m waiting for an epiphany,’ says my daughter Kitty as she sits on a rock by the Varvara waterfall. If there were a place for a moment of revelation, then this is it.
In the forests of Greece’s Halkidiki region, this is where Aristotle used to come and ponder.
Kitty is studying philosophy at school. She enjoys it, albeit mostly when not in the classroom. If we go out for a walk and her younger brother hides, she’ll quote Descartes: ‘He who hid well, lived well.’ And if we pause by a river, she’ll remark: ‘You cannot step in the same river twice. That’s Heraclitus!’
Ancient Greeks also philosophised on the move. Aristotle walked so much that his brand of philosophy was known as the ‘peripatetic school’. So what better way to inspire a student than to take her to the birthplace of Aristotle and walk on the mountain that bears his name?
This area has three distinctive ‘fingers’. Aristotle’s stomping ground was on the eastern finger, where latter-day Greeks have been busy opening up several new walking routes. There are eight trails around the Mount Athos area, previously best known for its men-only monastery.
One follows the border of the monastic state, another the route of the Persian King Xerxes, and the longest – the 13-mile Aristotelian Trail – allows walkers to track the ancient philosopher’s thought process from the modern coastal village of Stagira to the ruins of Ancient Stagira, where he was born in 384 BC.
Before we begin, we visit the Aristotelian Park, an outdoor interactive circuit in Stagira, where you can test some of the great man’s scientific discoveries.
The main Aristotelian Trail winds around the densely forested hillsides of the eponymous mountain, occasionally emerging into clearings which afford spectacular views of the Gulfs of Ierissos and Strymonikos, and the Mount Athos peninsula.
The terrain is not unduly arduous, and the path is wide and lined with plants which stimulated the youthful Aristotle’s interest in botany. Pines, chestnuts, oak and juniper trees provide shade and the air is thick with the scent of thyme and oregano. Wild cistus flowers proliferate and, in late summer, mauve flowers of Erica heather give the mountain a vivid hue.
It’s a fertile area and has provided locals with sustenance for over 2,000 years: fruits, berries, mushrooms, chestnuts and herbs. And it’s not just plant life that thrives. We pass a family of goats as we walk and spot a wild pig foraging in the undergrowth.
Pork in sandwich form is on the menu, along with honey and feta filo pie, and a baked quince pudding, when we stop to picnic – all part of the service provided by staff at the Liotopi Hotel in nearby Olympiada.
Olympiada is a gem of a village, named after Alexander the Great’s mother, and a perfect base from which to explore the surrounding area. From the fishing port at the foot of Ancient Stagira, it runs along the shore past a tiny chapel and a strip of hotels and seafront tavernas. Standing on the sweep of sandy bay, you look out to Kafkanas Island.
Running off and alongside the Aristotelian Trail are several smaller paths. One takes us to the majestic chapel of Agios Nikolaos, perched on the top of the mountain. Another leads up to a clearing and a clutch of beehives, positioned to take advantage of the late-flowering heather. And the most spectacular sees us scrambling over rocks and crossing a stream to reach the Varvara waterfall.
Kitty has yet to have a philosophical epiphany but she’s getting into the spirit and quoting Nietzsche: ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived whilst walking.’ And when we pause to taste wild figs, she pipes up: ‘The roots of education are bitter but the fruit is sweet!’
That quote came straight from the mouth of the Stagirite, as Aristotle was known. Although in his adult life he studied under Plato in Athens and later tutored Alexander the Great in Macedon, he was born in Stagira. As the trail heads out of the forest and we see the stone walls of the ancient town flanking the hillside and pick our way to the Hellenic forum, I get a spine-tingling waft of the past.
This is not just a beautiful part of Greece, but the place where a man who has influenced political, philosophical and scientific thought for more than 2,000 years was raised. I get a further sense of déjà vu when we later take a fishing trip and anchor in a sheltered cove to swim before winding nets out across the bay, just as the inhabitants of Ancient Stagira would have done.
When we return to Olympiada to dine at a seafront restaurant called Akroyiali, I ask Kitty: ‘Happy?’
‘Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life,’ she says, quoting Aristotle back at me, and my 21st Century cynicism slips away.
So what if happiness is slippery and elusive a lot of the time? Here, watching the walls of Ancient Stagira glow in the dusk and the Aristotelian Mountain fade in the setting sun, it’s hard not to be.