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A taste of Corfu Mountain Trail

November 10, 2017

Mountain running in Corfu, Greece is a real treat – especially if you are doing it with the local trail runners who are involved with the Corfu Mountain Trail race. Then you will get to try some of the most beautiful and challenging trails of the island. Instead of the typical touristic relationship we meet as trail runners, sharing the passion for running and exploring trails. In Corfu there are also a few additional perks: the fantastic food, the positive vibe of the people, the cultural and historic heritage, the crystal clear water and of the course the summer climate with 8 months of sunshine.

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The view overlooking Palaiokastritsa bay is stunning, to say the least.

Corfu is a lush island, very green and hilly, I notice flying in from Athens an evening in October. This Mediterranean island is situated just to the right of the heel of Italy’s boot. The first evening we are welcomed by Yannis, the hotel manager of Messonghi Hotel, which is the main sponsor of Corfu Mountain Trail. Yannis brings us to a traditional restaurant in a cosy fishing village nearby. We also get to say hello to the race directors who join us. The food is excellent. Greek salad with fresh feta cheese; grilled pulpo; fried squid, moules, grilled fish… just to mention a few dishes. The greeks really know how to enjoy life.

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The 104k race starts in Ipsos, north of Kerkyra, and finishes in Messonghi on Corfu’s south-east coast. 

Next day we meet up for a trail run at race director Vasileios Alamanos’ butchery shop in Corfu Town. Withing a few minutes several of his trail running friends join in. Vasileios tells that there were 650 participants totally in the 2017 edition and that approximately 50% are greek. Today’s run cover a portion of the 104K race course on the wild and dramatic northwest coast. The trail is technical with many rocks and bushes with thorns that rip legs and arms. You need to focus on your footing. A fellow journalist from France twists his ankle after just a few minutes on the gnarly trail. The view overlooking Palaiokastritsa bay is stunning, to say the least, with turquoise lagoons. We pass the old, sleepy mountain village Lakones (at km50) with narrow streets. Very romantic and picturesque. Further down at Liapades we pass some of the most beautiful beaches of the island. ”Look here, wild Rosemary” says Jefis, one of the local runners. At Gefira Beach a dog makes us company, in true spirit of trail running. Here the trail is densely vegetated and partly quite daunting, following a ledge 40 meters above the crystal clear lagoon. This is certainly not a place where you want to stumble and fall. Coming back to the beach we all have various cuts and scratches but we are very happy. Vasileios suggests we finish the day with a beer in the sunset at the viewpoint a bit further up the mountain.

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The 104 km race course follows many of Corfu’s most beautiful beaches.

The next morning we meet again in Vasileios’ shop in Kerkyra. Today Jefis and Nikos will be our guides showing us the first part of the 104K course, starting in the port of Ipsos, a little further up the eastern coast. Our mission is to ascend to the highest point of the island, Pantokratoras 940m. Late October marks the harvest season for olives. Two old women are checking out their trees. Jefis, from a village inland of Ipsos, tells that he use to make olive oil for his family and friends. ”It’s a hard job, but I believe it’s worth it.” The gravel trail leads us up to the traditional village of Spartylas, famous for its Ouzo.

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Classic bar in Spartylas. In mid October I was invited to Corfu, Greece for an introduction to Corfu Mountain Trail Race April 14-15 2018. My ambition will be to participate in the longest course: Night & Day Trail 104K with +4200 m elevation, and after having run parts of the course I know I will need to be strong, very strong, just to finish. The race course is very challenging with technical trails, steep climbs and descents, but also very beautiful with stunning views of this historic island and the Adriatic sea, passing through traditional villages of northern Corfu and all the beaches of the western coastline. All races finish at the Hotel Akti Messoghi, which is the main sponsor, in the village of Messoghi on the south-east part of the island, approx 30 min drive south of Corfu Town (Kerkyra). This 3-star resort is also where participants from abroad will be lodged.

”The trick, Jefis explains, is to drink your ouzo fast and then leave, otherwise there will be another round, and another…” Above Spartylas the view is breathtaking but the ascending gradually gets more and more serious: the technical trail with continuous changes of the terrain pass through lush jungle vegetation and climbs over sharp lava rocks. Actually it doesn’t get more technical than this. Slightest mistake will be painful – in the best case… Considering the race starts at 7pm the participants will have to cover this difficult section as darkness falls. ”During my training for the RUT Ultra (Greece’s most famous ultra-trail) I did this climb every weekend. I believe it helped me a lot.” Jefis explains. We make a short photo stop at the ruins of an old abandoned church, overlooking the calm blue Ionian Sea, the jagged eastern coastline of Corfu and the pink hills of Albania, from a distance seemingly void of vegetation. The next part up to Pantokratoras is gently ascending, however at parts the lava rock surface prevents any attempts to running. At the top of the treeless landscape of rocks and pastures there is a monastery, with a bar and a souvenir shop. It’s evidently a popular tourist point. The view of Albania, just a few kilometres away, is impressive. ”During winter, Jefis explains, ”sometimes this peak is totally isolated by low clouds, fierce winds and thunder storms.” There is a mystic atmosphear inside the tiny, simple chapell. You can imagine what it is like here when the electricity breaks down, with hammering winds and whipping rain. During winter Jefis, who use to work as a bartender at a friends bar, try to make some travels. ”We have 8 months of sun and 4 months of rain. It’s a green island. The water reserve usually last until June.” Below the mountain peak we cut into an almost invisible trail that will take us to the traditional village of Palia Peritheia. The trail is surrounded by thorns that rip legs, arms and sometimes even the chest. Jefis stops and pick some wild oregano. ”Prior the race in April, me and Nikos use to clear the trail. Now it’s a bit overgrown.” For a 58 year old Nikos has a young appearance. It’s almost impossible to outrun him on the trail. Appearenly he has some kind of army background, he is very religious and is living a pure life when it comes to food: he cultivates, collects or hunts all his food.

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Francois-Xavier, Jefis and Paolo enjoying an excellent lunch in Perithea after the run.

After some detours we finally reach Palia Perithea at km 12, the first central food station in the race. It’s a village made of stones and according to National Geographic, one of the 20 least unexplored places of the world. Our guides have booked a big table on the terrace, shaded by a roof of vines. Cold drinks, like home made ginger beer, and an assortment of local delicatessen arrives. ”Here, just like in other remote villages, you eat better, compared to the typical tourist fare. Everything is produced or has grown here: the olive oil, the honey, the feta cheese, the vegetables, the meat… ” Jeffrey explains. I must admit that I appreciate meals like this as much as I enjoy running on beautiful trails. Three different cakes round up the delicious lunch. It seems that there is no limit for how much we can eat. Mountain running makes you hungry, but also dirty and sweaty, not to forget putting a smile on your face. Coming here, running the mountain trails together with the local trail runners, sharing the fantastic food and the breathtaking views of this beautiful island, is indeed a very nice way to experience Corfu.

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Jefis, Fredrik, Balázs, Francois-Xavier, Nikos, Gaël and Paolo

And: when you visit Corfu – don’t miss an evening in Corfu Town, it’s very beautiful. Many thanks to Yannis, Vasileios, Adrienne, Costas, Jean-Paul, Jeffrey, Nikos and all the others working with Corfu Mountain Trail. Also thanks to Gaël for bringing me. See you in April!

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Race director Vasileios Alamanos enjoying the rather technical trail.

Facts: Night & Day Trail 104 Km
Start: 14 April 2018 at 7pm in Ipsos Port, Corfu
Closing: 15 April 2018 at 4pm Hotel Messonghi
Ascent/descent: +4110m/–4110m
80% un-paved trails
The first year 2017: 53 finishers out of 67 starting
The course record of the 104K race is approx 12 hours.
Entry Fee 60USD (early reg.)
No prize money
Finishers get 5 ITRA-points
But you can also opt for the shorter distances: Rain Trail 40K +1800m and Olive Tree Trail 19K +1200m.
http://www.corfumountaintrail.com

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