By Matt Westby
If it hadn’t been for an unreasonably early flight time, I probably wouldn’t have packed my trainers for a friend’s wedding on the Greek island of Santorini.
Shoes for the ceremony and flip flops for all other times would have been ample, yet the prospect of prancing around Gatwick Airport’s park and ride on a cold autumn’s morning in open footwear held little appeal, so on went the Asics.
It was the best decision I made all year.
I saw why as soon as we landed: a huge mound of rock rising up out of the sea like a shark’s fin. Profitis Ilias, the highest of Santorini’s two peaks, is far from a bastion of the mountaineering world, but on an island where a spot of snorkelling was my best hope of adventure, it was a ticket out of the realm of a beach holiday and back into the hills. A challenge soaring out of an abyss of relaxation.
I waited a few days before taking Profitis Ilias on, allowing the inevitable dissatisfaction of sitting around a pool and spending way too much money in beach-side bars to well up.
My brother, Nick, and close friend Craig decided they too wanted a break from their basking, so we set off carrying nothing more than a bottle of water each and one point-and-shoot camera between us.
There’s an old monastery at the summit and a road leading up to it, but it wasn’t clear if you could ascend the opposite, steeper side, either on a trail or otherwise. Finding out was part of the attraction.
Sure enough, there was a way, which reared up sharply for the first 150m of the ascent to Profitis Ilias’ 565m-high summit and passed a rock climbing wall that served as reassurance that the beach holiday had been left behind, if only for an afternoon.
With a 30C heat beating down on our shirtless backs, we slowly rose up above the island, the majesty of its stunning setting becoming more apparent with every step.
Soon we were above the planes circling to land at the airport less than two miles away and the hotel at which Nick and Craig’s wives were sunbathing by the pool became little more than a blip.
The westbound path reached a pass before swinging north up towards the top. It was a rugged trail that ramped up violently, making your calves burn, but injecting fresh life into the slumber of the past few lazy days.
It flattened out for a short time before rearing back up into a series of false summits. Normally, I yearn for these deceptive peaks to be the true top, but here on Profitis Ilias, without altitude, cold or fatigue to burden me, I revelled in the tricks they played and hoped each one would indeed be a fraud.
By now the views were panoramic and unrestricted, Santorini laid out before us, not a single cloud to disrupt the vista.
Towns we had visited the previous day, Thira and Oia, lingered in the distance, feeling just a stone’s throw away and not the two-hour bus ride it had actually taken us. Standing high above it, Santorini suddenly seemed such a small place.
Our water bottles looked worryingly empty as we continued to climb through the unrelenting, blistering heat; a stark contrast to worrying about having too much to drink back down by the pool.
With repeated false summits blocking our view of the top, we had no idea how much further our rocky and uneven path had left to run. But then the monastery appeared, brute and ugly in a place of otherwise unbroken beauty.
We took the final few steps to complete our ascent from sea to summit – the first time I have climbed a mountain in its entirety – and I smiled wryly at the other tourists on top who had got there by car.
Standing on top of Profitis Ilias, we had the best view on the island and a sense of accomplishment and adventure to go with it.
For once, I wasn’t complaining about Easyjet’s 6am flight times.
Profitis Ilias: http://www.travel-to-santorini.com/place.php?place_id=59