Hiking and Mountaineering in Greek Ranges
Two elements dominate the Greek landscape – the sea and the mountains. Mainland and islands are shaped by more than 300 rock masses, with the Pindus massif forming the country’s backbone. With numerous ridges rising over 2,000 meters, then plunging into the sea, Greece’s mountains are famous for their biodiversity and beauty. After all, it was on a mountain, Olympus, that the Greek gods made their home.
Looking out from the center of Athens towards the low massifs cupping the metropolitan area, it’s hard to imagine the riches awaiting on Mount Parnitha’s summit. Yet within a short drive from the congested center is a magnificent national park, laced with nature walks and hiking trails that instantly transport you from an urban setting to a splendid natural environment. Twelve marked paths traverse its slopes, linking local sights like Pan’s Cave – a natural cave where the god was worshipped in antiquity – and the Kleiston Monastery with small churches and freshwater springs while also offering glimpses of the sprawling city.
One of the best ways to get to know a land is to walk it. Greece, with its diverse landscape and habitats was made for walking as its coasts and mountains are dotted with hamlets where the flavor of traditional life is still strong. Footpaths, many dating from antiquity or the middle ages, cut through fields and forests, connecting settlements while marked trails make for more organized forays into the countryside.
Experienced climbers can chart expeditions around mountain refuges, clubhouse-style lodges run by local mountaineering clubs with capacities varying from twelve to 100 people; ramblers can easily make their base at a country inn or small hotel, then explore the surrounding area from there. Hiking is available at all destinations, regardless of the existence of formal marked paths as you can trace mountain walks even on small islands like Hydra or off-beat destinations like the Methana peninsula in the northwestern Peloponnese where hikers cross the unspoiled Mount Helona with its thick cover of wild herbs.
I visited Greece and being a warm summer day of my first day visiting the place: it would have been a shame for me not to hike. Walking I did, as I went sightseeing and taking pictures of the beautiful landscapes of the regions. Actually my five day vacation in Greece was all about hiking safe from a day or two that I took to cycling in the streets of the Athens. Primarily I did hiking because it was the best way that I would capture all the splendid beauty of the area. Below is a documentation of the places that I visited and the best that you can get by visiting the areas.
A Nature Walk in National Parks
Aside from their flora, Greek mountains are also noted for their gorges with their wild vegetation. A hike can, of course, be organized anywhere and over any type of terrain. But ten special areas, designated national parks because of their unique ecological and geomorphological interest, are virtually made for hiking with their varied landscape, diverse (and often endemic) flora, rivers, rapids, springs, and sights. Some like Mount Parnitha and Sounio are just a short distance from large metropolitan areas while others like the Vikos-Aoos Park in northwestern Greece are marvelously remote.
Prespes: The village of Psarades (literally, fishermen) sits on the far edge of Lake Prespa and marks the northwestern border – although the precise point where it ends is actually somewhere near the middle of Megali Prespa, the larger of the two lakes shimmering on a plateau one thousand meters above the sea. With the smaller lake, which is contained within Greek territory, the Prespes are among Europe’s most important wetlands..
Prespa is already protected under the Ramsar Convention but the new 55,000-hectare park is the result of persistent lobbying by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and local conservation societies to preserve the natural beauty of two of Europe’s oldest lakes, and has been recognized by the WWF under its “Gifts to the Earth” program.
Samaria Gorge: The Samaria Gorge’s beauty is so intense that it cannot be spoiled even by the sight of thousands of tourists making the trek from high in the White Mountains, one of Greece’s larges massifs comprised of sixty peaks that rise over 2,000 meters, down to Ayia Roumeli on Crete’s southern coast.
Proclaimed a National Park by the Greek state in the 1960s, the Samaria Gorge has also been recognized by the European Union as one of Europe’s most beautiful regions. Its environmental importance is unquestioned: Samaria and the White Mountains have a high concentration of endemic plants and are home to the dwindling population of the Cretan chamois or agrimi, a wild goat that was the sacred animal of Britomartis, a Cretan goddess and daughter of Zeus. The agrimi, which was likely brought over from Asia, has existed on Crete since at least Neolithic times as it features in cave drawings.
Hiking through Samaria is only permitted from May through September. The trek through the gorge takes between five and eight hours, depending on the walker’s fitness and curiosity, as there are several sights to admire along the way. Trails are well marked, and there are rest areas and springs along the way. The steepest segment is Xiloskala (wood stairs), which descends 1,000 meters at the trek’s start. It is best to begin the hike as early in the day as possible, as the sun and heat can become quite oppressive as the day progresses, especially during the months of June, July, and August. Don’t forget to pack lots of nutrient-rich healthy snacks along with your picnic to keep energy levels high and lots of water too.
Olympos: Olympos, the mountain where the Greek gods made their home, is an inextricable part of Greek culture. Hardly surprising then that it was designated a national park in 1938 – the first area to receive such designation. The massif rises between the Thessaly and Macedonia provinces, its highest peak extending to three thousand meters. The landscape is quite dramatic with deep ravines cutting into the slopes, including the glacial Megala Kazania ravine just below Mitika, the highest peak.
Olympos is a botanist’s paradise with 1,700 plant species identified on its slopes, including twenty-six plants endemic plants that have grown there since antiquity. The park is crossed by a decent network of footpaths and a main track, and attracts close to 100,000 visitors a year.
On the trail
Hikes cover distances of roughly five kilometers at a pace of about one or two hours, with paths following slightly sloped terrains over a fairly even elevation. Hiking requires only light gear compared to the more rigorous mountain walking, which involves distances of between fifteen and twenty kilometers covered over a period of between five and eight hours and which requires special equipment – particularly in winter. Mountain walking can be practiced on any mountain. Its main characteristic is the difference in elevation one may encounter along the route, which may reach as much as five hundred meters.
Mountain climbing is the hardest form of hiking. Usually, the climber’s goal is to conquer a peak. In mountaineering, distance is of little significance. The most important element is an approximately 300-meter-per-hour rise in elevation, meaning that a 1,000-meter ascent requires about four hours including stops made during the climb. The average mountain climb spans between seven and ten hours, descent included.
Finally rock climbing is practiced on any mountain peak, on very steep slopes (cliffs) rendering imperative the use of climbing techniques (of great or small degree of difficulty) and auxiliary equipment. In Greece, many spots lend themselves to free rock climbing, while schools offering the possibility of artificial climbing also operate.