Mount Olympus and Pieria
We visited Mount Olympus recently, during
our own epic first Greek odyssey. Travelling to it from our base in nearby
Thessaloniki, just under an hour’s bus ride south of the city, this mythical
and magical mountain is home to the Twelve Olympian gods - the Pantheon - of
At 2,918 metres, it is Greece’s highest
point and dominates the landscape of neighbouring Thessaly and Macedonia. In
reality, there are more than 50 separate peaks, with Mytikas the absolute
summit and reputed meeting place of the 12 gods, with Zeus - the god of gods -
standing above them all.
Declared Greece’s first National Park in
1938, Olympus is rich in flora and fauna, thriving on its lush forests. Above
the thick green belt, its white peaks - snow-covered for most of the year -
pull constant focus, both physically and spiritually.
We were based in the charming heart-shaped,
red-roofed, cobble-streeted town of Litochoro, the
main gateway to Olympus. From here, Silver Travellers can enjoy an easy,
gradually climbing walk into the foothills, on a solid paved path, slicing
through a deep gorge, way above fast-tumbling water until reaching a
mesmerising waterfall. You will also see some of the 1,700 recorded Olympian
plant species along the way, and plenty of butterflies joined us, in bright
spring sunshine, on this perfect introductory 30-45 minute stroll.
We love mountains. I climbed Kilimanjaro
for my 50th birthday and, looking up towards Mytikas, I’m not sure I can resist
the temptation to scale Olympus for my 60th, in 2017. Or risk the thunderous
wrath of Zeus if I don’t. For more adventurous Silver Travellers, it can be
attacked from Litochoro (293 metres) in 2-3 days, staying 1 or 2 nights in
comfortable, well-equipped refuges on the mountain, most of which are open from
May to October.
Or an easier option is to start the climb
from Prionia, at 1,100 metres the furthest you can drive up on the southern
side of the mountain. And having already met, laughed and shared a drink with
the larger-than-life owner of the restaurant and bar there - Dimitri - I can
think of no better motivation tool than the thought of slurping a hearty bean
stew and guzzling an ice cold beer with him on the way down, after looking Zeus
in the eye.
Also in the foothills of Olympus is the
peaceful sanctity of Agios (Saint) Dionysios Monastery. But it was only built
in this location - 3 km from Litochoro - after the original monastery of 1542,
further up the mountain, was destroyed by German bombers in 1943. The original
monastery is being painstakingly restored, and is currently occupied by a lone
monk. From here it’s a wonderful 30 minute walk along the stream and under the
green canopy of the forest to the Holy Cave of Dionysios, where he and other
hermit monks have lived in even more splendid isolation.
But there’s much more to see and do in this
alluring central part of Greece than just to be transfixed by Mount Olympus and
its foothills. Whether your interests are history, religion, food - or just
lazing on a glorious beach - read on.
Just a 20 minute drive from Litochoro, and
lying in the shadow of Mount Olympus, is Dion. This was a sacred
place and cultural cradle for the ancient Macedonian civilisation from as early
as 600 BC, and from where they worshipped Zeus and his daughters, the Muses. In
the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great offered sacrifices here before setting
out for war against Persia. Later, from 169 BC until the 4th and 5th centuries
AD, the Romans occupied and enlarged this extraordinary city.
Now both a fascinating archaeological site
and a serene wildlife reserve, the sprawling open-air site is a must-see. Stroll
amongst the living evidence of several ancient civilisations, including Greek
temples, a Hellenistic theatre, sanctuaries to Demeter, Zeus, Isis and
Asklepios, public baths extending over a huge 4,000 square metre area - those
Romans needed a lot of cleansing - and well-preserved mosaics, frescoes and
sculptures. All at the same time as being serenaded by birds, wildlife...and a
plethora of very noisy frogs.
Expert guide Katerina Rizou will
interpret all the layers of history for you. Painstaking excavation first
started in 1928 and continues today, with new treasures still being uncovered
by Katerina and other archaeologists.
Half an hour south of Dion is the Castle of Platamonas,
a Crusader fortress built in the early 13th century, on the site of an earlier
Byzantine castle. Occupying a strategically important location, on the border
of Macedonia and Thessaly, it’s an imposing vision perched high on a hill,
overlooking the coast and the modern road linking northern and southern Greece.
The subject of many battles from the 13th to 15th centuries, it was also
occupied more recently by New Zealand troops in 1941, until the castle was
bombarded by the Germans.
For a less violent environment, head a few
kilometres into the hills from the castle, to the traditional mountain village
Panteleimonas. The road winds through forests of oak, chestnut and arbutus,
offering scintillating views back down towards the castle, the coastline of
southern Pieria and the Thermaikos Gulf, and up towards the divine mountain.
Pedestrianisation helps to preserve the
unspoiled, timeless feel of this remarkable, traditional Macedonian community.
Stroll along its cobbled, terraced streets; explore the artisan shops,
providing natural products from the area; stare at the beautifully restored
stone and timber houses, tumbling down the natural contours of the foothills;
marvel at the beauty of its Greek Orthodox church, seemingly more appropriate
for a large city than a tiny mountain village; and rest awhile at one of the
many tavernas and bars strewn around the labyrinthine streets.
None of this would have been possible
without the quite remarkable guidance and friendship of our host in the Mount
Olympus area, Giorgos - call me George - Papamichail, manager of the Olympus Mediterranean Hotel in
Litochoro. It is a charming boutique 4* hotel, tucked away in the atmospheric
back streets of the old town. The memory of waking up to the sound of church
bells and swallows, looking up to the snowy peak of Mount Olympus and down to
the Aegean Sea under cloudless Greek skies will help to sustain us through the
long, grey English summer. Or perhaps not. Efharistó, Giórgos.
The Litochoro hotel is one of four owned in
this part of Greece by the Mediterranean
Group. And if it’s relaxation you want after all that mountain-climbing,
ouzo-guzzling and sightseeing, head for the beach and one of their three other
hotels, on the Olympus Riviera of Pieria. We visited the flagship 5*
Mediterranean Village resort with George, at Paralia Katerini, just 30 km north
of Litochoro and heading back towards Thessaloniki. We met owner Evangelia
Xyptera-Lamprou for a drink here, and were already mentally checking in for a
What more appropriate reward for climbing
the mountain of the gods could there be than to mingle with Bacchus and indulge
in Hedonism, whilst swimming in the Aegean Sea and spoiling yourself with very
21st century amenities?