Mount Olympus: In search of the gods
January 1, 1970
by Karina Toneva
If you have ever wondered how the ancient Greeks invented such an elaborate, colorful mythology, one look from the top of Mount Olympus will tell you all. Up there everything does feel unearthly, so the single likely explanation of such magnificence is that the place is truly a gods’ dwelling.
Where to start?
The town of Litochoro
Of course, making your way to the top is a serious business, unless you are a seasoned adventurer. Once in Greece, whether you are coming from Athens or Thessaloniki, your destination is the town of Litochoro. There are plenty of signs in the town to direct you to the furthest point you can reach by car – Prionia. Once you leave your car at the foot of the mountain, at the vast parking area of Prionia, you will return a different person. And it is not as much about the physical challenge as it is about the spiritual experience. But let’s start from the beginning.
Just like any other beginning, the first part of the trail is pretty easy. You are surrounded by greenery, thick shades, water cascades, and ramps to help you walk up. “Another walk in the forest” you might think. A forest full of tourists from June to September. You might even come across the participants in the annual trail running competition. If so, make sure you clear the way for them every now and then. “Well, if they can run it, sure enough I can walk it”, you immediately think. After the fresh wave of determination, you reach the first resting point – a wooden pavilion by a small fountain. Make sure you fill your bottles, because it is the last water source for the next three hours. Sit, take a rest, read all the witty comments carved in the beams of the pavilion and chat with the people going down.
Here the trail becomes steeper and more difficult. Your back starts hurting and you reconsider whether you really need that mat you are carrying. You can’t do without the sleeping bag, of course, but the mat…Why bringing your own tent? Because you failed to book a bed at the only hut, which is more than half way through, six months prior to your trip! If you think you can simply walk in and lay down wherever you find an empty spot, sorry for the disappointment, but there is none! The hut’s yard can fit about ten tents, so even for them you need to call in advance and make a reservation. The whole mount is a national park and camping is not allowed outside the hut’s area. Even if it was allowed, the terrain is impossible. So, bite your tongue and keep walking – you have to reach that hut!
In an hour or two, depending on your pace, you will reach the first breathtaking panorama. Remember that rock from the Lion’s King movie, where Rafiki shows the newborn Simba to the animals for the first time? Well, you will see a similar rock hanging above the precipice, whose edge you’ve been walking on for the last half an hour. That’s an excellent spot for having a snack – better stay off the rock if you are afraid of heights. From there on, trees become scarce, so in a sunny day you need a hat and sunscreen oil. After another hour at best, you will reach the hut – Spilios Agapitos Refuge. In spring, it is a paradise – running water, cooked food, warm soups, everything you need to refresh your body and spirit. In fall, after the hot summer, however, there’s often a drought and water is available during nighttime only. This can be pretty inconvenient, because you cannot use a toilet. Such discomfort is compensated by the view from the hut’s porch. On clear days your gaze can reach out all the way to the sea. Part of the beauty of the mount is due to short distance – about 16 kilometers on a straight line – for which you rise from the coast to 2100 meters above sea level. In case you managed to book a bed, you have nothing to worry about – the place is cozy and well heated. If you sleep in a tent in the yard, it is also not that cold. Early in the morning, don’t miss the sunrise – it is one of the most beautiful landscapes during the journey. As soon as you enjoy the sunrise, head to Mytikas, the highest peak of the mount, the home of the Greek gods. It surely looks close, rising above the hut in its splendor, but the hard part starts here.
The way to the top
Leaving the hut
The trail leaves from the hut’s front yard, and it is the only available path, so you cannot miss it. For the next hour you have a feeling that you are walking in circles without making any progress, but the wonderful view all the way down to the sea makes you forget where you are headed to. Bushes and flowers gradually disappear as you walk toward the peak. And this is where you start thinking about your place in the Universe. Walking there in the nothingness, only slippery stones and wind in between the vast mountain tops, you feel so small and vulnerable that even the nonreligious men start praying to make it to the top. And just as your fatigue becomes unbearable, you spot the chamois – running up and down as children at a playground, or patiently grazing whatever grass they were lucky to find. That very narrow part of the trail ends at Skala – the second highest peak. A place for a rest and elaboration – half the tourists would not dare to continue. Just across Skala you see Mytikas with people crawling right beneath, holding on to the large stones with both hands and feet.
The climb to Mytikas
This last part of the trail is the real adventure for people who are not used to climbing. One wrong step and you’re done. Literally. They can’t even find your body if you fall off. If you have a GoPro camera, that’s where you need it. One of the things I feel most sorry about is that I couldn’t take any pictures there. But, boy, once you make it to the top, it’s rewarding. You see the Aegean Sea on one side, Bulgaria on the other, and all the plains and mounts of Macedonia in between. With all the clouds beneath your feet you do feel like a god.
The adrenaline took care of the pain in your legs, so you are ready to go all the way down to the parking. You start singing “If I could fly”, and imagining scenes from the mythology, wishing to spot somewhere Zeus drifting on a cloud, your descent begins.