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On The Throne of Zeus – With Good Friends

Mount Olympus has haunted my dreams for years.  The home the gods. The throne of Zeus. A mountain so drenched in mythology that it gave us the ... Read more
On The Throne of Zeus – With Good Friends

Mount Olympus has haunted my dreams for years.  The home the gods. The throne of Zeus. A mountain so drenched in mythology that it gave us the very concept of gods residing on mountains.

Greek mythology may be a bit of a pantomime most of the time (and quite a raunchy one at that) but there’s no escaping the allure of those ancient stories, or the desire to go and see the places where they are meant to have happened, and hopefully say hello to Aphrodite, Athene, Hephaestus and the rest of the gang along the way.

The real world of Olympus is no less magnetic: a spectacular, free-standing mountain; a massif all by itself, complex and beautiful. It has 52 separate peaks and at least 100 swooping ridgelines. It’s 9573ft tall (2918m), making it one of the tallest mountains in Europe by topographical prominence (ie, having no other mountains around it). It. Just. Looks. Stunning.

Then there’s the challenge. Without putting a hand on rock you can reach the summit of Skolio, which is just a whisker short of that full height. And in doing so, you can justly claim you’ve climbed Olympus. But if you’ve got a head for heights, you can gird your loins and go for Mytikas, the true summit: a non-stop exhilarating scramble, with thousand-foot drops in close proximity.

So for me it’s always been a bucket list thing. Kilimanjaro can be exhausting; Mont Blanc isn’t within the grasp of ordinary walkers. But Olympus has everything: mythology, diversity, achievability, excitement, challenge – and the satisfaction of reaching a nation’s highest summit, which most of us only do on Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike or Snowdon.

And so I joined KE’s Sacred Summits of Olympus and Meteora holiday. And it delivered all of the above. In spades.

Meteora is the perfect curtain-raiser. This extraordinary landscape sits in central Greece, within a 2½-hour drive of arrival in Thessaloniki. Abutting the edge of a high, shrubby plateau are a series of sandstone pillars, each of them topped by a spectacularly ornate Eastern Orthodox monastery. It all started in the 14th century, when communities of monks fled Turkish oppression and set up home in the natural caves in the pillars. Over time they went higher and higher, and eventually started building monasteries right on top of the pillars – some of them 1800ft up in the air. Little wonder the place became known as Meteora; it means ‘floating in the sky’ and it’s where we get the word ‘meteor’ from.

The monasteries themselves are tourist traps, somewhat predictably, but of course the KE vibe is all about walking between them. And as soon as we dropped away from the coach parks of each one, we were back into quiet wooded trails with no hint of the hubbub. Then our guide (the inimitable Ivo Stoilkov, a sort of Bulgarian mash-up of Kenton Cool and Dave Grohl) led us to a few more out-of-the-way delights, off the tourist track. My favourite was the Path of the Holy Spirit, an exhilarating climb through an inclined gully, topping out on a spectacular rock dome with astonishing views over our basecamp town of Kastraki and into the plains beyond. There’s only a tiny shrine here, not a massive, sprawling monastery – but it’s a little bit of Meteora that the KE group gets all to themselves.

After two days on these extraordinary trails, we transferred to the Aegean coast – and Olympus. It dominates the coastline for miles around, calling you on. Zeus is daring you to join him, and it’s impossible to resist.

The KE trip spends four days on Olympus, and in that time you’ll REALLY get to know it (most of the other hikers seem to be up-and-downing as quickly as possible). Out from the twisting, sheer-walled Enipeas Canyon we climbed, up through the densely pine-forested slopes to Refuge A, a sort of Piccadilly Circus for mountain hikers. At 2100m, the views from it are a bit better than those at Piccadilly Circus, though. At sunrise on Day 2, we went for the top, and Zeus smiled. Sunrise itself was sensational; later he laid on just enough roiling cloud to add a bit of drama, but the skies above were purest Greek-flag blue as we plodded steadily up the shoulder of Skala to the summit ridges.

And there the choice is yours: turn left and, just by putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll reach Skolio, whence you may perfectly justifiably claim to have climbed Mount Olympus. But turn right, and so begins one of the most thrilling summit routes in Europe. Across the ridge we scrambled, to the ‘horrid staircase’ of Kakoskala (that’s genuinely what Kakoskala means), then up, up, up, threading our way across a series of vertiginous pinnacles, then up again… to Mytikas. Summit of Greece. Throne of Zeus.

But it’s important to say here that KE isn’t just about going all-out for the top. It’s about the experiences along the way – and the friendships. Standing atop Mytikas with Ellen, Peter, Ignacio, Sylvia and Ivo, I felt like I was among friends rather than just in a random collection of humans with roughly similar ambitions. Then we turned to look at Skolio, where the other three members of our group were cheerily waving at us, just as delighted by what they’d accomplished. It was, what they call, a moment. Did we feel like gods? Quite probably.

And it doesn’t end there. The next day took us down to the less-frequented eastern haunch of Olympus, to the broad, sweeping plain of the Plateau of the Muses and the immense rocky bastion of Stefani. And to Refuge C – smaller, cosier (when did you last sleep in an 18-bunk dorm the size of a small garage, with a human being on either shoulder?) and spectacularly situated on the edge of the world. Primitive it might be (external loos, no showers) but if someone grabs the battered old guitar off the wall and the tsipouro is flowing (that’s moonshine ouzo distilled on-site in the hut), it may well be one of the best mountain nights you’ll ever have. We talked long into the night with Dutch, Germans, Spaniards and Swiss; of this and that, of adventures and memories and weird soup (although maybe the late-night chat was about putting off the act of going to bed in a cosy little huddle like a cluster of hedgehogs, I don’t know). Next night we were back in Refuge A after a day exploring the Plateau of the Muses and the outlying peak of Profitis Elias; never has a cold shower and a standard bunk-bed felt like such luxury.

By the time we came down off Olympus, we knew that mountain. Our feet knew it, and thanks to Ivo and his immense knowledge, our brains and hearts knew it too. And even lower down, Olympus is no less impressive. For good measure, a few of us took the epic trek back to the basecamp town of Litochoro via the Enipeas Canyon, passing surging cascades, quiet pools, tiny chapels hewn into caves, and wildflower meadows that wouldn’t look out of place in Chamonix or Bavaria.

If Refuge A was luxury, then getting back to the gorgeous To Palio Litochoro boutique hotel is positively decadent. I passed through the gentle-jazz vibe of the living room, up the twisty rustic stairs, and took a shower that can only be described as life-enhancing. And I thought about what I’d seen.

They say you should never meet your heroes, as they may disappoint you. But Olympus has been my hero for many years, and now that I’ve finally met it, and crossed its broad shoulders with fellow adventurers under the KE banner, I can report that it is far from a disappointment.It’s the home of the gods. It was always going to be… divine.

Nick Hallissey is the Deputy Editor of Country Walking, Britain’s bestselling walking magazine and home of #Walk1000Miles, the world’s friendliest walking challenge. A full version of this story will appear in Country Walking in Spring 2019.

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