Mt Olympus – throne of the gods. Nowadays, the word “Olympian” is a title given to athletes competing in the Olympics. In ancient Greek mythology, the Olympians refer to the 12 Greeks gods who inhabit Mt Olympus (2917m) – highest mountain in Greece. You may not believe them, but they are worth mentioning for their interesting attributes and “lifestyles” which are strikingly human.
1. Zeus – the philandering king of the gods (known as Jupiter to the Romans)
2. Hera – the jealous queen of the gods (Roman, Juno)
3. Poseidon – another philandering god of the sea (Roman, Neptune),
4. Demeter – goddess of agriculture, land fertility (Roman, Ceres)
5. Athena – goddess of war and wisdom (Roman, Minerva)
6. Apollo – god of prophecy, music and the arts (Roman, Apollo)
7. Artemis – goddess of the moon and hunting (Roman, Diana)
8. Ares – god of war (Roman, Mars)
9. Aphrodite – goddess of love and beauty (Roman, Venus)
10. Hephaestus – god of fire and the forge (Roman, Vulcan)
11. Hermes – messenger of the gods and god of commerce (Roman, Mercury)
12. Dionysus – illegitimate son between Zeus and a mortal, god of wine, entertainment and ecstasy (Roman Bacchus)
Not included in the list are
1. Hades (Pluto) – god of the underworld who probably feels out of place on a mountain.
2. Hestia – goddess of the hearth and domesticity, a virgin not interested in the Olympians’ orgies.
Of course there are numerous other gods, some of whom misbehave and overstep their authority from time to time, leading to squabbles whose nasty effects spill over into the mortal world. Given their anarchic and promiscuous ways, tracing the parentage or unravelling the ancestry of these gods can be as tough as untying the Gordian knot. Suffice to say that Greek mythology is full of violence, intrigue, outrageous acts of murder, rape, incest, fratricide and parenticide. It boggles the mind that Zeus had a headache that had to be fixed by having his head split open by Hephaestus, the blacksmith. Out came his daughter Athena. No wonder she’s so brainy. And with that head-splitting precedent, it won’t surprise anyone that Aphrodite was born when her father Uranus’ testicles, cut off by the Titan Cronos (son of Uranus), fell into the sea.
“Daddy, can the gods die?” the little guy asked me.
“Yes, when people stop worshipping them.” I answered.
I guess it doesn’t matter whether the gods are dead or alive. Mt Olympus remains majestic and magnetic to the mountain lover. I was having my doubts climbing this mountain on my first trip to Greece (and with a kid in tow to boot). But the kid actually asked for it. And that’s after a 20km hike at Meteora. I was pleasantly surprised. He’s really quite tireless when it comes to exploration and discovery. If only he could put more of that energy into his studies.
On the night before we left Kalambaka, I made our intention known to the owner at the Meteora Hotel. His name is Dimitris and he seemed keen to help. After making a call, he gave me a brochure advertising mountain-guiding services and told us that his friend could help us, including renting the necessary equipment and showing us the way. I assumed that his friend would be meeting us at Litochoro, a small town situated at the foot of the mountain.
We packed our bags the next morning and headed off to the bus station. There was a train to Litochoro, but the rail workers were on strike that day, leaving us no option. The lady at the KTEL counter asked me where I was going. I said Litochoro and she proceeded to print out the ticket without any sign of concern or emotion. She only said that we had to change buses at Trikala.
So we retraced our bus journey two days ago and took the bus back to Trikala. From there, we boarded the bus bound for Thessaloniki, understanding that the bus would stop for us to alight at Litochoro. From Trikala, the bus headed eastwards. The sea was soon in view. I was curious about why we were heading out towards the sea when we were supposed to be going to the highest mountain in Greece. But the bus ran closer and closer to the sea. The dazzling sunlight and a haze-enshrouded sea was on our right. On our left, was a clear blue sky with the stark and striking form of Mt Olympus itself. It was a sight to behold. Anticipation gripped us. The short and pleasant two hour ride was coming to an end, but something awful was about to happen. The driver stopped the bus on the highway just before the Litochoro exit and asked us to alight!
The driver, who was well-dressed but spoke almost no English, pointed to the exit and waved his finger towards the cluster of houses at the foot of the mountain. We got down from the bus, picked up our bags from the storage compartment, too confused to protest and by the time we realised exactly where we were, the bus had departed. It was still a good 100m from the highway exit. I asked a guy painting the road shoulder and he screamed at me.
“What are you doing here? This is not a bus station.”
“It’s not my fault. The bus dropped us here.” I tried to explain.
“Run! Get out before you get run over by a truck.”
Fear gripped us as we walked as fast as we could with all our bags. Fortunately, traffic on the highway was light and there were no vehicles turning into Litochoro. After making a sharp, ascending turn towards the sea, then back, we found ourselves on a flyover perpendicular to the highway below. I stepped over the metal barrier into the bushes and made a call to the guide. In shock and horror, I asked him how to get to Litochoro from where I was. He said that we could either walk the 5km uphill or walk to the petrol kiosk 200m away and wait for a bus from there. We walked the 200m with all our bags and arrived at the petrol kiosk. No bus in sight. Not even a hint that a bus was coming. There was a cafe next to the petrol kiosk. A bunch of elderly men were seated there, sipping coffee and robustly debating. At the cashier was another elderly gentleman seated there all alone and looking bored. I approached him and asked him if he could help us get to Litochoro. He didn’t speak much English, but directed us to a younger man hanging around the garage. The latter could speak passable English. Once he understood our problem, he offered to call a taxi for us.
Less than 10 minutes later, a taxi arrived. For €8, the driver drove us into town. Inside the taxi, he asked us which hotel we were going to. I showed him the brochure Dimitris gave us and asked him if he knew where the guide’s office was. The driver’s name was Ekarius and without much hesitation, he picked up his phone and called the number, helping me save on overseas charges. He talked with the guide for a while, then passed the phone to me. The guide explained that he was at Thessaloniki and not at Litochoro. He had also not promised Dimitris that he could guide us up the mountain. Contrary to what Dimitris said, he told us that none of the refuges were open and we would have to climb and descend in a single day – something he doubted we could do unless we were superfit.
That was my second shock of the day, but I was determined not to let this ruin my trip. Since we were already at Litochoro, we might as well stay here. I asked Ekarius if he knew of any cheap hotel in town. He suggested Park Hotel for €20 a night but it was closed. He picked up his phone again and called the owner. He then asked us to wait about an hour for the owner to get down to open up the hotel. I thanked Ekarius. Something told me that I was not alone in this. I would climb Mt Olympus without a guide and go as far as it was safe for us to go.
“How much to go to Prionia tomorrow morning?” I asked Ekarius.
“Almost 20km from here. Going up and coming down empty.” he explained. “Let me pick you up at 7.00am tomorrow morning.”
I agreed, I took his card and we waited for the hotel to open. While we waited, an old lady in the usual black dress came forward and was probably asking us what we were waiting for. A game of charade followed and all we managed to make out was that she was trying to ask us to call the hotel owner. We tried to explain that our taxi driver had already called. The old lady was determined to get her message across. She went over to a cafe two doors away and talked to a young lady over there. The old lady then beckoned us to walk over to the cafe. The young lady at the cafe spoke some English and asked if we would like to call the owner of the hotel again. She then quietly suggested that we changed to another hotel.
“This hotel not so good.” she whispered.
“Which one do you suggest?” I lowered my voice as if someone was listening.
“See that Eko petrol station at the end of the town? There’s a motel there. A bit more expensive but cleaner and better.”
My 6th sense told me that she had our good in mind. We walked down to the petrol station which also had a garage attached and found that it a most unlikely place to have any decent accommodation. Was this another misunderstanding like the one we had with Dimitris?
“Yes?” an unusually tall young man greeted us. The average Greek size is quite close to that of Asians.
“Do you have any rooms?” I asked.
“Sure. This way.” he said and directed us towards a side door located next to the garage. We ascended the stairs and found two floors of rooms. The hallways were tidy and well decorated with paintings and tasteful furniture – a stark contrast with the heavy tools and grease downstairs.
“Take the Nicholas room. It’s named after me.” he laughed.
The room cost us €30 a night. Still a good deal considering the fact that it was better than the €41 room we had at Kalambaka. From the balcony, there was even a view of the sea. I found it quite amazing how the highest mountain in Greece could stand so close to the sea. Nicholas gave us some information on climbing Mt Olympus. He too climbed without a guide and assured us that it was very safe with the trail clearly marked. However, he had never climbed in winter and had no idea what it would be like up there now. He concurred that none of the refuges on the mountain were open and it would not be possible for an average person like him to climb and descend in a single day.
“Ah yes, I booked a taxi for tomorrow morning at Park Hotel. Can you help us call our driver to pick us up over here instead?” I said, handing the name card to Nicholas.
“Ekarius? He is my friend. Glad to call him for you.”
The phone call settled, we washed up and went out for a very late lunch cum dinner. Litochoro would have been a ghost town by Singapore standards. Most of the shops were closed, but we knew we could get someone to call the owner if we really needed to buy something. A few of the tavernas were open. Some were even quite classy. We chose a place doing gyros. They also had souvlaki (meat grilled on sticks like satay). We ordered the latter, two plates of it, only to realise too late that the portion was huge. There was probably 6 times the amount of meat on a Greek souvlaki as compared with a local satay. Each plate came with 4 sticks, served with fries and pita bread. We were hungry, but that was really too much.
After dinner at about 4.00pm, the sky was starting to darken. We walked back to our hotel and bought some drinks and titbits from a kiosks.
“Where are you from?” asked the bearded gentleman at the kiosk. “China?”
“Singapore.” I replied.
“Have you met any Singaporeans?” asked the little guy.
“No.” he laughed. “First time. Maybe they’re all in Athens.”
The night sky was full of stars. It would be another clear and cloudless day. With such low humidity, I didn’t expect much snow. We went back to our room to shower and sleep. The next morning, I packed some snacks and a 1.5 litre bottle of water in addition to the two small bottles of water we each carried. I also brought a headlamp just in case. I then taught the little guy how to layer clothing for climbing. We wore a thermal layer, a down vest for insulation and a shell jacket to act as a wind breaker.
The office behind the petrol kiosk was manned by an elderly gentleman. He spoke no English, but offered us hot coffee. Our taxi soon arrived. Ekarius greeted us and asked us why we changed hotel and how much we paid for this one so he could recommend it in future. We drove out of town and entered a narrow, winding road. Soon, Litochoro was beneath our feet. We were off to Prionia situated at an altitude of about 1100m.
“Do you think we can be back at Prionia at 5.00pm? Can you come back and pick us up?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s better you walk back. There’s a shortcut through the woods. Takes about 3-4 hours to reach Litochoro. You have a torch?”
“Yes, but my son may be too tired or it may be too late.”
“There’s a taverna at Prionia. If it’s open when you come down, ask them to call me from their fixed line. Otherwise, you can walk down the road until there is mobile signal and call me on your mobile. There should be some signal about 2km from Prionia.”
The taxi arrived at Prionia. The barrier to the carpark was down. The place was completely deserted and the temperature was probably just below freezing. Our clothing was inadequate at that moment, but that’s how climbing should start. The only living thing there was a dog milling around a closed taverna. There were a locked toilet, a water collection point, some signboards with maps and warnings. Of course, there was also a clearly marked path – the only thing that looked welcoming.
We crossed a wooden bridge and entered a forest with moss-covered rocks and a floor deep with fallen leaves. This trail is called the E4 summit trail.
Less than 30 minutes into the climb and we were already feeling warm. We peeled off our gloves and down vest and continued climbing. Most reports estimate a time of 3 hours to the refuge but I expected the newbie to take far longer than that. I had to keep encouraging and waiting for him. His problem was not with fitness per se, but he was yet unable to ignore some of the discomfort and push on. The difference between experienced hikers and inexperienced ones lies in the former’s ability to ignore the associated discomfort.
The route was a tortuous one. We were moving in at an angle, seeing one side of the mountain before catching sight of the “crown” of Mt Olympus. The little guy likened the summits of Mt Olympus to the back of a Spinosaurus.
There were no particularly steep slopes on the trail and unlike the Himalayas, there was no issue of hypoxia. Even the summit does not exceed 3000m in altitude. Mt Olympus is not even among my top 10 highest mountain in terms of height, but it is certainly the only mountain on which I have not encountered a single soul on my way up or down!
Almost 2 hours into the climb, we reached a shelter like one of those on the Kinabalu summit trail. According to the map, we’re about halfway through to the refuge. In reality, we were still a long way from it. The vegetation changed rapidly from bald trees that had shed a ton of maple leaves to hardy pines and conifers that retained their needles and feathery coats designed to endure the winter cold.
With a clear sky, the sunshine came down in full force, turning the snow on Mt Olympus into giant reflectors. We had to put on our sunglasses and apply sunblock. It also got warmer, but patches of hard snow and ice started to appear on the trail. The going got a bit tougher and the little guy who was so excited over the sight of snow, was beginning to realise how it could impede one’s movement. He was slipping and sliding even as he was enjoying making snowballs.
At about 2000m, the terrain became decidedly mixed in certain sections. I could find a shorter and perhaps technically easier path to the summit plateau on the bare, snow-free rock (see picture below), but the incline was steep and would prove taxing for the newbie – if not dangerous. The little guy started to struggle with loose rocks and ice and he called for help. What’s more, the trail was no longer obvious. No wonder we didn’t encounter a single soul. Only insane people like me would think of tackling Mt Olympus in winter.
If I were alone and if I had an ice axe, I might have moved on until it became too dangerous for me too. But with the little guy in tow, I made the prudent decision – turn back. We descended Mt Olympus slowly and cheerfully, talking about the things we’ve seen in Greece so far and the life in Singapore. He felt proud that Daddy had brought him on a trip into the wilderness that was so unique that probably none of his classmates would ever experience anything close to it. It didn’t matter that we didn’t summit. I know I’ll be back.
The descent seemed to take longer than the ascent. This probably had to do with the fact that daylight was fading as we neared Prionia. The place looked exactly like it was when we arrived in the morning – gloomy and totally deserted. No sign of life at the taverna except for that dog. I wondered who fed it. The little guy was in no mood to walk back to Litochoro even though the 9km mostly downhill footpath was also clearly marked.
I turned on my mobile phone. There was no signal as Ekarius said. We walked down and saw a car coming up the road towards Prionia. Finally, two other visitors, but were they going to climb up so late? About 1km further down the road, there was mobile signal, but I could not call Ekarius because it was a local network and there was no Singtel roaming signal on the mountain! I broke the bad news to the little guy. We had to walk back. He was complaining as we walked back to Prionia where the footpath began. As we approached Prionia, the car that passed us earlier turned back. I suggested hitchhiking and the little guy lost all shyness and modesty, pointing his thumb down the road as the car approached and slowed down.
The car stopped and the driver’s window came down.
“Are you going to Litochoro?” I asked.
“Yes.” the driver replied.
“Can you give us a ride?” I asked.
“Sure.” the driver and the man next to him replied in unison.
“Do we have to pay?” the little guy asked.
“No.” they said with a chuckle.
The little guy wasted no time and opened the back door. There was child seat strapped to the back seat, but there was still enough space for the two of us. As it turned out, the two men were brothers. The driver’s name was George and his companion was Thomas. We had a hearty and fruitful conversation on our way to Litochoro. Thomas spoke perfect English and didn’t sound like a Greek. He was actually living in Sweden and was visiting his parents in Katerini then. We learned quite a few things from them. I won’t mention the personal details, just some tips and pointers.
1. There is a bus that goes right into Litochoro without stopping on the highway. However, it starts from Katerini.
2. There are marathons on Mt Olympus every September. The 45km route goes up the Plateau of the Muses from Gortsia to the summit and returns via the E4 route, ending in Prionia. George has done this marathon in about 5 hours.
3. Though Litochoro is so close to the sea, seafood is not recommended. The best catches would have been consumed in the seaside villages. Thomas directed us to a couple of tavernas that served great meats.
We soon arrived at the town centre of Litochoro. The most prominent building here was a church. There were also quite a number of shops, cafes and dining places. A hotel with a nice view of the peaks is also located here.
“You can take a bus to Thessaloniki from here.” said Thomas.
“This place looks unfamiliar.” said the little guy. I was beginning to feel embarrassed. George was kind enough to drive us to Litochoro. He wanted to be sent to somewhere familiar.
“Which hotel?” asked Thomas. I handed him the card and he actually got down from the car to ask a taxi driver. They delivered us all the way to the gas station cum garage cum motel and I just couldn’t thank the brothers enough. We dumped our stuff at the hotel, washed up a bit and made our way to one of the tavernas that Thomas recommended earlier. The veal steak was huge and wonderful. The little guy was hungry, cheerful but far from exhausted. Our trip to Mt Olympus proved that he has potential.