In most European capitals, you have to travel pretty far to experience the quiet, solitary tranquility of nature. Not so in Athens. In fact, just under an hour from the dead center of the chaotic, sprawling city I love, lies one of the most beautiful, well-preserved nature retreats in Greece: Mount Parnitha.
With the help of Trekking Hellas and Discover Greece, as well as my incredible guide Anna, I set out to explore the wilderness that rams up right against the urban border of Athens. We drove the 26 miles from Syntagma Square to Parnitha and began our day trip.
Start: Bafi Refuge
Most visitors to Parnitha start their journey at Bafi Refuge. Well-stocked with warm, homemade food to help you make it through a chilly mountain hike, Bafi also provides lodging for hikers.
I took a long (and longing) look at the menu of warm, inviting food options before heading out to the chilly forest for a few hours and being told we’d have lunch later. My stomach loudly protested, but I knew filling up right before a long hike was a sure way to get weighed down.
Before we set out, we learned about the Greek Mountaineering Club, whose founder was unfortunately one of the pandemic’s first victims in Greece. We then took a look at the first skis in Greece, propped up on the wall, a relic of the late 1800s.
As much as it confounds tourists who only see crystalline blue waters and Mykonos party life on Instagram, not only are there incredible mountains in Greece, but skiing and snowboarding are possible – and actually quite popular!
It’s part of the reason places like Parnitha are so well-known among Greek locals, but not so much to outsiders. People around the world have a specific vision of what Greece is, and tend to visit places – namely summery, beachy islands with whitewashed houses – that stick to that narrative.
But Greece is one of my homes. I want to understand and share a narrative that’s more complex. As I discover more nuances of my home country, I want to share my experiences as a love letter to my homeland.
Mount Parnitha As a National Park
At 1,413 meters (oh right, American – 4,636 feet) of elevation, Parnitha is the tallest of the four mountains surrounding the sun-baked city of Athens laid out in the basin below it. It was established as a National Park in 1961, and remains a popular spot for Athenians looking for wildlife watching, hiking, or just a damn break from constant honking and concrete.
Even in October, walking through the mountain trails you see evidence of a harsh winter.
Part of the reason the trail markers are so high up – as you can see with the red triangle below – is because the snow line can reach pretty high up. So if you wade-hike your way through snow (already a terrible survival decision for most of us not named Bear Grylls) the trail markers should still be visible so you don’t get completely lost.
The mountain’s designation as a National Park protects its flora and fauna. Though you will see mushrooms and other such edibles along the trail, no one is supposed to forage here. The wilderness is meant to be left alone (even though we did see two men illegally gathering mushrooms, who were swiftly censured by my guide).
This protection extends to fallen trees off the trail and other such occurrences. The point is to let nature go through its natural cycle without interference. Fallen trees will eventually decompose to fertilize the soil below. What we find messy in the natural world is often just a small and necessary part of a bigger picture.
Understanding the Forest Ecosystem
Our incredible guide, Anna, pointed out how long cycles of life and growth in the forest take. It’s understandable why any human interference is unwanted. Below, you see a slight difference in the green shades between the tips of the leaves and the rest of the leaf. That small, vibrant green tip represents all the growth that baby tree has gone through this year.
That’s it! That’s a tiny inch at best! If kids grew this slowly, they’d be adult size in their 50s at best.
Keep in mind, this is a fledgling tree we found low and close to the ground. Now, imagine the absurd length of the entire, centuries-old process that built this forest.
That’s why, it’s best to just observe and leave the wildlife and plants alone. Also because, let’s be honest, are you willing to bet your life on your ability to tell poisonous and edible mushrooms apart? I’m certainly not.
Keep that in mind as you explore Mount Parnitha. You know that phrase every girl who has traveled at least once posts on their IG account at some point? Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints? Sure.
With the addendum that if you eat a snack bar and create garbage along the way, you should also take that shit with you on your way out.
A Quiet Rest in Mola
We walked towards Mola, where Anna promised there was an open field where we could rest. I was looking forward to taking my camera-accessory filled backpack off and lying down on the grass for a while. Maybe it was because my legs had been rendered entirely useless after three days of walking tours and I couldn’t feel them anymore.
The weather continued to shift from sunny to overcast and back again. I, being somewhat underdressed below my rain jacket like an idiot, prayed for the soothing warm sun to greet us on the field. Thankfully, I got lucky.
We sat for a while and chatted until we lapsed into silence, taking it all in. The peaceful meadow, with the stillness only occasionally punctuated by a bird chirp or a slight wind. The warm sun against my face. The feeling of the cool, slightly damp grass below me as I rested my head on my backpack. Feeling truly fresh air rush in and expand my lungs; the air you can only get outside of cars and malls and streets and crowds and bars and city life.
Removed From the Outside World
I could have sworn I felt a slight tremor below me as I was lying down. I absentmindedly thought to myself how odd it would be if we missed an earthquake just by being in the wilderness right now, with no objects, windows, or doors to shake and smash down and alert us.
As it turns out, I happened to be right. While we were lying in the field, a 7.0 earthquake had hit close to the island of Samos, in the East Aegean Sea. Even friends in Athens had felt it, though not that intensely on the Richter scale. Numerous incoming texts would inform us of this in the one minute or so we got signal.
However, without a stable connection to the outside world, we didn’t realize the full extent of the earthquake and damage until after our descent. Up in the mountain – even from that kind of breaking news – we were completely removed.
Experiencing Mount Parnitha With Trekking Hellas
As we got up again to make our way back to Bafi and, I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough, finally eat, I kept up a brisk pace behind Anna. I should mention that Anna is one of the star guides for Trekking Hellas. She knew her way around the forest and had the stamina of an experienced hiker. I had the stamina of someone who had been eating my way through Athens for the past three days.
Anna continued to point out the leaves, the plants, the idiosyncrasies of the woods. How wonderful, I thought, to be as familiar with something so natural as most of us are with the streets and shops and landmarks around our homes. I loved seeing Parnitha through her eyes; not just as a calming blur of green trees, but as an intricate ecosystem I could only grasp the edge of, living and breathing and existing eons before and (hopefully) eons after us.
I became so lost and enraptured in this small retreat away from human habitation that when we came upon a man-made structure, it was almost jarring.
St. Peter – A Church on the Mountain
St. Peter appeared, suddenly and confusingly, out of the autumn leaves and stark trees. This old Greek Orthodox church looked semi-abandoned, the pale grey stones of its construction matching the now grey and cold wintery sky above it.
After sitting for a while on the old wooden bench outside, the church ended up feeling as much a part of the mountain as anything else. You could sit outside for hours in complete solitude and silence. I didn’t see a single person exit or enter or pass by. The church felt as though it had been reclaimed by the mountain it sat on.
After a hearty lunch of beef and potatoes, I gazed out at the view below us while Anna caught up with other hikers and guides. It was clear she knew a whole lot of people here. The mountain had its own little outdoor community.
End: Back to Athens
One of the strangest things on Mount Parnitha occurs during the leaving of it. As we drove on the the narrow, looping mountain road, almost immediately Athens came into view below us. I felt like I had left the entire county for the day, and yet there it was, the Greek capital, appearing right before me almost as soon as we started our descent.
In a way, Parnitha is an extension of the same magic I find throughout Athens. Each neighborhood, each hidden corner and alley, can make you feel like you’ve entered a completely different place.
The same way you’ll burrow down into a traditional Greek restaurant with old-village-style decor, and then emerge blinking and confused into the busy city streets, because you could have sworn you were just transported for a while…that’s the same way you feel coming back down from Parnitha right back into the first neighborhoods of the city.
I often judge cities by what it would feel like to live there, not just visit. After returning to my hotel in the center of the city, I thought how beautiful it would be to live in Athens and know that there was this incredible escape, this natural sanctuary, just 45 minutes away.
Even the most city of city girls (ahem) sometimes needs a break. To anyone feeling overwhelmed by the noise and life and lovely chaos of Athens, I highly recommend a day up in Parnitha, especially with Trekking Hellas as your guide.
Have you been to Parnitha? If not, what’s your favorite natural escape? Comment below!