“Uuuuu,” howls 18-month-old Eleni, tilting her head back and showing us what a wolf does to communicate. In her version of the fairy tale, however, there’s no Little Red Riding Hood and the beast is not bad – the wolf is a fascinating friend and neighbor on the mountain, with an equal right to be there, because what sets Eleni apart from other children in Attica is that her knowledge of the wolf has not been gained from children’s books or TV cartoons but from her life experiences.
Eleni lives in Parnitha with her parents, Giannis Helis and Maria Lazarou. They are the only inhabitants on the mountain, which was declared a national park in 1961; human settlement is not allowed within the park limits. Helis and Lazarou manage Parnitha’s two mountain refuges, Bafi and Flaburi, at elevations of 1,161m and 1,158m respectively. Even if this wasn’t their line of work, this couple would probably be living on another mountain – their lifestyle choices brought about their involvement with the shelters, not the other way around.
Giannis and Maria settled in Parnitha in 2017. Maria had been living in the somewhat rural Athenian suburb of Ilion and working as a personal trainer. Giannis grew up in Aigaleo and was a football player. By chance, Giannis found himself at Bafi on Parnitha in 2009 when it was being managed by his cousin, now business partner, Stefanos Sidiropoulos. They took a hike to Panos Cave, and that was it; Helis was bitten by the nature bug. He joined both the management of the refuge and the outdoor activities company Trekking Hellas, running the Parnitha branch of the latter. Maria ascended the mountain via a different path, taking part in a company seminar on outdoor activities as part of her desire to take her work outside, away from the city and indoor exercise. The two met on the mountain, and since then, that’s where they’ve made their home, teaching their daughter how to live in nature.
They wake up in eerie mists, wander in the forest, gather fruit and pick up litter left behind by careless weekend visitors. They drink spring water from their cupped hands, marvel at the deer and foxes they see, look out at the wilderness to the west or the urban Attic basin to the south, lit up at night like a magic carpet under their feet. Around the refuges, the scents of the mountain mingle with the smells from the fireplaces, which are still in use in April, as temperatures up here are much lower than in the rest of Attica.
Parnitha is a large mountain, with a total area of 400 sq. km. Its highest peak, Karavola, is at 1,413m. It is also the closest national park to a European capital. “We witness wildlife and the seasons changing. Unfortunately, here we also encounter the signs of climate change even more closely. It didn’t rain this year, and there was little snow. We mostly experience extreme weather events, such as severe rainstorms, of no benefit to the soil,” says Giannis. He adds, “I call the mountain ‘Ponemeni’ Parnitha (“Parnitha in Pain”). Not just because of the fires. These days, you see more sick trees than ever before. The fact that we are close to Athens probably also has an effect. In the summer, with 42◦ C in the Attic basin, we reach 30◦ C, which is a lot for the mountain.”
The ecosystem has, however, recovered from a spate of recent fires: “The wolves returned a few years back, giving us great joy. One of them, in particular, visited us daily – probably because there are crab apple trees around the refuge. Researchers estimate that there are more than 15-20 wolves.”
Despite the presence of these wolves and other wildlife, the couple had no second thoughts about raising their daughter here. They converted an old storage room into an ergonomic 50-square-meter house that suits their spartan lifestyle. Their relatives, as well as the shelter’s visitors, were surprised by their choice. “When I gave birth, they asked me, ‘Are you crazy? Raising a baby on the mountain?’ And yet, life here is ideal. In fact, even as a new mother, everything was easy and manageable. We’ve been taking our little girl out to the recreation area in Mola since she was 10 days old. I went up and down daily for work in Athens for the first two years. I wasn’t having a great time, because my mind was constantly here. Now it’s become routine in a way, but you still appreciate it every day. You stop and think: ‘Look where I live.’ If you get used to nature, there’s no going back; you can’t live conventionally again in Athens. When we’re stressed or arguing as a couple, we go outside and it calms us down. The little one, too, stops crying when she’s outside,” says Maria.
What if something happens? Eleni lives like any other child might in the mountainous areas of Greece. When she starts school, she’ll be picked up and dropped off. Menidi is 25 minutes away by car, and the little one is already used to the winding road. “If something happens, we can put her in the baby carrier and go on snowshoes to the casino cable car and head down. Even with a heavy snow, we’re never cut off for more than 5-6 days. Most parents worry about what they’ll do should a health issue arise. We have a fully equipped pharmacy and know first aid for babies and children. As the pediatrician says, there’s no difference between this and being stuck in Athens traffic,” says Maria.
There’s also no question of isolation or socialization for any of the three. On weekends, the two shelters welcome up to 2,000 people. “Generally,” Maria says, “we have a lot to do here, and a day spent in nature goes by quickly. It is a full, quality everyday life that we have, and it’s not as boring as you might think. Some days we go down to the city on business. If we’re forced to stay down there, we suffer. We can’t sleep with all the commotion. Think about it; our little girl gets scared when she hears a motorbike, but when she hears a wolf, she’s calm.”
Giannis dislikes the stress and tension he feels when he’s in Athens: “I don’t want to wake up anywhere else. I want to drink my coffee here, looking at the trees, listening to the birds.” They know they’re lucky to be able to work here on the mountain, and to be with their daughter all day, but others are lucky, too, that the couple is here. In addition to their primary duties as administrators of the mountain refuges that provide warmth, food, and shelter to hikers, Giannis and Maria also assist in locating any visitors to the mountain who go missing.
While we chat, Eleni is waving her shoes around; she wants to go outside. She waits next to the baby carrier just in case they try to leave without including her. On our walk in the forest, I notice her steps. She meanders among the stones, watches her every step, and bends to avoid the branches: “She treads naturally, by instinct,” says Giannis. “Children develop much faster in the freedom that nature affords them. Is there a better school than what’s around us right now? I don’t care if she reads fairy tales; I’d rather she went out and touched the trees, observed the flowers, and slid around in the snow.” Their daughter has already been hiking on Olympus, not to the peaks of course, and she’s been on Mt Helmos for skiing as well. “Everyone told us not to go,” says Maria. “But we checked the conditions before we went. The child lives at an elevation of 1,100 meters; she’s adapted. They tell us we’re doing it for ourselves and not for her, but if we’re okay, so is she. And she was so happy, singing and carrying on in her carrier.” Giannis adds, “Yes, she was four months old at -7◦ C, and yes, I’m sure it’s all good for her.”
Giannis outlines a typical day. “The baby wakes up early, at seven o’clock. She immediately opens the curtain to see outside, just like I do.” They then go up to the shelter, light the fireplace, and make breakfast. Eleni often picks up a cloth and imitates the workers who are cleaning the shelter. Along with supervising those staff, Giannis makes repairs to the shelters and cuts wood. When there are activities to run for Trekking Hellas, the couple share the work. Maria goes down to the city more often for personal training, and Eleni goes to a city swimming pool twice a week. On weekdays, they always take a walk in the afternoons. “Eleni is always by my side,” says Giannis. “When we’re clearing snow, she helps with her little snow shovel. She brings twigs to light the fireplace.
People get anxious when they see her in this environment, but she knows how to be careful, and we trust her. That’s how you should do it with kids. Take them outside, let them crawl, and awaken their senses. They’ll get their mobile phones, too, but getting in touch with nature is important. Since I started putting the little one on social media, I’ve seen that the number of children being brought to the mountain has increased, and I’m happy. The mountain is for everyone; however, you do have to respect it. You have to learn the rules and let the experts guide you. And you have to go slowly with the kids, because if you make it too tough on them, they’ll hate it. People need to understand that they’re not in danger from the mud or the wolf up here. The bad wolves are back there in the city. We, as a species, have moved away from our own nature.”