The bracing wind is invigorating. There are fir trees and pine trees everywhere you look. A herd of deer grazing on the grass are not afraid to approach us. In some places, we find ourselves climbing above the clouds. “Have we perhaps turned into angels all of a sudden?” someone asks, smiling.
We’re on Mt Parnitha, which, at 1,413m, is the highest mountain in Attica, and only a 45-minute drive away from downtown Athens. In fact, it’s one of the closest national parks to a capital city anywhere in Europe. Part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network, it boasts over 1,000 species of flora, 37 species of mammals, and 131 species of birds.
As you drive up the mountain, you can see the city receding into the distance until, gradually, it seems as though you are looking down on it from an airplane. Don’t give all your attention to the view, however, as road signs warn of deer crossings and the tight hairpin bends require your full concentration.
Would-be hikers should download the smartphone app Parnitha TopoGuide, which features a wealth of information on trekking trails and signposted paths in the area. You’ll come across several natural springs, but don’t drink from them. Following the great fire that ravaged the area in 2007, the water in most of the springs is, unfortunately, unfit for human consumption.
It’s worth booking an excursion with one of the experienced mountain guides from Trekking Hellas (tel (+30) 6974.871.203), who organize outdoor activities. One that’s particularly interesting is the mountain hike to Pan’s Cave, which, according to mythology, was where the god Pan used to live with his nymphs. The cave features many stalagmites and stalactites, has a 14m-high ceiling and is very dark; you’ll only be able to see thanks to the light of the headlamps on your caving helmets. Another highlight offered by Trekking Hellas is the 16km cycling tour, which follows a mostly paved mountain road as it cuts through the pine and fir forest. You can pause at points along the way to enjoy views that extend as far as the Gulf of Evia.
Many hikers rest and recover their energy at the mountain refuge of Bafi. At an elevation of 1,161m and in the heart of Parnitha, it offers spectacular views over the mountaintops. More and more foreign hikers have discovered it over the past few years, returning again and again to sit in front of its open fireplace and enjoy its welcoming atmosphere. The rustic Greek cuisine it offers includes fasolada (bean and tomato soup), spaghetti with meat sauce and country-style sausages.
On another peak just to the southeast stands the imposing Regency Casino Mont Parnes (Tel. (+30) 210.242.1234).
A luxury hotel favored by celebrities in its heyday during the 1970s, it now operates as a casino. Even if you don’t fancy your luck at the roulette wheel, the free cable car up to the casino from the foot of the mountain is well worth the ride, taking you on a seven-minute flight above the forest.
Because of its moderate climate, Parnitha hosted a tuberculosis sanatorium until the late 1960s. Today, in front of that derelict building stands the Park of Souls, a small open-air gallery of sculptures consisting of wooden figures, in memory of the many patients who received treatment here.