Greece’s highest mountain may appear intimidating at first glance - but the ascent is easier than it looks
No wonder the ancient Greeks knew their gods lived on Mount Olympus. Much of the time, the 9,480ft summit is capped by clouds. Sometimes, lightning flickers and thunder rolls over the peaks. Zeus is angry…
Looming over the coastal highway, Olympus looks intimidating. Indeed, there’s no record of anyone making it to the top of Mitikas, the highest summit, until 1913, when the Greek Christos Kakalos and two Swiss climbers, Frederic Boissonas and Daniel Bau-Bovy, reached the top. An Ottoman sultan is said to have had a go in the 16th century, without success.
But Olympus isn’t as tough a challenge as it seems. On the way up, I’ve been overtaken by little old Austrian ladies in sneakers, chattering merrily as they hopped from rock to rock like a flock of mountain goats. It’s a long walk, but pace yourself, wear good boots, and if you’re reasonably fit you’ll make it. Well, almost. The final scramble to Mitikas, along a 100-yard knife-edged ridge with a sheer drop on either side, is terrifying and really requires technical mountainerring skills and kit.
Olympus is more than just one peak. It’s a 12-mile-long mountain range that dominates the east coast of northern Greece. The massif is designated as a national park, where flocks of chamois scramble and vultures and eagles soar high over harsh, almost lunar highlands where only the hardiest vegetation survives the blazing summer sun and winter snows that don't fully thaw until May. More than 1,400 species of shrubs, herbs and wild flowers can be found on the mountain, and the park shelters numerous rare birds, butterflies and reptiles.
Even from the lower slopes, the views are breathtaking. Far below, the coast looks almost close enough to touch, and on a clear day you can see all the way across the Thermaic Gulf to the coasts of the Kassandra peninsula and even Mount Athos. And the sense of achievement when you reach the peaks is fantastic.
Base yourself in the small town of Litochoro, about four miles inland from the main coast road. You can get all the way there by bus, or take the train from Athens or Thessaloniki to Leptokaria, on the coast. Litochoro has plenty of shops where you can stock up on dried fruit and other low-weight, high-energy trail food.
Begin your ascent by cheating – take a taxi to the car park and trailhead at Prionia, about 11 miles from Litochoro and 3,000ft above sea level. The trail zigzags through pine woods to emerge close to the treeline and the 6,000ft contour at the Spilios Agapitos mountain shelter. Stay here overnight – there’s a welcoming taverna serving jugs of local wine and basic but very welcome home cooking, and 110 bunk beds (€10 per person) in a large dormitory. The hike from Prionia takes around three hours, so set off no later than 3pm.
The ascent from the dorm to the top of Olympus takes at least three hours each way, so getting there and descending all the way to Litochoro involves an exhausting nine hours' walking. A better plan is to stay a second night at the shelter on the way down, with only a three-hour stroll back to Prionia on your third day, when you can use your mobile phone to call a taxi from Litochoro.
You deserve a recovery day, so reward yourselves with a night at the very chic Olympus Mediterranean hotel, which has 23 rooms, most with small balconies and a view of the mountain. It also has an indoor pool, a spa and a sauna where you can steam away your aches and pains. A room here isn’t cheap (rates start at around €100) but hey, you’ve earned it. Another stylish option is Papanikolaou Guesthouse, with cosy rooms in a traditional-style stone mansion from around €65. But if money’s tight, or if you can’t wait to dip your hot, tired feet in the cool sea, book a budget bungalow (or pitch your own tent) at the Poseidon Beach Hotel and Camping, on a beach overlooked by a dramatic hilltop castle at Neos Panteleimon, about eight miles from Litochoro. Rates start at €10 for a two-person tent and €25 for a self-catering bungaloid that will sleep four.
Before travelling on, visit the ancient temple-city of Dion, on the plains below Olympus, for an ancient Hellene’s view of the home of the gods. Dion was built around the 4th century AD, and you can see the remains of heated Roman baths, a theatre, and some excellent mosaics. In later times, Dion ceased to be a pagan shrine and became a Christian place of worship, but you can’t help feeling that early converts from the old religion must have sometimes glanced nervously upward to the home of the elder gods.