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Is this Greek island the perfect alternative to Mallorca?

In-depth
16 Dec 2020
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Perched on the outskirts of Athens, Mount Parnitha is a 1,000m climb into nature and mythology. Cyclist sets out on a Greek odyssey

Words Peter Stuart Photography David Wren

Climbing into the foothills of Mount Parnitha, Myrto educates me about the local history. She relates the legend of the Greek god Pan, who frequented the forests here to play his flute and dance on his cloven hooves among the deer.

I nod silently as she talks, seemingly absorbed in her tales, but the truth is I am incapable of speech. It’s taking all of my energy simply to turn the pedals and mask my increasingly laboured breathing. Myrto is very fast.

When she’s not cooking at her family’s restaurant on the island of Evia, Myrto is a successful racer, having finished fourth in the recent National Cross-Country Mountain Bike Championships.

Her prowess has been honed on these very roads in the region north of Athens, and this climb to Parnitha is one she has done many times.

That could explain why the 6% slopes seem to have no effect on her ability to make conversation, and why I find myself struggling to keep pace. Having dispensed with the lessons in mythology she moves on to teaching me some useful Greek swear words.

At this rate it won’t be long before I’m using them too. There is a still a lot more of this climb to go and it doesn’t look like getting easier anytime soon. Certainly the ascent of Mount Parnitha is proving a lot more challenging than I was expecting when we set out this morning…

Over land and sea

Our day begins on Evia, which sits about 50km north of Athens. It’s the second-largest island in Greece and is about the same size as Mallorca, but with a smaller population, slightly warmer average temperature and higher mountain peaks.

It’s a wonder this part of the world isn’t better known to cyclists. It certainly has a wealth of great riding on offer, which is why my host in Greece, Steven Frost, decided to give up his job in London and come out here to set up his tour company, Greek Cycling Holidays.

Being based on an island means the first part of our ride today involves catching a ferry from the port at Eretria and taking the 20-minute journey over to the mainland. The ride from the Greek Cycling Holidays villa to the port is only 2km, but a slightly too casual approach to breakfast means we find ourselves sprinting to catch the ferry. Well, I’m sprinting. Myrto just seems to be spinning her legs.

We make it aboard and after 20 minutes of standing awkwardly in my Lycra amid the morning commuters and holidaymakers we arrive on the Greek mainland at the port of Skala Oropou. From here we cruise along the coast for a while, taking in the views of blue-green water and white, rocky beaches, punctuated occasionally by the bronze, leathery skin of sunbathers catching the morning rays. Then we point our bikes southwards and start the journey inland.

Over the next 7km we drift upwards to a height of around 300m, but it’s not really what could be described as a climb. It’s more like a long false flat, a perfect leg freshener as we slip along a wide road bordered by dry Mediterranean shrubs and olive trees.

Nothing about the topography gives any impression that today’s ride will deviate far from this sort of thing. There isn’t anything to suggest that a climb with more than 1,000m of ascent is lurking in wait somewhere beyond the foliage.

For the moment I’m happy to tap out a rhythm with no real sense of urgency, simply drinking in the sights and smells of the Greek countryside.

To the mountain

Every big city seems to have its nearby cycling retreat. New York has Bear Mountain and the Catskills; Hong Kong has the New Territories; London has, er… Richmond Park.

Athens has Parnitha, which is similar to Richmond Park in that it is home to herds of deer. That’s about where the similarities end, however, as Richmond Park can’t really compete with the impressive gorges and 1,300m peaks of the Parnitha mountain range.

Approaching from the north we begin with a climb over one of Parnitha’s smaller hills on a narrow mountain road through pine forest. It takes us up onto a ridge that offers the occasional distant glimpse of Athens through gaps between the trees.

At 8km long and with 400m of ascent, it’s a fairly significant climb in its own right, but today it’s merely the warm-up act to the main event.

Once on the descent Myrto appears to have activated her internal warp drive. I have to go at full tilt just to keep her within sight, so much so that I barely notice when we skirt beside the Tatoi Royal Palace, which was once the residence of the Greek royal family. Twenty former royals still reside there, albeit within the grand marble cemetery.

Our speed creeps up beyond 70kmh on the steep descents, but I can trust in Myrto’s knowledge of these roads and simply let her lead the way.

By the time the road levels out we are in the Athenian suburb of Varimpompi, a white stone town that sits at the base of Mount Parnitha and which offers a last chance to load up on espressos and baked goods before we tackle the climb. 

Scorched earth

Back in 2007, Parnitha was the site of a devastating fire that burned 3,600 hectares of national forest. The scars of that fire are still evident on the mountain face today, etched in bare, scorched tree trunks.

Against the stone road constructions and limestone rock formations it creates an oddly picturesque grey-brown tone to the mountain. Thankfully, Parnitha is recovering, with more tham 15% of the land now reforested.

On the lower slopes of the climb you wouldn’t think the landscape here has ever suffered a hint of misfortune.

We ride through a dozen hairpins that carve through a corridor of pine trees, making it feel like we are deep in an Alpine wilderness despite being only a few miles from the outskirts of a major city.

Unsurprisingly this hairpin section is a magnet for Athenian cyclists, and the 6% average segment has seen several thousand Strava attempts – the quickest of which was done at a rather impressive average of 26kmh.

Despite its popularity, however, I can’t help wondering why this region, and Greece as a nation, has attracted so little attention in the world of cycling. No WorldTour races come close to Athens, few cyclists consider Greece as a cycling holiday venue and aside from the fine services of Greek Cycling Holidays there are very few cycle tour companies operating here.

It’s odd because with the considerable mountains, stunning landscapes and smooth roads Greece could easily warrant a place among the foremost cycling destinations.

Had history played out differently and a major race been staged here these slopes may well have had the same sense of romance and history as a climb like Mont Ventoux.

The upside to this lack of interest from the wider cycling world is that Myrto and I have the mountain to ourselves. The rich and rocky forest of the lower slopes now begins to open out to reveal a more bare mountainside around us.

The north of Athens is spread out below us like a model city, behind which the 1,100m Mount Pentelicus looms large. If I had more time in Greece that mountain would be high on the list of other areas I’d like to explore by bike.

After 10km we’ve been climbing for a little over 40 minutes at a pace somewhere between cruising and challenging. We have 5km to go before we reach a 1km flat section, from which it is a further 3km to go to the summit.

At 6% average and without any savage spikes the whole climb could be knocked off by a strong rider in a little over 50 minutes. Pushing ourselves to the limit is not on our agenda today though, and we settle into a rhythm that allows us to tick off height at a reasonable rate while still being able to enjoy the views.

As we roll up above 900m of altitude my heart starts to thump harder and my bars become slippery with sweat. We’ve been climbing for nearly an hour but a satellite tower that I know is at the mountain’s summit has just crept into sight, assuring me the end is close.

The contrasting views ahead and behind could be from different continents: the terrain above me is barren limestone while below and behind the green forest gives way to a sprawling cityscape.

The high reaches of Parnitha are home to a multitude of fortresses from the days when the Athenians had to defend their fertile lands and growing population from other powerful city-states. Today the only people we can see appear to be more concerned with protecting their picnic spots.

As the road levels out we roll alongside an abandoned sanatorium, which was mainly used to treat tuberculosis patients. Opposite sits the ‘Park of Souls’, a set of wooden sculptures put in place to commemorate those patients who died in the hospital.

The twisted wooden figures have limbs that have seemingly been singed into short stubs, which makes for an interesting spectacle here in bright Greek sunlight but would be the stuff of nightmares if you stumbled across them at night.

Looking at the sculptures gives us an excuse for a breather, and we watch the mountain’s deer grazing on the surrounding shrubbery for a while, before clipping back in to tackle the final 3km stretch of climbing.

Refuge and return

The summit proves to be a bit of an anti-climax, as the road tops out at a series of communications towers that aren’t particularly picturesque and manage to obscure the view out towards Athens. However Myrto assures me that we are in for a treat soon enough.

A few clicks back down the mountain she turns off down a short gravel track that leads to the Parnitha Mountain Refuge, a hotel-restaurant that’s surprisingly well-equipped considering how remote it is.

We treat ourselves to a leisurely lunch, extended further by us drinking in the incredible view of the valley below. Surrounded by conifer trees, and with the mountains sprawling out ahead of us, we could for all the world be in the Colorado Rockies.

After all the climbing I felt justified in helping myself to large quantities of pasta as a reward, although I begin to regret this self-indulgence once we remount and begin the homeward half of our journey.

There’s no option but to retreat the way we have come so our route back to Evia will retrace the exact same course as we have just done. We have about 55km ahead of us to get to the ferry port at Skala Oropou, although thankfully most of it is downhill so my pasta acts as ballast that helps keep me in sight of Myrto’s back wheel during the descent.

By now the afternoon is fading and a warm evening light drenches the landscape. Every rock and stone wall seems to glow as if lit for exhibition in a gallery.

The setting sun heightens the autumnal reds and oranges of the mountain’s flora, making the descent as beautiful as it is fun to ride. The wide, gently curving road allows me to stay off the brakes as I watch my speed climb, while a few narrow bends serve to keep the adrenaline high as I try to stay close behind Myrto.

It seems as though we’ve spent a long time in the saddle today already, and there is still a long way to go before we are back at the villa and flipping the top off a cold beer, but with the road tipping downwards for the majority of our journey home, the kilometres tick by quickly enough. Besides, Athens is only just beginning to reveal her secrets as a cycling destination, so there’s no reason to hurry.

Mapping powered by komoot

Cyclist began the ride from our base in Eretria on the island of Evia, approximately 50km north of Athens, but the climb to Mount Parnitha could just as easily be tackled from Athens itself by heading north to Acharnes and following the Parnithos road to Parnitha.

For those looking to repeat the full Cyclist experience, start by riding to the ferry port in Eretria and make the 20-minute crossing to Skala Oropou. Ride south on the 79 to the town of Malakasa before passing under the E75 highway and continuing on the 79 past the Tatoi Royal Palace to Varimpompi.

Head west to the Parnithos road, which will take you up the climb for over 1,000m to the communication towers at the summit. Once there, turn 180° and make the journey back via the exact same route.

Approximately 4km beneath the summit, look out for a left turning onto an unmarked gravel road to the Parnitha Mountain Refuge for a good lunch stop with great views. 

The rider’s ride

Ribble Endurance SL R Series Disc, £6,519, ribblecycles.co.uk

This bike was the perfect partner on the long ascent of Mount Parnitha. At 7.6kg the Endurance SL R is appreciably light, which coupled with a rigid rear end meant every vertical metre of ascent was made as easy as possible.

When it came to the descents and flatter sections the integrated cabling and wing-like one-piece cockpit played two roles. They improved the aerodynamics of the front end to increase speed but also afforded a nice balance of rigidity and comfort so the bike handled immaculately but was still smooth over rougher surfaces.

And as for the Sram Red eTap AXS groupset, wireless shifting is a dream when it comes to travelling and packing a bike bag. Once you’ve had the joy of removing a rear mech and swaddling it in bubble wrap hassle-free, it’s hard to imagine going back to cables.

The overall pricetag is pretty hefty, but you’re still looking at a saving of a couple of grand over other big-name brands with similar spec and performance levels.

For more on the Ribble Endurance SL R Series Disc, visit Ribble's online store here

How we did it


Travel

Athens International airport is served by a wide range of airlines and prices start at around £40 for Ryanair (although you’ll have to re-mortgage your house if you want to take a bike). The journey to Eretria by car and ferry takes about 80 minutes, and Greek Cycle Holidays can arrange a transfer if required.

Accommodation

We stayed with Greek Cycle Holidays (greekcycleholidays.com) at its villa in Eretria on the island of Evia. The villa comprises four twin rooms that can sleep eight people in total, and boasts an outdoor jacuzzi for some fine apres-cycle. Steven Frost, a professional chef in the off-season, cooks all meals. There’s also a free bar with a trusting self-serve policy at the villa. Packages start from £550 per person per week, with guided tours and all food and drink included.

Thanks

Many thanks to Steven and Peter Frost for our accommodation, and to Steven for acting as our support on the day of the ride. Thanks also to Myrto Teskou, who joined us for the ride. Not only is she an incredibly strong rider, she makes a mean prawn linguine in her restaurant Teskos in Nea Artaki on Evia.