Attica’s lofty wilderness for nature lovers

Not many smoggy urban conglomerations such as Athens have mountains so close to their city centers. Despite the destructive forest fires of recent years and the increasing spread of suburban blight, within half an hour to an hour’s traveling from the city center, one can be in the middle of an ancient forest, the city hidden from view. Mt. Hymettus and Mt. Pendeli, while greatly denuded by fire and quarrying, still have some trails and unpaved roads to explore, but most of the 300 square kilometers of the Mt. Parnitha region, declared a national park in 1961, are still densely forested and boast a variety of Mediterranean flora and fauna. From antiquity, Mt. Parnitha has served as a protective barrier for the city – first as a natural defense, as evident from the ancient stone watchtowers dotted along the mountain facing north – and in latter years as a place of recreation (and source of oxygen) for the inhabitants of a fast-growing metropolis. The mountain is actually a range of peaks, about 15 of which are over 1,000 meters high and the highest, Karabola, stands at 1,413 meters. They are separated by steep gorges, seasonal streams and over 40 springs, with the occasional plateau. Most of the peaks are fenced off for telecommunications and army installations but there are fine views from the top of Kyra and Flambouraki toward the south. From the fire watchtower above Skipiza spring there is a view over the northern reaches of the mountain. Vegetation consists mainly of Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis), black pine (Pinus nigra), plane trees (Platanus orientalis), walnut (Juglans regia), myrtle (Myrtus communis) and strawberry tree (Arbutus) below 800 meters, as well as oak, wild cedar and poplars. Above that is the realm of the Cephalonian fir (Abies cephalonica). Parnitha is also known for its wide variety of wildflowers, such as the crocus, anemone, cyclamen and its mushrooms and herbs. Animals one is likely to encounter are hares, foxes, squirrels and a large variety of birds.There is a small protected herd of deer (about 1,000 were counted in 1985) but they are very shy of humans. Hunting is forbidden throughout the year. The main road from Athens crosses the main highway north at the Metamorphosis bridge through to Thracomacedones. The road passes the teleferique station that takes passengers up the south face to the casino, and then winds up to Aghia Triada, with its spring, refreshment stands and restaurant. If you don’t have your own transport, there is a bus (number 714 from Acharnon Street, near the corner of Stournara Street) that goes up to Aghia Triada on weekends. From there the road goes on up to the casino to the right and on to the mountaineering club refuges, of Bafi, run by the Hellenic Alpine Club of Athens, and Flambouri, run by the Acharnes Alpine Club. For the beginner and the less than fit, there is a short (three km) walk through the forest just below and parallel to the road, reaching from the casino to the Bafi refuge. From the casino, walk down the road about 100 meters and take the right fork in the road, going past a tennis court on your left. About 100 meters further on is a helipad which you cross, continue in straight line, and you will see the beginning of the path in front of you, taking the left fork. About 150 meters further on, there is an underground reservoir. The path continues through the forest to rejoin the asphalt road. After making a stop at Bafi, where lunch is served on the weekends, you can either walk back the same way to the teleferique or continue down the Houni Gorge, a path that ends just to the left of the teleferique parking lot. The path down the gorge begins behind the refuge. No matter how short a time you are planning to be out, be sure to take plenty of water and a waterproof jacket with you – the weather changes very fast on a mountain. For longer walks, one of the best, if not the best, maps of Mt. Parnitha is published by Road Editions in their series on Greek mountains and regions. Compiled in cooperation with the Greek army’s geographical service, it clearly shows the mountain’s trails and roads. However good the map, it cannot be stressed too strongly that it is very easy to become disoriented in Mt. Parnitha’s winding gorges and dense vegetation, and you are likely to find yourselves going around in circles if you are not careful. The invention of mobile telephones has made getting lost less dangerous but it is neither wise or practical to count on calling someone to come and find you. The best way to get to know the mountain and to be able to venture further into its maze of trails is to join an organized hiking group, of which there are many in Athens, and Parnitha is a popular destination for a one-day hike. Greece has dozens of alpine and trekking clubs, many of them in Athens. The largest and most well-known is the Hellenic Alpine Club of Athens (EOS Athinon), which has a single-day excursion (about 7 hours of walking) to Parnitha scheduled for Sunday, November 4. For details call EOS at 321.2429, 321.2355, Tuesday to Friday 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The Acharnes Alpine Club (EOS Acharnon) has an excursion planned for Sunday, November 11, leaving from the Flambouri refuge and ending up in Avlona, on the northern side of the mountain. Call 246.1528 or 246.2666 Monday to Friday from 8.30 a.m. to 2 p.m., or 6 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. Other hiking clubs include: The Hiking Association of Athens (Pezoporikos Omilos) tel 821.8401, open Monday to Friday 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. The Athens Mountaineering Club (AOS) tel 323.8775, 323.8706, open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. and Thursday 7 p.m.-10 p.m. Travel writer Marc Dubin has described three one-day hikes on Mt. Parnitha in the Lonely Planet walking guide Trekking in Greece. 1 tablespoon sweet red pepper

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