Driving along the road that winds up the eastern flank of Parnitha, where the city of Athens suddenly gives way to dense forest, I’m feeling apprehensive. I’ve arranged a mountain biking tour through this national park, but I fear that what sounded like an invigorating day out in nature may turn out to be an arduous slog.
My guide is Giannis Chelis, the director of activities of Trekking Hellas Parnitha in the mountain refuge of Bafi. Earlier in the week, he had outlined some of the routes we might take. It won’t be my first time on a bike, but as he described one of the more popular routes—over 16 kilometres, a gradient of 35% in places, and hundreds of metres in elevation change, a troubling image came to mind: endless stretches of Tour de France-esque steepness and me disconsolately pushing the bike on foot, wondering why I had signed up for this.
“Let’s take it easy at first and see how we go,” I had told him.
Welcome to the Wilderness
After a 15-minute drive from the base of the mountain, the road levels out at about 1000m. Parnitha, one of four mountains that surround the Athenian basin, is by far the wildest. While the other three—Hymettus, Penteli and Aigaleo—also have forested parts, you rarely feel as if you have really left the city. Parnitha, on the other hand, is a proper wilderness, a true “mountain’s mountain”—despite being less than an hour away from the city centre.
The landscape here is wild, with rocky hills covered in scrub in places, and dense, mature forests of fir and black pine in others. The weather is also different. I left downtown Athens in warm autumn sunshine. Here there is a distinct touch of winter to the thinner air. The city is still visible, indeed the view is superb, but a hazy atmosphere makes it seem unreal, like a video game backdrop that you can see but never reach. All I can hear are the birds and the breeze.
From Bafi to Adventure
I meet Giannis at the Bafi refuge, an attractive mountain lodge where many of the mountain’s visitors end up for a warm bowl of soup or hearty sausages after a day out in the fresh air.
While Trekking Hellas’ mountain biking tours typically involve small groups, today it’s just the two of us. Giannis shows me a map of the mountain. “One option is to take this circular route,” he says. “It usually takes about two-and-a-half hours. Or we can take this shorter ride, which leads to some points of interest.”
I opt for the shorter route, figuring that if the uphill sections prove too much, we will be near enough to the refuge to summon a car to pick us (me) up without too much hassle.
Giannis gives me a quick but welcome refresher course in mountain biking and we set off. My ride is a solid red number, basic but sturdy, with good quality Shimano gears and brakes. We quickly become fast friends. The first few uphill sections do set my legs on fire, but I soon find my rhythm.
Giannis, of course, could probably whip around the mountain before my first water break. His tree-trunk legs hint at his previous career as a professional footballer, and he literally lives here, in the Bafi refuge. Yet he adjusts to my pace while making it seem that he is doing no such thing, chatting knowledgeably about Parnitha’s flora and fauna.
Despite the devastating 2007 wildfire that ravaged much of Parnitha’s fir forest, the national park is home to roughly 1,000 species of plants, as well as animals large and small, including a large population of red deer. After many years of absence, wolves have even started to reappear on the mountain.
Mola and Beyond
After a few kilometres on asphalt, we turn onto a dirt road through the forest. We cruise downhill, and my thrill at zooming through the trees is only slightly marred by the thought of what it’s going to be like to pedal back up.
But every stretch is awash in natural beauty and every bend offers stunning views. I find myself repeating the things that I say every time I head up to Parnitha: “It’s really incredible that this is so close to Athens,” and, “I should come up here more often.”
We refresh ourselves at a couple of springs and pass by an old, stone church, the legacy of the shepherds who once brought their flocks up to the mountain in the summer, before Parnitha was declared a national park in the 1960s. They also created our next stop, a clearing known as Mola, where picnic tables under fir trees make a wonderful spot for a rest and a sandwich.
The Scenic Route
“So, from here we can ride back, or I can call someone to pick us up,” Giannis tells me. The realization that we are back on the main road comes as a surprise. I had certainly noticed pedalling uphill, but the sheer enjoyment of cycling amidst such natural beauty had distracted me and now I’m reluctant to turn back.
“I’m actually thinking that those 16 kilometres wouldn’t be so bad,” I tell Giannis.
We set off on a full circuit around the mountain. Riding along the road, we come to a barrier. From here on motorized vehicles are forbidden, making it a cyclist’s dream: a paved road without cars.
A small tuft of fur on the road stops Giannis in his tracks. It’s clear from its length and wiriness that it comes from a large animal. “This is from a wolf,” he tells me, grinning. “This is the first time I’ve seen this.” A short while later, we come to the burnt part of the mountain, where dense forest has been replaced by thick, low lying vegetation. We encounter a family of placid but wary deer. They pose for a few photographs before scampering off.
The Donkey’s Tail
We’ve been riding for over two hours. At this point, Giannis often summons a van for his riders because the final stretch is all uphill. But it doesn’t seem much worse than what we’ve already encountered, so I decide that it would be a shame to complete our circuit in the back of a van. Citing an old Greek adage, I say: “We’ve eaten the donkey, all that’s left is the tail. Let’s do it.”
“Great,” says Giannis. “But you should know it’s a big tail.”
It is a big tail, one that is negotiated rather slowly and with gritted teeth. But, finally, we ride into the Bafi mountain refuge just as the sun is setting, feeling sweaty but accomplished. We sit down for hearty bowls of spaghetti Bolognese and once again I think to myself, “I should come up here more often.”