Greece – Mount Olympus

Traveling all the way to Greece for a week-long colloquium for work without taking any time to do some touristy stuff seemed like a waste of a flight across the Atlantic to me. When I thought of what I’d like to do if I had a few extra days in Greece I, of course, thought about visiting some ancient Greek ruins or various museums. But then I thought about hiking. I then had the thought, why not climb Mount Olympus? When the thought initially occurred to me, I wasn’t sure what such a hike would entail nor whether Mount Olympus was the highest peak in Greece. It turns out it is the highest peak and is a hike within my abilities.

After spending a week on the Island of Lesvos for work, I caught a flight back to Athens, picked up a rental car, and headed toward Mount Olympus. I found some information online about climbing Mount Olympus, but not a lot (see here). The information I found online was sufficient to tell me roughly what to expect and where to start. But I didn’t find distances or GPS routes online (though there are maps available).

What I found was that the standard trailhead is Prionia, which is basically just a restaurant at the end of a road out of Litochoro.

A view of the restaurant in Prionia from the trailhead showing the rugged mountains in the background.
A view of the restaurant in Prionia from the trailhead showing the rugged mountains in the background.

With that information, I plotted a route on my phone and headed out of Athens. I also read somewhere that the tolls in Greece were crazy. Turns out, that’s pretty accurate. From the Athens airport to Litochoro I paid €27.65 in tolls (it’s roughly the same going back). So, be prepared with a fair amount of cash if you’re going to drive to Litochoro for this hike. (Another note: You need an international license to rent a car in Greece. You can get one here.)

Another thing I found online was that there are a number of lodges or refuges on the mountain where you can spend the night. If you’re planning on climbing Mount Olympus in a day (which would be a pretty serious hike, see below), you may not need to reserve a night in one of the lodges, but given my itinerary, I needed to do so. I arrived in Athens early in the morning (around 8:00 am), made it to the Prionia trailhead around 2:45 pm, and knew I wasn’t going to summit that day. So, I booked a bed in Refuge A for that first night (and possibly a second, since I didn’t have a good sense of how long the hike would take). Most of the refuges have websites (Refuge A and the others).

Just as I arrived at the trailhead it started to rain. I stayed in the car for about 30 minutes getting my pack and gear together. And since I don’t climb big mountains without bringing raingear, I also donned my raingear and put the rain cover on my backpack. However, just as I got out of the car, the rain stopped. I kept my rain pants on for about 20 minutes but then took those off as well. It was humid but actually quite beautiful just after the rain.

Me at the trailhead just after the rain stopped.
Me at the trailhead just after the rain stopped.

As noted, I wasn’t sure of the distances but had seen that the hike from Prionia to Refuge A (Spilios Agapitos) took one person 4 hours. Since the refuge doesn’t allow people to register after 8:00 pm, I knew I needed to get there fairly quickly. As a result, I pushed my pace a little bit and didn’t stop for many photos along the way. I also turned on the hike tracking app on my watch so I’d have a better sense of what the mileage actually is.

On one website I saw that about 10,000 people attempt to climb Mount Olympus each year. That’s a big enough number that I didn’t expect the hike to be all that rugged. It turns out, the elevation gain on the hike is pretty impressive (about 1,000 feet per mile) and the trail is pretty rugged (not everywhere, but most of it is quite rugged). This part wasn’t so rugged but very beautiful:

This is part of the very pretty forested area on the lower portion of the hike.

It took me just under 2 hours to travel the almost exactly 4 miles from the Prionia trailhead to Refuge A. Here’s the route:

And here are some additional stats from my tracking device:


As this screenshot shows, the distance was 3.93 miles (basically, 4 miles) and the elevation gain was 3,670 feet, which I’m rounding to roughly 4,000 feet. In other words, 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile, which is pretty substantial elevation gain. You can see some of the ruggedness of the trail in the photo below (which also shows the E4 trail markers that you follow all the way to the top of Skala):

Me in front of an E4 trail marker and a particularly rugged portion of the lower trail.

About two-thirds of the way to Refuge A it started to rain again, lightly. I ended up putting my rain jacket back on for the last third of the hike. I arrived at Refuge A around 5:00 pm. Never having stayed in a lodge like this in Europe, I wasn’t quite sure about the protocol. But the owners were nice and helped me get checked in and settled. It was €13 for a bed for the night. They also had lots of food, snacks, and other supplies. The refuge has a bunch of beds in various rooms (I was in the biggest which had about 20 beds in it), two dining halls, places to store gear, and restrooms. The water is ice cold and the toilets are holes in the ground.

The toilets at Refuge A are like those in Japan – a hole in the ground. You squat over them.

It’s not a 5-star resort, but it works well as a refuge. (I later realized how they got all the supplies up there – donkeys.)

Once I got to the refuge and got settled in, I realized I had quite a bit of time (lights out at 10:00 pm). I had planned for this and brought a book on my phone to read. I ordered a drink and hung out in one of the dining rooms reading. Around 7:30 I ordered dinner (the portions are huge, so I ordered about half of the regular size). They technically have wi-fi in the refuge but it wasn’t working. They also have outlets so you can charge devices if need be. I was able to get a cellular signal in one spot outside by a tree (everyone seemed to know where the one spot was) so I could let my wife know I was fine. Otherwise, I just hung out and read until it was time for bed.

Knowing I would be in a room with a bunch of other people, I brought earplugs. It was the right choice. Several people were snoring. With my earplugs in, I couldn’t really hear them. I also brought some Zzzquil just in case and popped a couple of those in to make sure I could fall asleep. (FYI, the refuge provides you with blankets, but you’ll need your own sheets. I found some lightweight sheets on Amazon that I brought with me.)

I set an alarm for 6:00 am the next morning which is when the lights come on. It turns out, I didn’t need it. A bunch of people were up right at 6:00 getting their gear ready to go which woke me up as well. I quickly packed up, ordered some yogurt and honey and a banana for breakfast, wolfed it down, and hit the trail. (FYI, if you plan to return to the refuge after going to the summit, you can leave stuff at the refuge. I didn’t think I was going to so I took all my stuff with me. This would be a nice way to drop some weight from your pack, like my flip-flops – which you need in the lodge as boots have to stay in the lobby – my towel, and sheets. That probably would have cut about 5 pounds out of my pack.)

Two other guys were headed out about the same time I was. They actually beat me to the trail while I was stretching, but I quickly caught up to them and they let me pass. From what I could tell, the people hiking to the summit from the lodge were generally pretty skilled hikers. The two guys I passed did a good job of keeping up with me over the next mile or so as I ascended toward Skala (the third highest peak in Greece and the launching point to Mytikas, the highpoint). I didn’t see them much after that point. I made it to the summit of Skala around 8:45. I had been hiking in fog for much of the time, but just below the summit of Skala, the fog broke and I had generally clear skies but clouds below me. On the summit of Skala I got my first real glimpse of Mytikas.

This is the view of Mytikas from Skala. The fog was rolling out just as I got to the summit of Skala.

Here’s a photosphere from the summit of Skala:

Not knowing how long the clear skies would last, I quickly swapped out my helmet for my hiking poles, slipped on my gloves, and started following the red blazes over the Class III section of the hike.

The red (and often yellow outlined) blazes are pretty close together, which is good when there is fog.

I had read that this section is a rock scramble that is somewhat technical. That is an accurate description. There are several spots where you are, in fact, climbing or descending near vertically. However, most of this section is not particularly dangerous and primarily requires slow, careful stepping, with about 1/3 of the time using both hands and feet. Follow the red blazes carefully and you’ll be fine. There are anchors in several spots for ropes but they are never really required. My sense, however, is that this section of the climb would be an ideal location to practice using ropes and harnesses for those who are new to technical climbing.

It took me about 30 minutes to get from the summit of Skala to the summit of Mytikas. There is one spot that is a false summit about 2/3 of the way there. Don’t make the mistake I did and get up your hopes until you see the flag waving on the top of the summit.

This photo shows one of the blazes with the false summit in the background.

I arrived around 9:15. There were clouds below me but no clouds around me, offering me pretty clear views of Skala and the surrounding area. I had a quick snack then shot some photos and videos.

Me on the summit of Mytikas.

Here’s a photosphere of the summit:

My tracking device indicated that it was about 2 miles (2.1) from Refuge A to the summit of Mytikas. It took me about 2 and a half hours to traverse that distance.

Here are the elevation and distance data from my fitness tracker:

I didn’t stay long before I headed back to Skala. As I did, fog started to roll back in. I ran into the first group of people attempting to make the summit behind me about 2/3 of the way back to Skala. It was a group of four and two solo hikers all working together (all were from the UK I believe; I’m fairly certain I was the only person from the US in the refuge the night before). One woman had gone only about 100 meters from the summit of Skala before she turned back. The steepness of the area freaked her out and, knowing her limits, she didn’t want to go any further. I mention that only to illustrate that this hike really isn’t for everyone. It’s steep and somewhat technical. Don’t be overconfident as it is a serious hike.

By the time I got back to the summit of Skala, the fog had rolled back in and I could no longer see Mytikas. I swapped out my helmet and hiking poles and headed back down the trail. I made pretty good time going down. I stopped once to put on my rain jacket as it started to sprinkle below the summits. I also stopped at Refuge A for a snack and to air out my boots for a couple of minutes. I had told the owners of Refuge A that I might stay a second night depending on the time it took to climb Mytikas and the weather. But, given that everything had gone well, I opted to hike out that day and go do some other stuff in Greece. I tried to target arriving at the Prionia trailhead at 1:00 pm but missed it by about 10 minutes.

I did stop regularly to take more photos and even some videos as the hike is quite beautiful. This shot shows how steep the mountain is (and the fog that seemed to be ever-present):

This photo shows the mountain is steep and you are regularly shrouded in fog or mist.

There are also a couple of water fountains on the hike like this one:

Presumably, you can drink the water. I didn’t. But I think it is supposed to be clean.

I restarted my tracking device on the summit of Mytikas to get a sense of exactly how far it is from Prionia to the summit.

Here is the rest of the data from my fitness tracker:

Basically, it’s about 6 miles from the trailhead in Prionia to the summit of Mytikas. It took me 3 1/2 hours to descend from the summit to the trailhead.

Some final thoughts about the hike…

This was a more rugged, demanding hike than I originally thought it was going to be. I figured the trail would be pretty even and well-worn. The trail is generally pretty clear (not always) but it is quite rugged. The elevation gain is pretty substantial (over 6,000 feet total). And the technical section at the end to reach Mytikas is serious. Even though it doesn’t require ropes, it’s not an easy section, especially if there is fog or it is raining (I probably wouldn’t do it in the rain). This is not a pleasant day hike for someone without experience. This is a grueling, 12-mile round trip hike for experienced hikers. You should budget plenty of time for bad weather and the possibility that you’ll have to turn around and try to summit a different day.

I did leave Mount Olympus with a greater appreciation for why the ancient Greeks would have believed that is where the gods lived. During the two days I was in the vicinity of Mount Olympus, I never once saw the mountains without clouds covering them. The idea that the gods live on a mountain shrouded in clouds makes a lot more sense to me. Mount Olympus is nearly constantly shrouded in clouds. I also can’t imagine ancient Greeks trying to climb Mount Olympus. I’m sure they were rugged and tough, but if they only had sandals or primitive boots and not a lot of experiencing climbing at those altitudes, it seems unlikely they would have ever climbed to the top. I think I understand why mountains were so mysterious and mystical now – they were impenetrable fortresses literally shrouded from view. Today, of course, we can penetrate those shrouds but that would have been virtually impossible 2,600 years ago.

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Greece Trip – Metochi

Thanks to my work on nonreligion and atheism, I was invited to participate in a week-long colloquium (May 13th through May 20th) in Greece by LeRon Shults in which I would serve as a “subject matter expert” helping LeRon and his team develop computer models to better predict who joins atheist organizations. You can learn more about LeRon and the project here. There were about 16 people who attended in total, with about half of them being subject matter experts like myself. We spent about 6 hours each day developing the models and thinking very carefully about the many factors that contribute to changes in atheist identity and affiliation.

The colloquium took place in what was formerly a monastery on the island of Lesvos called Metochi. Metochi is actually an annex to a larger monastery called Limonos. The larger monastery is connected to Metochi via a 1.5 km hiking trail through the surrounding hills (see below for more details). Metochi has, in recent years, been taken over to some degree by Agder University in Norway (where LeRon works). Agder University updated the former monastery, modernized it, cleaned it up, and now largely runs it as a quasi-owned university extension site. Metochi still has other guests (no monks), but many of the people who visit Metochi are affiliated with Agder University. Here’s a photosphere of Metochi’s courtyard:

We would typically spend about 4 hours working on the project in the morning, have lunch, then take a break in the afternoon to either relax or go explore (the same time many of the people on Lesvos where taking a nap). Since I prefer exploring over relaxing, I typically used the afternoon break to go hiking or do something else active. Here’s a rundown of what I did while I was there.

May 14th

This was the first free time I had and I was itching to go for a hike.  Living in Florida, there are no hills or mountains to climb. Being nestled in among some hills, I really wanted to get out and climb something. One of the other subject matter experts and I hiked to the Limonos monastery, walked around there a bit, then came back. Here’s a photo of the monastery from the trail:

Limonos monastery from trail to/from Metochi

And here’s the route from Metochi to Limonos and back:

May 15th

LeRon arranged to have a local bike shop owner come out and rent us bikes. There are a couple of towns that are pretty close, including Kalloni, Dafia, and Skala Kallonis. One of Skala’s claims to fame is that it was a temporary home of Aristotle where he studied biology. I biked to Skala with a few other people, walked along the beach, then sat and chatted with one of the subject matter experts I know fairly well.

Here I am at Aristotle’s beach (it’s not actually called that, but there is a statue of him about 50 meters from here):

me at Skala Kalloni beach

Here’s the route:

May 16th

The day I arrived I noticed that there was a hiking loop that could take someone to all the monasteries linked to Limonos. I saw the information on a board right in front of Metochi.

Information board on the Limonos loop hike in front of Metochi
This is a close-up of the loop itself.

The board indicated the loop was 9 kilometers and suggested it would take hikers about 3 hours. Since my afternoon break was just 3 hours, I figured I’d have to do the hike faster than that – ideally 2 hours, but 2 1/2 would still work. I managed to do the whole thing in 1 hour and 46 minutes (skipping a few extensions of the hike along the way). My route was 5.52 miles (or 8.88 kilometres), which is pretty much the route they laid out. The hike is pretty good. There is some elevation gain (533 feet) and there are parts that are really beautiful. The route from Metochi to Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis through Dafia is actually not that great. It’s really just a hike on dirt roads and then through a town. However, the route from Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis to Limonos in particular and then to Metochi is quite lovely. I’d recommend just hiking from Metochi to Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis and back.

Here are some photos of the route:

The route is fairly well-marked by these red diamonds. There were a few spots where the distance between the diamonds was pretty far and I wasn’t sure I was going the right way but I managed to stay on course for the most part.
I’d recommend hiking down to this point if you only do the northern half of the loop as it offers really impressive views of Moni Panagias Mirsiniotissis, but this is as far as I would go. Just past this you’ll be walking past the garbage dump of Dafia which is much less impressive.
Most of the route from Limonos to Mirsiniotissis is actually a beautiful rock trail like this. It’s gorgeous!
This is a shot looking at Skala bay from above Metochi (after leaving Limonos). You’re just leaving the olive groves at this point.

Here’s my route:

And here are some of the stats from my hike so you have a better sense of the elevation gain and my speed compared to your own:

I was moving pretty fast as I had to get back to my seminar.


May 17th

This day was a scheduled off day. LeRon arranged for a bus to take us to Petra which is a bit of a tourist town on the coast where we got to do a little shopping, have lunch, and walk around for a bit. I walked around with another subject matter expert and even visited the chapel that stands on top of a massive rock in the middle of town. You can see the top of the chapel in this photo:

The Panagia Glykofilloussa in Petra

Here’s a photosphere from inside the chapel:

Petra is a cute little town with small, winding streets and nice places to shop.

After Petra, we went to the Lifejacket Graveyard (informal name) where thousands of life jackets from refugees have been dumped on the island of Lesvos. The original aim of putting them there was to keep them out of sight. However, as the life jackets piled up, they became an impromptu monument to the thousands of refugees – both those who survived and those who did not. It’s a very somber experience to visit.

One of the tougher aspects of visiting the graveyard is when you see kids lifejackets, like this:

One of the many kids life jackets at the Lifejacket Graveyard.


Here’s a photosphere of the Lifejacket Graveyard:

After the Life Jacket Graveyard, we went to the castle in Molyvos. We arrived just a few minutes before the castle closed but I managed to run through most of it. Here’s a shot of the castle near the entrance:

Molyvos Castle

And here’s a photosphere from near the top of the castle:

From there, we walked down into Molyvos. I ran into one of the subject matter experts after leaving the castle and he and I wandered through Molyvos before finding a bar on the beach and ordering a few drinks. We chatted for a couple of hours before heading up to the restaurant where we had dinner reservations. The restaurant had a stunning view and the food was amazing!

The sunset from our restaurant in Molyvos.

May 18th

Metochi is surrounded by hills that are covered with large boulders. Seeing those large boulders and hills day after day but not finding any hiking trails to climb the hills, I finally decided that I was going to go off-trail and see if I could climb one of the hills. That was a terrible idea. Despite donning some of my hiking pants, my gloves I brought for hiking Mount Olympus, and all my other gear, I still had exposed arms and my neck and face were exposed. The hike started with me wading through thick underbrush. Two minutes in and I was covered with burrs, had encountered multiple thistles, and I had lost a fight with a stinging nettle bush. Ten minutes later, my arms were covered with red bumps where one of the plants I had encountered had started an allergic reaction. I made it halfway up the hill, fighting my way through thorns, thickets, spider webs, and a variety of other plants, each of which really wanted to cause me serious pain. By 20 minutes in, I gave up. I’m not one for quitting, but it was the smart choice this time. I still had to work my way off the hill and down to a trail, which meant wading through some more vicious plants (seriously, everything had thorns). A scant 45 minutes after I started, I returned to Metochi covered in burrs with dozens of bumps on my arms. Hiking off trail in Lesvos is a bad idea.

May 19th

On the last day in Metochi, I hopped back on my bike and rode with a few other individuals down to Skala again. This time, I wore my bathing suit and spent a good hour and a half wading and swimming in the bay with another subject matter expert as we discussed various research projects. We got some lemonade at a cafe on the beach afterward, then rode our bikes back to Metochi.

Waiting for our drinks at a beach bar in Skala Kalloni.

Some concluding thoughts on Metochi

I really didn’t know what to expect when I was told we’d be holding the colloquium in a refurbished monastery. I was thinking I’d end up with a small cell (6 feet by 6 feet) with a tiny bed. It turns out my room was fairly spacious. It did have three beds in it (a single and then a bunk bed), a small desk, and a closet for clothes. With the room to myself, it was spacious. It also had a nice window overlooking the hiking trail. Bathrooms were shared (there were four on my floor) as were showers (there were four of those as well, but I often used the outside showers, which was refreshing in its own way). The room and facilities were kept clean but they did occasionally smell. The restrooms and showers were cleaned every day, but the plumbing is still a little wonky. We lost water there once (and power a couple of times). Throwing toilet paper into a trash can instead of the toilet took getting used to, but when in Greece…

The rest of the facilities at Metochi were also good. We used a couple of other rooms for our workshops and seminars. There was a large seminar room that could accommodate 40 or 50 people with two projectors and screens. The room I spent the most time in was just off that room and could hold about 8 people. It had a TV for projecting someone’s computer. There were other rooms for meetings but I never went into those.

The food was pretty good. All the food was served in the dining area, which was very unique. It was like a cave with a curved ceiling and walls. We ate in there the first night but the rest of the meals we got our food there but ate outside on the picnic tables. We had the same salad for lunch and dinner every day (cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, and some oil and herbs) and breakfast was typically the same as well, but the main dishes were varied for lunch and dinner. I enjoyed the food.

The one thing I didn’t love was the bugs. Obviously, being in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to be closer to nature. But I have never seen so many moths in my life. Every bathroom had like 10 moths in it at any one time. I’m sure I inadvertently killed dozens of them just by showering, closing doors, etc. They were everywhere. There were also lots of flies whenever we would eat outside. Every meal I spent a good amount of time swatting flies off my food. A fly every now and then would have been fine – that’s life. But this was a lot more than that. There were other critters, but the moths and the flies were the annoying ones.

Ending on more positive notes… I took a black light a colleague lent me and went out scorpion hunting a couple of nights. In the rocks right outside the front of Metochi I found a scorpion both nights I looked. Scorpions are there, they just hide well during the day. I also found an injured one right in front of some of the rooms (someone must have stepped on it unknowingly as it tried to climb into someone’s room after the sun had gone down). In short, there are scorpions. Check your shoes before you put them on.

I loved how there were chairs and tables all over the place at Metochi. I learned a really valuable lesson going there. Being isolated like that – with no TVs or other distractions – made for a lot of time to contemplate. I think I now understand why they called it the “contemplative life” for monks and nuns. Removing all the regular distractions (we still had internet, but we were encouraged to just get together and chat) gave us a lot of time to think. Of course, thinking too much can be a little scary at times. But I found the experience beneficial. In my busy day-to-day life, finding time to just sit and think is rare. I should do that more often.

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