It Was Magical: Greeks Are Discovering Their Forgotten Mountains As Summer Heatwaves Hit Beaches

Cost, crowds and climate change: Why I swapped Greek beaches for mountains this year.

It’s summer season, which means Greeks are flocking to the islands and beaches for a well-deserved holiday.

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But I’m not one of them. Instead, I’m heading deep into the interior of the country to the Pindus National Park, a mountainous netherworld of bears, wolves, reclusive villages, ancient dialects, vast forests and endless rivers. I’m going to need a jacket.

While Greeks often ascend to the mountains in winter - the country has around 18 ski resorts - they actively shun them in summer.

“If a Greek told me they were going to the mountains in summer instead of the beach, I would call them crazy,” a friend recently told me.

But for me, the Greek mountains in summer are something close to paradise.

I love the cool temperatures and clean air that allow you to sleep easily without even a window open. I love the lack of light pollution that reveals the night sky in all its glory. I love the greenery of the pine forests and the vertiginous villages clinging balletically to the rocks. I love swimming in rivers, lakes and waterfalls. I love seeing a Greece that feels genuine.

The start of my love affair with Greece’s mountains

In August 2015, fed up with the excruciating heat, relentless crowds and inflated prices of the islands, I turned my back to the coast and bounded up to the mountainous region of Zagori in northern Greece. It was a revelation.

Since then, I’ve spent every summer in the Greek mountains. The road to Zagori became my road to Damascus.

But it’s a lonely vocation. Aside from the local villagers, who tend to greet me with a courteous bemusement, I’m usually the only Greek tourist up the mountains in summer. 

The rest of the villages tend to be filled out by the usual suspects: Israeli hippies, French pensioners, German hikers and the obligatory Dutch caravaners, whose omnipresence in Southern Europe is surpassed only by pigeons.

They clearly love it here. So why don’t Greeks?

“It’s an issue of mentality,” says Spiros Apergis, who runs hiking and walking holidays with his tour company, Aperghi Travel. Spiros has been trying for years to get Greeks to join him on his frequent summer trips to Zagori or to walk the mountain trails of his native Corfu. But his tour groups remain stubbornly, resolutely foreign.

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“Greeks don’t have a culture of hiking or mountain activities,” says Spiros. “They have different interests for holidays. A Greek thinks ‘What do I care about the mountains?’ It’s like the moon to them.”

The invention of Greek summer

Just to be clear, Greek islands and beaches are incredible.

But those who once decamped to the islands for authenticity, calm and an easy-going way of life, today find themselves in a different world.

In recent years, wildfires, heatwaves, crowds, exorbitant prices, rampant development and collapsing infrastructure have crushed the experience of the Greek summer.

Foreign visitors began flocking to the Greek seaside in the 1960s, in search of something they couldn’t find at home. The country became synonymous with beautiful beaches and islands, creating a new industry that drew Greeks to the coast.

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In the 1980s, the state developed a slogan: ‘ta bania tou laou’, literally ‘the baths of the people’. It gave financial subsidies to encourage Greeks to go to the beach, for reasons of both health and national pride.

“There was a wild period in the 1990s when doctors would just prescribe the beach for every ailment,” says Spiros. “Like you would go to the doctor with some problem and they would say ‘Have you tried going in the sea?’”

The media played its part, pushing the narrative that if you weren’t at the beach, you weren’t ‘cool’. The beach became associated with fun, wealth and success. The mountains with poverty, boredom and failure.

As tourism exploded, Greeks abandoned the highlands to build their homes and second homes by the sea. Gradually the connection to the mountains became lost.

An alternative Greek summer

But some Greeks are starting to rebel.

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“For me it was the heat. I just couldn’t stand it,” says Kostas Giannakidis, a journalist based in Athens.

This summer Greece was hit by one of the worst heatwaves in its history and Kostas decided, for the first time, to head to the mountains, winding his way up to the province of Arcadia in the centre of the Peloponnese.

“It was magical. I stayed for five days in a little village called Vytina and did some hiking and road trips,” he tells me.

With the enthusiasm of giddy schoolchildren, we find ourselves raving about the wonders of the mountains.

“It’s so beautiful!”, I cry.

“The temperature was so cool, never more than 23C!”, screams Kostas.

“The locals are so kind. You eat like a king for €15. And best of all…”

“No mosquitoes!”, we squeal in unison.

Kostas smiles as he shows me pictures from his trip.

“And I didn’t meet a single other Greek tourist,” he says. “Just foreigners.”

“I know! I know!” I reply. “What is wrong with us?”

His post on Facebook extolling the virtues of a mountainous summer was risky in a country where such views are tantamount to heresy.

But to his surprise, the replies were largely positive. He’s become an unlikely convert, preaching the wonders of a high-altitude Greek summer to anyone who will listen.

“I’m not saying spend all of August in the mountains and never take a swim in the sea,” he says, “But I find it impossible to relax on the islands. They are so hot, expensive and crowded, and the quality and services have deteriorated so much. Everything in the mountains is much nicer.”

So does he see a change coming?

“It would require a huge mental shift,” ponders Kostas. “But I believe that climate change will make summer beach holidays increasingly untenable, and so Greeks will be forced to look towards the mountains.”

Spiros, meanwhile, is optimistic. “Greeks are becoming more curious about their mountains,” he says. “When I used to go hiking in Olympus back in the 90s, I would never see another Greek. Now I see more and more young Greeks.

“Hiking clubs are springing up all over the country. The internet has helped a lot too. So things are happening. But it will take time.”

Is this the end of the Greek summer?

In a lush village on the outskirts of the Pindus National Park, I wander back into my hotel after a relaxing day in the mountains. Cradling a hot chocolate as rain patters against the window, I turn on the news to see Greece is once again on fire.

With a twinge of survivor’s guilt, I think back to what initially brought me, Kostas and Spiros to the mountains. It was scenes like this, push factors rather than pull. Heat, crowds, these things radicalised us.

We were searching for an alternative Greek summer. My fear is that in a few years, this will be the only Greek summer left.

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