Riding In Athens : Parnitha
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Parnitha Mountain, about 30 kilometers north of the center of Athens, is a uniquely spiritual place. I noticed this from the first moment I rode up there. It made me feel different. I’m trying to think of ways to describe this feeling that will not elicit a dismissive reaction….and I’m trying to avoid being cliche and finding it impossible. There’s an energy here…it always impacts me on that last stretch after the first set of switchbacks on the southern face of the mountain. The moment the grade starts to ease…the feeling starts to set in. It’s almost like that “this gummy ain’t shit” thing, where all of a sudden there’s a stirring sensation and the awareness has been heightened. The temperature has dropped, and there’s nothing that's able to disturb the stillness.
The terrain is unique. Though there’s characteristics that are the same as in other mountains in Greece (the rockiness and the semi-arid dessert shrubbery), there’s also something unsettling and strange on the slopes. There are rows of tress on their side, their arrangement almost purposeful, like you’re seeing something that exists in the same realm as a crop circle. Its unnatural but harmonious.
As you descend this part, you will see on the right another flat area with an entrance that reads “Park of Souls” Behind the entrance are sculptures carved into tree trunks. All of them are like something out of Dante’s inferno….souls molded in suffering and loss…hollow lives etched into dead trees. It might as well be the site of an old myth that actually happened…the work of a witch or a goddess who cursed travelers that wandered into her domain.
On the other side of the road that the park is on, is a large daunting building that is of a post-war design. It adds significantly to the feeling that one gets up there, as it makes a great setting for a horror story, but the truth about the building is morbid enough. In 1912, it was built as hospital for treating tuberculosis. At the time, there was no cure for TB, so the solution was fresh air, away from the city. One in two patients died. Later, the building served as a hotel under the Greek government’s “Xenia” program, which converted several large buildings into hotels that are now abandoned. There’s quite a good article about the history of the building that you can read through by clicking here.
I went into the building, of course. It's just about as unsettling as you'd expect. I suppose this means I need to go back when it's dark just to confirm how much I hate myself.
As you continue on from the Park of Souls, you’ll come to a small church at the bottom of another recession. Every time I have been up there, I’ve seen the famous red deer that live in the region. They are exceedingly comfortable around people and will likely eat out of your hand, though it’s illegal to feed them. There’s a natural spring at the church as well, so you can refill water bottles. Natural springs are common throughout the mountains of Greece, especially in the spring time.
You can continue on from there until you reach the casino or depending on where you turn, you can climb further up to what is for lack of a better word, a space-needle. Both locations are popular photo op spots for the riders that venture up that way. However, that’s about as far as it the road goes. There are other offshoots, but as of now, they don’t connect anywhere to bring you back down to Athens without coming the way you came in. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, because the descent is a great one. The views of Athens down below extend all the way to the sea, with a more expansive vantage point than from what you have when you’re in say, Ymittos (thought Ymittos is closer to the city and the Aegean). The roads here are also much wider than many section of Ymittos so you can descend with more security and higher speeds.
Some stats about the ride are:
-Elevation Gain : 1,191 meters (if you ride to the little church)
-Gradient of elevation (average of 5, doesn’t exceed 6%)
-Ride distance (from center of Athens and back) - Approximately 75km
In addition to the road riding, there is an entire world to explore on a gravel or mountain bike. If you know where to look, you'll run into little chapels in the slopes, next to which are the final resting places of old Athenian royal families.
Some more information about Parnitha is that almost all of the mountain is a national park. Like most of Greece, there are remnants of ancient civilization, most notable of which are the fortresses in the forrest. These were used to protect against invading forces of the Boeotians, a Greek territory to the north of Athens (this was when Greece was a collection of warring city states).
There is also the cave of Panas, about 750 meters up (note this is not visible from the route I’m writing about, but is easily accessible in other ways) and on the Western slopes of the mountain. In ancient times, it was used as a place of worship.
Lastly, there is Beletsi Lake, on the East slopes of Parnitha. It sits below a small forrest and has all the usual suspects of lake wildlife: turtles, frogs and waterfowl, including swans.