Ymittos, Athens Greece
As I mention in my other post about riding in Athens, there's vast and diverse world to explore throughout that city that I feel most people don't know about. While that article focused primarily on the coastal ride to Sounio, this article is about Ymittos.
Ymittos mountain is the closest mountain to downtown Athens, and is also a reliable navigation tool because of its distinct top with military and other broadcasting antennas. At its highest point it reaches 1, 026 meters (3,366 feet). The mountain is adorned with an array of hiking paths that begin in the Papagos neighborhood, and extend to become the neighborhoods of Cholargos and Agia Paraskevi.
Most riders will start from the Papagos neighborhood and take the road that goes up to access the interstate. Past that you wind up to the Papagos cemetery overlook on your left, and then up a 12.3% gradient past another cemetery on your right. This is assuredly the most difficult section but it’s very short and you can take a breather on the benches outside the second cemetery before you keep heading up.
Once you get past that cemetery it's about another 50 yards of very steep climb before the road splits. If you turn left, the road runs around the mountain, ultimately becoming a hard packed, rocky dirt road that continues straight with a run off into another ascent. I have yet to do that dirt climb. If you continue on the flat section of dirt, it will reconnect to a paved flat that is above the Agia Paraskevi neighborhood. Depending on the tires you’ve got, you can do this section on a road bike but just know it’s unavoidably rocky. There are several benches to the left offering beautiful views of Athens below, and ultimately you’ll come to a winding descent back down to Agia Paraskevi, over by the American College of Greece.
What’s most appealing about Ymittos is that it’s so close to the city that you can distinctly spot various landmarks…the Olympic Complex built for the 2004 games, the Parthenon, Lycabbetus Hill, as well as the Aegean sea to the south. The higher you go, the more expansive the panoramic horizon becomes, lending you sights of Parnitha and Penteli to north-east. It’s remarkable at dusk and you can watch the sun dip below the mountains on the Western side of Athens. The entire sky offers the most alluring colors during this time, almost like a mating display for the rising moon. As the sky turns purple, the lights of the city below will begin to twinkle. For our pleasure, even planets like Mars, Saturn and Jupiter are visible despite the lights below.
If instead of taking that u-turn, you'll continue ascending but it’s pretty casual compared to that initial hell of a push by the monastery. From this road you can catch glimpses of the city below through the evergreens that shoot up out of the slope. You can also see and access old stone fortresses via heavy gravel roads or hiking paths. Every single time I ride by these I tell myself I should stop and get some proper pictures but I can’t bring myself to halt my momentum. And then I come to a moment like this, when I “need” that kind of photograph and I have a crisis of self-examination and introspection where I conclude that I lack foresight and discipline. This is followed by self-depreciating humor saturated in self-loathing. THEN, I think about how much time I’ve wasted from this entire distraction of the ego by my id, and keep writing.
After a few switchbacks, you’ll ascend to a left turn that joins an intersecting, narrow road. This is about 500 meters up. If you turn right, you will descend with exceptional speed on a long, sweeping road with very wide turns on gradient that often hits -9 degrees.
If you turn left, you will ascend another gradient that remains very doable even if you’re a few months out of practice. It's steady This section is through a pine forest that sometimes opens up to give you a view to the East towards Marathona (of the Marathon legend). You’ll spot some old look out towers for the fire department but most of them are out of commission and I don’t expect them to remain standing by the year 2025.
The next major landmark is a medium-small monastery nestled into a 90 degree left turn as you continue ascending up towards the end of the pine forest. The monastery is enclosed by a stone wall that comes up high enough to prevent anyone from looking in from the road that wraps up and rises around the back.
The climb continues into long stretches that come to switchbacks that have you ascending with the most panoramic views of Athens. There's one final switchback, complete with one of the those look out towers. The final stretch will bring you up to a network of antennas, some abandoned buildings, and military bases.
In March and April you will often have clouds rising up the mountain side and sweep across the road in front of you like a scene from a classic horror film. On one occasion I could see from the balcony that the summit was completely obscured clouds. Riding through that is unlike anything else I’ve encountered….the visibility is diminished greatly by mist and by fog.
On this particular ride up, I encountered for the first time in my life, a pair of partridges navigating through the rocky terrain and brush.
It goes without saying that up there you have a nearly 360 degree view, with a small portion obscured by the military base that you can ultimately walk around if you want, but you’re not missing too much as every major land and watermark is visible from where you are.
The descent requires some skill and some nerve as a lot of the turns are blind and narrow, but that section where you’ve come down the first switchback and it’s a long, steep straightaway into a pine forest makes those branches feel like you’re a in a spaceship hitting warp speed. For better or worse, there’s a blind turn just after the trees start, forcing you to hit the breaks pretty hard.
Riding-wise, Ymittos is a must not necessarily because it has the best quality or the highest elevation, but because it’s just outside the center of Athens, with many prominent and large Athenian neighborhoods on the mountain’s lower hill sides. And though I do believe there are other mountains that have more difficult and better quality rides, by no means do I think that Ymittos is of poor or even mediocre quality. Given the location, the history, and the views, Ymittos is excellent and offers things none of the other ranges do. That can be said about each range for that matter, as they all have unique and exclusive offerings.
The below video is a stitched compilation of the descent from the top. The audio is a record called Coma, used with permission from the ever talented Stelios Vassiloudis.