I have dreamed of Mount Olympus since I was little. Ever since my imagination was set on fire by Greek mythology, the home of the Greek gods was a shadowy place, majestic and unreal. It was, and still is, difficult to believe that one can ascend its peaks with no superhuman powers - just sweat and sturdy knees.
There is a village called Litohoro which lies between Mount Olympus and the sea. We followed the advice of our Greek host Versilios, and began and ended our three-day hike at this popular tourist destination. The beginning of our trail lay about 7kms out of town and we camped in a secluded spot nearby in order to get an early start the next morning. An early start meant 11am due to interesting breakfast conversation, and the usual feast of Spanish jamon and cheese brought over by Piluca and Ester.
Off we went, plodding up the mountain, finding a rhythm. Not unlike cycling up mountains: slip it into the lowest gear and no rapid movements. The views were magnificent. We could see all the way to the sea. I have never been up so high (outside an aeroplane!) and been able to see all that sparkling blue. Black pines gave way to a more alpine landscape above. Mountains are the most beautiful of places. I always feel such a sense of peace...and suffering! But there is no place I would rather be.
Mount Olympus is the name for the whole area and the highest peak is called Mitikas (2917m). There are two refuges about 300m lower than the peak and we stayed in one of these. It was bitterly cold due to the fierce wind, but in the night the wind dropped. I needed to go to the toilet around 2am and the landscape took my breath away. The air was still, the silence complete, and the stars arching across the heavens as bright as I had ever seen them.
The next morning we set out to scale Mitikas. The final 200m are a scramble and it is wise to leave backpacks below. Arrows point the way up the rock. It is easy climbing but formidable for anyone who has never climbed before. There is plenty of exposure, loose rock and, as Banjo Paterson would say, any slip is death. Piluca and Ester, both of whom have no climbing experience, did impressively well. It was wonderful to witness Ester's elation at making it to the top...which constituted a tiny little space filled with a cheerful group of climbers. There was a Russian couple who cracked open a bottle of champagne. It just had to be the Russians! We had a few sips of champagne to commemorate the occasion.
Going down, as usual, was harder than going up. Then, when we started descending along the path carved into the side of the mountain, it became more painful than scary. When it got dark, we hobbled as quickly as we could to a suitable camping spot close to a river. We slept in the open air, which was a delight, although my too-vivid imagination conjured up beetles living in the leafy groundcover crawling into ears.
In the morning, ears mercifully free of beetles, we set off, legs aching. It was the day of the Mount Olympus marathon - people almost completed what we were doing in three days in four hours (and two knees). It took our friend Versilios five hours, the lazy bastard! The first runners we egged on enthusiastically, especially the girls. But after the 100th runner on the narrow path, we decided that these sort of events destroyed the serenity of the mountains.
When we staggered into Litahoro like bedraggled (and smelly) rats, it was Piluca who was the most cheerful, thinking that we had been telling her how strong she was to encourage her, only realising belatedly that the 'youngsters' where in as much pain as she was!
And the gods? I hear you ask. The burning question. Are Zeus and Hera and Athena and all the rest really there? Or are they just a huge pile of...myth? The answer is yes, they are there. Not at the top of Mitikas - it is way too cosy up there for all twelve gods and goddesses. Not even up high when the mountain becomes alpine and the trees disappear. And not down below where the beeches grow. The gods live in the shadows of the black pines just below alpine level. If you stay still, or walk very quietly, they are all around. But they come to you only if you let them.