Travel Stories

Exploding Myths in Greece – From the archive

Depending on who you are, the idea of a holiday in Greece will probably conjure up one of two things: sitting amongst ancient ruins eating organic, ethical moussaka -under the shade of Captain Corelli-style olive trees; or hitting the town hard with a group of 18-30s, before vaulting over piles of vomit on the way home. Certainly few people would ever picture powder stashes, pillows or winding tree-lines. But this is exactly what one group of friends found when they embarked on a modern day Odyssey in the shadow of Olympus. French photographer Scalp braved the wrath of the Gods to explode the myth that sun, sea and sand is all Greece has to offer.

When French rider Gerome Matthieu told me last winter he’d done a demo in Greece, I was a bit surprised – it’s hardly the most obvious place to go snowboarding. I began idly daydreaming about sitting in the sun, shooting kickers overlooking the Aegean. Six months later, I’d pretty much forgotten all about the idea when I got a call from Florent Cuviller, a famous freestyle skier who also happens to be team manager for Oxbow. He asked me if I’d like to join his crew on a trip they were taking to… Greece! Not wanting to seem stupid, I quickly typed ‘Greece’ and ‘winter sports’ into Google to see if I could find out a bit more. I was amazed by the number of resorts dotted around the map. Up until this point, my knowledge of the country was limited to sun, sea, sand and ancient ruins – not things you’d usually associate with carving fresh powder turns!

Jonas Hagstrom

In fact it turns out that mainland Greece has two major mountain ranges. The Pindos mountains divide the country in half vertically, running north-east to south-west; the Rodopi range is up in the north of the country, running from the Bulgarian border in the east to Albania on Greece’s western frontier. Mountains have played an important role in Greek history and culture since the days of ancient mythology. There was Mount Pelion, the mountain of centaurs, and Mount Olympus – which was thought to be the home of Zeus and the Gods. In fact, the Greeks of antiquity held that all high mountains were sacred. These days, a younger generation of Greeks is increasingly getting into skiing and snowboarding, and a whole host of resorts have sprung up on the once-sacred slopes to cater for their more modern tastes.

Despite everything Google could tell me, when I set out on our journey I still had very little idea of the conditions that awaited us. On top of this, because the Greek language is all, erm… Greek to me, the organisation of the trip was completely out of my hands. Faced with the unknown, there was only one thing for it: take a leaf out of Odysseus’ book, choose the hardiest warriors I knew as my companions, and cast myself into the hands of fate. Odysseus fought alongside the greatest heroes of the ancient world – Achilles, Ajax and Agamemnon. In my case, the hardiest warriors I knew were my neighbour David Livet and the veteran stuntman Stephane Routin. To balance out us French foot soldiers, I also picked my Swedish friend Jonas Hagstrom. He could play the role of wise old sage. Our merry band was completed with the addition of Julien the cameraman and team manager Florent – the man with the company credit card.

Athos, Porthos, Aramis And Starvos

We arrived we arrived in Athens at the beginning of February, with the sun shining and the mercury rising to 18 degrees, and were welcomed in superb style by Costis Gortzis, the man who would guide us on our voyage. More than a few heads turned as we strolled through the airport with our boardbags – anyone would think the Greeks weren’t accustomed to seeing tourists arriving with winter sports equipment! The funny looks continued when we got to the Hertz desk, where we amused the employee by insisting that we’d need snow chains. After an hour of mind-boggling Rubik’s Cube style manoeuvres, we managed to get everything into our tiny rental car and headed happily off towards our first destination, Mount Voras.

They say the best part of travelling is discovering the local customs and cultures. Occasionally though, you come across customs that you wish you’d never discovered. Greek driving is a classic example. The Greeks, you see, drive very quickly and take a pretty free and easy approach to the rules of the road [This coming from a Frenchman eh Scalp?! – Ed]. In fact, they generally drive with their balls instead of their brains. As soon as we got out of the suburbs, our leisurely snowdome became a Gumball-style high-speed chase as we tried desperately to keep up with Costis’ powerful Audi in our crappy, overloaded Fiat. All the road signs were written in Greek so we didn’t have much choice! We arrived at the little village near the resort, Palaios Aghios Athanasios (yes, that is its real name!) at about 10.30 at night and headed for bed – dead tired but happy to be alive.

We woke up to find ourselves in an incredibly beautiful place. There were very few people around – it seems the Greeks mostly ski on the weekends – but unfortunately there wasn’t much snow either. A 30 minute drive brought us to the ski field itself where we finally found a bit of white stuff, although the resort was pretty tiny – it was basically a car park, a restaurant and a few chairlifts. Apparently the season usually runs from December to May but the little bit of snow we could see was blue ice. Costis was crestfallen because he thought it had snowed recently. The director of the ski field told us there had indeed been a dump, but a violent northerly gale had carried all the snow away. It seemed that Boreas, ancient Greek God of the north wind, was against us. Undeterred, we headed for the summit, only to find it was as hard as concrete. The biting wind was glacial and our hearts sunk into our boots. We rode down and started a crazy mini-shred session on the little hits that made up the local snowpark, and it didn’t take long before wise man Jonas put the world to rights with his frontside fast-plants.

With rumours that a cold front was approaching we decided to hit the road again, and after a second night in our little palace we headed for Valsilitsa. The journey took a while – the mountains in Greece are pretty wild and steep, and the roads are tiny and winding. The rocks sticking out of the snow were ridiculously colourful, ranging form grey to red to orange to yellow – they’re really pretty beautiful. It made us think of California. Stephane, a downhill mountain biking nut, spent literally the whole journey going: “Whaaah! Did you see that spot there? I need to come back to Greece with my bike!”

Our destination was the village of Distrato. It sits at the end of the road at the gateway to a vast national park whose dense forests are home to all sorts of creatures including birds, deer and even black bears. It’s a tiny little place – maybe 50 houses at most – deserted in the winter and seemingly lost at the end of this steep forested valley. Not exactly like The Shining, but not exactly the French Riviera either! The first morning we woke up to overcast, grey skies and a fine, intermittent drizzle. We headed up the road to the lifts, but as we got higher and higher, the rain started turning to thick snow. It seemed as if all the gods of Olympus had teamed up to prevent us ever reaching the top of what must have been a sacred mountain. To top it all, the lifts were closed, so everyone piled into the little cabin that serves as a rental shop, ski school and a bar/restaurant to drink tea and wait. Everyone, that is, except me – who had a killer toothache. Costis drove me 45 kilometres further on to Revena (thank you Costis!) where the lovely dentist saved me with an antibiotic strong enough to kill a horse.

The next morning David, Jonas and Julien were in a bad way, having spent the whole night running to the toilet with a nasty bout of food poisoning. I don’t know if the Greeks had a God of the shits, but if they did, he had turned against us too. The boys looked pretty grim and the toilet… well, I’ll spare you the gruesome details. For better or worse we made it up the icy road to the slopes but the lifts were still closed.

We headed to the ‘restaurant’ and then suddenly, around 2pm, the Gods’ anger faded. The wind dropped and the clouds lifted just enough to give us a bit of visibility. The view that opened up before our eyes was stunning: the mountain was covered in enormous Mediterranean pines – their branches bending under the weight of the snow. I’d never imagined I’d ever see warm climate trees like that covered in freshies. A lift opened – the only one that day – and the ‘survivors’ i.e. Stephane, Florent and myself, headed out to taste the wonders of Greek powder – finally! The run was fast and surprisingly steep, and the slalom through the trees at the bottom was truly immense. Even better, we had it all to ourselves.

When In Greece

After a second painful night of ‘purification’ for the ill trio we woke up to find the sky bluebird. “Thank you my sick friends,” I thought, “the gods accepted your humble sacrifice!” In clear skies, the resort was actually much bigger than we’d thought. Although there were only five chairlifts, Valsilitsa boasts 17 proper pistes and a whole load of varied and interesting terrain. It was steep enough that we weren’t lacking speed at all, and each lift gave us immediate access to some awesome off piste – a proper paradise for riders who want to ride pow without running too many risks… or so we thought.

Around lunchtime that day, Aeolos, the Greek god of the four winds, began to get agitated and blew in a thin veil of mist – no doubt just to remind us who was really in charge. The visibility was still OK though, so we decided to shoot a big open face that had remained untouched. Florent and Stephane hiked rapidly up the ridge but as I watched, they strayed too far out on a windlip that hung some five metres above the slope. I was reaching for my radio when I heard an enormous crack and, raising my head, I saw Florent being carried down the face by a massive avalanche. He was sitting in the middle of it, surrounded by blocks that must have weighed several tonnes – the remains of the cornice he’d been walking on seconds before!

Thankfully, there wasn’t too much snow and the slope wasn’t too steep, so he managed to stay on top of the slide, but it was a scary moment. We joined him as soon as we could, and found he’d hurt his leg and couldn’t get up. When we saw the pisteur’s snowmobile motoring towards us we were sure we were in for a proper bollocking. The face was situated just above a piste. But it turned out he wasn’t pissed off at all – in fact he was super-cool and even managed to get Florent smiling. Then he gave me his camera so that I could take a picture of the whole group posing in front of the avalanche – magic!

That night Florent still couldn’t really stand up, so we decided to continue our odyssey via the hospital in Revena. It turned out it was right next to my lovely dentist’s place. Luckily he hadn’t broken anything and so we set off on the last leg of the journey towards Mount Parnossos, stopping at the stunning 11th century monasteries of Meteora along the way.

Mount Parnassos, our final stop, is the biggest resort in Greece. It’s invaded by the Athenian jet-set every weekend, meaning it’s also the most expensive resort in Greece. But after all the trouble in Valsilista, we finally managed to wake up in the morning with no-one feeling ill – amazing! Unfortunately the weather was against us yet again: it was raining in the valley and blowing a blizzard up high. Time to try out our snow-chains but…ah. They were too big. This might have surprised me had we not had such bad luck so far. After a bit of DIY tweaking of the chains, and some rally-style driving from David, we got to the bottom of the chairlifts. With so much fresh snow we headed straight for the trees – it was sick! The spot was just a joy to ride, reasonably steep with lots of stuff to drop off. However, despite the fact it had dumped a lovely 60 centimetres or so there was very little underneath this layer and we effectively waved goodbye to our bases – but that didn’t stop us heading up for more.

David Livet through the trees

Our second day in Mount Parnossos was one of frustration. Conditions seemed beautiful (“This is it!” everyone thought) but on the way up to the hill one of the chains snapped and we were forced to improvise with the help of a backpack strap. We then had to drive the next 25 kilometres at about ten kilometres an hour (I wanted to cry!) and by the time we’d bought our lift passes, got to the top of the chair and scoped the terrain, we only had time to take a couple of shots before the clouds rolled in quickly from the sea. In less than ten minutes we found ourselves drowning in a blanket of fog so thick you could have cut it with a knife. I don’t know what the Greeks call the god of snowboarding, but it felt like ‘Ridos’ (as we had christened him) was seriously beginning to take the ‘pissos’.

Still, there was time for one last day to finish things with a bang. The morning dawned bright and promising, though a quick look at the clouds over the sea told us that it wasn’t going to last. We’d done a better job on the broken chain by now and the road up through the beautiful pine forests went a bit quicker than the day before – at least 25 kilometres an hour, get in! Back on the hill, the guys were loving it and riding well. David hiked to the top of a beautiful face he’d spotted the day before, Steph threw himself down a super-photogenic and gnarly-looking face. Meanwhile Jonas kicked up a storm of spray in all the accessible powder stashes. We kept playing like this as long as our new god Ridos would allow, but around 2 o’clock his fucking friend Aeolos turned up and put a stop to our fun with a thick fog. Our guide, Costis, later told us that he’d never seen more than three back-to-back days of bad weather before, so our trip must have broken some kind of record.

Still, instead of letting it piss us off, we decided to chill out with a relaxing Greek beer in the café at the bottom. After a celebratory dinner on the outskirts of Athens, I crashed out knackered at about 2 am. It seems that certain members of the party kept going until the wee hours of the morning. Apparently, they met a gay guy “with a really cool scooter” who acted as their guide (“and just their guide!”) to the clubs of Athens for the whole night. My lips are sealed, but suffice to say everyone was pretty quiet on the flight home.

Jonas under the Greek sun

When I spoke to Costis recently, he told me that after we left, Greece went on to have its best winter for 30 years. Record amounts of snow allowed Mount Parnassos to stay open until the middle of May – a previously unheard of occurrence. This just seemed to rub in the fact that fate and the Gods had dealt our crew a particularly cruel hand. But our Odyssey had not been a total disaster – despite the set-backs, we had loved the places, the people and the experience. Greece is a place I would definitely return to. Ridos may be a cruel master, but I’m not quite done with him yet!

Words and Photography – Scalp

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