The Artemis chairlift was not particularly swift and even a little rickety, but it managed to safely carry me high up the slopes of Mount Helmos, and no matter which way I looked, my eyes fell on something mythic. To the southeast the nymph Thetis had dipped her son Achilles up to his heel in the immortalizing waters of the river Styx. To the west was Erymanthos, where Hercules completed his fourth labor by subduing a giant wild boar. Northward I could make out Mount Parnassos with Delphi on its slope, home to the oracle of Apollo. But most striking of all, beyond the six-foot piles of marshmallow snow, was the sea, sparkling through the jagged, snowy peaks at the edge of the Peloponnese. It was only when my guide, Andreas Papagiannitsis, nudged me to dismount Artemis that I remembered that I had come to Greece to ski.
“Which trail?” I asked. “Antigone, Elektra, or Irene?”
“We’ll take Irene,” Andreas replied. “It means ‘peace.’”
Exactly right. I pushed off and headed down fresh snow, hardly another alpinist in sight. Up until now, something about skiing had always grated on me. Sure, there’s that burst of adrenaline the first day on the slopes. But by day three, who doesn’t start to look around and see the bigger, often more depressing picture, the one where I’m forced to cough up ridiculous amounts of money so that I can listen to some empty-headed dude-bro spout bodacious hyperboles on an endless lift line? Where the best meal available is a plate of mediocre nachos? The deepest cultural experience a side trip to a bowling alley?
But in Greece, a country that most Americans think of as a warm-weather destination, ski slopes coexist with thousands of years of history, unique local food, and $20 lift tickets. If the more modestly developed Greek resorts fail to impress powder snobs, I say try replicating this in Colorado: stripping off your ski pants and parka after finishing your last run and jumping straight into the sea, which is just what I did after my last run on Mount Helmos. It was February, and the water was a little brisk but manageable. I quickly warmed up at a nearby taverna with a glass of ouzo and grilled, freshly caught fish. Take that, Aspen.
I first visited Greece in 1975. At the time, I was a kid of modest means attending a wealthy private school in Greenwich, Connecticut, through the largess of my grandparents. When vacations rolled around, my classmates headed to St. Moritz or Vail to ski while I stayed home and watched the snow fall outside our tiny rental cottage. But one spring break, a trip to Greece dropped into our laps after my grandmother fell ill and couldn’t go. That tour, organized around the Homeric sites of the Aegean, captivated me like no other. The Greeks I met were fantastically openhearted and unjaded. Elevator operators and bus drivers spontaneously hugged me and lifted me up in the air and told my mother how proud she should be to raise such a fine son. These same engaging, animated people moved about their layers upon layers of archaeology with a knowing pride of ownership: village-style warmth and historical gravitas all in one package.
And years later I found that same beauty, that same openheartedness, that same unjaded attitude, but under entirely different skies: winter ones.
A budding skier, I’d heard that Greek slopes would be perfect for me, and when I started investigating, it turned out that a trip there was remarkably inexpensive and easy to organize. Airfares were about half what I would have paid in summer, and the roads, upgraded for the 2004 Athens Olympics, led swiftly to the best mountains. The hardest part was choosing where to go. There are some two dozen ski centers spread out over Greece, spanning the length and breadth of the country, and I found that the easiest option was to fly into Athens, rent a jeep (I was told a four-wheel-drive vehicle was a must), and head west. The country’s best-known ski resorts, Mount Helmos and Mount Parnassos, are each less than three hours from Athens and bracket the Gulf of Corinth. Now I just had to decide which part of Greece’s vast history I wanted to explore first.
Site of the biggest ski center in Greece, Mount Parnassos bears on its broad shoulder Delphi, center of the ancient world and seat of the famed oracle. On arrival at the mountain I booked a lesson with instructor Vassilis Baldoumis to see what kind of prophecy he could make about my skiing conundrum. With T-shirt–warm sunshine beaming down, we headed up on the Aeolus lift, and then Vassilis watched as I demonstrated my technique.
“Actually, what you are doing is not really skiing,” he said when we paused midslope.
“What you are doing,” Vassilis continued, “is a kind of twisting and then braking. From fear you are leaning back. All the way down you are fighting the mountain. And at the end, you are exhausted. For nothing.”
It was refreshing, this no-nonsense brusqueness. The two most common words you hear on the street are Xero! (I know!) and Fysika! (Of course!). But I was surprised to hear Vassilis display this self-confidence about a sport the country had only recently embraced. The first recorded ski run in Greek history occurred in just 1906, when one Kostas Eleftheroudakis, a student newly returned from university abroad, woke to see Athens cloaked in fresh snow. On a whim he strapped on the skis he’d brought back and glided two kilometers through downtown. Today, on Mount Parnassos, Vassilis is doing his best to usher Greece’s relatively nascent sport into the modern world.
“Greek people,” he told me as we headed up Aeolus for another run, “approach learning like The Matrix. They want to plug the knowledge into the back of the head and go.” The impatience of the local market drove Vassilis and his partner, Stergios Pappos, to pioneer a method at their ski school, Pappos Baldoumis, that is “twice as fast but just as effective as what they practice in Austria and Switzerland.” They apply this approach with equal fervor to harried businessmen swooping in between meetings in Athens and to a braking-twisting American who it turned out was so ambivalent about skiing that he’d never really learned to do it properly.
“Every instinct you might have outside of skiing — to lean back instead of forward, to clench your toes instead of lifting them — for skiing these are all exactly wrong,” Vassilis said when we’d reached the midpoint of the slope. “These you must fight and you must defeat.” How fitting, I thought, that the nation credited with elevating rational thought would have an instructor so schooled in escaping primitive urges.
How, though, to do this?
“Make your body into a parenthesis,” he continued. “It’s a Greek word, yes? And then let the mountain pull you into the turn. In this way, you are really skiing.” And actually, it worked. Slowly I felt Parnassos pulling me around the turns as I switched from one parenthesis to the other.
“How long would it take you to really fix my skiing problem?” I asked Vassilis after I unbent for the last time and we glided down toward the lodge.
He thought for a moment, adding things up in his head, and then said definitively:
“That’s it. But now you should really do some après-ski. It’s one of the things I like best about skiing. There is no other sport that automatically includes ‘après.’ There is no, for example, ‘après golf.’”
Fysika! I thought. Of course!
When I mentioned to Greeks in America that I was planning a ski trip to their homeland, I typically got a sort of sideways, bemused look. “We generally prefer the saleh to the slopes,” my friend Alexia told me in New York just before my departure. Saleh is just “chalet” rendered in Greek, but the slippage of the consonants connotes a much broader slippage away from actual skiing toward the homey-villagey way of Greek wintertime relaxation.
On one day, on Vassilis’s recommendation, I had my saleh experience by driving over a mountain pass to the village of Eptalofos and dining at the rustic Griza Arkouda (Gray Bear) Tavern. There, Igor Panagou, who had recently taken the place over from the previous generation, served me a soup of wild mushrooms gathered by his father. For the main course, taking a cue from Hercules’s fourth labor, I decided to deal with my own piece of wild boar (this one slow roasted in mountain herbs and served over a homemade pasta). Dessert was a sweet-and-sour trio consisting of a cylinder of handmade baklava, preserves of local cherries, and a tiny orange the size of a marble preserved in a tart, pungent skin. Not a nacho in sight.
On another day, my saleh was a visit to the “navel of the Earth,” as the ancient site of Delphi is called. In the course of a short downhill drive from upper Parnassos, the landscape changed from deep winter to light, airy spring. I stopped in at the city’s archaeological site. It was a perfect 65 degrees, with a light breeze blowing in off the Gulf of Corinth — temperate enough to allow me to meditate on the ineffable peace of the only place in the ancient world where all nations agreed not to make war.
Later, I booked a walking tour with Helene Pralanc, a half-French, half-Greek 40-something who runs an outdoor adventure company with her husband, Giorgos Korodimos, in the nearby village of Arachova. With only the sound of tinkling sheep bells accompanying us, Helene led me down the ancient pilgrimage footpath from Delphi to Kirra through groves that are home to thousand-year-old olive trees. It was here in the countryside, she told me, that you found the real Greece. “The first question you ask a Greek after you ask them their name is what village they come from,” she said. To this day, villagers will load up public buses with crates of oranges, cheeses, and olive oil with a handwritten note to the bus driver to drop them off with their relatives in Athens. This desire for a village identity was actually what attracted Helene, previously an urban-dwelling Athenian, to her husband, the son of mountain shepherds. “After I married Giorgos,” she laughed, “I said to myself, ‘At last I have a village!’”
The only troubling thing I encountered during my whole Parnassos saleh experience was a warning from my condo complex’s security guard when he found me wandering around looking at the dazzling night sky. Herculean wild boar were everywhere, he told me, and were known to gore a tourist or two. Seeing as I had just eaten slow-roasted boar served with a delightful Boeotian red, I retired, avoiding labors that a mere American mortal could not accomplish.
Neither guidebooks nor mythology talk much about winter in Greece. The ancients saw it more as a time for mourning than an opportunity for amusement. Winter’s legendary creation occurred when Hades dragged Persephone down to the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, mourned so intensely that all growing things above ground withered.
But as I took one last run down Parnassos, opening and closing my newly formed parentheses with greater and greater ease, I found myself marveling at how bright and sunny a Greek off-peak-but-on-peak vacation could be. It brought to mind another Hellenic winter myth that is not so often told. In that story, Alcyone and her beloved husband, Ceyx, are torn asunder when a storm destroys his ship at sea. When his body washes ashore, Alcyone throws herself into the sea to drown and join him. But the watching gods, taking pity, turn her into a kingfisher before she hits the water and transform Ceyx likewise, reuniting them. To allow Alcyone to lay and brood her eggs in the sand, the gods warm the air and still the waves and wind for two weeks in the middle of the winter — a pause in the cold that generally occurs here every January. Greeks to this day call that warm winter time the Halcyon Days: literally, the days of the kingfisher.
Thanks to winter, like those two lovers in ancient times, Greece and I had been reunited. In years to come, so many other winter mythic combinations lay before me. Nine-thousand-foot Mount Olympus and the sacred sites on its slopes. The amphitheater at Dodona and the three alpine resorts a stone’s throw away. Even a clutch of 6,000-foot skiable peaks all the way down in Crete, where Theseus slew the Minotaur in the labyrinth. And if the dude-bro demigods who rip down the Alps and tear over Vail never deign to descend to these fair southern slopes, that will be their loss. I will sit in my saleh, sip an ouzo, and enjoy a nacho-free serenity. As was inscribed on the temple at Delphi, in an aphorism that is thought to have come straight from one of the Seven Sages, Know thyself.
A Guide to the Ski Resorts of Greece
Roughly two dozen ski centers dot Greece’s craggy interior, with most of them affording a jaunt to a fantastic site of natural beauty and historical significance.
One of the standouts is the Vasilitsa Ski Centre in Macedonia. Considered by Greeks to be the next most impressive ski mountain after Parnassos, Vasilitsa has an altitude of more than 7,000 feet and is a relatively short drive from Greece’s arts capital, Thessaloniki.
Mount Vermio, not far away, can be accessed via either the 3–5 Pigadia Ski Center or Greece’s very first ski resort, Seli.
Hard by Mount Olympus, home of the gods, the Elatochori Ski Center has a ski school and snowboarding opportunities. True, many Greek ski centers are on the modest side, like Metsovo, Karakoli, and Anilio in the region of Epirus. But these soft slopes, well suited to beginners, are also a short drive from Dodona, an even more ancient oracle site than Delphi and home to one of the best-preserved ancient amphitheaters in Greece.
Finally, if you’re in the mood to push the envelope and really ski south, Cretan Adventures offers liftless ski touring in the towering Lefka Ori (White Mountains) that ridge the island’s western end, and on Mount Ida in central Crete.
Your Mini Après-Ski Guide
After skiing Mount Parnassos, Arachova is the best place to recharge with food and drink — don’t miss the rakomelo, a warm grappa-like drink sweetened with local honey, at Sehre café.
Further down the mountain, travelers will encounter the unesco World Heritage Archaeological Site of Delphi and its accompanying museum, not to be missed for history buffs. Continue a little farther to the water’s edge and you’ll find the port of Galaxidi, where numerous tavernas offer freshly caught fish.
Across the Gulf of Corinth near the village of Kalavryta, visit Mega Spileo and Agia Lavra, two of the most famous monasteries in Greek Christendom. Built into the wall of a mountain, Mega Spileo marks the spot where fourth-century Christian pilgrims came to find an icon of the Virgin supposedly made by Saint Luke.
If you want to go even deeper, the Cave of the Lakes park on the western side of Mount Helmos offers access to a fascinating underground network of 13 lakes on three levels.
About the author: Paul Greenberg is the New York Times best-selling author of Four Fish, American Catch, and The Omega Principle. He lives at Ground Zero in Manhattan, where he produces (to his knowledge) the only wine grown south of 14th Street.