To the seasoned traveler or the dedicated dreamer, Greece has always been linked with the idea of summer, conjuring in the vacation-starved mind images of pristine beaches, alluring turquoise waters, smiley happy people dancing on the beach, and romance under the stars.
And yes, Greece is all these things. But legendary Greek summers aside, spring, autumn and winter in Greece also have so much to offer the visitor that one is bound to be surprised that this tiny country of some 11 million holds such diversity.
‘This World So Small, So Great’
In 1959, the Greek Noble Prize winner for poetry (1979) Odysseus Elytis wrote in To Axion Esti: “This world so small, so great”. And that is exactly what travelers to Greece should seek; to find those off-the-grid experiences that offer a glimpse not only into the Greek way of life and how the landscape has ‘crafted’ the locals’ love of the good life, but also insight into their very own inner longings and daydreams, which can actually come true here.
Today the Greek Vibe suggests five off-the-grid travel experiences that can be enjoyed in Greece in the winter, offering a fresh take on the country that has won people’s hearts with its fantastic summers.
Greece in the Winter?
Greece in the winter, you ask. Well yes, and it may not be carefree and sun-drenched but it definitely is mellow, magical and exhilarating.
So pack some warm clothes, a camera, and your childhood sense of wonderment and adventure and get ready to exit the mundane and enter the dream.
As all of us in the professional travel sphere know:
You’ll be a changed person when the journey is over.
1) A Different Type of Stroll – Athens 1st Cemetery
There is always something special (some would say scary) about cemeteries. If you can leave your fear or social narratives behind and instead focus on the art… of life and death, then you will have gained precious insight into the true meaning of life itself.
The 1st Cemetery of Athens is the ideal place to just this. Located in the heart of Athens, at the end of Anapafseos Rd (which means Road of Rest) amid ancient cypress and pine trees, the necropolis (Greek word meaning ‘city of the dead’), is the final resting place of all those who changed Greek history over the last three centuries – whether Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.
The Greek capital’s oldest resting ground also hosts the country’s largest outdoor collection of sculptures crafted by some of Greece’s finest artists including Yiannoulis Halepas, Nikos Stergiou, Nikolaos Georgantis, Mihalis Tombros, who were commissioned to create funerary art – stelae, statues, engravingssarcophagi, mausoleums, urns, tombs, gravestones, and effigies – bringing into their marble and metal art influences of Classical and Neoclassical as well as contemporary trends and at the same time keeping the memory of those laid to rest alive for centuries thereafter.
Besides the finest works of art, a stroll through Athens 1st Cemetery will introduce you to Greece’s most loved and honoured artists, authors, thinkers, politicians, Resistance fighters, actors and laymen.
Much like Pere Lachaise in Paris, where you can visit the graves of everyone from Jim Morrison and Chopin to Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf, here too in Athens, you will ‘meet’ with the likes of Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who excavated Troy and Mycenae, famous rebetika composer Vassilis Tsitsanis, prime minister Andreas Papandreou, Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis, famed thespian Marika Kotopouli, and internationally acclaimed pianist and composer, Dimitri Mitropoulos, who served as the director of the New York Philharmonic.
The 1st Cemetery of Athens has been included on the 2012 World Monuments Watch for its historical and cultural importance.
When: Early morning and before sunset.
Where: Athens, Greece
2) Play in Pavliani
Pavliani is a winter wonderland nestled in the embrace of Mt Oiti at an altitude of about 1,040 meters in Central Greece. The tiny village near the Oiti National Park is home to the Pavliani Recreational Park – located between Ano (upper) and Kato (lower) Pavliani. Besides its imaginatively signposted footpaths through plane, walnut and chestnut trees and along the Asopos River, the park includes a water power mill, a museum, a water saw, watermills, sports facilities, picnic areas, and plenty of nature-oriented games for kids.
For the history lover, a bit further up awaits the Pyra Sanctuary of Hercules. And for the hikers, Oiti National Park offers a routes for all levels depending on the season.
Pavliani has been included in the EU’s Habitat Agenda pilot program which aims to support and encourage sustainable development retaining traditional practices and architecture. Picture your stay here in winter: after a walk in the magic forest, a lovely dinner and some local red wine by the fireplace, and the laid back feel of winter rest in the silence of the night. If that’s not bliss, what is?
Where: Chose to stay for two days in the traditional guest houses of Pavliani, or for the more city-oriented in the nearest town, Lamia.
When: If you’re staying in the village, set off early in the day to enjoy the sunlight. Remember – the sun sets early in winter.
✓ Don’t leave without… tasting the local pies (pittes) which the region is known for, the meats and cheeses. Make sure to buy honey, walnuts, mountain tea, spoon sweets and herbs.
3) All Aboard the Kalavryta Choo-choo
Together with the Pelion train, Kalavryta’s legendary locomotive snakes its way up Mt Helmos, through the Vouraikos Gorge, past the historic Mega Spilaion Monastery up to the village of Kalavryta, stopping en route in Zachlorou.
The hour-long journey is spectacular and begins from the seaside town of Diakofto, in the northern Peloponnese.
Known as the “odontotos” due to its rack rail, the famed steam-engine train served as a means of transport in yesteryear. Today, some 123 years later, it is a popular tourist attraction and a fantastic travel experience.
Once in Kalavryta, make sure to visit the Holocaust Museum housed in a the restored village school which was burnt down by the Nazis during the mass murder of the villagers on December 13, 1943.
When: If you’re staying in Kalavryta, a popular destination for ski and winter sports lovers, or – for the city lovers – in the coastal town of Patra.
Where: Start from the seaside village of Diakofto and visit the site for train times and to book.
✓ Don’t leave without… walnuts, red wine, cheese – perhaps the world’s best feta – oregano, honey, herbs, trachanas pasta, and spoon sweets (glyka toy koytaliou).
4) Meet the Dancing Plane trees of Elassona
If you don’t believe in fairies and nymphs well the time has come to change your mind. Located at the foot of Mt Olympus – the majestic mountain home of the Greek gods – this beautiful tiny forest between the villages of Sparmos and Kallithea is home to ancient plane trees that literally appear to be dancing and embracing as the burbling waters of the stream make music. Enchanted is the least you will feel amid the trees that hold the secrets of the sacred mountain. Myth has it that at the foot of Olympus lived the nine muses and it’s no wonder. A stroll through the forest can only be inspirational.
A bit further down the road on your way up to Olympus you can stop at the Orthodox Monastery of Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) said to be first inhabited in 1386. The monastery operated as a school, a library, a bookbinding workshop, and a hideout, and has safeguarded precious 17th century icons, manuscripts, silver vessels, and embroidery. When visiting Greek monasteries, the monks or nuns welcome guests with the traditional loukoumi sweet, Greek coffee and water.
Where: Stay in the town of Elassona, or further away in Larissa, Central Greece.
When: Set off early in the morning winter to benefit from the daylight and experience the colors of the sky as reflected off Mt Olympus snow-covered peaks.
✓ Don’t; leave without… feta, the wonderfully soft “nivato” cheese, honey, walnuts, the local tsipouro anise-based spirit, herbs and mountain tea.
5) Rock climbing in Leonidio, Arcadia
Besides being one of the most sought-after destinations to celebrate Orthodox Easter, renowned for its local food fest featuring its famed protected eggplant – the Tsakoniki melitzana -, or listed for its Tsakonia heritage, Leonidio is now also famous in Greece and abroad for its fantastic climbing park.
This picturesque village is literally jammed between the Myrtoan Sea and the imposing Mt Parnonas and its dozens of caves, sinkholes, and potholes offering climbers of all levels the chance to try their mettle on its spectacular red limestone cliffs.
With over 1,000 routes for every grade, it’s no wonder why climbers from across the globe flock to Leonidio in November for its annual climbing festival.
Located in Arcadia in the Peloponnese, the busy little town of Leonidio, home to some 7,000 people, is the capital of the Tsakonia region, notable for its cultural and linguistic particularities. The Tsakonian or Tsakonic Language, said to date back to antiquity, is spoken to this day in Leonidio and the surrounding villages with admirable efforts being made to preserve it. If you’re lucky, you may get the chance to experience the snake-like dance “Tsakonikos” (also known as the Dance of Theseus) believed to date back to antiquity, The dance symbolizes Theseus’ venture out of the Labyrinth. According to myth, Theseus and his companions danced the “Geranos” a similar dance in order to prepare for the feat.
Where: Stay in Leonidio with dozens of accommodation options for all pockets.
When: Start your climbing escapades early in the morning. The shadows of the towering mountains together with the deep blue sea are breathtaking (to say the least).
✓ Don’t; leave without the Tsakoniko eggplant (in summer only), of course, local graviera cheese, the melitzanaki spoon sweet, homemade hilopites (a local egg-based pasta), herbs and mountain tea.
♫ What better way to prepare for your great Greek visit then by listening to one of the country’s greatest composers Mikis Theodorakis, behind the striking music to the verse of Elytis. “Naoi sto Schema tou Ouranou” or “Temples in the Shape of the Sky” interpreted by Theodoros Dimitrief. Enjoy!