Jay Dhillon discovers that there’s more to this sun-soaked mediterranean destination than perfect beaches as he looks at nine alternative adventures in Greece…
When you think of adventure holidays in Europe it’s all too easy to limit your options to the dramatic mountainscapes of the Alps or the majestic fjords of Norway. Of course, they’re well worth visits, and multiple visits at that, but if you’re looking for something a little different when you’re planning your 2020 trips abroad, you really should look east towards adventures in Greece.
I must admit, when it comes to the Mediterranean country, my mind instantly wanders to times of old. Known as the cradle of Western civilisation, it’s a land so rich with history that you could spend a lifetime visiting the Ancient Greek monuments and archaeological sites (and many people do). But, pack some walking boots and you’ve got the opportunity to explore a diverse country with remarkable natural beauty that compliments its glorious past.
From the deep and dramatic Vikos Gorge in the north, to Mount Olympus, home to the Gods, the opportunities for world-class hiking and adventures in Greece are plenty. And then there are the thousands of islands pockmarking the Aegean and Ionian Seas, each providing a different experience to the next. From the sport climbing heaven of Kalymnos (widely regarded as one of the best climbing locations in the world), to the volcano island of Nisyros, there’s just so much to see and explore in this wonderful country.
One of the best parts, though? Greece is the perfect winter sun destination, with temperatures in the south of the country staying around the mid-teens well into the depths of winter. You can leave rainy Britain behind and within three and a half hours be disembarking the plane in shorts and t-shirt, ready to get your hike on. If snow’s more your thing, then you won’t be disappointed either. Head north and into the Voras Mountain and you’ll be able to ski or snowboard.
With so many unbelievable adventures in Greece, it’s hard to figure out where to go and what to do, so we decided upon a list of nine activities that should be included in any itinerary on a visit to the country. From hikes through history to exploring ancient caves, there’s something for everyone here. So, what are you waiting for? Get that notebook out and start planning your 2020 adventure now.
Visit Valley of the Butterflies on Rhodes
On the island of Rhodes, 12 miles from the city of the same name, lies a nature reserve with a unique twist that’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area. The wonderfully named Valley of the Butterflies, which runs through the only natural forest of Oriental Sweetgum trees in Europe, is a remarkable place in which you can witness a spectacular phenomenon rarely seen in nature.
Here, huge amounts (I’m talking thousands upon thousands) of butterflies and moths descend on the small, picturesque valley to live out the final stages of their lives. They’re attracted there at the end of the wet season (late May) by the scent of the Oriental Sweetgum trees, and a walk along the meandering path that follows the babbling brook at the valley’s heart is an experience not to be missed.
As the butterflies are startled by loud noises, it’s forbidden to do anything that encourages them to take flight, so the valley is a wonderful place to explore if you want some peace and quiet. At the end of the path you’ll find a monastery, and the Museum of Natural History can be visited at the valley’s entrance.
Walk the Aristotle Trail in Halkidiki
Greece is a country that’s so rich in important history that it’s hard to know where to start, but if you’re looking for a short hike that combines that with stunning views and wonderful natural sites, the Aristotle Trail in Halkidiki is worth checking out. Starting in Aristotle’s Grove, the trail winds its way through the woodlands of the Aristotle Mountains for 12 miles until it reaches its terminus in the ancient site of Stageira, Aristotle’s birthplace.
According to legend, Aristotle, the iconic Greek philosopher who became tutor to a young Alexander the Great, was a keen walker. In fact, his own ‘brand’ of philosophy came to be known as peripatetic (wandering) school, because it is thought that he walked around as he lectured, back in the early 300sBC.
The walk is an idyllic ramble through an amazing part of Halkidiki, with stunning mountain and coastal views. The trail is walkable in a day if you’re energetic, though it can also be split into sections for those wanting to take their time to explore the numerous off-shoots that lead to historic sites and beautiful waterfalls. Lining the path, you’ll find numerous plants and herbs, the same herbs that it’s said Aristotle prescribed to Alexander the Great as ancient cures for illnesses.
Explore the Diros Caves in the Peloponnese
So often it’s tempting to focus on adventures in Greece above the ground, scaling mountains and trekking along paths well trodden. But look underneath the earth, into the caves and caverns that can be found all over Europe, and you’ll discover a whole new world of adventure so alien and fascinating that it’s sure to leave a lasting impression on you.
The Diros Caves, located near the town of Pyrgos Dirou on the Peloponnese, are perhaps Greece’s most remarkable caves, fraught with a combination of fascinating history and awe-inspiring natural beauty. Alepotrypa and Vichada caves were first discovered by modern humans in 1958, and it was found that the cave system was once an important part of life in the late Neolithic Period, between 4,000 and 3,000BC.
In fact, during exploration of the caves, various remains were found, leading them to be known as a treasure trove of information relating to the prehistoric history of the Peloponnese. Amongst the various remains, a fossil of a hippopotamus from the late Pleistocene Epoch, some 32,000 years ago, were found, as was evidence of panthers, lions, hyenas, ferrets and seals.
Most interestingly though, was the skeletal remains of a couple found locked in an embrace near the entrance of the Alepotrypa cave. It is theorised that they were probably killed during a large earthquake which would have dislodged rocks and blocked the entrance. These findings led to the Diros Caves being known as one of the biggest Neolithic burial sites in Europe.
The Alepotrypa cave is not yet open to the public, with exploration still ongoing, but Vichada is, and since 1949 over 2,800 water passages have been found in the spectacular underground system.
For those who want to see and explore the fascinating Vichada cave, you can get transported along a mile and a half-long winding passageway, through a network of tunnels and galleries decorated with stalactites and stalagmites. The 40 minute-long guided tour will allow you to experience nature’s underground cathedral, and if you’re visiting the Peloponnese it’s an opportunity not to pass up.
Discover the marble-crafting history of Tinos
Sitting pretty in the Cyclades, a group of islands in the Aegean Sea, you’ll find the island of Tinos. On the face of it, it’s a quiet, unassuming part of Greece, but take a closer look and you’ll discover a land that surpasses all others in the country when it comes to marble crafting. Tinos is the homeland of some of history’s most renowned modern marble artists, with the likes of Gyzis, Lytras, Chalepas, Filippotis, and Sochos being amongst the list of notable names from the island.
According to tradition, the famous sculptor of ancient times, Phidias, taught the secrets of his trade to the islanders, and their craft is displayed all around the island. Perhaps the best example of this is in the village of Pyrgos, where buildings and streets are adorned with intricate and remarkable marble designs. Heck, even the bus stops are made of marble!
Just a short walk from Pyrgos, you’ll find the Marble Art Museum, which is well worth a visit. It’s dedicated to the island’s rich history of marble production and craftsmanship, and does a great job of explaining the trade on the island.
Marble aside, Tinos is a wonderful place to visit. It’s a gastronomic paradise, you’ll find quiet, beautiful beaches along the coast, 40 traditional villages each with their own charm, and the delightful hinterland on the interior.
Skiing in Kaimáktsalan
Think of skiing in Europe and your mind will instantly go to the Alps. Few people consider Greece as a skiing destination, but that’s changing. In the north of the country, in the area of Central Macedonia, you’ll find Kaimáktsalan ski resort, located on the north-east slope of Mt Voras. Over the years, the resort has been attracting more and more visitors, and it’s quickly becoming known as the Mykonos of wintertime.
It may not have the scale of its Alpine counterparts, but here you’ll find six ski lifts, 13 runs (totalling nine miles in length) made up of four red, four blue, three beginners, and two cross-country slopes, and four ski trails (totalling 3,250m in length). There’s also a snowboard park for those looking for a bit of high-adrenaline fun.
But it’s not just the skiing that makes a trip to Kaimáktsalan one of the best adventures in Greece. It’s the spectacular views you’ll get from the whole resort. The highest lift will take you up to 2,480m from where you’ll be able to see the Thermaikos Gulf, Lake Vegoritida, and even Mount Olympus, Greece’s highest mountain, where the God’s are said to live.
Once you’ve got your skiing fill, book yourself into the chalet at 2,050m, where you’ll find a hotel, two restaurants, a café bar with an open fireplace, shops and ski rental. There’s also a whole host of snowsports to be enjoyed around the area, while ski school is available for those looking for some tuition.
Hike the Mainalo Trail
In the Arcadia area of the Peloponnese, a 46-mile long hiking trail, the Mainalo Trail, has been revived. Following in the footsteps of the Ancient Greeks, it’ll take you through, across, and over some marvellous sites, dramatic cliffs, deep gorges, and verdant woodland areas.
In fact, so wonderful is this trail that it was awarded Leading Quality Trail – Best of Europe status by the European Ramblers Association (ERA), whose guidelines on creation and infrastructure it follows. To put that into perspective, it was the eighth trail in Europe to be granted that honour (there are only 16 in total). According to the ERA, a Leading Quality Trail will feature beautiful nature, it will be well marked throughout, have easy access, good logistics, and have well maintained and informative websites.
Following paths that have been in use since antiquity, the route itself is split into eight different sections, with each offering thrilling and rewarding hiking. For instance, you’ll be taken through the dramatic Lousios Gorge, a deep canyon that has been carved out by the Lousios River, you’ll traverse the western slopes of Mainalo, the tallest mountain in the region, and you’ll hike through the mountains of Gortyna.
A good hiking trail offers treats for the eyes, the mind, and the body, and the Mainalo Trail ticks all of those boxes and more, offering organised and safe, yet exhilarating hiking. There’s no need to slum it either, with there being ample traditional guest houses, mansions and hotels along the way in which you can rest your weary legs while tasting some of the delicious local cuisine. If you fancy a change of pace, then saddle up as the area also offers excellent horse riding.
Conquer an active volcano on Nisyros
While many of Greece’s islands are known for their sun loungers and perfect beaches, the island of Nisyros is a place where you can get your adventure fix. Home to the youngest volcano in Greece, the small island in the Aegean Sea is said to have been formed when Poseidon cut off a part of Kos and threw it onto a giant called Polybotes to stop him escaping. Now, how’s that for an origins story?
The small island is dominated by the hulking volcano in its centre, which is considered to be dormant (sleeping), having last erupted in 1888. Fortunately, for adventure travellers, this means that the mount is perfect for hiking on, and you’ll find over 40 trails around Nisyros, most of them taking you over and around the volcano.
You’ll enter the island by boat from either Kos or Piraeus, docking in the main town and port of Mandraki. Here, you’ll be able to take a bus up to the volcano or set off on foot if you fancy a longer trek. Once you make it to the volcano, it’s well worth spending some time exploring the many hydrothermal craters, including Stefanos, the largest of 10, which is 260m wide and 30m deep (that’s nearly seven London double deckers high and 21 long). It’s the only volcano crater in Greece which you can actually walk into, and as you descend, you’ll feel the ground under your feet heat up and smell a strong whiff of sulphur in the air. Check out the signs at the top of the crater pointing out that you enter at your own risk.
Discover the Straits of Nestos
In the north east of Greece lies one of the most beautiful wetlands you can ever hope to see, the Nestos Delta. Here, just seven miles from the city of Xanthi, between the villages of Toxotes and Stavroupoli, you’ll find idyllic natural beauty in the form of rich forests, rare wetlands and imposing geological formations. In fact, Nestos is the pride of north-eastern Greece for its ecological value.
The river Nestos meanders wonderfully through steep-sided valleys, and a network of hiking trails allows you to explore one of the most impressive forests in Greece. The opportunities for adventure are plenty, with hiking, kayaking, horse riding, mountain biking, and 4×4 trails all possible. The Nestos Delta has been designated as an area of international importance for bird watching, and as you make your way through this remarkable portion of Greece, you’ll find numerous opportunities to see eagles, kingfishers, flamingos and pelicans.
To get your hiking fix, seek out the branch of International Path E6 which makes its way through the Nestos Strait. Here you’ll find one of the most exhilarating hiking tails in Greece, which follows the old railway trail through steep and rocky terrain. For the best views, make sure you climb up to Thea for a showstopping panorama of the goosenecks of the river Nestos from above.
Visit the National Marine Park of Zakynthos
There’s far more to Greece’s party island of Zante than nightclubs. Head to the south-east coast and you’ll find the National Marine Park of Zakynthos, a remarkable area that was established to protect and conserve a number of animal species and their habitats. Encompassing the marine area of the Bay of Laganas, here you’ll find sea turtle nesting beaches, sand dunes, vast expanses of Posidonia oceanica (seagrass), the wetlands of Keri Lake, and the two small Strofades islands.
Zakynthos is one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites in the Mediterranean, but it also plays home to a number of other rare flora and fauna, like the Mediterranean monk seal, which is critically endangered, and the pretty and rare sea daffodil.
Visiting the National Marine Park of Zakynthos is a great way to get to see some of these rare and endangered species, while also enjoying nature as it’s intended. Best of all, a number of hiking trails allow you to explore all that the park has to offer on foot.