Skiing with Greek gods
Nothing is sacred. The home of the gods has become a ski resort and the gods themselves have been turned into chairlifts. The ancient centre of poetry, literature and learning has become the meeting place for people in sunglasses and salopettes.
A two-and-a-half-hour hairy taxi or bus drive from Athens through thousands of fir saplings and seemingly thousands of red traffic lights, Mt Parnassos Ski Centre attracts 10,000 Grecian skiers every weekend from November to April.
In midweek however, it is practically deserted apart from the odd budget-conscious Italian, culture-weary American day excursionists and one or two British members of the Athenian Round Table.
One of the most important spiritual and religious centres of the ancient Greeks – sacred to Dionysius, the god of wine and several nymphs – has become the playground for olive oil magnates and supertanker squillionaires.
Built by the Greek National Tourism Organisation and opened in 1975, the Parnassos Ski Centre is the biggest in Greece. It consists of two centres – Fterolaka (1,800 metres) and Kellaria (1,950 metres). Both are connected by a series of gondolas, lifts and towbars with classic names like Aphrodite, Pan, Odysseus, Pericles and Bacchus. Hercules and Hermes are honoured too.
There are 20 slopes to choose from with a total length of 14,000 metres. Runs range in difficulty from moderate to difficult. But there are no hard ones... if you stay sober. And this is not at all easy.
Après-ski starts with elevenses with compulsory ouzo, Cutty Sark Scots whisky, Metaxa brandy and a long early lunch at a long table full of wine bottles and industrial quantities of feta cheese. It is difficult to stay on your feet very long while skiing in Greece.
Greece claims on certain grounds to be Europe’s third most mountainous country, and to prove it, it has 15 ski centres. You can ski in eastern and central Macedonia, down Mt Olympus at Vrissopoulos (although you need a special permit as it’s inside a military installation) and in the Peloponnese 30 klicks from Tripoli at Oropedio Ostrakinas.
But Parnassos is the premier resort, offering a crèche, restaurant, bar and facilities as good as but less crowded than most other better-known European ski destinations. There are no queues during the week and some form of snow covering is guaranteed. Some years there is skiing until June and on several occasions skiing had to be abandoned because of blizzards. Too much ouzo does produce symptoms very similar to snow blindness.
The Hotel Anemolia (www.anemolia.gr) in Arachova is the place to stay. Lucas, the manager, will look after your every whim. He makes the largest and most filling ham sandwich in the world.
The mountain village of Arachova itself is far less touristy than nearby Delphi which is very Hotel Zeus and Bar Aristotle. The chic place to chill in town is the split-level Snow Me bar but I fraternised the less-look-at-me backstreet bars.
Like tavernas all over Greece, in Arachova it is easy to get caught up in rounds. All you need to say is “Manchester United” and someone will put a drink in your hand.
But be prepared when it is your shout for someone asking for a Lowenbrau (curiously, this part of Greece doesn’t have its own beer), an ouzo chaser and a padlock for their back shed.
Buses depart Arachova every morning for Parnassos and the journey time is about 40 minutes. Less if the driver remembers the way or doesn’t stop to see how well his aunt slept.
If you sleep in, as I did, you might get a ride up in the local ambulance. It was the first time I had ever arrived for a skiing holiday flat out on my back on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. I usually leave that way.
My driver was a frustrated charioteer called Adonis who had a thing about sirens. Greeks still believe in sirens. A lot.
Parnassos in the Valley of Phocis makes a useful one-day excursion if you are ‘doing’ Greece in the winter. It’s probably not the place to go if you want a week’s full skiing.
Delphi (home of Pythia the oracle and venue of the Pythian Games), the Bay of Corinth and the Corcyrean Caves aren’t far way. The beach at Kira on the Gulf of Itea is down the road too.
But once you have been to a true cultural centre like a backstreet bar in Arachova who cares about the remarkable local mosaics and all that pre-Homeric history?
Hangovers are great souvenirs. The Greeks have been enjoying them since BC. Before ‘Charlton’ – Bobby and Heston.