Don’t Fall Off the Mountain

(with apologies to Shirley Maclain, who wrote a book with that title, in which it referred to her trip to Peru in search of enlightenment)

The thing that nobody tells you about Greece is that it is vertical. Culturally, the country may be ancient, but geologically it is very young. Most of the coastline rises sheer from the sea, with occasional beaches that shelve off steeply. It is easy to believe that these are the mountaintops of a drowned land.The country consists of mountain ranges with plains between them. Here is what the Argive plain looks like from the mountains between it and Lakonia.

The flat, arable land is limited, and over the centuries the Greeks have gotten very good at terracing, sometimes on extremely sheer slopes. If you flattened out the mountains, Greece would be the size of Europe. Here’s our little car in front of the mountains farther in. If you look closely you can see a herd of goats, the animal that makes the best use of this terrain. From a distance the landscape looks a lot like places in Southern California and the Southwest, but on closer examination the vegetation, though equivalent, is different.

An acropolis is a city on a height, and Athens is only the best known. In the days of the kings, every lord had his fortress on a hill.
This shot shows the Acropolis of Athens seen from the temple of Zeus, below.

This makes driving very interesting. I do not like mountain driving, but Don does it all the time in Lake County, so I had great confidence that with me to navigate (since I now have bifocals and can shift from reading a map to reading a road sign without having to change my glasses), we would do fine. And aside from a few stunned moments when we were passed at speed by trucks or tour busses on mountain curves, we did.

Don came away with a great admiration for Greek drivers, and they must be experts indeed to survive at all. It’s said they have the highest accident rate in Europe, but I can’t help wondering how many of the accidents are caused by tourists. To drive a full-length gravel hauler along narrow, winding roads as if it were a sports car argues for a high level of skill. Accident spots are marked by lovely ceramic reproductions of Orthodox churches on pillars, but there are no more of them than there are wooden crosses on many California roads.

The most spectacular mountains in the Peloponnese (southern peninsula of Greece) is the Taygetus range, which rises to the west of Laconia. If you go through Sparta you come to a little town called Mistras, nestled at the base of the mountains. Beyond you glimpse precipices and defiles, where shadowed gorges lead into the heart of the mountains. This is the view from our hotel balcony.

But Mistras is more than the gateway to the Taygetus. Along about1239, a Frankish nobleman called Guy de Villehardouin decided that the mountains would be a great place from which to dominate the Peloponnese, and built a castle atop one of the crags.

Twenty years later, the Byzantine emperor captured him, and he ransomed himself by giving up his fortresses. The Byzantines found the place equally useful, made it their summer capital for that part of their empire, and started building palaces on the (steep) slope below the crag. Eventually they too passed, but the palaces are still there—it’s the world’s most beautiful ghost town. Some of them are now being partially restored.

We arrived there in the evening, and as we strolled about, I kept having a sense of having seen all this somewhere before. Finally I remembered where the image of a fortress above a slope filled with Byzantine-style buildings, only white instead of brown came from—it was Minas Tirith! At that point the soundtrack from Lord of the Rings kicked in, and I had it running through my head all evening.

The road through the pass was equally spectacular. Hard to imagine the Spartans marching through there to attack Messenia on the other side of the mountains, but they did so, until the survivors fled in a diaspora that lasted several hundred years. When they returned, they built a new city, which has now been excavated.

The Greek islands also offer some precipitous driving. Santorini, of course, consists of the caldera of a volcano, which is attempting to rebuild itself in the form of an island in the middle. The main town, Fira, clings to the crest. You can look straight down at the cruise ships, tiny with distance, anchored below.

The peak at the southern end of the island is crowned by the remains of “Ancient Thira”, a Spartan colony perched high above the sloping eastern side of the isle. It can be reached by a steep path on one side, or a series of hairpin turns on a road the width of a driveway on the other. The tour van had to back and reverse to make some of the switchbacks. We sincerely hoped that the camper that was trying it gave up when he couldn’t make the first turn.

Fortunately we did not have to drive there, but we did drive on Ithaki (which may or may not be the Ithaca of Odysseus), which is all vertical. There’s not much room on Ithaki, and all the roads are barely wide enough for two cars to pass (if the wheels of one of them are off the edge). Nonetheless, we found the site known as the “School of Homer”, which despite its name seems to have been a Mycenean fortified building on an outcrop of a mountain.

On the way back, as we rounded a curve where the cliff fell sheer to the sea, we saw on the fence a sign that said “For Sale”. We’re still wondering what they were selling, since there was no solid ground to be seen. But the most croggling sight of the day was watching a big red hauling truck turn around on the very small ferry slip so that it could back on to the boat when it came. Here’s the view towards Kefalonia from Ithaki.

However the place where I was most in danger of falling off the mountain was Delphi, which is dug into the side of Mount Parnassus above a deep gorge. The town consists of three or four parallel streets, and our balcony, with a spectacular view toward the Gulf of Corinth, overhung empty air. When the Cretan priests who were led there by Apollo asked how they were going to make a living in such a desolate spot, he responded, essentially—“build it, and they will come”. And so they built him a temple, and so long as their descendents tended it, all of Greece brought offerings, so rich that the cities had to build treasuries to keep the goodies in.

And now that the temples have been excavated, scores of tour busses maneuver up the mountain roads, and the people are supported once more. Exploring the site requires a lot of climbing, and if you have any energy left when you have done so (and walked through the museum), you can go down the road past the Castalian spring and visit the temple of Athena and the Stadion.


  • Keep your eyes open. The next road sign will appear much sooner than you expect it.
  • Don’t drive in Argos. The side streets are all one-way, and like the paths in the Old Forest, sometimes they change…
  • Even though a road looks like someone’s driveway it may still be the main route through a small town.
  • When in doubt about which way the main road goes, follow the wheel-marks (this one courtesy Dr. Steve Miller)
  • Greeks have a miraculous ability to navigate narrow roads. Unless you have Nascar experience, don’t try to imitate them.
  • “5 min. from the port” means as the pigeon flies. Your mileage will vary.