Mount Olympus occupies a special place in the hearts of all Greeks. It is an area of exceptional natural beauty and cultural and historical significance. It is the mythical home of the twelve gods of the ancient Greek pantheon presided by the Father of the Gods, Olympian Zeus: Zeus was honoured in nearby ancient Dion first identified by the topographer William Martin Leake (1806) and excavated by Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis (from 1973).
It is the home to a wide range of wildlife and many rare plants. Mount Olympus was first declared a National Forest (Ethnikos Drumos) by Royal Decree (856/37) issued in 1938 by King George II of Greece, making the area the first Ethnikos Drumos in the country. In the same year (1938) as the creation of the Mount Olympus Ethnikos Drumos, Mount Parnassus received the same status opening the road for the creation of many more.
Today there are 27 National Parks in Greece altogether, including 10 National Forests, 2 Marine Parks and 15 National Parks. Areas given protected status after 1995 have been named National Parks to reflect that the Greek natural heritage is viewed holistically and not with an exclusive focus on forested areas.
The new decree by the President of the Hellenic State Aikaterini Sakellaropoulou replaces the 1938 legislation and adds further protections; something that has been eagerly awaited for ten years. The mountain is divided in four zones with a strict set of rules governing each.
The Greek Government has greeted this initiative as a ‘mighty shield of protection’ for Mount Olympus and expressed the hope that the new National Park will soon enter UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Mount Olympus has already been declared World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO (1981) and listed by the European Union as one of the most important areas for bird life. It is also part of the Natura 2000 European Network for rare natural habitats. The area is noted for its many ancient and Christian monuments.
These include the chapel of Prophitis Ilias, a beloved prophet whose churches are always found on mountaintops in the Orthodox world; several monasteries adorn the area too. The Olympus National Park Information Center in the nearby town of Litochoro (opened in 2016) guides the visitor through the rich cultural, historic and natural heritage of Mount Olympus and the National Park.
Close proximity to the (Aegean) Sea as well as its different elevation zones give Olympus a fantastic range of biodiversity. There are more than 1,700 plants on Mount Olympus representing about a quarter of the Greek flora. These include rare endemic species as well as Alpine. Some of the plants found on Mount Olympus are not recorded anywhere else in the world. Such plants are called endemics and at least 26 of them have been listed to date. An authoritative study entitled Wild flowers of Mount Olympus by the distinguished Swedish botanist Arne Strid gives a wonderful introduction to the subject. More than 1000 species are covered in his book accompanied by 100 illustrations. The wildflowers dominate Olympus above the tree line – 8,202 feet (2,500 meters), while among the trees found lower down on the mountain are maples, oaks, elms, wild cherry trees, arbutus trees (strawberry trees), hazel trees, cedars and many different pines. Beeches and black pine trees are found at higher altitudes; willows and sycamores near water.
Among the diverse fauna of the mountain are 108 different birds among which can be found some handsome and rare birds of prey as well as storks, rock doves and rock partridges. Regrettably, some of the large mammals originally found on the mountain are not there any longer, namely lions (mentioned by the ancient geographer Pausanias), bears and the red deer. Roe deer, wildcats, wild boars and red foxes are still seen there.
Olympus is a magnificent mountain with 52 peaks, the highest and most well known being Mytikas (also called Pantheon in tribute to the ancient gods) at 9,570 feet (2,917 m). It has inspired climbers since 1913 when a local woodcutter and wild goat hunter, Christos Kakkalos and two Swiss travellers where the first to conquer Mytikas. The companions of Kakkalos on this first famous climb were the photographer Fred Boissonnas and the art historian Daniel Baud-Bovy, both intrepid adventurers and ardent Philhellenes. Kakkalos became an official Mount Olympus guide and one of the nine refuges (shelters) on the mountain bears his name.
An estimated 1,000,000 people have climbed Olympus since that day. The nearest city to Mount Olympus is Katerini and the nearest international airport is Thessaloniki. On a clear day, Mount Olympus can be seen from Thessaloniki across the sea. The nearest railway stations are Litochoro, Leptokarya and Katerini. The lovely town of Litochoro is at the eastern foothills of the mount and used as a base for many expeditions. It is served by KTEL buses and taxis. The town also boasts a mountaineering club. Lovers of history will recall that Litochoro is connected with the name of Rigas Feraios (Velestinlis) who found refuge there for a time.