Greece By Snowboard

A Tour Of Europe’s Oldest New Country

By Jesse Huffman

Thessaloniki

Our story starts with the unlikely logistics of five individuals arriving from five different starting points at the airport in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, all within the same hour. Mark Kohlman, Joni Makinen, Louie Fountain, Bryan Fox, and I all exchange high-fives, our jet lag swept aside by sunny skies and T-shirt-temperature weather. Soaking up this pleasant mid-February climate, we share a collective chuckle over the pretense for our being here-to snowboard.

It’s a relatively easy task to identify Chris Spissou, the man who will be our host, guide, and interpreter for the next ten days. Chris is the only guy in the airport’s one-room arrival area wearing a hooded sweatshirt and skate shoes, and the out-of-place bulk of our board bags make it obvious that we’re the snowboarders Chris is looking for. Chris drives us into Thessaloniki, home to Chris and his snow/skate/wake shop, Zero Gravity.

Each of us armed with a camera (or two), we do our best to record all that flies by outside the car-the architectural landscape slowly condensing beyond the airport from wide suburban roads flanked by grassy fields to the concrete and stone facades of box stores, factories, and car dealerships, all of it funneling into the narrow urban streets of Thessaloniki. The trim forms of European cars, trucks, and scooters rush past down the multi-lane road, flanked on both sides by row after row of Mediterranean apartments, each floor marked by a terraced porch. The endless fabric created by of these cream-colored stucco high-rises is punctuated randomly by the open spaces of abandoned lots and the broken-down ruins of ancient houses. On the street level, store windows announce wares in Greek, and sidewalks are teeming with afternoon activity-the old and young alike dressed in urban high fashion: the men in tight pants pulled up uncomfortably high around the waist, the women clicking and clacking atop heeled leather boots, all of them wearing huge sunglasses, and all of them (Chris included) smoking like it’s their job.

After being deposited at Zero Gravity, the direction of our group falls to Chris’ brother, Kostas, and his girlfriend, Mariana. We set out from the shop, walking down side streets, past row after row of brightly colored apartments, and out into an open square. With the long winter rays of a Mediterranean sun at our backs, we gawk at the decaying spine of a Byzantine temple in the square’s center, its crumbling stones populated by feral cats. The first 24 hours in a foreign country always leave a big impression on the traveler. The sensory input bombarding you can only compound the pulsing belief and disbelief at being in such a new location and circumstance. This shock might be expressed, as in our case, by a phrase like:

“We’re in Greece, man. Greece.”

Chris meets us for dinner at the Chalkboard Cafà‡ in the Athenos open-air market. The long table is filled by Greeks and visitors alike, and quickly overflows with Greek salad, cheese dips, feta chunks, falafel bread, goat meat, vegetables stuffed with lamb meat, red sauce and pork meat, and just plain meat. The sensory immersion is completed by a pair of men in their seventies, one playing the clarinet, and the other beating out a funeral march on a kettle drum. The pair’s tactic is our indoctrination into a Greek form of panhandling via ingratiation. Backed up by the incessant pounding of the drum, the clarinet guy’s plan is to stick his shrilling in everyone’s face until someone ponies up to pay him off-at which point the duo leaves to annoy the table next to us and we get to laugh.

The conversation turns to Greece’s mountains and Greek snowboarding. With penetrating wisdom, Chris lays out an observation that could easily pass for a Greek cultural truism.

“You won’t be excited, but you will be impressed.”

And really, what were we expectg? All previous talk of our destination had elicited the same response: “Snowboarding? In Greece?” Greece as a site of tourism seemed synonymous with ancient ruins, sun-swept beaches, and crystal-clear water. But mountains? That was another question.

As of yet, winter sports aren’t a big part of Greek tourism, an industry that has grown to become the country’s primary foreign-currency generator. For our group, that’s just as well: tourism (possibilities for winter recreation included) can cause you to ignore just how recent the tumultuous events are that have shaped modern Greece. This country is rightly famous for its rule by various ancient empires-the Romans, Constantine’s Byzantium, the Venetians, the Franks, and finally the Ottomans. But to understand present-day Greece, it’s worth citing a few examples of how this madness didn’t simply end with the Parthenon.

The tumult in Greece’s history extends right up to the end of the twentieth century. Ottoman (Turkish) occupation of Greece lasted until 1919 (ending in the Greco-Turkish war) when Greece was established as an independent state and organized population exchanges with Turkey began, which were essentially a bureaucratized form of ethnic cleansing. Then there was WWII and Nazi occupation, after which Greece was again plunged into combat-this time internally, when a civil war broke out between the communist and the U.S.- and U.K.-backed nationalist government factions. U.S. political involvement during and after this conflict culminated in the C.I.A.-assisted coup and installation of a military dictatorship know as the Colonel’s Junta. Popular and intra-military dissent led to the re-establishment of a parliamentary system, and into the late 80s, Greece’s economy went through the wringer as the government tried various forms of social democracy. These are just the highlights that led up to the economic deregulation of the 90s, Greece’s entry into the European Union, and the beginning of social and political stability.

The result of all this is that Greece’s national character is in a state of constant flux-much of the population still reeling from the chaos of the twentieth century, while rapid increases in commercialization have created a new sense of opportunity and individualism in younger generations. As snowboarders, we were in Greece as tourists of a new kind. And Chris Spissou-a snowboarder, shop owner, and part of this new generation-was excited to the point of anxiousness to show us his Greece and Greek snowboarding.

Parnassos

To that end, Chris is driving something like 300 mph, piloting the nine-person rental van and its passengers-Greek and American alike-to our first stop: Mt. Parnassos. Outside the van’s shaking windows, the light of dawn illuminates the dry browns and greens of central Greece; the blue haze of the Agean sea is just visible on the eastern horizon.

Chris pulls off the main highway onto a secondary road, and Roman Catholic votives start cropping up with increasing frequency. I ask if the votives’ significance is more than religious, and, paying equal attention to my question and to the road, Chris swivels his head around to explain that they mark car accident sites. But, he adds, with temporal dismissal, many of them have been there “forever.”

Bouncing along over the cobblestoned streets of Alpine villages, the van takes us higher and higher up the hillside, past open meadows and the skeletons of unfinished stone houses, through a thick canopy of evergreen forest, and finally out into the Alpine. Before us, the road carves upward into a gentle valley, each side peppered by the pointy escarpments of limestone, all of it covered with a welcome white blanket: snow. Just around the bend we can see the lower half of Mt. Parnassos peeking out from underneath a hood of fog.

With the van parked, Chris swings the doors open, spilling out the detritus of Greek road food. We rub our eyes; we’d left Thessaloniki at 4:30 in the morning. But the funk of confusion is still on our side-we’re jet- and travel-lagged to the point of not caring what time of day it is or how long the drive took. It’s daylight, dammit, and we can see what’s in front of us: snowboarding-in Greece.

Under instructions to stay close (Chris holds in his hand the only proof of our lift-boarding legitimacy-a receipt-sized piece of paper with a few Greek words written on it), we follow him into the shapeless swarm of people shuffling toward the gondola entrance. Boards under our arms, we take up formation and feed ourselves into this human funnel, which somehow spits us out individually to climb the staircase leading up to the gondola platform. We stand on deck watching the slow churn of these rusted and yellow egg-shaped numbers of a late-60s vintage. Our turn comes, and we approach the egg with trepidation. Upon our entrance, the egg responds with a loud creak, before lurching forward and dropping like a cheap carnival ride as we clear the building. After the negotiation of another human corral, a quad chairlift propels us to the mountaintop. Here, in the midst of a cloud dense enough to obscure anything farther than five feet away, Chris announces, “You can see the ocean from here!”

From what we can tell on the ride down, the top half of Parnassos is a transition playground: wide-open Alpine bowls with runs snaking down gullies banked by rollers, windlips, cornices, and other fun features. Back at mid-station, we stop to shred a cement shack, wallride style. The drop-in point is at the base of Parnassos’ huge mid-mountain discotheque, and our trajectory takes us across the paths of the parents and children up for the day to sled. As we dodge traffic, we listen to parents shouting after their charges, the names foreign but the tone universal.

With wallride possibilities exhausted, the crew heads below the resort to investigate a natural cliff launch that’d been spotted on the drive up. Louie and Joni kick out a successful session, and we pack back into the van, stoked at having actually done something on our first full day in Greece. The doors slam shut, and the lengthy zigzag begins in reverse. Slipping down switchbacks toward lower ground, Chris points the van east and then south toward the resort of Kalavrita, across the Rio-Antirio Bridge from “mainland” Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

We don’t make it to any ruins. With the sun setting, we end up driving once again at window-rattling speeds, the ruins of Delphi flying by more quickly than I can get out the words, “Hey! Let’s stop and look at the … ” All of the van’s other passengers unconscious, Chris pilots the vibrating rental all the way to Patras and the Hotel Delphi.

Kalavrita

The next morning we discover the Gulf of Korinthos, right across the street from the hotel. The sun is out, and warm water laps at the nearby shore. Comparing the sublime and temperate beauty of Patras to the drudgery of another multi-hour van trek up into the mountains, at least two crew members reason that, “Man, we need a day off.”

It takes some coaxing on Chris’ part, but the threat of mutiny is quelled, the van once again stuffed full of gear and dudes, and we head out, tracing the southern coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula to the east past seaside towns, then cutting straight south and back up into the hills. Chris pulls off onto another side road, this time winding through the lushness of the Peloponnesian landscape, a brighter palette of shrubs and rock than central Greece. The dramatic scale of the gorges leading up to Kalavrita calls to mind the grandeur of Greek mythology. This was the very landscape that inspired the rampant beauty and tragedy of gods and goddesses.

Kalavrita is a steeper, more compact and treed version of Parnassos. A quad brings us to the mid station, where a T-bar leads up to one peak, and an impossibly slow and long double chair trundles off in the other direction to even higher reaing. But the funk of confusion is still on our side-we’re jet- and travel-lagged to the point of not caring what time of day it is or how long the drive took. It’s daylight, dammit, and we can see what’s in front of us: snowboarding-in Greece.

Under instructions to stay close (Chris holds in his hand the only proof of our lift-boarding legitimacy-a receipt-sized piece of paper with a few Greek words written on it), we follow him into the shapeless swarm of people shuffling toward the gondola entrance. Boards under our arms, we take up formation and feed ourselves into this human funnel, which somehow spits us out individually to climb the staircase leading up to the gondola platform. We stand on deck watching the slow churn of these rusted and yellow egg-shaped numbers of a late-60s vintage. Our turn comes, and we approach the egg with trepidation. Upon our entrance, the egg responds with a loud creak, before lurching forward and dropping like a cheap carnival ride as we clear the building. After the negotiation of another human corral, a quad chairlift propels us to the mountaintop. Here, in the midst of a cloud dense enough to obscure anything farther than five feet away, Chris announces, “You can see the ocean from here!”

From what we can tell on the ride down, the top half of Parnassos is a transition playground: wide-open Alpine bowls with runs snaking down gullies banked by rollers, windlips, cornices, and other fun features. Back at mid-station, we stop to shred a cement shack, wallride style. The drop-in point is at the base of Parnassos’ huge mid-mountain discotheque, and our trajectory takes us across the paths of the parents and children up for the day to sled. As we dodge traffic, we listen to parents shouting after their charges, the names foreign but the tone universal.

With wallride possibilities exhausted, the crew heads below the resort to investigate a natural cliff launch that’d been spotted on the drive up. Louie and Joni kick out a successful session, and we pack back into the van, stoked at having actually done something on our first full day in Greece. The doors slam shut, and the lengthy zigzag begins in reverse. Slipping down switchbacks toward lower ground, Chris points the van east and then south toward the resort of Kalavrita, across the Rio-Antirio Bridge from “mainland” Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

We don’t make it to any ruins. With the sun setting, we end up driving once again at window-rattling speeds, the ruins of Delphi flying by more quickly than I can get out the words, “Hey! Let’s stop and look at the … ” All of the van’s other passengers unconscious, Chris pilots the vibrating rental all the way to Patras and the Hotel Delphi.

Kalavrita

The next morning we discover the Gulf of Korinthos, right across the street from the hotel. The sun is out, and warm water laps at the nearby shore. Comparing the sublime and temperate beauty of Patras to the drudgery of another multi-hour van trek up into the mountains, at least two crew members reason that, “Man, we need a day off.”

It takes some coaxing on Chris’ part, but the threat of mutiny is quelled, the van once again stuffed full of gear and dudes, and we head out, tracing the southern coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula to the east past seaside towns, then cutting straight south and back up into the hills. Chris pulls off onto another side road, this time winding through the lushness of the Peloponnesian landscape, a brighter palette of shrubs and rock than central Greece. The dramatic scale of the gorges leading up to Kalavrita calls to mind the grandeur of Greek mythology. This was the very landscape that inspired the rampant beauty and tragedy of gods and goddesses.

Kalavrita is a steeper, more compact and treed version of Parnassos. A quad brings us to the mid station, where a T-bar leads up to one peak, and an impossibly slow and long double chair trundles off in the other direction to even higher reaches. We hit the T-bar for a warm-up run-first a cat track, and then a steep groomer through the low Alpine trees. Off the sluggish double chair, we spot a bank perfect for a hip, find Chris to tell him our plan, and then grab shovels, and set about to build.

It’s late in the day by the time we get back to the proposed hip. But this was a bit of shred we knew would work. We also knew that somewhere down in the parking lot, Chris was getting stressed. It was our turn to be diplomatic-Chris’ itinerary has us driving back to Thessaloniki after riding, but we needed to get some shooting done. Plus, the crew was beat from so much transportation. Chris agrees to stay put, and we shack up for the night at a place called Carabela’s House.

It’s SPF 50 weather when we arrive at the hill the next day to put the finishing touches on the jump. Under the burn of a high-noon sun, an expectant crowd of winter recreationists assembles to watch Louie and Joni tee it off. A solid session of hucking and tweaking develops. A skier shushes up on deck just in time for Joni to blast the day’s biggest method right over his Afro-quaffed head-Mark’s camera blazes, the riders scream, “Butros!” and spectators go wild with applause. Clouds soon roll in, but the crew has had their fill, and we drive away from Kalavrita more than satisfied.

The sun reappears down the road from the resort and follows us all the way down the valley and across the Rio-Antirio Bridge to Nafkaptos. Here we stop to dine on what are unanimously recognized as the best gyros-ever. The golden glow of sunset drenches this whitewashed seaside town as we sink our teeth into these soft, warm falafels full of savory and juicy meat, feta cheese, potatoes, tatziki, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Enthralled as we are once again by the enchantments of Greece, the threat of mutiny again rises-we want to stay in this beautiful town full of sweet meats for the rest of the trip, if not forever. But the sun fades behind the horizon, food comas kick in, and we submit to the van. Chris plunges back into the depths of transportation, traversing half of Greece in the dark, and we don’t emerge again from the van until Thessaloniki some twisted eight hours later.

Vigla/Vasilitsa

The next day is spent in luxuriant stasis, lounging at the Hotel Le Palace and happily wandering around downtown Thessaloniki, scoping out the national photography and film museum, browsing the antiques on sale in stores staffed by equally antique and interesting humans, and throwing a mean daytime chill in Aristotle Square. Later on, we meet up with Chris, Kostas, and Mariana for dinner at a seaside restaurant called Antonis, where we gorge ourselves on juicy octopus, fish, salads, and mussels cooked three different ways. Proper tourists for a day, we go to bed tired and stuffed.

The next morning the van is repacked, this time with a recharged and stoked crew. Chris drives northeast of Thessaloniki toward the resort of Vigla, just south of the Bulgarian border. We pass through a flat, dry landscape draped in fog, until the undulation of hillsides slowly builds and we’re once again in the mountains. The weather isn’t any better here-Vigla is completely socked in. Driving farther north in search of something to shred, Chris starts cracking jokes about dropping us off in Bulgaria and discussing the inevitable abductions and sale of our organs on the black market. However, the closest our crew brushes with inter-country travel is when a bus passes by from Romania while Louie and Fox launch a dirt gap next to road. Boots thrown back in the van, we head south toward the final destination of our tour, Vasilitsa.

It’s early evening by the time Chris parks the van in front of the Shilo Inn, where we’ll be hanging our hats (haha), gloves, goggles, et cetera, for the next three nights. Chris has rented out this wonderful establishment for The Jam, the yearly snowboard contest/event he puts on at Vasilitsa.

There’s a solid foo