NOV/DEC 2011

Hitting the Slopes

Marissa Tejada Benekos

For up to four months of the year, Greece’s snow-capped mountains and their surrounding villages steal the show, welcoming on their slopes some half-million visitors seeking a winter getaway in a cozy mountain lodge as well as some time on the slopes. Marissa Tejada Benekos takes a look at Greece’s pistes.

“Greece is very mountainous, a fact which is not widely known abroad. We have a diverse beauty in our country,” says Julia Tsaliki, who is the president of Board of Directors for the Pelion Ski Center in Central Greece.

Approximately eighty per cent of Greece is comprised of hills and rugged mountains, making it one of the most mountainous countries in Europe. The long Pindus Mountain range begins at the border of Albania in the north and stretches down south to the Patras gulf, with traditional villages dotting it along the way. It also boasts the highest point in the country, Mount Olympus which stands at 2,919 meters. Within the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south, Mount Taygetus reaches 2,407 meters at the Profitis Elias summit. Several first-class ski slopes and centers are located on these impressive mountains.

Slope to sea
Like many attractions in Greece, the mountains have an exciting mythology and historical context attached to them, according to Tsaliki who grew up in the region of Thessaly in central Greece. Densely forested Mount Pelion overlooks her home town, the port city of Volos.

“Pelion is really important to Greek mythology; it was home of the half man-half horse centaurs,” Tsaliki says with a hint of pride. “The wedding of Thetis the Nereid to the mortal Peleus took place here and their son was the immortal Achilles who killed Hector of Troy….” Tsaliki goes on to explain how the close proximity of archeological sites are an added advantage for Pilio Ski Center. The center is considered the most stunning in Greece, a claim that can be easily verified, she adds, by simply taking a look at its surroundings. “I may be from Volos, but anyone who will visit I think will see why I can say it is one of the most scenic places in the world! It’s centered right between the Aegean Sea and the Pagasetic Gulf so when you ski here you have this rare combination of the sea and mountain.”

The center was one of the first to be built in Greece. It is nestled on the mountainside at 1,500 meters, and typically has a good snow season due to heavy snow coming from the north and the Black Sea.

Snowy mountains, surrounded by sea views, and conveniently close to ancient Greek ruins is a unique package that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, according to the Greek National Tourism Organization, which continues to seek new ways to positively promote Greece’s advantages as a winter destination.

“There is something to experience here fifty-two weeks a year in all areas of Greece,” says Alexis Hatzidakis, director of planning and development. “We support campaigns for different kinds of tourism from religious to mountain tourism. Skiing is one more attraction, one more quality option.”

He adds that skiing in Greece is a bargain compared to most other places in Europe, with lift passes at some of the smaller Greek resorts costing around ten to fifteen euros a day. The cost advantage comes from the fact that many are managed by the municipalities or local alpine clubs. Owners are also offering more competitive holiday packages to boost tourism at a critical juncture in the economy, along with added attractions, such as night-time skiing.

“It’s a fact people don’t just fly to Greece from abroad for a ski holiday but what we can offer is a package of experiences. A visit to the archeological site of Delphi leads you to an unforgettable ski weekend in nearby Parnassos,” he says.

Parnassos is another one of Greece’s leading ski centers, preferred by Athenians since it is located just 180 kilometers away from the city. In fact, all of the other ski centers are within a decent proximity to cities and towns that are worthwhile for a winter visit, adds Hatzidakis. “The mountains are a good height and this is very helpful for the snow but most of all we are lucky to have such mountains close to big cities like Athens and Thessaloniki.”

Competition to sport
Skiing in Greece experienced its first boom in the 1990s, which is when Hatzidakis says it became more popular with Greeks. But the origins of skiing in Greece are six decades earlier, just outside of Thessaloniki in northern Greece on Mount Vermio when the first organized ski center, the Seli Ski Resort, opened in 1914 just for the Panhellenic Games.

In southern Greece, the Parnassos Ski Center is considered the largest and most modern ski center. It is divided over two peaks, Fterolakka and Kellaria. Construction started in 1975 and was completed in 1976, when Fterolakka facilities began operating. At Parnassos, the oldest organized private ski school, Pappos-Baldoumis, opened its doors there a little over three decades ago. Thousands of Alpine skiers have trained here and the center boasts world-class training for dozens of top Greek athletes.

Today the ski centers offer a range of services. The largest among them, such as Parnassos and Kaimaktsalan, offer challenging trails, ski schools, rental shops, night skiing, and big lodges. The smaller centers are another option, complete with their own special services and charms particular to their region of Greece.

“We must continue to develop a variety of facilities and services at the ski centers. I’m not just talking about Grand Slalom but building more nice cafeterias, some spas and shopping centers. Offering young ski lovers snowboarding facilities, tours with special utility vehicles around the scenic areas… the list goes on. There’s a lot to consider,” says Hatzidakis.

Keeping a balance
Much of the ski tourism growth began without strategic planning. But nowadays, Hatzidakis says the Greek government has prioritized winter sports in order to attract more tourism revenues to the country.

When it comes to such planning, Tsaliki has a dual perspective. She holds two strategic positions simultaneously, as both an elected member of the regional council and as the president of the Board of Directors for Pilio Ski Resort, one of the top ski centers in the country. She says that to improve and sustain tourism outside Greece’s famously warm seasons, many challenges must be met.

“I want to give ‘life’ to the mountain, no matter what the season,” says Tsaliki. “In my case, my goal is to make a really innovative master plan to promote mountain tourism. Our goal is for tourists to think of Volos as a place to go all year round. There are twentyfour villages here, traditional architecture, charming places to stay. The opportunities during Greece’s winter season must be an important part of the plan.”

She says one of the biggest challenges for further developing the country’s ski centers is meeting building goals while maintaining high environmental standards. Ski centers must make strike a delicate balance to build without negatively affecting the natural surroundings that make ski centers like Pilio so breathtaking. Meanwhile, a balance between civic priorities and the maximization of industry potential is also sought. “Pilio Ski Resort is currently a public entity. One option for us now is to become a semiprivate entity with active participation of the locals, similar to some ski centers in Austria. We must redesign our system and management here in Greece to attract private investors because our area has amazing potential.”

Tsaliki adds that increased access to these areas breeds optimism for the off-peak adventure sport industry. The Nea Anchialos National Airport, which began operating for the first time in 1991 opened up a new 9,000-square-meter terminal this past year. Air Berlin continues to host a number of charter flights to the airport and now RyanAir, a popular European discount airline operates a regular flight schedule as well.

Says Tsaliki, “The ski center welcomes more than 15,000 skiers each year. Another 15,000 make their way here just for recreation like visiting cafes, hiking and enjoying the scenery. But skiing is special because even Greek tourists as well as those who come from abroad are simply astonished to see we have a really nice ski center here!”

Quite possibly the most unpredictable factor of all is the weather. “Due to climate change we have had to go higher and higher to find the snow, as high as 1600 meters. Ten years ago the situation was different. Today, snow simply isn’t as guaranteed, so we always hope for the best,” says Hatzidakis.

Less snow equals struggle for Greek ski centers that already deal with a shorter ski season than most countries. Ski resort operators throughout Greece constantly keep a close watch on the weather bulletins for good snowfall, an important draw for Greeks who look forward to a getaway from the urban areas.

Let it snow!
When it is about to snow, Panos Vatikiotis knows about it.

He sits over his flat screen computer at his office in the center of Athens pointing out the features of his web site, snowreport.gr. “As you can see here at Kaimaktsalan, this lift is running right now. I constantly get updates from the ski centers…” he continues clicking on a user-friendly color-coded map of the ski centers around Greece.

In the winter months, the site caters to snow sport enthusiasts from the recreational athlete to the serious aficionado, and industry employees like tour operators. It offers easy links to all the ski resorts in Greece, news, weather conditions and updates informing which lifts are open.

Vatikiotis started the site in 1996 after he discovered snowboarding from foreign tourists at Parnassos. From that day he switched his passion from skiing to snowboarding and within a year started competing himself.

“Snowboarding is fun. You’re free. You can play more, jump around, your arms are free so you can do so much. I fell in love with it so basically I thought I could write something about it in Greece and combine it with my love for computer technology.” Today, Vatikiotis says he gets about 100,000 visits daily to the site which also has translation in English. Snowreport.gr also offers a special discount card.

“We issue a discount card so you get better prices at the ski centers for rentals and passes. There’s also a discount for a ski bus which normally costs fifteen euros but with the card it’s twelve. This card is good for the both the consumer and ski center.”

Three years after starting the site, he featured the first ‘snow camera’ in Europe–a strategically positioned camera transits live images of the ski slopes online. Today there are twenty snow cameras at Greece’s ski centers transmitting live video directly to snowreport.gr.

“When it snows, everyone’s excited! That means we have tourists and those tourists mean business. I know that some people watch the snow cameras on our site throughout the night because they are anxious about the snow. We have information current and future conditions, what lifts and trails are open now and for the next day. It’s up to date so people can plan.”

Off the piste
Giannis Marmarellis is consistently planning to make sure his ski resort offers unique amenities during the snow season. Opened in 1978, the Lailias Ski Center often has a good snow season in Greece since it is located in the north, outside of Thessaloniki. “In general, the goal of the center and ski centers in Greece is to upgrade equipment so it’s competitive with other centers. Also more artificial snow to cover the ski lanes is another improvement that’s being considered,” says Marmarellis. He adds that just over the border, Bulgarian ski centers are a main competitor to centers in Northern Greece. However, he has been noticing a positive pattern especially during the economic crisis.

“In the last years we have made gains in visitor traffic to our center and we actually expect this to continue. Because of the crisis, visitors are returning to local ski centers rather than traveling abroad. We offer it all here.”

Besides skiing, sports enthusiasts can make use of its bike paths, rock climbing and ice climbing, 4X4 trails and hiking trails that truly complement the natural beauty of the region. There’s also a mountain camp for kids. “We are in the heart of an exceptionally beautiful forest, perhaps the most beautiful in the country. It is relaxing for families, it is sunny and our workers are always putting their best foot forward. Most foreigners know we are famous for sun, sea and the archeological sites. Being a part of the ski industry I think there is no better way to admire it all than standing on a slope at one of our centers!”

While attracting families is part of his plan, Marmarellis says he also has a healthy focus on athletic tourism. Lailias Ski Center is known for its Lang-Lauf slopes authorized by the International Ski Federation. It is considered to be one of the best ski resorts in Greece for competitive sport.

“At our center we accommodate both family and athletic tourism. And when it comes to athletes making it, Greek skiers have really succeeded in the last few decades. Healthy athletic competition exists in Greece as we welcome athletes from all over of the world and host international cups and championships. The Greek athletes that competed in Torino and in Vancouver are some of the best in the world, and in my opinion their achievements are a great step for skiing industry in Greece and of course, for our country as a whole.”

Going for gold
One of those top Greek skiers is Stefanos Tsimikalis.

“The landscape is not something you’d normally see while skiing. From most mountain tops there is this view of the sea, it’s unbelievable. You can see the Corinthian Gulf at Parnassos, imagine the sunshine!”

Tsimikalis, an Olympic Skier, took to the slopes at Parnassos for the first time as a child. His love of the sport and competition landed him a place on the Greek Olympic Ski Team. Three years ago, at the age of twenty-three, his dream came true as he competed in the Slalom and Giant Slalom events at the Vancouver Games.

“I felt totally unique being at the Olympics and knowing my ancestors participated in the Games 2,500 years ago. I think that is what amazed others there. I’ll never forget hearing my national anthem at the opening and closing ceremonies, it was great.”

To become an Olympic skier, Tsimikalis says he trained abroad since Greece’s winter season is too short for a serious athlete, especially compared to other European countries. “Most people’s first reaction is, ‘I didn’t know you can ski in Greece, you have snow?!’ Then they are intrigued, interested. They find it very healthy that we remain competitive.”

With all of his worldly ski travels, Tsimikalis feels sincerely that the ski experience in Greece has something special to offer anyone. “I have skied in places like Iran Turkey, Cyprus, all over Europe and abroad. But Parnassos is my favorite. I have an emotional bond of course because I learned to ski there, so I feel something unique.”

Like Tsimikalis, Spiradoula Stamou has seen her share of European ski resorts and knows what Greek skiing is about. An avid skier, she is also the General Secretary of the Hellenic Ski Federation which promotes the disciplines of skiing, alpine cross country, biathalon, and roller skiing in Greece.

Stamou is consistently in touch with the ski centers across the country, and her goal for the federation is to encourage children to take up snow sports in Greece. “We have forty-six clubs in Greece and more than 1,000 athletes take part in races every year. Every year we have a national championship. We have athletes going abroad for International Skiing Federation races, world cups and championships. National teams are training very hard, year round.”

While the centers are readily available for athletes and tourists alike, Stamou says there is a lot of potential to increase ski tourism.

Tsimikalis agrees. “The locations of the ski resorts are fine it’s just they need funding to further develop and continue to upgrade their infrastructure. There are some valleys and slopes that remain untouched and they get a lot of snow, something I’d like to see develop… but I wouldn’t be in favor of a growth similar to the Alps, I prefer Greece’s local and family oriented type
places.”

Sun…and snow
For other avid skiers more familiar to betterknown resorts in Switzerland, France, and Italy it is unlikely Greece hasn’t even crossed their mind as a destination. But as ski resorts in the Balkans begin to appeal to more skiers, Tsaliki is positive that ski centers like hers in Pilio will entice more international visitors seeking unusual yet beautiful skiing conditions. From her perspective behind the scenes, Greek ski centers have unique advantages and they are ready to impress.

“Here you can ski while looking at the sea, surrounded by traditional scenery. We cannot compete with the snow Austria has. Snow for them is the sea for us. But we can develop what we have been blessed with.”

Selected pistes around Greece

Peloponnese

Kalavryta Ski Center, www.kalavrita-ski.gr

Mount Mainalo Ski Center, www.mainalo-ski.gr

Central Greece

Parnassos Ski Resort, www.parnassos-ski.gr

Pilio Ski Center, www.skipilio.gr

Northern Greece

Seli Ski Resort, www.seli-ski.gr

Mount Kaimaktsalan Ski Resort, www.kaimaktsalan.gr

3-5 Pigada Ski Resort, www.3-5pigadia.gr

 

World Wide Greeks
Perrotis College