Description of the Region
The Department Pieria in the District Central Macedonia offers a unique combination of mountains, coastlines and coastal planes. It is situated just South of the capital of Northern Greece, Thessaloniki, which is also the most important city of the whole Southern Balkan. The Southern part of the Pieria coast line stretches from the city Katerini to the village of Nei Pori. Thereafter one enters the District of Thessaly thorugh the Tempi Valley. This beautiful part is known as the Olympus seaside, also called the Olympic Riviera. (So it has nothing to do with the ancient city Olympia which gave its name to the Olympic Games.
Contrary to the usual touristic images of Greece with a dry, infertile landscape and barren, rocky islands in a typical Mediterranean setting, here you'll find an overwhelming nature with thick green forests of chestnut trees covering the lower parts of snow capped mountains, numerous large rivers, fertile plains. Greek modern culture and ancient history mingle here in small mountain villages, industrious modern cities, ancient Greek and Roman monuments, en many orthordox monasteries, all set in a beautiful scenery.
Add to this the Greek National Park of Mount Olympus, the Macedonian Protected Wildlife Areas, where the wolf and bear still have their habitat, or the Important Bird Area's of Olympus or of Tempi & Ossa (habitat of the griffon vulture), in combination with the ever close-at-hand Mediterranean sea and beaches, and you can understand why this region around the village Nei Pori is very worthwhile visiting and not just suitable for bathing.
Mount Olympus is also ideal for hiking, mountaineering, and wintersports (see below). For walking, hiking etc you will find a lot of information on the internet, here you find a map with ideas for some trips and excursions.
See e.g. the villages Old Pantaleimon (touristic, but very picturesque with a wonderful view on the Olympus and the sunset), Pourlia or Old Poroi (quiet and more authentic with a few taverns and a hostel), Old-Skotina or Aigani. Go for a stroll over the cobble stone streets of the village Rapsani and a local wine afterwards on the central square, or to Ambelakia and see the Schwarz Mansion Museum and a nice lunch in the village.
Everything can be easily reached by (rental) car and, with some more effort, by bus. You can also book a trip to the more popular destinations like the Meteor Monasteries at the local travel agencies.
Worth visiting are (among many other locations) the locations underneath.
The Tempi valley is actually an impressive canyon or an enormous gorge if you like, in the same category as the Vikos Gorge near Konitsa in Epirus or the well known Samaria Gorge in Crete. Here in the region we call it the Grand Canyon of Greece. It separates the Olympus from the Kissafos/Ossa Mountain and is one of the most beautiful places in Greece.
Not only to our own humble opinion, but also the famous ancient Greek and Roman travellers like Pausanias and Livius said and wrote so. E.g. read "Travels in Northern Greece" (1835) by William Leake, or "Voyage de la Grèce" (1827) by Pouqueville. This wonderful gorge is located in only 10 km distance from Nei Pori. It is some 10 km long and just 25 meters wide in some places, while the cliffs rise up to nearly 500 meters. Have a look here, it is a must.
In the heart of the valley and it's most impressive part, there is a small Greek orthodox church called Agia Paraskevi (from 13th century AD), an important place for the Greeks and Roma in the region. It has become quite popular, both to Greeks and tourists. One must make a stop here and cross the narrow hanging bridge to the other site of the river to visit the church, descend to have a drink from the crystal clear and cold water from the well or a cup of Greek coffee under the centuries old platan trees on the banks of the Pinios river.
The present day church itself is relatively new and built in 1910, during the construction of the railway, but there was an ancient shrine devoted to the Goddess Aphrodite here many centuries ago and holy water is still welling up in a small cave, that once was unapproachable at this site of the gorge. The cave is still there and you can enter it to drink some sanctified water (watch your head and wear good shoes).
In the valley one finds the starting point of a hiking trail at the Kissafos side, leading you in 1 hour to the watch tower (see picture) above the Castle tis Orias, that existed here until 1957. On the other side of the valley there is the Kleftiko (thieves) trail, leading all the way through and high above the valley with magnificent views. Just outside the Valley are the Alexander the Great stairways, a trail that also was use by the ancient Macedonian leader is his war against the Greeks.
This beautiful scenery was even in prehistoric and early historic times well known and appreciated. This was the place where according to Greek mythology the God Apollo fell in love and chased the lovely nymph Daphne, who begged her mother to save her and therefore was changed into a Laurel tree to escape the lustful Apollo (in Greek this tree is still called Daphne).
This legend is probably connected to the fact that here in the Tempi valley the first sanctuary for the God Apollo was located. His worshipping started here long before the oracle in Delphi came to power and became known and famous throughout the ancient and modern world, taking over Tempi's leading role in ancient Greek religion and politics. Just outside the Tempi gorge, almost under the modern motorway bridge crossing the river, there once stood a complex of magnificent temples, which marbles have been used in later centuries to build the enormous Byzantine bridge (gefyri) over the Pinios River a few hundred meters further North between the villages Pyrgetos and Omolion, mentioned below.
And indeed, the place is magic and majestic, still full of Laurel trees or Daphnes. From here, a holy road called Pythias (remember the name of the priest in Delphi?) led all the way to the oracle Delphi and during hundreds of years a holy delegation was sent from here to Delphi every four years, so the Greek/Roman historian Plutarch tells us around 100 AD. Here also, the laurel branches were cut that were used for the coronation of winners of the Ancient Olympic Games.
Despite the lovely nature and the beautiful scenery, many violent battles were fought here, in or near the Tempi Gorge. The great Persian King Xerxes in 480 BC, avoiding the Greeks that were blocking the valley, managed to find his way with 10.000 men around the gorge by travelling from Leptokaria, over Karia and Gonoi, only to meet the Greeks later on in yet another more famous narrow pass way at Thermopylae (where the same thing happened, as you might remember). King Alexander the Great in 336 BC took the left hand route over the Kissafos mountain to avoid the Valley. This path, the Alexander Stairway, still exists as a hiking trail and brings you to the village Ambelakia on the other side of the valley. Numerous other battles were fought here, the last one during World War II, when the German second armoured Division tried to force its way to the South and the city Larissa through this narrow passage on April 17, 1941 (see: A. Buchner, Panzer in der Tempi-Schlucht).
Since there was no real road in those days (the National Road was only built around 1957), the German tanks even tried using the train tracks and tunnels and eventually were forced to cross the river in their vehicles, suffering great losses of both men and material. Eventually they too took the mountain path that Xerxes once followed at Leptokaria and travelled on foot and one by one around the Tempi valley, towards the villages Kalipefki and Gonni to attack the allied New Zealand and Australian forces in the Gorge from the back. This Xerxes trail also still exists, even paved in some parts.
The Byzantine bridge near Pirgetos
Close to the Tempi Valley’s exit at its Northern side, one can find the remainders of an old stone arch bridge across the Pinios River, dating back to 1727. The local Greeks call it “Stonebridge” (πετρογέφυρο). At the Southern side of the Valley there was also a bridge across the river, near to the village Tempi, but this one was made of wood, the remainders of which can still be seen during periods with low water levels.
This characteristic kind of arch bridges made of stone is called “gefyri” (γεφύρι) in Greek and can still be found in many locations in Greece. In the region, there are other examples near Spilia on the Kissafos, at Agias near Larissa and elsewhere.
The stone arch bridge of Tempi Valley connected the village of Omolio, once an important city even as far back as the time of Jason and the golden fleece, with Pirgetos which is the main village of the municipality “Lower Olympus” (Κάτω Ολύμπος) in present-day Hellas.
The stone bridge near Pirgetos is considered to be the largest arched bridge of the Southern Balkans with an estimated total length of about 250 meter and a width (and strength) that could easily allow even a small modern truck to pass. Just the remaining parts, that still exist today, measure at least 133 meter. The (last) bridge was built in 18th century and constituted the only good connection on the North side of the Tempi Valley between the Kissafos region of Thessaly and Macedonia, at this side of MountOlympus, for a long time in history.
The foundation stones of the nearby temple complex of the God Apollo near the mouth of the Tempi Valley were used for it structure, reason why nothing has been found of this sanctuary which was renowned throughout the ancient world and the ancestor of Delphi as mentioned before.
The South side of the arched bridge near Omolia is not preserved well, but at the North side near Pirgetos, the almost complete bridge access ramp still remains and one of the main arches is also still standing. The other three or four big arches have collapsed. Only this left hand side of the bridge consisted of at least 9 main arches and I recently counted myself thirty or smaller arches that are still partially covered with plants and kiwi trees.
Huge parts of the main arches have fallen into the river bed that meanders for the last 10 km to the sea through the riverbank trees, amidst the kiwi plantations and fields, always flanked at its right hand side by the green and 2000 mtr high Kissafos Mountain.
The foundational stone of the bridge has been saved and can be seen in Pirgetos at the municipality building. A few years ago (2009), the remaining bridge parts have been cleaned and repaired. Liberated from overgrowing plants and even trees, the already impressing building can now be admired again in its full size and beauty.
A short visit at this infrastructural project from an earlier Greece is really worthwhile to my opinion and one of the “must do's” of the region, next to a visit to The Tempi Valley itself, the Dion complex, the ancient Macedonian capital “a la Pompeii” and the fortress of Platamon, that was founded in the Byzantine period on a hill near Platamon where also prehistoric tombs are excavated.
For a visit to the bridge, travelling from Nei Pori in the direction of Tempi, one turns right after 7 km at Pirgetos. Immediately turn right again and pass under the main road itself and over the railway bridge. After 100 meters at the bisect keep left and you see the bridge in front of you at few hundred meters. Follow the next country road at your right towards the bridge.
The Meteora Monasteries
The Platamon castle & ancient city of Herakleio