I step out of our rental car, which also happens to be the smallest car I’ve ever seen three people and a month’s worth of luggage and climbing gear squeeze into. It’s the first day in Greece for myself, Ben, and our friend Dag. I have a few plans for the trip, which include an attempt at climbing what will be my personal hardest route—but really, I’m mostly looking forward to eating as much Greek food as a month’s time will allow, and possibly breaking the world’s olive eating record.
I look around at the small village of Leonidio—a town of around 4,000 people, standing on the seashore and nestled between tall mountains. Citrus fruits hang off of trees all over the city, and olive farms are scattered along the outskirts. The architecture is spectacular. It’s exactly what I expected Greece to look like.
Within an hour of arriving in this beautiful place, I realize the magic in the area isn’t just in its picturesque views. The people here are warm, friendly, and kind. An older woman who owns a local grocery store does her best to speak in the few English words she knows to me (a person who understands even less Greek). She immediately helps me feel welcomed, despite the language barrier.
Walking down the streets, it all starts to make sense. I see many foreign tourists walking through the town, but they aren’t your typical sight seekers. Nearly, if not all of them, look like rock climbers. It’s obvious that the town is developing to coexist and even welcome the growing number of climbers that visit each year.
A few days later, we take a rest day from climbing after having spent several hours on the rocks for days in a row. I’m tired from battling a route called “Ntintia” for days on end. It’s several climbing grades harder than anything I’ve ever climbed. It feels like every muscle in my body is sore and my hands feel a little stiff. We walk down the narrow roads of Leonidio when I see a sign. “Panjika” it reads, and underneath, bullet points of a few of my favorite things
- Climbing shop
We follow the signs until we reach a coffee shop. The décor is climbing inspired with chair cushions and curtains made of climbing rope. It seems to be the hot spot for both visiting and local climbers to gather, swap stories, make new friends and hopefully a new climbing partner too. We find out that on Fridays they often have movie nights or small concerts, and on Saturday, a local musician plays a show for all who come out to watch. It’s a co-op with several owners, some from Greece, and some who moved to Greece from other countries in pursuit of the climbing here.
Like other people we’ve met in Leonidio, I find the owners are friendly, helpful, and kind. One of the owners is petite and beautiful, but has a toughness about her from years of hard climbing, living alone, and even overcoming cancer a few years ago. She’s become somewhat of an auntie figure for many of the climbers here. I tell her about some of my climbing goals and how far-fetched it’s starting to feel. “You can do it!” she encourages me in her Romanian accent.
The next few days are a blur. During the day I head for the mountains, hiking for miles to get to the walls in hopes of getting even a little bit farther on the route. While the climbing is hard for me, I enjoy meeting new people from around the globe. They all came to this city to climb rocks and to bond over a shared passion. Shivers run down my spine as I hear strangers who have become new friends cheering each other on in the languages of their homeland. In the evenings I head into town to meet up with the new friends I’ve made. We relish in the local cuisine in family-owned restaurants and explore the shops around the city.
I’ve lost count of how many days it’s been, as I drag my feet up to the same climbing wall I’ve tackled over and over again. Ben, Dag, and our new friend Bella follow me up the familiar approach. I’m really hoping today is the day. I’ve rehearsed all the moves on the climb, received tips from plenty of locals who have climbed it already, and stored all the energy I need in my body by eating my weight in Greek salad and Slovaki each night.
I take my shoes and socks off and pull my climbing shoes on, I feel oddly calm. I tie myself into the rope and start up the climb. I’ve memorized the features on the rock and as I climb, it’s like my body is doing a choreographed dance, and my thoughts wander back to the town below. I think about the cats roaming the streets, the local people who are welcoming and offer their homes to people like me, and about the creamy eggplant at my new favorite restaurant in town. I think about the people I’ve met and the new friends I’ve made. I think about Leonidio, and how beautiful yet gritty it is, just like the rocks that surround it.
And before I know it, it’s done. I’m at the very top of the climb, having been able to execute all the moves without any mistakes. I enthusiastically call down to my belayer, Bella, as she lowers me down. I feel ecstatic about completing my goal, and I’m all smiles as I reach the ground.
Climbing has taken me many places that I never would have gone. It’s the vessel I use to find common ground with strangers, even if we don’t speak the same language. It has brought me to Greece, and I know it will take me to many more places both in my backyard and beyond.
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