Greece’s river to the ‘underworld’ now attracts adventure travelers

Greece's river to the 'underworld' now attracts adventure travelers

In the Age of Gods and Monsters, the Titans battled the Olympians for control of the universe. During this 10-year Titanomachy, the Titans grew in strength by drinking from the Acheron River. Angered by the move, Zeus cursed the river, turning it black and bitter – a fitting fate for one of the five rivers in Greek mythology it is said to lead to the underworld.

At least that’s how one version of the river’s origin story goes. In real life, Acheron is a far cry from its ancient mythological reputation as the “river of misfortune”. The 32-mile-long waterway in Epirus, a region in northwest Greece, teems with life, enchanting day-trippers with its biodiverse ecosystem of majestic gorges, ponds and waterfalls. In the riverside villages, nature lovers spot rare wildlife, learn about the region’s history and, yes, float down the legendary river.

But a recent surge in pandemic crowds is angering locals and government officials in tourist towns such as Ammoudiá and Glykí. Misbehaving visitors leave litter, damage flora and disturb bird nesting areas. Now, with the spring tourist season on the horizon, authorities are looking for ways to balance increased visitation with sustainability. Endangered animals and natural areas in the area are in danger, which locals are determined to preserve for future generations.

Myths, History and Beyond

The Acheron rises in the mountains of Tomaros in the prefecture of Ioannina and flows west to the fishing village of Ammoudiá, where it unfolds in a delta before flowing into the Ionian Sea. Many villages along the way provide access to the river, but most travelers set their routes towards Ammoudiá, Mesopótamos and Glykí.

Of the three, Mesopótamos is most closely tied to river mythology. Located just five kilometers east of Ammoudiá, the hamlet is home to what was once the Acherusian Lake, long believed to be an entrance to Hades. From 1958 to 1977, the professor of archeology of the University of Ioannina, Sotirios Dakaris, excavated the northwestern shores of the lake and discovered ruins dating from the hellenistic period (late 4th-late 3rd centuries BC). The ruins have been identified as the Necromanteion, or Oracle of the Dead.

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Millennia ago, the Necromanteion (also Nekromanteion) featured in Homer’s tale of Odysseus sailing to Hades, where he briefly found the souls of many, including his mother, on the shores of Acheron. Like Homer’s hero, ancient Greek pilgrims made the arduous journey to the oracle to communicate directly with the dearly departed.

“The world of the dead was considered quite dangerous,” says Anthi Aggeli, director of the Ephoria of Antiquities in Préveza, a connoisseur of the site’s history. “Therefore, pilgrims should be pure in body and spirit. They had to follow a specific purification ceremony.

Pilgrims typically stayed at the Necromanteion “for one lunar month,” says Spyros Raptis, president of the Friends of Nekromanteion and Acheron and tour guide. on the site for 35 years. They ate specific foods – including hallucinogenic plants – and performed rituals in the dark. While there, believers claimed to see shadows of deceased loved ones.

Experts debate whether the site is the legendary Necromanteion or an old farmhouse, but it continues to fascinate, especially after sound tests carried out from 1997 to 2008 by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki the researchers concluded that the subterranean chamber is indeed “silent”. Although it is not the ancient Necromanteion, “it is certainly one of the first anechoic chamber built 2,700 years ago,” says Panagiotis Karampatzakis, one of the researchers.

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Today’s travelers can combine a stop at the ruins with a visit to Ammoudiá, where boat trips explore the wetlands along the river with its water lilies, emerald damselflies and trees decorated with nests of fuzzy pendulum tits. . It’s fascinating, says tourist guide Giorgos Bitzios, a modern-day smuggler in Ammoudiá.

About 20 km upstream from Ammoudiá, Glykí is known for its thrilling adventures like canyoning and river trekking, a popular activity in Asia which combines swimming and rock climbing, up to a gorge commonly called the strait.

Others take flight on ziplines at places like Zipline Greece, and glide 350 meters at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour over turquoise waters. But it’s not just adventure. “Acheron is a gentle river [in summer]“, explains Vivi Markou, who started her touring activity, Riverdream, with two rafting boats and two horses. “Rafting here [in Glykí] adapts to all levels of experience. It is ideal for both families and seniors.

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nature and challenges

Besides the myriad of outdoor activities, Acheron supports unique habitats that are home to rare and endangered animals and plants in the region. Vulnerable birds including golden eagles, griffon vultures, Bonelli’s eagles and Egyptian vultures nest in the Strait of Glykí, while Eurasian spoonbills, black storks and ferruginous ducks shelter in the wetlands of ‘Ammoudiá. In total, the 11,440 acres encompassing the strait and wetlands are part of the European Commission NATURAL 2000 network of protected areas.

Tourism was not a viable economic activity in the area until 2006, when the construction of nearby resorts and highways provided access to isolated towns like Glykí. In 2019, 50,000 people visited the area, mostly from April to September, making Glykí a key destination for Acheron tourism. With better opportunities, most young people now stay in town to work in local businesses.

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The popularity of the area seems to be increasing. Last summer, during the pandemic, attendance in the region increased to almost 2,000 daily visitors, “something very promising for the next season”, says Giorgos Ntagkas, deputy mayor in charge of culture, sports and commerce of the commune of Souli. “Our goal is to lengthen the tourist season and further develop outdoor activities, improve hiking trails, open mountain and river bike routes and promote paragliding.

Yet officials now have to deal with increasing negative side effects from the visits. Visitors are increasingly straying off established trails, leaving trash, camping and starting fires. Recently, the cut branches of plane trees have made them vulnerable to a dangerous fungus.

To compound the problem, some restaurant construction projects in Glykí are impacting the river bed, while beachside canteens (snack bar type businesses) in Ammoudiá have caused the destruction of sand dunes and the clearing of junipers and shrubs.

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Officials are keeping an eye out for planning issues for the future. “We studied the carrying capacity [at the Straits and surrounding area] … so that the ecosystem does not deteriorate”, explains Alexandros Konstantinis, environmental manager and physicist at Kalamas-Acheron-Corfu Management Authority.

Given that the study is ongoing, it is too early to say for sure what changes will be implemented this year. In the meantime, officials say they are enforcing existing regulations and raising awareness at information centers in Ammoudiá and Glykí and organizing educational events throughout the region that highlight Acheron’s historical and natural heritage.

Over time, officials hope new initiatives will raise awareness among a wider audience so that the river’s precious biodiversity does not become a myth.

“We want visitors to come for the beauty of this landscape,” said Ntagkas, deputy mayor of Souli. “We certainly have no intention of sacrificing nature for profit.”

Maria Atmatzidou is an Athens-based writer who covers travel and archeology. She was previously editor-in-chief of the Greek editions of National geographic and National Geographic Kids magazines. Follow her on instagram.