By Dave Westlake
Leonidio is a small village on the coast of mainland Greece, with winding roads, orange groves and age old farming and fishing industries. The surrounding landscape is striking. From pristine beaches and the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the elevation quickly builds towards the Parnonas mountains. In between an array of burnt orange and grey limestone cliffs tower over the village and look to be on fire when the sun is shining. The climbing potential of these cliffs has only started to be realised over the last 5 years, but the rate of development is staggering. The first guidebook to the climbs around Leonidio appeared in 2016, and it has already been superseded by a second edition which is hot off the press. This contains over 2000 routes, bolted thanks to a mix of public and private funding, and graded from 4 – 9, with plenty of open projects. Leonidio has been described as “the new Kalymnos” by many of its growing community of international visitors, and it is fast becoming a sport climbing destination to rival many more established areas. Always keen to explore new places, I made a quick pre-Christmas trip to see what the fuss was about.
What to expect
The climbing is on high quality limestone which offers a mix of technical and powerful climbing on a wide range of angles. There is quite a lot of variety, however, with some crags offering burly steep climbing and others giving more technical or delicate routes. With crags at differing levels of elevation, the rock ranges from fairly smooth, to grippy and abrasive, and there are pockets, crozzly crimps, technical slabs and plenty of the kind of outrageous soaring tufa lines that Kalymnos is famous for.
The bolting is sensible and well thought out – meaning that you’re never running it out too far and there’s usually a bolt right where you need it. In fact, on some routes there are too many bolts! As with any newly developed area, you’ll want to be a bit more cautious with the rock than you might be at a more well-trodden destination. Wearing a helmet is a good idea, both when climbing and belaying, but the crags vary in the extent to which bits are likely to fall off and most of what we climbed on seemed pretty solid.
A more desirable characteristic of newer venues is the tendency for grades to be soft. Obviously it takes a while for a consensus to form, and till then shameless holidaying brits will take any inflated grades we can. When Kalymnos first gained popularity in the early 2000s, stories of 7b+’s masquerading as 8a’s certainly helped push it to the top of everyone’s holiday list! Leonadio is no different in that respect and has a few soft touches, especially at the newer sectors. On the whole though, I felt the grades weren’t far off what you’d expect in most places, and the ‘soft touches’ are matched by scattering of ‘sandbags’ lying around.
You might have a hard time if you’re not in shape for endurance pitches. The routes tend to be long, with many of the classics reaching 35-40 metres and some extensions going to 50 metres. An 80 metre rope isn’t essential, but without one you will find some of the best routes are too long for hassle free lowering. I wouldn’t come here with anything shorter than 70 metres, especially given the range of super thin and light single ropes available now. We took 22 quickdraws and found ourselves well stocked on everything we tried.
Logistics – how to get there and where to stay
We flew from the UK to Athens, then hired a car for the ~3.5 hour drive south to Leonidio. Flights from Bristol were a reasonable £110 with Easyjet, and take about 3 hours 20. The drive is one of two halves – a nicely smooth and fast motorway ride for the first part, followed by increasingly windy rural roads as you trace the coast down south. The second part of the journey takes you through various small villages and bigger towns – so stopping for food or essentials is easy. We stopped to break the journey up in Argos – one of the larger towns. An alternative route would be to fly to Kalamata airport, which is closer but flights are seasonal. There is also a bus between Leonidio and Athens (the X93) which takes around 4.5 hours, and involves changing at the bus station (Kifisos) if travelling from the airport. The cost is around 20 Euro each way.
The village itself has a range of hotels, hostels and apartments. Most are featured in the usual places (Booking.com, Airbnb.com) and range from around 10 – 50 Euro per person per night. Van dwellers (seemingly around a third of European climbers) tend to park near the beach – “Leonidio Plaka” where the use of the beach shower facilities is allowed.
When to go
Leonidio is one of the most southerly ‘winter rock’ destinations in Europe. The most popular time of year in Leonidio seems to be early winter – from late October to mid-December. During this period you are likely (but not guaranteed – as we found!) to get good climbing temperatures and classic ‘winter sun’ conditions. The season extends to early March, after which it gets too hot to climb at many of the sectors.
Recommended sectors and routes
The bulk of the quality routes at Leonidio tend to between 5c and 7b, though there are plenty more in the higher 7s and 8s – more than enough to keep you busy if this is the grade range you are looking for. The main sectors are all well signposted out of town, and this contributes to the general feel of being in a place that is increasingly set up for climbers. In the week I was there I barely scratched the surface, but I got a good feel for the sectors I climbed at and a sense of where to go next time.
Sector Hot Rock gives a great introduction to the Leonidio style, and has a range of routes in the 6s and 7s that will keep most people happy for a while. The routes ‘Hot rock’ and ‘Commando’ are excellent at 7a, giving around 25m of fingery and technical climbing. Several of the longer routes here are essential ticks for anyone operating in the 6’s – particularly the distinctive corner climb of Mayor (6b+) and the wall climb named Kalo (6c). The crag is found around ten mins drive from the town, and a well signposted trail leads to the ‘Warm up’ climb, which is a nice introduction at 6a+.
Sector HADA is one of the few crags that stays dry during rain, so it’s a handy venue to have up your sleeve on less than perfect days. The walk in takes about half an hour, so ideally you want to do that during a break in the weather. However, HADA isn’t a second rate rain venue – it’s an impressive cave that has a range of routes (not all overhanging, thankfully). Among these, Flying Steps (6B) and HADA (7b) Klinke auf Cinche (7b+) come highly recommended.
Sector Mars is dripping with tufas and has a bit of everything. The left-hand side has some easier lines on grey conglomerate type rock, while the central section comprises a smooth barrelled wall with a pocketed upper section, and a tufa soaked central wall. Jumanji (6c+) is a great pumpy challenge, and Tufatango (6b+) and Mystere et Boule de Gomme (7a) provide a great introduction to steep tufa pulling. It is unusual for such a steep wall to be breached by such modestly graded routes, but the three-dimensional geometry of tufas make this possible. Just remember to use it – or they’ll feel a lot harder! Spaceman Spiff Ext (7a+) is a superb line that goes full height – and features a brutally pumpy upper crux section that makes this one of the best routes of its grade I’ve encountered.
Finally, Sector Twin Caves is a stunning must visit rag that has the familiar mix of high quality 6s and a range of harder test pieces. The central wall of twin caves is most famous for its classic 8a+ that goes by the name Tufandango and looks amazing.
Unknown Singaporean climber on the amazing Tufandango (8a+), Twin caves.
The Panjika climbers’ café-bar in Leonidio is where most visiting climbers hang out. This is a euro climbing café in the classic hippy style – complete with Wi-Fi, wood burner, health food selection, and battered chairs that have been re-upholstered with old climbing ropes (a nice touch). Seasoned travellers will feel at home here, and while it hits every cliché in the book Panjika does decent food and serves as a friendly place to meet people and while away the evenings and rest days. The prices are a little higher than other places in the village, but you’re supporting the co-operative and the ongoing bolting in the area.
Elsewhere in the village, there are shops and restaurants aplenty, with a wide range of local produce on offer. Restaurants we enjoyed were Restaurant Pizzeria, just round the corner from Panjika, and Margarita’s Tavern and Delphinia down by the sea. As you might imagine, given the country’s floundering economy, the prices are very reasonable in general, with an evening meal setting you back from 6-12 Euros including wine. You can buy the essentials (chalk, guidebook etc) from Panjika café, and from various other shops in the village, but the people that run Panjka also have a shop in the village that has a more extensive range of gear.
The recently published (October 2018) guide to Leonidio is the second edition and contains many more routes than its 2016 predecessor. It’s written in English and has a lot of very useful information – including things like the number of quickdraws you’ll need for each route and various bits of information about each sector (aspect, walk in time and steepness, whether it stays dry in the rain, etc). It costs 35 Euro and available at Panjika, with profits going towards the continuing bolting efforts. The guide also features nearby area Kyparissi, and overall it’s one of the most user friendly and well thought out guides I’ve used.
Leonidio is certainly going to get more attention in coming years, so I’m planning to return before too long to make the most of the high-quality routes before they get polished. The climbing is world class, across the grade range, and no doubt there will be more and more new sectors opening each season. The friendly scene makes this one of those places you could turn up on your own and expect to find climbing partners very easily (we met several people who did exactly that). If - like me – you spend the cold, dark days of UK winter dreaming of tufa lines and endless swathes of golden limestone, Leonidio is a place you really must visit.