Why you should care
Because when the journey might be the destination because it kills you, that’s an exciting vacation activity.
Ask me about my last name, and its origins, and I would tell you: about sprawling family reunions every bit like the one in My Big Fat Greek Wedding; about my Kikis and Yiayias cooking spanakopita and moussaka; about the gambling, those same aunties and grannies huddled over nickels and dimes, playing blackjack, and the kids too, because no one is allowed to play without betting something. Until recently, though, I couldn’t have told you about Kyparissi, the native land of my cousins — particularly about the winding, treacherous road that serves as the only path to a place so intoxicating it became the seaside getaway of George H.W. Bush, Prince Charles and, reportedly, Princess Diana, the morning before her death.
This region is shrouded in the mystery endemic to a country of myths, a mainstay in local travelogues and books like The Most Beautiful Villages of Greece. Kyparissi, in Laconia, and easily mistaken for Kyparissia, is a haven made for gawking. Filled with terraces, gardens, breezy views and olive trees, it’s virtually untouched by outsiders — because, and this is the rub, it’s extremely difficult to get there. The once-a-week ferry from Piraeus cut services decades ago, and a water taxi can cost a hefty 200 euros. Assuming you don’t have a helicopter or yacht at your disposal, your option is this: an old mule path. The roadway through the mountains is so narrow that two cars and maybe an eyelash can pass through it.
“I started crying,” says my aunt.
The journey makes even seasoned taxi drivers queasy, says Matt Barrett, an authority on traveling in Greece. If you wish to brave it, your best bet is to start by renting a car in Athens, Barrett says, then head to Tripoli. From there, drive to Sparta, and, after some twists and turns, you’ll pass Molai, my great-grandfather’s ancestral home. After an hour, you’ll arrive at a small Byzantine church, where the sea opens up before the narrow road to Kyparissi, and where you can “gather your courage and say a prayer,”as Barrett grimly puts it, before continuing for the “last harrowing 20 minutes.”
The route begins uphill, hugging the slopes of Mount Parnon. At its crest, you spill over into a gorgeous (and terrifying) view of the Myrtoan Sea. It’s “enough to intimidate even those of us used to verticality,” writes Katie Roussou, one of a handful of adventurers who have migrated to the region since it became an emerging sport-climbing destination in late 2015. From there, travelers can expect hairpin turns, with precipitous drops, many of which seem unacquainted with guardrails. A cliff overhang almost completely covers the road at one point, says Elizabeth Cholodny, my aunt who made the journey in 2014. At night, the quaint village below is lit up by the headlights of a few foolhardy drivers swerving left and right. As if all this wasn’t difficult enough, remember that almost all rental cars in Greece are manuals — so go easy on the clutch! “I started crying,” says my aunt. “And I don’t know if I was crying from being scared of the road, or just the emotions of coming to the village where my mother was born.”
By all accounts, it’s worth the trek to see the three villages of the Kyparissi region: first, Vrissi, cliffside home of a spring, and a hideaway for locals during the Nazi occupation of this region in World War II; next, Parilea (similar to the Greek word for “beach”), a waterfront town with humble and colorful homes; finally, Kapsala, a (mostly) abandoned village. All this unspoiled beauty could become like any other seaside village, Barrett warns, should nearby Arcadia wise up and complete its portion of a separate route to Kyparissi, which has been left unfinished for at least 60 years. Right now the area isn’t an ideal home base for day trips across Greece, Barrett says, and some will balk at the stomach-churning process to get there. But “once you get to Kyparissi, you will see that it was all worth it,” Barrett says. “Really the only scary part was thinking about it.”