Rockhound in Greece
A Great Destination for Geology ... and Humanity
Article and Photos by Sandra Downs

Greece, from the window of an airplane, is an expanse of white in counterpoint against the sapphire-blue sea and the endless blue sky. Is it any wonder that the Greek flag is white and blue?

Shown at left are scenic sea cliffs at Paleokastritsa.

It's a wondrous display of geology in a setting where people have used stone for thousands of years, both as ornamentation and for building material--the place that brought us the first mineralogical text, The Book of Stones, by the philosopher Theophratus, student of Aristotle, who, around 300 B.C., grouped minerals into the categories of metals, stones and earths. Classic geology abounds: the fabled mines of Laurium; the rising pinnacles of the Meteora; the volcanic caldera of Thira (Santorini). Where better for a rockhound to spend a vacation?

It is my good fortune to have a sister, Sally, in permanent residence in Greece. Family matters called me overseas, so my sightseeing time was limited, but two sisters, a friend and Sally's husband did their best to acquaint me with the geologic wonders of the region. I returned with a deeper appreciation for this mysterious land.

Exploring Athens

At left, ruins on Acropolis. Shown in the inset at right are calcite crystals in the cliffside behind.

Athens is a monstrous city, filling the bowl between the mountains and the sea with an endless stretch of white buildings. Sally, with her knowledge of the city, found us a place to stay in a neighborhood within walking distance of the great structures of old Athens. We had 24 hours in which to explore. First on my agenda, of course, was the Acropolis.

Athens seemed a mix of Miami Beach and New York. Palm trees waved in the breeze, and citrus trees dripped lemons and oranges onto the pavement from tiny patches of earth. Most planting was relegated to balconies and rooftops, where the day's laundry also hung to dry. Incessant traffic, jumping curbs and making the world unsafe for pedestrians, was the normal Grecian driving style.

From our hotel, Sally led us in the general direction of the Acropolis. I saw few rocks at the National Gardens, an oasis of greenery near the seat of government, but found myself quickly distracted by my first glimpse of the Acropolis. This cave-riddled hill rises high over the city, with the Parthenon topping it off. An awesome site! We first paused to take in the Temple of Olympian Zeus, its pillars taller than those of any other temple in Greece. The site was riddled with white rock--limestone, marble, alabaster--but, as an archeological site, it was off limits. Excavated Roman baths sat in one corner. Hadrian's Arch stood nearby, marking the ancient boundaries of the city of Theseus.

Despite the assurances of our guidebooks, the Acropolis closed at 2:30 p.m. for siesta and did not reopen at all that day. I clambered up Areopagos Hill, a nearby, slippery, rock cliff. It afforded a view down on the Ancient Agora and out toward the airport, near Glyfada. The apostle Paul once delivered a sermon from this natural stage. Carved steps, slippery as ice, led back down.

Walking through the old city, into the Plaka, I realized that the slippery stones we noticed everywhere were the result of centuries of polishing from the feet of the millions of people who had passed this way. While a few of the shops in the Plaka boasted exquisite lapidary art, none seemed to deal in specimens.

Rain washed the smog from the sky, and the sun re-emerged, so our ascent to the Acropolis the next day was spectacular. Walking a circuit around its crest, we could see all of Athens. The other hills look like islands in a frothy sea of white.

An underground museum in front of the Parthenon displays treasures from within the famed structure. Carved stone figurines, bowls, cups, cornices and entire scenes rendered in exquisite detail created an impressive array of sculpture, indoors and out.

While pausing at some ancient benches in the underbrush below the Propylaia (the gateway to the Acropolis), we spied large radial sprays of calcite crystals filling vugs in the limestone cliff behind us. "Collecting by camera," I left Athens satisfied with my first Grecian mineralogical find.

Experiencing Ioannina

As a side trip during my stay, my sisters and I took the overland route to Ioannina (pronounced yah-na-nah), two hours by bus from the port of Igoumenitsa. The capital of Epirus and the third largest city in Greece, Ioannina evokes the ghosts of the Ottoman Empire. Our bus ride into the Pindus Mountains followed a scenic road hovering well above deep gorges that had been carved by the Thiamis River. The dramatic, mostly barren mountains gleamed white; the road ahead looked as if someone had dropped a rope on the mountainside.

After settling in at our hotel, we headed for the most fascinating edifice of stone in the city, "the Fortress." Once the stronghold of Ali Pasha, these crumbling stone catacombs stir the imagination. A flashlight is helpful, since you can wander in and out of the deep, dark stone chambers on your own. Within one shadowy hall, we caught a glimpse of a freestanding, curved stone staircase that might have been an inspiration to M.C. Escher, the famous Dutch "imaginary worlds" artist.

At left, a view of the Fortress, with the Pindus mountains as a backdrop.

We were the only English-speaking tourists amid crowds of Germans. Walking on the ramparts of the fortress, we got a stunning view of the high, barren mountains that rise around the city, particularly in backdrop against the deep-green waters of Lake Pamvotis. An outer wall encloses the old city, with its narrow streets and crumbling mosques. The inner walls preserve a library, a cookshop, two mosques and the tomb of Ali Pasha. Each end of the fortress entertains a museum: a folklore museum in a well-preserved mosque and a museum of Byzantine art in the Royal Pavilion.

Nisi, a rocky island, crowns Lake Pamvotis. A short, inexpensive ferry trip dropped us off in a delightful cacophony of tavernas and shops that line the island's only village. We could walk in either direction through the village and find the island's hidden treasure: stunning displays of ancient Byzantine art.

The island once hosted numerous monasteries, whose chapels are now open (prior to siesta) for viewing. Photography is not permitted, and a donation is expected. Their frescoes and icons date back to the rule of Emperor Justinian, and are striking in their vivid color and gruesome depiction of the persecution of early Christians.

The marl and limestone that make up Nisi also are riddled with small caves and crevices, used as hiding places during times of war and incorporated into some of the monasteries to serve as monks' cells. Views of the mountains are even grander from the northern shore, where we could pause over a glass of the clear village wine and enjoy eel and trout, the specialties of the province.

Shops on Nisi and on the streets of the city proper show off exquisite metalcrafting, from jewelry to platters, in every type of metal imaginable. Ioannina is a city of metalsmiths, relying on the mineral wealth extracted from the lead, zinc, gold and silver mines in the mountains of Epirus.

A trip to Ioannina is not complete without a visit to Speleon Perama, the largest horizontal cavern in Greece. It's at the northern end of Lake Pamvotis, under a large and distinctive hill that rises like a green hump from the shore. It's open until 8 p.m., and taxi drivers will drop you off at the entrance in the middle of the village.

At right, a pool with cave pearls in Speleon Perama.

Our guide spoke no English, and our tour companions were German, but we still thrilled at the natural wonders within this grand set of caverns. Immediately inside the cavern entrance, formations overwhelm all who see them. Stalagmites outnumber stalactites (think "g" for ground and "c" for ceiling to keep them straight), and both are frequently coated with cave coral.

The trail is narrow, rugged and extremely steep in places. Except at the 163-step exit, there are no guardrails. Lighting is muted. Nevertheless, the cavern delights with an outstanding number of unusual formations: 19 distinct types. Imagine chambers larger than a baseball field, filled with rolling hills covered with tree-like totem poles in all shapes and sizes, and a maze of stone pendants, nearly touching the floor. There are delicate pools with calcite lily pads and cave pearls. A natural cross and shield that look like jellyfish hung in the cool, dark air. It felt surreal. There are many show caves in Greece, but Perama earns more accolades than any other and impressed me more than any of the many caverns I'd visited in the eastern U.S.

Collecting on Corfu

Sally's home is on Corfu, the northernmost of the Ionian islands, closer in its heart to Venice than to Athens. Corfu Town, its only city, is a delightful jumble of architectural styles reflecting the many waves of invaders it has survived over the centuries: Roman, Norman, Venetian, French, German and British. Nestled between two massive Venetian fortresses, the city invites you to lose yourself in a maze of streets, along which the upper stories of buildings nearly touch.

While exploring the city, I discovered one mineral dealer, a shop named Gaia, down a street directly across from the old fort, at the end of the Liston. The owner dealt mainly in lapidary, but he had a few shelves of minerals for sale and a small number of specimens from Greece. He suggested that I visit Laurium.

"The mine tunnels are dangerous, but minerals are to be had off the ground." I settled on several pieces: massive icy-blue aragonite and glossy smithsonite from Laurium, and an assemblage of galena and quartz points from Epirus.

Shown at left is calcite found along the road on Mt. Pantokrator.

Unlike the barren, rocky isles that make up most of Greece, Corfu is verdant--lush with olive trees. Not far beneath the soil lurk interesting minerals. Over the course of a month, with the help of relatives, I collected a few pounds' worth to take home. I was led to a crumbling hillside thick with delicate hemispheric gypsum crystals, and calcite sprays on the slopes of Mt. Pantokrator were pointed out to me.

We combed the beaches in Corfu Town and Gouvia, finding large chunks of polished agate. An olive grove in Gastouri yielded an assemblage of calcite and other minerals that, to my delight, fluoresced white, cream and purple with an extended phosphorescence. The island's many pebbly beaches are a fine place for oddball finds, such as a rounded chunk of graphite or smoothly polished obsidian.

Above left, Mt. Pantokrator looms over the harbor at Gouvia. Above right is a close-up detailing rocks on the beach at Gouvia - easy pickings for agate!

Only 30 miles long and 10 miles across at its widest point, Corfu has many breathtaking geological features. On its northern tip, the famed "sandstone" formations at Sidari, wave-washed sculptures along the shore, turned out to be a massive outcrop of thick kaolin clay, bluish in places, slippery where wet. I was surprised. Perhaps no guidebook writer had ever ventured out on the slick slopes to see what they were really made of.

Show at left is a stone beach at Kassiopi, with mountains of Albania in the background.

On the northeastern coast, the town of Kassiopi lies within sight of the massive mountains of Albania. Its natural beaches are huge, flat blocks of marl. The western outpost of Paleokastritsa is a delightful jumble of secluded coves carved by pounding waves and punctuated by sea caves sparkling with gypsum crystals. A bird's-eye view of its jagged seaside peaks and ancient monastery is available from the ruins of Anglokastro, a Norman fortress built by the Crusaders on a promontory beyond Lakones.

At right are gypsum crystals in the sea cliffs at Paleokastritsa

Rocky coves with sandy beaches extend southward along the western shore, through Ermones, Glifada and Agios Gordos. All lay claim to the shipwreck of Odysseus. On the calmer eastern shore, rocky beaches gleam with agate from Ipsos to Benitses. These are the tourist beaches, with hotels crowding the shoreline.

At left, natural sandstone sculptures at Issos Beach. Shown at right is the texture and formation of the sandstone.

The south of the island is flat, with marshes and salt pans. Yet, the southerly beach at Issos is otherworldly, a place of canyon lands in miniature, with long low sandstone formations up to 10 feet high parting the sand dunes between the bird refuge at Lake Korission and the sea.

Will I return? Absolutely. The cultural gulf is vast, but entrancing. "Greek time" is measured in afternoons, not hours. Businesses close for siesta at 2:30 p.m. and reopen only on certain days of the week. The evening meal begins around 9 o'clock and can go on for many hours, with plenty of village wine passed around.

It's a relaxed lifestyle, giving up many of the conveniences we take for granted: air conditioning, central heating, standard plumbing, reliable utilities and fast food. But it's a wonderful venue for contemplating geology . . . and humanity.

Must-See Geology in Greece

Because of the nature of my trip, I was not able to see all the sights on the "hit list" I'd developed. While in Greece, I consulted more people--and more guidebooks--to develop this more comprehensive list. Enjoy!

Mainland

Kiffisias - At one end of the metro (subway) from downtown Athens (12 miles), the suburb of Kiffisias contains the Goulandri Museum of Natural History. According to residents, it is the only site in Athens where minerals of Greece are on permanent display.
Lavrion (Laurium) - Home of the most famous mines in Greece, dating back to 1500 B.C. The city is snubbed by most guidebooks. In one book that did bother to mention the town, the vast devastation left by millennia of smelting was pointed out. But one man's trash is another man's treasure. I spoke with several Greeks and many Europeans who pointed out the value in driving down through this region (about 40 miles south of Athens) to comb the dumps for minerals. "You can find beautiful specimens right on the side of the road!" one fellow boasted. Beware of the literally thousands of unmarked open pits riddling the countryside. There are ostensibly two private mineralogical museums in the region (a rarity in Greece): at Kamariza and at Lavrion (Mineralogical Museum on Leof. Andrea Kordela, open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays).
Lousios Gorge - Three miles long, 984 feet deep at the narrowest point, with hiking trails. In the middle of the Peloponnese.
Meteora - These unusual towering pinnacles of rugged sandstone, capped with monasteries, soar up to 2,044 feet above the plain between Ioannina and Thessaloniki.
Vikos Gorge - A 3,000-foot-deep, eight-mile-long gorge decorated with rock pinnacles and boulder-strewn ravines; a walking trail takes six to seven hours; 25 miles northwest of Ioannina, in northern Epirus.

Islands

Most of the islands of Greece boast sea caves and rugged, rocky terrain. These islands are notable for their unusual geology and/or mining history.

Crete - The largest island in Greece, home of the ancient Minoans and the notable excavations at Knossos. The Gorge of Samaria, 11 miles long, 1,000 feet high, and as narrow as 10 feet in places; many significant caverns throughout the island; gypsum and alabaster quarries at Agios Triada; ancient mining center at Malaxa.
Evia - Early bronze mining at Chalki; quarries for Cipollino marble; Kleisoura ravine; numerous caves.
Halki - Ancient copper mines at Skala.
Hydra - Home of the Marmaropita marble, "gray and red, hard as steel."
Ikaria - Therma boasts "the most radioactive baths in Europe"; thermal springs at Loutra.
Kalymnos - Vathi Fjord; sea caves of Kastelli; radioactive springs at Thermapiges.
Karpathos - Iron and silver mines at Assimovorni; many caverns.
Kephallonia - Swallow holes of Katavothri; numerous well-decorated show caves.
Kythnos - Iron mines active through the 1940s; thermal spa at Loutra; Katafiki Cave at Dryopis.
Lesbos - Petrified forests at Sigri and Megalonissi; hot springs at Therma, Pirgi, Eftalou and Polichnitos.
Limnos - Island of volcanic origin; high sulfur content in the soil, astringent hot springs; numerous caves.
Milos - Dramatic geology from its volcanic past: hot springs; vividly colored rocks; steaming fissures; caves; mines for obsidian, sulfur and barium. Coastline boasts basalt pillars, fantastic rock formations and hot springs bubbling into the sea.
Nissyros - An "extinct" volcano that continues to show signs of deep activity around its caldera: geothermal pools; fumaroles. Pumice fields and blacksand beaches.
Paros - The world's finest translucent marble was quarried at Profitis Elias. Ancient abandoned quarries can be walked through at Marathi. (Bring a flashlight!) Bizarre, wind-sculpted rocks at Kolimbithres.
Paxos - 40 sea caves to be explored along a five-kilometer coastline.
Samos - A paleontology museum at Mytilini; six intriguing caverns.
Serifos - Iron and copper deposits mined in antiquity; remains of ore loading docks at Megalo Livadi.
Sifnos - Ancient gold mines, sunken underwater at Agios Mina.
Thassos - Marble quarries at Mt. Ipsarion; ore mining at Limenaria.
Thira (Santorini) - Remains of a massive volcano, possibly the one responsible for destroying the Minoan culture; white and black volcanic rock; blacksand beaches; pumice mines; active fumaroles on islands in the caldera that forms the island's bay.
Zakynthos (Zante) - Rock formations at Lagana; natural pitch wells at Keri and Pissa Tou Keriou; sulfur springs at Xinthia; Blue Cave at Kianoun.

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Bob Keller