Lee and Sam Cujes step out of the shadow of Kalymnos and into the light of Leonidio
WORDS: Lee + Sam Cujes, IMAGES: Kieran Duncan
In 2007, news of an amazing limestone paradise island in Greece made its way to Australia, and so began my ten-year love affair with Kalymnos. Now Kalymnos reigns as the most popular climbing holiday destination in the world. When telling non-climbers that we’re going to Greece for holidays, and they ask where specifically, it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that we return time and again to a tiny island that is only 27km across and we have seen little of the rest of the country.
In 2013, the Kalymnos guidebook author, Aris Theodoropoulos, showed me photos that blew my mind. A wall on which continuous tufa snakes arced into the sky for 60m across a rising arch of brilliant orange limestone. I thought it was a new secret sector on Kalymnos. ‘No,’ he said with a conspiratorial smile, ‘This is Leonidio, and I am starting to write the guidebook. You must go here.’ Aris later sent me his completed ‘best of’ guidebook to Greece and, after a quick flick, we booked a trip.
Leonidio is a beautiful and ancient town nestled in a fertile valley overlooking the ocean in the Peloponnese region of Greece, a few hours from Athens.
Two-hundred-and-fifty-metre-high red limestone walls overlook the town. These were the scene of some trad multipitches in the ‘80s before the area slipped into obscurity, biding its time until modern sport climbers realised its potential. A short drive from town reveals more rock in epic quantities. It was around 2008 that the first modern routes were established on sector Elona (that incredible sector which I’d seen the photo of), and it was like opening the floodgates. At least four different teams of equippers (largely unknown to each other) started development at a rate that’s hard to comprehend – not only routes, but entire sectors, in rapid succession. To give you some idea of the pace, the first Greece guidebook in 2014 listed about 300 routes at Leonidio. Three years later there are more than 1000!
The local municipality (the equivalent of a council in Australia) recognises the value climbing-based tourism brings to the area. I was told that before climbers came, Leonidio was a ‘dead village’ in winter. Now, climbing helps support the local economy. As a climber, the welcome you receive from locals here is genuine. You can feel it.
In 2016 the first Leonidio climbing festival was launched, hosting the likes of Alex Megos and Sachi Amma, and introducing hundreds of climbers to the delights of this new playground. Alex returned for the 2017 festival this year with Slovenian, Klemen Bečan, and the pair proceeded to claim first ascents of a host of previously unclimbed projects in the grade 32 to 34 range.
Leonidio is already a world-class climbing destination in its own right. You have more than 50 sectors of very varied climbing and grades to explore, all within 25 minutes drive of the town. Additionally, Leonidio is a perfect base for day tripping to other crags in the Peloponnese region (driving up to 1.5 hours depending on where you choose). Kyparissi in particular is another epic area, home of sector Babala, referred to by some as one of the best tufa sectors in the world. In the list of ‘trending crags’ on 8a.nu, Kyparissi and Leonidio occupy spots one and two.
Kalymnos is still a magical place that deserves its reputation, but anyone travelling to Greece to climb rejects Leonidio at their peril.
Leonidio is about a 3.5 hour drive from Athens. You can get there by bus from Athens airport, however, I recommend a rental car as you’ll need it to access most of the climbing sectors.
Best time to go
The best time for climbing at Leonidio is from November to April.
An 80m rope and 25 quickdraws will do the job for most routes. Also, pack some multipitching gear if this is your cup of tea. Leonidio is a relatively new area, so I also recommend a helmet, particularly for belaying.
There is a limited amount of gear such as chalk and the guidebook available for purchase in the town but you should bring with you everything that you’ll need.
Where to stay
There’s a range of accommodation options available – from camping, to boutique hotels and holiday apartments.
If you’re after something unique, you can stay in one of two mansions that were built from stone in the 1800s and have now been converted to hotels:
The campground is located at Plaka on the coast (a 10 minute drive from Leonidio):
Airbnb also lists holiday rentals in the area.
Where to eat
There are a few mini markets, fruit and vegetable shops, butchers and an overabundance of bakeries! A farmer’s market is also held in town every Monday.
If you prefer to eat out, there are several restaurants, tavernas and bars in Leonidio and the surrounding towns.
Wi-fi is available at most accommodation and in the climber’s bar, Panjika. There’s fuel, a couple of ATMs and pharmacies in town.
There are two guidebooks available. The Greece ‘best of’ guidebook lists the best of Leonidio, as well as the rest of mainland Greece (http://climbgreece.com/guidebook). The other option is a comprehensive Leonidio guide (https://panjikacooperative.wordpress.com/leonidio-climbing-guidebook). Both are excellent.
There’s plenty to do on rest days, especially if you have a car. If it’s warm, the beach is just 10 minutes away. You can also visit historic monasteries, chapels and nearby mountain villages. If you’re into historic castles, you can drive two hours to visit the famous castle of Monemvasia, which is one of the most well-preserved castles in Greece.