It’s raining sunlight on the Greek mountain village of Arachova. The winter sun pours through breaks in the grey, rolling clouds and creates a spotlight effect on the wild, green valley below.
More Alpine than Aegean, Arachova stands apart from Greece’s better known, and sometimes overrun, island destinations. It is close to the ski resorts of Gerontovrachos, Kelaria and Fterolakka — some of the best places for winter sports in central Greece — and is a mere two-hour drive north-west of Athens, meaning the village is assured of year-round business.
Having guaranteed custom is a mixed blessing for those coming here to enjoy a relaxing winter break. Arachova, with its somewhat fairy-tale atmosphere, is well set up for tourism. There is plenty of accommodation, a wealth of tavernas and traditional coffee shops, or kafenia, and transport to nearby Delphi, a Unesco World Heritage archaeological site.
On the other hand, Arachova’s prices reflect the fact that there is little need for anyone to hustle for custom. The 15-minute bus ride to Delphi is a few euros but a taxi there is €15 ($15). A backpackers’ paradise Arachova is not, but what the area has in terms of scenery, food and history makes it hard to beat.
The village runs east to west along Livadias Amfissas and a slow walk along the road is perfect for getting your bearings. At the eastern end of the village, in a fine neoclassical building, is the Ethnographic Museum. The museum preserves the town’s strong rural culture, particularly its traditional crafts — examples of which can be bought at shops up and down the length of the street.
Behind the museum is an 18th-century clock tower perched on top of a small, rocky hill that offers dramatic views over the valley below. It’s a romantic spot and couples can be seen silhouetted against the sunshine, which Greece often enjoys late into the winter.
Passing the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and walking west along the main street, foodies will be pleased to find plenty of shops selling local produce. A firm, cylindrical cheese called formaiella is everywhere and is often served grilled in the village’s tavernas. There are stacks of local honey, bags of homemade pasta, herbs and spices for sale. The ubiquitous Greek olive oil is here, as are woollen carpets, rugs and other textiles made in the local style.
Pushing on into the village, past busy cafes and tavernas, you’ll have plenty more of Arachova’s mountainous panoramas to enjoy. It’s here that the local bus service departs for Delphi, a major archaeological site just a few kilometres to the west.
Delphi is incomparable. Sprawling across the south-west slope of Mount Parnassus, this was where the ancient Greeks believed the centre of the world lay. The rocky omphalos, or "navel" of the world, is still here, as are the remains of Delphi’s temples, its stadium, gym, theatre and treasury.
This was also where the oracle — the high priestess of the god Apollo — sat, delivering her otherworldly prophecies that decided the fate of battles and kingdoms. Some scientists say these visions were caused by noxious gases rising from a chasm beneath the Temple of Apollo, but standing on these slopes, it is more compelling to imagine the ancient gods deciding the fate of their unfortunate subjects.
Delphi can be a steep hike, but the huge site is a treasure trove of knowledge about the ancient Greeks. The museum at the foot of the sanctuary is a mine of information, and the whole site itself is sometimes free to enter — like all Greek archaeological sites, it is free on the first Sunday of the month during winter and spring.
The abundance of fresh air will make you hungry, putting you in the perfect position to try the local cuisine, which owes more to the mountains than to the sea. Back in Arachova, a brisk uphill walk on the edge of town will take you to Kaplanis taverna.
You can try the grilled formaiella cheese or a softer, tangier variety called opsimotiri, which goes well with the restaurant's roasted rooster and local pasta. Aside from Kaplanis’s must-try beetroot and garlic starter is kokoretsi — a dish of seasoned offal wrapped in lamb or goat intestines and grilled on a horizontal skewer. A firm favourite in Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, kokoretsi should not be passed up and Kaplanis does it to perfection.
Kaplanis also gets brownie points for holding on to the Greek tradition of giving its customers a free dessert after the main course — usually yoghurt with honey or glyko tou koutaliou (aka spoon sweets, which are all served with the magic word kerasma, or my treat).
Greece revels in its reputation as a sun-and-sand destination. But with places like Arachova within striking distance of Athens (itself served by direct flights from Abu Dhabi and Dubai), there’s no reason to put off your next Hellenic voyage until the summer rolls around again. And, if anyone asks why you’re going to Greece in the dead of winter, just tell them the oracle sent you.