They say that every journey begins with a single step. Mine, however, begins at a tsipouradiko in Nea Ionia of Volos. I am here with Giorgos Goutzoulias, a photographer, filmmaker and an expert on the secrets of Pelion. The night goes on, my notebook fills with notes and the meze snacks keep on coming. Our conversation comes to the Centaurs, the mythical half human, half horse creatures. The ancient Greeks would imagine them galloping through the forests of Pelion, but Giorgos has his own interpretation: “It seems our ancestors loved tsipouro a little too much”.
>> Volos is the ancient city of Iolkos – the starting point for Jason and the Argonauts on their mythical journey. The city’s coastal front is perfect for endless walks. The Archaeological Museum is of particular interest exhibiting impressive findings from the Neolithic settlements of Sesklo and Dimini (Athanasaki 1, 08:30-16:00, €4).
>> The tsipouradiko (traditional eatery serving tsipouro usually accompanied by appetizers) is the trademark of Volos. Here, with every carafe you order, the waiter will also bring a surprise dish – usually with seafood delicacies. Two very good and popular options are Demiris (Efraimidou 23, N. Ionia Volos, +30 24210 65559) and Giota (Krokiou 15, +30 6947074830).
From West to East
In the morning, we leave the apartment blocks of Volos behind us and before we even realise it, our car is already heading up the verdant slopes of Pelion. The villages of Portaria and Makrinitsa are a just short distance from the city centre – 12 and 15km respectively. Yet, you get the feeling that you’ve been travelling for hundreds of miles. The climate here is completely different and so is the aesthetic style. All around you, are tower houses with rooftops made of Pelion stone slabs, cobbled streets and stone fountains. There is a prevailing sense of affluence and tidiness.
We admire the stunning view of Volos and the sea from the square of Makrinitsa, but the cold under the centenarian plane trees is piercing. So, we go for a coffee to the tiny cafe Theofilos, which has an impressive naive mural painting by Theophilos (1870-1934), the folk painter who lived in poverty and received worldwide recognition posthumously. If it was later in the day, we would have also tried the traditional boubari (beef sausage spleen stuffed with rice), but we decide to contain our appetite and continue walking around taking pictures of the miniature chapel of Agios Prodromos, the bizarre fountain the locals call “Immortal Water” and the architectural details of the houses, some of which have been converted into tasteful guesthouses.
We will also pass by the Topalis Mansion which houses the Museum of Folk Art and History of Pelion, before returning to Portaria. Our plan is to take the enchanting hiking trail “Path of Centaurs” around the village over wooden bridges and dense vegetation. We choose the shortest route and twenty-five minutes later we find ourselves sitting in front of the lit fireplace at Kritsa’s restaurant where we can -finally- try boubari and other Pelion-style flavours with subtle gourmet touches.
Early in the afternoon, elated and with a full stomach, we arrive at Chania where we come across the first snowfall. This settlement is located at the crossing from the west to east Pelion, in a dense beech tree forest. In the past, merchants and travellers would stay at the lodges of this settlement. Today, it is the unofficial entry to the Agriolefkes ski resort where skiers can go down the slopes enjoying the view of the Pagasetic Gulf on one side and the Aegean Sea on the other. We are now well into the mountain’s arms. A few kilometres further, we turn towards Pelion’s northeast side. The asphalt road passes through forests of beech, oak and chestnut trees. Enchanted, we drive along, in and out of the dense fog, until we reach a turn and the village of Zagora appears right in front of us with the vast Aegean Sea as a backdrop. This is the most populous village of Pelion, a vibrant community with a grand past that is reflected in its old mansions. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Zagora held the reins in silk production. It also had wool processing workshops and a large fleet of merchant sailboats. Zagora is world famous for its apples, which have been marketed exclusively by the locals’ Cooperative since 1916.
We stroll around the four main neighbourhoods and squares, visit historic buildings, such as the Public Library and the so-called “School of Rigas” from the early 18th century, chat with the locals and shop for local products: spoon sweets, home-made marmalade, handmade liquors, dried herbs and of course -what else?- apples. Night has already fallen and the cold has given us an appetite. The locals recommend the restaurants Patis and Meidani. We randomly pick the first and we’re not disappointed. We try the wild boar with wine sauce, wild mushrooms and a traditional pie accompanied by red wine, and a few hours later, we enjoy one of the best sleeps of our lives.
ON THE MOUNTAIN TRAILS
After a good breakfast, one more walk around Zagora and a bit of gazing at the stormy Aegean Sea, we head south. We take the road towards the impressive, though deserted this time of year, beaches of Horefto and Agioi Saranta. We ascend once again and reach Makrirachi, also known as the “flower village” since many inhabitants are engaged in floriculture producing camellias, hydrangeas, gardenias and others. We buy bread from the traditional wood oven bakery at the square and carry on. The route is somewhat tedious, but we are compensated by the view of lush vegetation, the dense tree foliage towering above us and the Aegean view as it comes and goes.
We pass Anilio, a village mostly in the shade, and make a detour to visit Kissos, a charming village drowned in greenery. Among other things here, we find a beautiful 17th century church, as well as two excellent restaurants. We are expected by Evi at Kissos. She has a country house in East Pelion and she is well aware of the area’s trails. We take the trail leading to the Agriolefka ski resort and walk for some time among plane and chestnut trees, next to streams and small waterfalls. Following the autumn rain, the inhabitants of Pelion flock to the mountains and collect chestnuts and wild mushrooms. Even though we are well into the winter, we also see some mushrooms peeking out of chestnut roots. Evi points out the edible ones and collects a few. We will savour them for lunch along with an excellent homemade spetsofai (sausage stew with peppers).
WHERE TO EAT
EXPLORING EAST PELION
It is night time by the time we reach Tsagarada. We spend our evening at the Dipnosofistis bar-restaurant just outside the village, tasting wines from their rich cellar accompanied by light gourmet flavours. In the morning, we begin exploring Tsagarada, which proudly stretches all the way to the verdant slopes. Between the houses and the four picturesque squares we find beautiful guesthouses, good restaurants, charming cafes, traditional pastry shops, but also small bars. However, the undisputed ‘star’ of Tsagarada is actually a tree! Boasting at least a thousand years of life, Megas Platanos rises gloriously next to the church of Agia Paraskevi at the homonymous square.
The steep downhill hillside road soon leads to the renowned beaches of Mylopotamos and Fakistra that have an exceptional wild beauty this time of year. A little further north is Damouchari, the only small natural port on this side of Pelion. This quaint settlement became world famous in 2008, when some scenes of the Mama Mia film were shot on location here. Another highlight of our stay in East Pelion, was hiking from Tsagarada through the dense forest towards the village of Mouresi. It is located just above Damouchari and from certain spots the view of the Aegean is truly breathtaking.
ON THE ROAD SOUTH
We bid farewell to Tsagarada and head south. Gradually the landscape changes. The dense forests give way to low vegetation and rich olive groves. Our destination is Argalasti, the large semi-mountainous village in South Pelion. The architecture here is not typical of Pelion. Most houses have tiled roofs and we also see several neoclassical mansions. Sections of medieval and ancient buildings are still visible on the walls of the older houses. All the cobbled streets lead to the main square where the heart of the village beats. There we find the three-aisled basilica of Agion Apostolon with its strange 19th century bell tower, as well as cafes, shops, grill-houses and eateries.
Even larger and impressive is the cobbled square of Lafkos, just a few kilometres away. Apart from the old church, the restaurants and the traditional wood-fired bakery, we also find a cafe that has been running since 1785. Many of the stately houses are even older than that and they stand out thanks to the marble balconies, elaborate ceilings and wood-paneled stairways. Both Argalasti and Lafkos get more lively during summer when the ‘estranged’ folks return to their hometown. After all, there are wonderful beaches within close range on the side of the Aegean, as well as the Pagasitic Gulf.
Continuing southward, you will find a number of seaside resorts (Milina, Marathias, Kotes) before reaching the peninsula’s tip, which resembles a crab pincer. This is where the village of Trikeri is located, as well as the miniscule homonymous island with twenty inhabitants which you can visit by sea taxi to enjoy the sea, the serenity and excellent seafood. But we don’t want to leave the mountain of the Centaurs. So, we return north and after a stop at the picturesque village of Neochori which is still untouched by tourism, we turn towards the west side of Pelion.
THE TRAIN OF PELION
The Aegean is no longer in sight and on our left side, we have the calm waters of the Pagasetic Gulf. The landscape has once again become typical of Pelion and after a while we find ourselves at the tiny train station of Milies, the end of the line for “Moutzouris”, Pelion’s historic steam train. It began its service in 1896, covering the Volos-Milies route transporting people, livestock and merchandise. By 1971, it was no longer in operation, but in 1985 it was declared a preserved historical monument and reopened in 1996. The journey from Gatzea to Milies with the old train through the incredible mountain scenery is an unforgettable experience. Unfortunately for us, it only runs from spring to autumn, as long as weather permits. The rest of the time, the train is only available as a rental. We walk along the 60cm wide rails for about five hundred metres, until we reach a small engineering marvel from the early twentieth century: The bridge of Evaristo De Chirico as it is known, named after its creator. The rail tracks that lie on it are actually curved. Evaristo was the father of the famous Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico, who was born in Volos.
RETURN TO THE WEST
During our stay in this part of Pelion, we will take in mental pictures and sensations and meet some of Greece’s most picturesque mountainous villages: Milies, Vizitsa, Pinakates, Agios Georgios Nileas and more, with one being more beautiful than the other. In Milies, we will visit the very old church of Taxiarches (renovated in 1741), the folklore museum and the library – one of the oldest in Greece. We will also try great homemade pies and garden vegetables at the Aloni restaurant, have a dessert at Anna, Na Ena Milo and enjoy a cocktail at To Rodo Kai To Aidoni. Those privy to the area also recommend the grilled meat at the taverna Panorama and the home cooked meals with touches from Constantinople served in Salkimi. You will find good Pelion cuisine and live music at Liostasi, just outside the village. At the nearby and incredibly charming Vizitsa we will buy local products, especially spoon sweets made by the women’s cooperative of the village named Esperides, have a coffee in the verdant square and walk among the stately mansions, many of which now serving as guesthouses. At Pinakates we will relish the sourdough bread from the traditional bakery at the square and then walk the quiet cobbled streets to admire the view: On the one hand olive groves and the sea, and on the other, chestnut trees, the apple trees that produce the local firiki and the mountain peaks.
The scenery at Agios Georgios Nilias is even more vivid. Apart from the typical Pelion-style houses, you also find neoclassical mansions towering in front of you, but also colour coated houses (pink, ochre, light blue and Venetian red). And all of this, right in a breathtaking landscape. In Agios Georgios we also find the excellent Anovolio hotel and the Stefanis restaurant with delicious meze appetizers. Among other things we try goat cheese, fricassee mushrooms and tsitsiravla, the humble greens loved by the people of Pelion. They collect them in spring and consume them pickled all year round.
We eventually take the coastal road back to Volos. Once again though, the mountain draws us like a magnet and we make an unscheduled detour to visit Agios Lavrentios. Cars cannot enter the village, so we park and take the timeworn cobbled streets towards the beautiful square. And, as we get a final taste of Pelion’s irresistible beauty, we consider the obvious: Finally, the Centaurs knew exactly what they were doing when they came to reside here.
WHERE TO EAT
Salkimi, Milies, +30 24230 86010
Aloni, Milies, +30 24230 86426
Panorama, Milies, +30 24230 86128
Liostasi, Milies, +30 24230 86082
Giorgaras, Vizitsa, +30 24230 86359
Stefanis, Agios Georgios Nilias, +30 24280 93000