My companion has skin that cannot take too much sunlight, and yet we needed the sun and we needed the sea. I hit upon the Pelion, that Greek peninsula dominated by the Pelion mountain that sweeps down towards Skiathos with the Gulf of Volos to the west and forested bays on the eastern, Aegean side. These forests, traditionally the stamping ground of the centaurs, cover the peaks and come right down to the eastern seaboard; forests of ivy-shrouded plane trees and chestnuts, offering plenty of shade. In his Georgics, Virgil speaks of the giants piling Mount Ossa on Mount Pelion, in three vain attempts to scale Olympus, each attempt thwarted by the thunderbolts of Zeus.
There are still plenty of thunderbolts. These great mountains south of Olympus itself cause accumulations of cloud with accompanying storms to be expected, but I like this sort of a climate. It’s similar to that I’ve experienced in the armpit of the bay of Biscay – on the Costa Verde; a big storm every ten days or so, which clears the air and causes brilliant waves, and then balmy, blue perfectly Mediterranean weather (but not overwhelming heat) and a sea that retains its warmth. Just be warned that on that Atlantic coast, because of ice-bergs borne along ocean streams, the sea has a decent temperature only in this stormy corner – Llanes, just west of Bilbao, is the perfect village for a holiday, as many a Spaniard knows – but get down as far as Portugal and the sea is surprisingly cold.
Not so the Aegean east of Mount Pelion. Here the sea is warm, however wild the waves. The coves are rocky or bordered by the forest, with Milopotemos boasting a picturesque arch in the rock that takes one through to another delightful cove which has caves beneath its crags, one the size of church’s nave. However rough the sea, the currents push the swimmer back towards the shore, so even toddlers can be happily tumbled by the surges and find themselves rolled back onto the sand. On the beaches of the Pelion there is always plenty of shade, so my friend had a jolly time of it while I got respectably brown.
Above Milopotemos there is the village of Tsangarada, clinging to the steep hillside; its main square dominated by a two thousand year old plane-tree, the largest in Greece, a tree very pleasant to climb. In one corner of the square can be found “The Lost Unicorn” – a well known hotel run by an English woman. This boasts a garden with a nook in its bar located in the core of another enormous plane tree and a very fine cuisine, with generous portions of deliciously flavoured lamb and veal – a little pricey perhaps – but well worth it. Jazz nights and evenings of classical music are offered there every week.
All around the village, and in all the villages in the region, there are other restaurants serving delicacies such as battered slices of courgette, aubergine fool, souvlaki and of course fresh seafood, and there are also very reasonable cafes and restaurants at the greenly translucent water’s edge at Milopotemos and at most of the other beaches, as well as in the tucked-away village of Damouchari, where Mama Mia was filmed – a village right on the shore – of course the café owners there regale you with stories about Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. It’s got a small harbor and a ruined castle on a promontory and a big beach beyond the promontory. Kayaks can be hired if one wishes to paddle oneself around its craggy headlands crowned with thyme and rosemary.
But the highpoint of our stay was our trip on the single-track, narrow gauge railway that winds through olive groves and over ravines from Lehonia on the shore of the gulf up to Milies, one of the highest villages on the western side of the mountain. Its little train is kept going by enthusiasts and only runs at the weekend. It’s difficult to book too, and worth getting to Lehonia an hour before departure to ensure a seat in one of its four wooden carriages – carriages with “balconies” at either end, which you can stand on as you travel, just as in a western movie! Some of the ravines are crossed by viaduct-style bridges with arches.
All these, and an ingenious metal one as well (where the circular track is continued over a rectangular section of bridge), were designed by Evaristo De Chirico, the metaphysical painter’s engineer father, who had already built railway lines in Bulgaria. The track up to Milies was begun in 1895 – when his son would have been seven. It was only completed at the very beginning of the twentieth century. It enabled people in the high villages to get down to work in the factories of the coast. Evaristo also built the art deco extravaganza which is Volos railway station.
Giorgio De Chirico was born in Volos. I realised that I knew the arches of these viaduct-like structures from his works, which include tall arches as items in themselves. Often the little train will be puffing along somewhere. The factories are there as well. Now I see the paintings in a new light, not just as juxtapositions of classical relics, bananas and rubber gloves. I imagine that he admired his father, who died in 1905. His son was studying art in Athens then, and moved to Germany to continue his studies in 1906. One can sense the melancholy of this departure. The little railway crosses one ravine which is rumoured to contain the cave of Chiron, the centaur renowned as a healer and educationalist, who taught the hero Jason (before he set off, from what is now Volos, to bring back the Golden Fleece). Now that is a magical background in which to have been brought up! It suggests a strong autobiographical aspect to these metaphysical works.
We alighted at Milies and worked up a sweat ascending a steep, cobbled alley to its main square shaded by plane trees, where there were pony rides on offer – and this could be great trekking country on a pack-saddle – accompanied by stunning views of the gulf and the mountains beyond. We now had three hours of exploration time before the train took us back down to the coast. My companion wondered where the loo might be. I indicated a low doorway in a squat white building at the edge of the square. Seemed like people were going in there – presumably to have a pee. Minutes later my friend came back to our table. No, it was not the loo, it was a church. In fact it was a church disguised as a loo! Seriously. It was camouflaged to look squat and insignificant because no one wished its function to be detected during the Ottoman occupation.
Inside, this church is decorated floor to ceiling with exquisite murals – including a dramatic day of judgement with good deeds and bad being weighed in the scales. Just as the cave of Chiron in the ravine below now has a chapel built at the same site, the church in Milies square is said to have been built on the site of an altar once dedicated to Hermes with his winged sandals – which could be why it is now dedicated to the two winged archangels. Above the six cupolas of its interior, amphorae in the roof (six big urns to each cupola) ensure that sound stays within the building – and these create a fantastic acoustic. My friend was asked to bang her heel on the floor in the centre of the nave, and when she did the whole nave boomed, as there is also a base acoustic provided by a hollow floor. Later we were to explore other churches – notably one in the village of Kissos which is another outstanding example of Orthodox mural painting and ikons – with wonderfully elaborate wood-carving on its iconostasis which abounds with double tailed mermaids and other pagan inventions.
The Pelion is resistance country, wild as the “Maquis” – famous for its freedom fighters – heroically opposed to all occupations. Its villages suffered both from reprisals under the Turks and during the 2nd world war – which makes the current political climate all the more poignant, when our landlady told us that she can only withdraw 60 Euros a day, and a German finance minister seems to be spearheading the current programme of “austerity”. The villages also suffered from a devastating earthquake in 1955, freezes that killed off the olives a year or so later and bouts of heavy flooding, but what comes over to the visitor is a resilience in the face of vicissitude, and a willingness to extend the warmest welcome. This is a magical land, and well worth exploring.
Small Planet has flights to Volos every Friday morning.
The Lost Unicorn Hotel, Tsangarada
Villa Giorgi, Tsangarada
And many others