As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to Pelion, Clare Hargreaves learns about the culture and heritage of this peninsula between Athens and Thessaloniki.
Giants, centaurs, Olympian gods and demi-gods, Jason and the Argonauts…. the Pelion Peninsula is steeped in mythology. As a visitor, it’s reassuring to learn that Pelion was where the gods living on nearby Mount Olympus spent their summer holidays. As I discovered, it’s not hard to see why.
Pelion’s mythical centaurs, half-man half-horse, supposedly born of the union of the shameless Ixion and the long-suffering Nepheli. Were these mysterious creatures a symbolic representation of the taming of the wild horse? Who knows.
But what we do know is that the most celebrated was Chiron, tutor of many a Greek hero from Jason to Theseus and Achilles, and renowned for his knowledge of the area’s herbs (which still perfume its wooded slopes). Travel anywhere on Pelion and you’ll find cafes, hotels and bars named after Chiron or his fellow centaurs.
Pelion’s other major claim to fame is as the source of the timber that built the Argo, the legendary ship in which Chiron’s pupil, Jason, set out for the Black Sea in search of the golden fleece. Jason, who was rightful heir to the throne of Iolcos (modern Volos, in Pelion’s northwest corner), set out on his quest because his uncle Pelias had murdered Jason’s father Aeson and was planning to kill Jason too.
As his fellow Argonauts, Jason signed up all the biggest names of Greek mythology, from Heracles to Theseus and Orpheus. The Argo was essentially the first oared vessel ever made, signalling the start of navigation as we know it. But you don’t need to rely on your imagination to picture it; the locals have deployed ancient shipbuilding techniques to build an immaculate 50-oar replica in the habour in the centre of Volos, which has been used it to retrace Jason’s fascinating 1,200-nautical-mile-long route.
For centuries, Pelion remained isolated due to its thick vegetation and inaccessible Aegean-facing coast. But from the 10th century, monks from Mount Athos, to the northeast, started building monasteries here where inhabitants could keep safe from pirates. Pelion became known as the second Mount Athos, the “Mountain of Cells.” Look at the names of many of Pelion’s villages, and it’s easy to see their monastic origins: Agios Lavrentios, Agios Giorgios, Makrinitsa (from the Monastery of the Virgin Mary of Makrinitissa) and so on.
Villages mushroomed around the old monasteries, eventually turning into small autonomous republics that prospered from making wool and silk and growing olives and timber. As their wealth increased during the 18th and 19th centuries, villages employed craftsmen from Epirus to hew cobbled squares, fountains, stone-paved paths and bridges from the local schist stone. Such was their skill that the peninsula’s two dozen villages, whose stone-tiled roofs glisten like fish scales when it rains (and it does!), appear to sprout effortlessly from the chestnut and beech forests in which they stand.
Some like Milies, on the west coast, and Zagora, on the east, used their new-found wealth to set up schools and libraries and became centres of learning. Today, Pelion’s best preserved villages are Makrinitsa, with its views over Volos, and further south, the west coast villages of Pinacates and Vyzitsa, all with tranquil squares complete with ubiquitous plane trees under which locals sip tsipouro (the local firewater). In summer, squares turn into open-air dance floors or the site for religious rituals, as locals mark saints’ feast days or celebrate local foods.
It’s the architecture of Pelion’s archontika (mansions) that took my breath away -majestic, fortified tower-like edifices, whose projecting wood-framed top floors are in stark contrast to the almost windowless, stone floors below.
Designed to keep both harsh winters and unwanted foreigners at bay, they’re ornate yet austere, incongruously tall yet at the same time perfectly blended with the villages they stand in. Relax over a herbal mountain tea in their airy rooftop hagiatia (lounges) and you could be in the Middle East: cushioned benches line the walls, topped by small, wood-shuttered windows, then even dinkier stained glass ones.
Happily, many of these mansions have been turned into guesthouses - like the 1791-built mansion now run by Mahi Karayiannopoulou in Vyzitsa, with wonderful painted ceilings in its upstairs quarters and fireplaces in most of the rooms. Mahi tells me her grandfather bought the house in 1956, but after securing the roof, left it empty for 20 years. The Greek Tourist Organisation then helped to renovate it (and others), and in 1988 it opened as a guesthouse.
In the 19th century, many took on Egyptian-style features, such as lob arcs and ironwork balconies, as Peliots emigrated to Egypt (with whom they’d traded silk) in search of a better life. Many made fortunes in cotton or tobacco, accumulating riches and artefacts that they sent back to their homeland.
You’ll spot fine examples of Egyptianate mansions in Portaria, just above Volos. But my favourite is the grand neo-classical mansion in Tsagarada now housing The Lost Unicorn hotel. Another key chapter of Pelion’s history, its struggle for independence, is recounted by the naive frescoes exhibited in another mansion, a few kilometres down the mountain, in Anakasia. They’re painted by folk painter and eccentric Theofilos Hatzimihail.
Born in around 1870 on Lesvos, Theofilos spent long periods in Pelion, often dressed up in traditional costume, painting murals in cafes and mansions in return for meals. One of the loveliest examples of his work is his 1912 fresco on the wall of the kafeneion in Makrinitsa where you can make out the figure of Greek independence leader Katsandonis carousing with his soldiers as hostile Turks loom on the horizon.
Towards the end of my trip, I braved the hairpin roads along Pelion’s rugged spine to reach the village of Milies for a taste of its industrial past - in the form of its famous ‘Moutzouris’ train, the smallest of its kind in Greece.
The steam-train was built by Italian engineer Evaristo de Chirico, chuffing into commercial operation between Milies and Volos in 1903 at a dizzy speed of 12 miles an hour. The train fell into neglect in the seventies, but has since returned to the rails as a tourist attraction.
There are wonderful views over the glassy Pagasitic Gulf as the train snakes through the chestnut woods to the village of Ano Lechonia.I continued to Volos, its fast-moving highways a poignant contrast to the tranquil pace of the history-steeped villages. Old and new co-exist in Pelion - much as they have since the centaurs clip-clopped along their cobbled paths.
Text and photos by Clare Hargreaves
== Disclosure: Clare Hargreaves was a guest of the Greece National Tourist Organisation and Volos Pelion. Clare had full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Pelion in the autumn of 2018 for our Greentraveller's Guide to Pelion. All opinions are the author's own.