As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to Pelion, Clare Hargreaves picks out a selection of historical, cultural and heritage visitor attractions.
Giants, centaurs, Olympian gods, Jason and the Argonauts... Pelion is steeped in myth and history, so you’re never short of places to explore. Relive its mythical past by admiring the 50-oared replica of Jason’s Argo in the harbour at Volos, or dig into its Neolithic roots with a trip to the port’s archaeological museum. In the villages on Mount Pelion’s forested flanks, sip a coffee in the square encircling Greece’s oldest plane tree or visit churches and mansions painted with whimsical frescoes. Or if that’s too exhausting, chuff through the olive groves on its tiny train.
Steam train in Milies (pictured above)
Pelion’s dinky steam train - the smallest in Greece - is one of its most precious relics. Designed by Italian engineer Evaristo de Chirico, father of the painter Giorgio de Chirico, it first chuffed along the west coast from Volos to Milia in 1903, providing a vital means of transport for Pelion’s inhabitants. Today it provides a wonderful train journey from Lehonia (it will soon be extended to start from Volos) chugging its way up the slopes of Mount Pelion at speed of 25km/hour though the villages of Ano Gatzea, Agia Triada, Agios Athanasios of Pinakates and Aryureika to end at Milies. En route you can admire the views over the Aegean, the unique bridges of de Chirico, a five-arched bridge and straight metal bridge with a curving rail line. Great for families.
Athanasakeio archeological museum, Volos
Pelion’s Neolithic settlements of Sesklo and Dimini, west of Volos, are fascinating. In both, archaeologists have discovered houses and graves dating back as far as 6000BC. If you don’t have time to visit them, this museum, housed in a fine neo-classical building and named after its founder, is a good second best. Artefacts retrieved from the Sesklo and Dimini include bones, jewelry, household utensils, agricultural tools and even carbonised corn. Particularly eye-catching are the figurines and exquisitely decorated household pots. The museum also has halls with representations of Neolithic graves. efamagvolos.culture.gr/Mouseio_Volou.html
Chestnut Festival, Xourikhti
Pelion excels at putting on food festivals. But don’t imagine neatly ranked stalls and chef demos. Here festivals celebrate the region’s culture too, so dancing and music are usually firmly on the menu too. October’s Chestnut Festival in the tiny mountain village of Xourikhti, in the chestnut woods near Tsagarada, is no exception. So while you can buy locally foraged chestnuts by the kilo and feed on homemade cake, you also get generous portions of Zorba-style dancing by villagers togged in traditional costume. Pelion also has festivals to celebrate the peach, cherry, apple, melon and olive.
Rooftile and Brickworks Museum, Volos
Immerse yourself in bricks, tiles and chimneys in this unusual museum charting Volos’ recent industrial past. It’s on the site of the rooftile and brickworks factory run here by the Tsalapatas family from 1926 to 1978. Using clay mined near the Neolithic settlement of Dimini, west of Volos, by the early 1930s it employed over 200 workers who produced seven million bricks and two million rooftiles a year. View the French 1907-built locomotive and raven-black wagons that transported coal to its kiln. The latter was designed by German engineer Friedrick Hoffmann, and its 20 brick-lined chambers make an impressive sight.
Argo ship, Volos
The story of Jason and the Argonauts is well known, but did you know you can visit a replica of the oared vessel in which they travelled to Colchis on the Black Sea in search of the Golden Fleece? In 2004-2006 local craftsmen used ancient shipbuilding techniques and timber from Mount Pelion to craft a copy of the 50-oar Argo, originally named after its builder, Argus. In 2009, with a 50-strong crew, it retraced Jason’s journey, travelling to Batumi Poti (Colchis) in the Black Sea. This spectacular boat is on display in Volos harbour all year round (except when undergoing maintenance). volosinfo.gr or argonautes2008.gr
Theofilos Museum, Anakassia
Housed in a handsome 18th-century mansion, this museum is dedicated to the early work of “naive” painter Theophilos Hatzimihail. Originally from Lesvos, the self-taught artist lived for long periods in Volos, often dressed in national costume, painting colourful frescoes in return for meals or money. Many depict his favourite theme, the Greek War of Independence - so you’ll see scenes such as the taking of Tripoli and the graphically illustrated massacre of Turkish civilians. By contrast, others are a whimsical portrayal of Pelion village life: a mix of landscapes, figures, flowers and fantastical animals such as a bear-headed hippo.
Tsagarada’s 1000-year-old plane tree
Most Greek villages have squares shaded by a mighty plane tree. But the one gracing the square of Agia Paraskevi, one of Tsagarada’s four districts, puts all others into the shade. According to locals, it’s not only the fattest plane tree in Greece (needing 18 chaps to encircle it) but, at over a thousand years old, also the oldest. Its roots tunnel at least four metres beneath the square, which was effectively built around the tree. Even if you’re not a tree-hugger, it’s a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by with a Greek coffee.
Church of Agia Marina, Kissos
Built in 1650, this squat, three-aisled basilica is one of the finest religious monuments in Pelion, with some lovely frescoes and an impressive belfry too. It’s probably best known for its goldleaf-laden iconostasis, carved by craftsmen from Epirus in the early 1700s. The interior also features four domes, decorated by painter Ioannis Pagonis. Unless you’re there on a Sunday morning when there are services, it’ll probably be locked, but you can see some fine frescoes above the south door. A chapel forms the village’s Ecclesiastical Museum.
Women’s Agritourism Cooperative in Vyzitsa
One of Greece’s great culinary traditions is the “spoon sweet”, fruit that’s preserved in a sugar syrup. In 2011, the women of the village of Vyzitsa decided that such customs also needed preserving, and hoped that by doing so they could also gain useful employment. So they set up a 13-woman cooperative which hired kitchens and equipment, and today you can see them making spoon sweets, jams and pies, which they sell in a shop at the front. In September they organise a Firiki Festival celebrating the firiki apple that’s unique to the region.
Serpentin Organic Garden, Tsagarada
An organic, shrub-filled garden is a rarity in Greece - which makes this exuberant plot, on the lush eastern slopes of mount Pelion, particularly special. It’s the labour of love of German-born Doris Schlepper who, against all the odds, planted it up with rare trees (including ginkgos, tulip trees, and glory trees), historic roses, vegetables and plants, and opened it to the public in 1990. It’s a playful, imaginative place, popular with wildlife and artists alike. Doris will show you around if she’s there, but groups must give advance warning. www.serpentin-garden.com