Volos & Mount Pelion
320km (200 miles) N of Athens
There comes a time on almost every trip when you need to take a brief vacation from your vacation. A stop at the port city of Volos and a visit to the rustic villages of Mount Pelion can banish museum-and-antiquities burnout. And, if you're doing the long (largely tedious) national highway drive from Athens to Thessaloniki, Volos, and Pelion are a perfect break from the motorway blues. Volos's seaside location (about 320km/200 miles north of Athens and 210km/130 miles south of Thessaloniki) is refreshing, and the wooded villages of Mount Pelion are relaxing. In short, Volos and Pelion offer the perfect contrasting combination of city energy and country leisure.
Legend has it that Jason and the Argonauts set sail from Volos when they began their search for the Golden Fleece. Today, many tourists pass through Volos en route to the villages of Mount Pelion or when they catch a ferry to one of the Sporades islands. Too few stop here -- a pity, because Volos has a terrific waterfront packed with cafes and restaurants, a fine archaeological museum, and is close to four important ancient sites. The Volos Information Center on Grigoriou Lambraki and Sekeri (tel. 24210/30-940) is usually open 8am to 8pm weekdays, 9am to 4pm weekends, and has information on Volos, Mount Pelion, and the surrounding area.
If you want to be pampered, the 48-room Domotel Xenia Volos, 1 Plastira, on the waterfront to the east of central Volos (www.domotel.gr; tel. 24219/92-700), has spa facilities, pool and big rooms with big bathrooms -- and offers a choice of fluffy or firm pillows; doubles from 100€. The Hotel Aegli, 24 Argonauton, on the waterfront (www.aegli.gr; tel. 24210/24-471), has rooms with balconies and seaside view from 100€. The nearby Park Hotel, 2 Deligiorgi (www.amhotels.gr; tel. 24210/36-511), is another good bet, with rooms from 120€. The Aegli is just steps away from excellent inexpensive restaurants, including Apostolis, 15 Argonauton (tel. 24210/26-973), and the Ouzerie Iolkos, 32 Argonauton (tel. 24210/35-277). Don't be surprised if you see customers sipping ouzo instead of wine or beer with their meals; Volos produces (and drinks) much of Greece's national drink. And if you think ouzo is strong, try the local tsipouro, a firewater so strong that that Greeks usually dilute it with lashes of water and tame it with lots of mezedes (snacks).
The Archaeological Museum, 1 Athanasaki (tel. 24210/25-285), has a unique collection of rare painted Hellenistic grave monuments. Paint is fragile, washes off in the rain and erodes easily when buried, and almost no painted monuments have survived from antiquity. The museum also has a rose garden with picturesque fallen columns and ancient statues. Just beyond the garden is a seaside park with replicas of several Neolithic houses. Some of the finds at the museum come from four nearby and relatively easy-to-find ancient sites: Neolithic Dimini and Sesklo, with the remains of some of Greece's oldest habitations, Hellenistic Demetrias, with the remains of a royal palace, theater and fortifications, and Nea Anchialos (ancient Pyrasos), which has Greek, Roman, and extensive early Christian remains. If you decide to spend part of a day visiting the ancient sites, try to end up at Nea Anchialos, which has a string of cafes and tavernas on the seashore a few blocks from the ancient site. This is a great spot to combine a swim with a snack at one of a number of seaside tavernas and cafes. Locals praise the taverna Alexandros, which is usually closed on Tuesday, which, alas, is the day I was last in town.
Before you head off to Mount Pelion, try to stop in at Volos's Makris Folk Art Center (tel. 24210/37-119), 1 Athanaski St., usually open daily until noonish, except for Saturday. The museum has a number of works of the early 20th century "primitive" painter Theophilos Hatzimichaelis, who fell for Pelion and painted for his supper as he traveled around. its villages. Theophilos's paintings are a lovely introduction to the magical world of Pelion. Theophilos was especially fond of painting scenes of gods and nymphs, and some of the half-human, half-horse centaurs who, in antiquity, were said to be especially fond of Pelion's green hills and valleys. Achilles himself was tutored on Pelion by the wise old centaur Chiron.
If you have a week to spend on Pelion, you won't regret it, but if you only have a day or two -- or even just a day -- you can see enough to vow to come back as soon as possible. I'll give some suggestions on where to stay and eat if you can linger here, but do remember that in summer and on winter weekends (when skiers head here), almost all rooms on Pelion are booked well in advance. If you're interested in renting a house here, check out www.pelion.co.uk or www.pelion.org/mulberrytravel.
Despite some good new roads, doing the full circuit of Pelion in one day, given some still-rough roads and the need to double back from time to time, is more exhausting than exhilarating. This is a place, if at all possible, to make haste slowly, so here are some tips on how to see just some of Pelion's highlights in a day excursion. I hope you'll decide to spend at least 1 night here. Less than 10km (6 miles) out of Volos, you come to the village of Portaria -- and so do a lot of tour groups that stop here to see the famous plane trees on the shaded plateia and the chestnut trees that grow profusely on Pelion. Keep going, and you'll soon be in Makrinitsa, which has nicknamed itself the "Balcony of Pelion," because of its high perch on a mountain slope. At almost any time of the year, roses, hydrangeas and the inevitable geraniums are in bloom. Makrinitsa is so well-watered that it has more than 50 fountains -- one for almost every family in town. Many of the stone houses have slate roofs and the projecting wooden upper stories characteristic of Pelion's architecture. Makranitsa is largely pedestrianized, and you can leave your car on the outskirts (try not to be outflanked by the tour buses, which take no notice of the needs of cars when they park). The 10-room Sisilanou Archontiko (tel. 24280/99-556), like many hotels on Pelion, occupies a nicely restored village mansion (archontiko means mansion) and has rooms from around 60€ to 100€.
From Makrinitsa, head on to the village of Zagora; if you've been eating an apple a day while you've been in Greece, it probably was grown here. The 5-room Archontiko Drakopoulou (tel. 24260/21-566) is one of a number of Pelion hotels run by a women's association devoted to maintaining Pelion's traditions while advancing the region's prosperity.
By now you may be wondering why this rural backwater has so many mansions. In the 19th century, Pelion was a center of the silk industry, and wealthy merchants and moguls built massive houses, many of which could function as a family fortress in a pinch. When the silk industry moved west, Pelion lost its prosperity. In an odd way, that's what saved so many of the handsome buildings people come to see today. Villagers either emigrated or just continued to live in their old houses, without the means to modernize them. This spared Pelion the post-WWII frenzy of tearing down much of the old and building the new that destroyed so much of Greece's traditional architecture. When prosperity returned in the 1980s, many deserted and run-down houses were restored as Greeks became nostalgic for the past. Pelion is one tourist destination where you are likely to encounter more Greek visitors than foreigners.
Near Zagora, in the hamlet of Kissos, the Church of Agia Marina has fine frescoes and, unusually for many rural Greek churches, is often open. By now you may be thinking that chestnut trees, shady plateias, wooden houses, and low, broad slate-roofed churches are all very well, but what you really want to hear is not the sound of water splashing in village fountains, but the sea lapping a sand beach. No problem.
Head down to the sea at the village of Horefto and enjoy a swim in what legend says was the centaur Chiron's home town. Who knows? Maybe Chiron taught Achilles to swim here. You can imagine the scene while you swim and have lunch at one of the seaside tavernas. Both Horefto and the nearby village of Ayios Ioannis have a number of small hotels, but nothing as charming as the restored archontika in the inland villages. Two nearby villages with especially charming inns are Mouresi, with the four-room Old Silk Store (www.pelionet.gr/oldsilkstore) and Tsangarada, with the eight-room Lost Unicorn (www.lostunicorn.com). The Old Silk Store is an amazing value, with its lovely garden and views down to the sea from Mouresi (doubles from 65€; 420€ per week); the English owner, Jill Sleeman, knows the area well, and is quite helpful. The Lost Unicorn, on Tsangarda's main plateia (doubles from 90€), has a great restaurant. Both consistently get rave reviews from visitors and both villages are in the running for the most picturesque on Pelion
At this point, if your time is limited, and you can resist more seaside time, head across the peninsula, and over to the west coast and its cluster of idyllic villages: Milies, Vyzitsa, and Pinakates. Each has massive plane trees, cobbled streets, and frescoed churches (Agios Taxiarches in Milies is especially fine). From here, you can return along the road that links Pelion's coast to Volos to the world beyond Pelion.
Tip: Steam train buffs are in luck on Pelion. To Trenaki is a restored 18th-century narrow-gauge steam train that chugs from the western village of Ano Leonia to the central village of Miles and back most weekends and holidays. Miles has a small museum, nice plateia with church, and good restaurants, especially the Taverna Panorama. You can get the up-to-date schedule and prices at the Volos Information Center or at tel. 24210/24056.
The Vale of Tempe & Ambelakia
360km (223 miles) N of Athens; 27km (16 miles) N of Larissa
The Vale of Tempe, a steep-sided 8km (5-mile) wooded gorge between mounts Olympus and Ossa, has been famous since antiquity as a beauty spot. Unfortunately, since nearly all north-south traffic in Greece now passes through the Vale, this is no longer the sylvan spot that was once the haunt of nightingales. I'd even put it on the "overrated" list. It's hard to realize that this congested spot is -- according to legend and myth -- where Apollo caught a glimpse of the lovely maiden Daphne bathing in the Peneios River. When Apollo pursued Daphne, she cried out to the gods on nearby Olympus to save her from Apollo's ardor -- which they did, by turning her into a laurel tree (daphne in Greek). Apollo, who didn't give up easily, plucked a branch from the tree and planted it at his shrine at Delphi. Thereafter, messengers from Delphi came to the Vale of Tempe every 9 years to collect laurel for Apollo's temple.
The narrow approaches to the Vale have caused many serious road accidents. Still, if you're lucky enough to be here off season, the sound of the gurgling river may be louder than tourists' footsteps on the suspension bridge over the gorge. River rafting is becoming popular here; for information contact Olympos Trekking (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you park and walk into the Vale, allow an hour for your visit.
Keep an eye out for two medieval fortresses here: The remains of Kastro tis Oreas (Castle of the Beautiful Maiden) are on the cliffs inside the Vale; and Platamonas Kastro is at the northern end of the pass. You won't have any trouble spotting the souvenir stands throughout the Vale. There is also a small chapel deep in the gorge.
If you want a break from the popular tourist destinations such as the Vale of Tempe, take a detour to the mountaintop village of Ambelakia, about 6km (4 miles) southeast of the Vale perched amid old oak trees on Mount Kissavos. Most of the village streets are cobblestone and massive plane trees grow beside springs near several of the frescoed churches. If you spend an hour or two here -- better yet, a night or two -- you can experience village Greece, inhale the crisp, clean mountain air; and enjoy the spectacular views of Mount Olympus.
Ambelakia, whose name means "vineyards" in Greek, is one of six villages in Greece that have come together to form the National Network of Tradition, Culture, and Community Life. Their mission is preserving local traditions and crafts -- and boosting local economy Astonishingly, this tiny village produced most of the red cotton thread used throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, with offices in far-off London and Vienna. Today, little survives of Ambelakia's earlier wealth, but two museum houses give a glimpse of past glories. The late-18th-century Schwartz House was built by the Schwartz brothers, two of Ambelakia's wealthiest merchants, who lived and worked in Austria, hence the name "Schwartz," a translation of their Greek name "Mavros." Their wooden house, with its overhanging balconies and elaborately frescoed interiors, is an absolute delight -- and it is a great joy to see it so carefully restored and well cared for. Allow an hour for the guided tour of the house. (Its somewhat flexible hours are usually Tues-Sat 9am-3pm, Sun 9am-2:30pm; admission is 3€.) If you want to visit another restored mansion, take in the Folk Art and Historic Museum in the 19th-century Mola mansion (tel. 24950/93-090; usually open Mon-Fri 11am-3pm, Sat-Sun 11am-4:30pm; admission 3€). Dioramas recreate scenes of family life and photographs and frescoes show how generations of Ambelakians have lived. Again, this is a pleasant spot to spend an hour.
It's a good idea to make an advance reservation at the Nine Muses Hotel (also listed as Ennea Musses and Nine Mouses; email@example.com; tel. 24950/93-405), which has 12 rooms from 60€. The chalet-style hotel just off the main plateia is popular with visitors, and in summer all the rooms are often taken by Greek families. The Nine Muses has great views over Ambelakia and the countryside, which includes Mount Olympos; the proprietors, Georgios Machmoudies and son Kostas, are both very helpful. The 16-room Hotel Kouria (www.hotelkouria.gr; tel. 24950/93-33), built on the outskirts of town in 2006, also has wonderful views of the countryside and large, comfortable rooms, but lacks local atmosphere; rooms from 85€. Both hotels serve breakfast and the Kouria has a restaurant and Internet service. Both hotels can be either blissfully quiet or quite noisy; the Kouria is a popular venue for wedding and baptisms receptions, and the Nine Muses is flanked by tavernas.