Monday, 14 July 2008

Pelion paradise

Water arrives as a matter of routine in most Greek restaurants but at the Kritsa taverna, in the Pelion village of Portaria, it came straight from a mountain spring. It gushes from a parapet a few feet across the square, beneath the spreading branches of a plane tree. The waiter strolls across and fills a jug. It is fresh, cold and delicious.


On the verdant slopes of Mount Pelion there are dozens such springs. For hikers they are an unexpected bonus, if only to cool the sweaty brow and it is to walk that we have come to this peninsula, roughly halfway down the east cost of northern mainland Greece, mythological haunt of centaurs, whose deciduous forests, some claim, provided the timber for Jason's ship, the Argo. Rather than booking through a specialist tour operator we have elected to work out our own routes.


If the greenness of Pelion comes as a surprise to those who picture Greece more readily as baked earth and stubby scrub, so will its many marked hiking trails. For centuries this has been perhaps the most densely populated of Greek mountain regions, and its many villages are linked by a network of ancient mule tracks. Where they peter out, or alternative itineraries are necessary, daubs of paint point mark the way.

As you might expect in a place where local people, until very recently at least, would have been amazed that anyone would walk up mountains for pleasure, finding some footpaths is nevertheless a challenge. We have bought a detailed hiking map from Stamford's in London but there is at least one path which appears not to be marked on it, its blue paint splashes luring us inexorably down when we should be toiling up.

The mule tracks are straightforward enough, however. It seems a privilege to walk on their hoof polished cobbles. One, in particular. Impresses. It leads steeply up from the drowsing seaside hamlet of Damouchari, where Mamma Mia was filmed, reaching a road just below the larger village of Tsagaradha. Climbing it, for an averagely fit walker, takes an hour or so. As we labour upwards I wonder how many centuries it has been there, and how long it took to hack it out of the sheer cliff face.


It is mid May and even after a week we have not become blasé at the profusion of wild flowers. The purple vetch, loud with bees and reminiscent of bluebells in Britain, are astonishing. There are great tangled thickets of dog rose. Pink and yellow cistus, from whose stalks came an oil which was used, it is believed, to produce myrrh, grow low along the footpath edges. The scent of broom is thick as perfume at a Saturday dance.


From the modest ski centre at Chania – no St. Moritz this – we climb to join an undulating path which runs westward, along a ridge. There are two ways of joining it, one of which proves so slow and slippery with leaf mould that we turn back and waste an hour looking for the other. The first, aborted effort leads us past a small circle of rocks which suggests a defensive point, or maybe a hideaway, for guerillas resisting the Germans or, when the occupying forces left, fighting in the civil war. Eventually we find our way through beech forest to a magical greensward clearing on a summit. The mountain, though I have no idea why, is called Golgotha. As in so many of Europe's remoter forests there are wild boar in these woods, but we do not encounter any, either here or on taverna menus.

Another route starts in the steep alleys of Makrinitsa, a car free tourist honeypot, from whose square the white port of Volos is laid out as if across a stage seen from a high balcony. In the village there are mules laden with panniers. At first we think they are there as a gimmick, to provide rides for sightseers. Then we realise they are carting gravel for builders where motor vehicles cannot go. The climb is accompanied by monastery bells. A chance detour on the descent demonstrates, though the map does not make it plain, that minor dirt roads can be as pleasant to walk on as footpaths.

The sea is visible from most paths; either the Aegean or the Paghasitikos Gulf in the crook of peninsula's finger. On the Aegean side we discard boots and backpacks to swim from beaches on which, outside the summer peak, there is only a handful of other people.

Back on the trail, trees and shrubs are noisy with the song of thrush, blackbird and chaffinch. Here and there an emerald lizard darts or a tortoise lumbers across our path, one stopping to inspect a motorway of ants before heaving itself into the undergrowth.

The Archontiko Naoumidi in Portaria, chosen at random, made a comfortable base. Archikontos are restored, traditionally built mansions, which have proliferated over the past two decades.


This one comprises two main houses, one of them built by an Egyptian family in the late 19th century. It has a lovely garden, in which to sit and read, and an outdoor pool. Indoors we keep noticing detail: the flower painted alcoves, intricate plasterwork and etched glass windows. Breakfast, sometimes a buffet and sometimes, if there were few guests, served at our table, is an astonishing array of dishes, from simple bread or yoghurt with honey to omelettes, toasted cheese and ham sandwiches and sweet pancakes.

Picnic lunches are usually spanakopita or tiropita (spinach or cheese pie) and sticky baklava from the bakery and - for this was the season and they were heavy on the trees – a bag of cherries.

There are more than a half dozen places to eat in the village but the choice of where to eat in the evenings was gradually narrowed, not just by the the cooking but the house wine. At around £3 a half litre this is can still be a bargain in Greece but the quality, even between neighbouring restaurants, often varies wildly. At one taverna, for example, which we tried and then shunned, the red tasted strongly of elderflower.

At the Kritsa, where the spetzofai - a casserole of sausage, tomatoes and sweet peppers - was excellent, the house red was above average. The house water, however, was exceptional.

How: We flew with British Airways from London to Thessaloniki (www. ba.com). The drive from Thessaloniki to Portaria via Volos by rental car took around 3hrs. The Archontiko Naoumidis (www.naoumidishotel.gr), which has a heated outdoor pool (May - September) charges around £45 - £60  for b&b depending on season. We used the Anavasi hiking map 6.21 to Central Pelion (£7.50 from Stanfords).







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