The first time visitor to Greece usually lands in Athens, rushes through the sights and then hits an island or two (or three) for some sun and sea. But if you have more time, or are looking for an historically rich region with a varied landscape where you can visit sea, mountains, and traditional villages all in the same day, consider the Pelion.

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of the Pelion before. I hadn’t either until this trip. The Pelion is located on a peninsula 326 kilometres northeast of Athens, which comprises Mount Pelion (1600 metres) as well as the Pagasitic Gulf coast south of the city of Volos, and the Aegean Coast on the other side of the peninsula. 24 villages dot the mountain and coasts. Volos is the third most populous city in Greece (130 000 people). It’s a modern university town with all the tourist services one might expect, as well as a three-kilometre long pedestrian boardwalk by the seaside.

When to go and what to do

Go in April (for the flowers), May, or September for the best weather (*). You can hike on the heavily forested Pelion mountain, or swim at a beach along the coast, or on one of the Sporades islands (which is where the movie Mama Mia was filmed). The beaches on the Aegean sea are sandy, while along the Pagasitic Gulf they are pebbly. The main Sporades islands are Skiathos, Skopelos and Alonnisos. They are linked to each other and to Volos by ferry.

Of course you should try to visit several of the traditional villages. They were settled in the 14th century after the Ottomans invaded and established themselves in Volos. Here are the ones that we visited:

Makrinitsa: Considered one of the five most authentic villages in Greece. It has a silk and leather industry and several shops, many of which sell the ubiquitous gliko koutaliou (fruits preserved in syrup).

Portaria: Visit the Women Cooperative making traditional sweets, jams, pastas, knits and lace, and the small museum with its olive press. A network of hiking trails follow ancient paths that were used by merchants.

Zagora: Biggest village of the Pelion (1300 inhabitants), with four churches. It is known for its apples and chestnuts. It also has a Women’s Agricultural Association, a cooperative founded in 1993 whose products contain no preservatives. (We got to meet the mayor there and hear about his plans for tourism.)

Kissos: There was a chestnut festival on the main square while we were in town. (It was hard to appreciate through the incessant rain though.) Take a look at the church of Agia Marina while you’re there.

Tsagarada: One of the most beautiful villages of Pelion, it spreads over four kilometres!

Milies: Ride in an old wooden train with gorgeous mountain views to Ano Lehonia, or stop part-way in the village of Ano Gazea. It’s a real antique train, built by an Italian engineer in the late 19th century to carry goods to the port of Volos.

Ano Gazea: Visit the Olive Museum, a museum about olives, olive oil, rural life and folklore. You can also ride horses from here.

Most villages are built on a similar model. The central square is home to the church, a couple of large plane trees, and a few cafés. Cobblestone streets are lined with stone houses, as well as restaurants and shops selling local foods and products. Chestnuts and apples grow in the villages and wild boars are hunted between October and February.

This may come as a surprise but Mount Pelion gets snow in winter and is actually a ski destination! See the confusion on your friends’ faces when you tell them that you’re going to ski in Greece. 🙂 The closest village to the ski centre is Chania, located at 1000 metres (the highest village of the Pelion).

Volos was the site of a neolithic settlement and its remarkably good Archeological Museum displays daily life implements going as far back as 5000-7000 BC. In the marina, you can also check out Argo, a replica of the ship from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. In 2008, a group of modern argonauts built and sailed this replica of the legendary ship between Volos and the Adriatic sea: a total of 1000 kilometres over two months.

Where to stay

We were hosted at the 5-star Xenia Hotel in Volos (which I recommend if you can afford it – right along the water, with an amazing buffet breakfast). You can check booking.comtravellerspoint.com or one of the resources at the bottom of this article, for cheaper options.

In Zagora, we talked with Yargos, the owner of the small Stamou Boutique Hotel. The inn has only nine rooms, all with fireplaces, where a double costs 60 to 75 Euros. (I may stay there if I go back… with a friend.) Yargos is also involved in developing tourism in Zagora and the region. He talked about the possibility of providing hikers with GPS, offering cooking lessons, as well as ski passes (with lessons included). He was interesting and sounded very enthusiastic.There are big plans afoot for the Pelion.

I asked him about budget travellers, and according to him, about half the properties in the region can be considered “budget”.

Getting there and around

If you’re not driving, you can reach Volos from Athens by either bus (direct, about 4 hours) or train (with a change in Larissa, 4.5 to 5 hours) or even by flying direct to Skiathos or Nea Anchialos (on the coast) from several European capitals. Once in Volos, mountain villages are accessible by bus, and the Sporades islands can be reached by ferry.

If you are driving, you can stop at the Thermopiles hot springs on the way to or from Athens. The town of Kamena Vourla also makes a good mid-point stop.

Warning: since most of the villages are pedestrian, this often creates a big tangle of cars and trucks trying to park and pass each other on the narrow roads at the entry of the villages. You will need nerves of steel to drive up there!

What about food?

Isn’t something missing from this article? That’s right, food! We ate so much on this tour that I have dedicated an entire post to the topic of food of the Pelion region.

Resources

For more information, check out:

At the moment, most of the visitors to the Pelion are Greek, and the region is just starting to court foreign visitors. You should go now before everybody else discovers it!

Tweet: Looking for a less-discovered part of Greece? http://ctt.ec/526Nl+ #visitgreece #greece

(*) I was there during the last week of October and we had terrible weather: cold, rainy and overcast for three days, but we were told that we were very unlucky as it is “usually sunny”!

My 3-day trip to the Pelion was sponsored by the Greek National Tourism Organization. However all opinions are my own.

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