Highlight of the gods

The mythological scenery of the Pelion peninsula gets a Greek chorus of approval, says Linda Cookson
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The Independent Travel

The gods of Olympus chose the Pelion peninsula as their summer holiday hideaway. They knew what they were doing: this is one of the loveliest regions in Greece with spectacular scenery, a dramatic coastline and a quality of light that has made it popular with artists. Think of Cornwall without the rain, and you're halfway there.

Wised-up Greeks have been coming here for years. The region's capital is Volos, about halfway between the two biggest Greek cities, Athens and Thessaloniki. But for British travellers the Pelion was tough to reach until the start of the 21st century. Only in the summer of 2000 did the first charter flight from the UK arrive at the military airport of Volos. Now, the thoughtful green shade and sea and sand of the Pelion is within half a day's travel from Britain.

The peninsula takes its name from Mount Pelion, which rises just east of the port of Volos and spreads right across to the Aegean coast. Below Mount Pelion, a densely wooded curve of land dips into the sea like the claw of a giant cat. Hidden away beneath the mountain, it has the feel of a secret country: leafy, mysterious, enchanting.

Apart from this special atmosphere, the other feature that gives the peninsula the feel of a separate nation is the extraordinary variety of its scenery. It's a region of regions. To the east, the coastline is wild and rugged, with pebble beaches and fishing villages clinging to vertiginous rock-face. To the west it's gentler, as hills and olive groves roll down into the calm blue waters of the Pagasitic Gulf. Inland, mountain roads wind ever-upwards through dense forest, skimming gorges and ravines.

In the space of an hour or so you travel though a succession of different landscapes. One moment, you're driving through Mediterranean hillsides planted with lemon groves and eucalyptus trees, looking out to sea across dreamy beaches and coves; the next, as you drive higher up the mountain slopes to where it's cooler, you're in the woods of the English countryside, thick with beech and chestnut trees, or winding through country lanes past orchards of apples and plums. Twenty minutes later, you're navigating hairpin bends on mountain passes that wouldn't be out of place in the Low Atlas and passing road signs pointing to the ski resort of Hania.

Punctuating the Pelion peninsula are 24 mountain villages. Traditional Pelion houses are tall and thin, with narrow windows and with steep stone staircases anchoring them fast into the mountain. Many also have jutting upper storeys supported on wooden corbels.

Viewed from a distance, across thickly wooded gorges, the villages look like ornaments or pieces of jewellery set in a dense green cloak. Tiers of terraces and roof gardens overhang the valleys like the loops of a necklace. The most spectacular of the villages - which would certainly include Makrinista on the west coast and Tsagarada on the east coast - are characterised as "balcony" villages. Their village squares project from the rock face to form viewing platforms.

Each of the mountain villages in the Pelion has a village square. Tsagarada has four, all at different levels of the mountain side. Typically, the squares are elegant and spacious, flagged by huge stones and shaded by plane trees. The enormous plane tree in Tsagarada's Agia Paraskevi square is said to be 1,000 years old. Ornamental stone fountains are also characteristic, as are pretty churches - many of them extraordinarily sumptuous. The church of Agia Marina in the mountain village of Kissos is known as "the jewel of the Pelion". Its lavish wood and gold icon wall is said to have taken 60 years to complete. And linking the villages, often running alongside mountain streams, are traditional cobbled pathways known as kalderimia that were built long before the advent of paved roads. Some of these have been adapted as long-distance footpaths around the region.

Hiking and driving are not the only ways to travelling around the Pelion. Parts of the narrow gauge railway, built in 1884, to link Volos with the mountains, has been restored to allow a tourist train to run between between Ano Lehonia (near the coast) and Milies, up in the mountains. The train's nickname is Moutzouris. The 90-minute journey spans deep valleys and crosses implausible bridges, with fine views of the sea.

The water is the main attraction in the Pelion: either the Pagasitic Gulf, to the west, with calm waters and great sunsets, or the less-tamed Aegean to the east with its sublime sunrises. Take to the water in a boat, and dozens of secluded beaches and coves can become yours for the day.

On the east coast, you could base yourself at the delightful little harbour village of Damouchari and persuade a fisherman to chug you round to nearby Fekistra beach, a fine sandy cove with two sea-caves, one of which reputedly hid a secret school teaching the Greek language during Turkish occupation.

On the west coast, you could hire your own boat from the village of Milina and motor over to the deserted island of Alatas. You will share the isle with an old monastery and population of wild rabbits.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: PELION AND ON

GETTING THERE

Linda Cookson travelled with Tapestry Holidays (020-8235 7788; www.tapestryholidays.com).

A week at the boutique hotel of Pounda Paou, on the waterfront of the Pagasitic Gulf this summer starts at £750, which includes flights from Britain and the use of a boat.

Travelling independently, approach via either the Greek capital or Thessaloniki. You can travel from either city to Volos by train (which may require a change of train at Larisa) or direct bus.

STAYING THERE

If you're touring the area independently and prefer to book your accommodation ahead, Houses of Pelion (0870 199 9191; www.pelion.co.uk) offers an accommodation-only service and can tailor-make an itinerary.

MORE INFORMATION

Greek National Tourist Organisation, 4 Conduit Street, London W1S 2DJ (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk)

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