In the lap of the Greek gods

Jane O'Callaghan explores the Pelion coast, home to Jason and the Argonauts, and the nearby island of Alonnisos

The Pelion is a long way from the familiar burnt-ochre landscape of the Greek islands. Homer referred to it as "many-leaved" and myths blossomed in the ancient forests which still cover much of the peninsula lying halfway between Athens and Thessaloniki. Centaurs cantered through its glades and the Trojan War was set on its inexorable course here when Paris awarded the golden apple to Aphrodite in return for Helen's love.

Nowadays, most visitors are middle-class Greeks who have restored many of the fine old stone buildings in the mountain villages as holiday homes. It was the lush green landscape which captivated Jill Sleeman 10 years ago, when she moved from sun-baked Rhodes to the sleepy hill village of Mouressi. The hydrangeas, primroses, daffodils, apple trees and brambles remind her of her native Cornwall. We certainly found echoes of the Cornish coastal path when, following the trails marked on her home-drawn map, we skirted through sweet little gardens, hiked across spectacular cliffs and dipped down to tiny coves to swim.

Jill leads walking holidays in the spring and autumn (she ranks the spring flowers of May and the glorious foliage of early October as the best times to visit) and offers b&b to indolent souls as well as hikers in her 130- year-old restored house, the Old Silk Store. Breakfasts of cherries, home- made bread and marmalade in her addictively relaxing garden set us up for a day of precipitous ascents and descents courtesy of the kalderimi (mule tracks) which are being restored by a mixture of EC funding and local volunteers.

We took the bus one morning to Kissos, a charming village high in the hills which is popular in winter with Greek skiers looking for an atmospheric base close to the ski station of Xania over the ridge. The village church is packed with wooden beams and the frescoes depict folksy scenes of birds, flowers and stags. From here we followed the newly flagged mule track down to Ayios Ioannis for a swim, passing through sleepy country villages on the way. In most unGreek style, the correct route was indicated with smart wooden signs, so we didn't have to rely on Jill's maps.

Mouressi after dark is a quiet spot with just two tavernas. Savas's is the better one, with some interesting local specialities on its limited menu. We particularly enjoyed rabbit stifado, pungent with herbs, courgette flowers stuffed with rice, herbs and chopped aubergine, spetsofai (a hearty mountain sausage stew) and fresh anchovies cooked in the oven with lemon juice and vinegar. The local tipple is tsiparo, a lethal white spirit which tastes like a cocktail of Cretan raki with a twist of ouzo. We stuck with the local wine and the nightly bill for two rarely topped pounds 10.

There were more local delicacies at the village of Milies, where the bakery, the best in the Pelion, serves up great slabs of rich cheese bread and densely packed apple pie with cinnamon. Grey pack ponies, looking very like their Welsh cousins, pick their way up the cobbled streets with pannier-loads of slate for yet another tasteful renovation of a crumbling old cottage. The surrounding woods, too, bear an uncanny resemblance to Welsh valleys, and the finishing touch is a proper steam train, complete with whistles and puffs, which labours up the narrow-gauge track from the coast near Volos at weekends.

Walk down the track for 10 minutes and you arrive at a major feat of engineering - a ravine-spanning steel bridge which is banked like a roller- coaster ride. As the train moves no faster than a centaur's trot, it is not too alarming for passengers. The line was designed and built in 1903 by an expat Italian engineer whose son, Giorgio de Chirico, incorporated centaur and steam train motifs in his stark surrealist paintings which inspired many of Salvador Dali's works. The Pelion was also the home of Jason, who was brought up by Chiron the centaur and set off from ancient Iolchos (now Volos) with an all-star crew in the Argo to bring back the Golden Fleece. Modern-day Argonauts can retrace the early part of his voyage much more rapidly in Flying Dolphins, high-speed hydrofoils which whisk you to the offshore Sporades islands in under an hour.

Jason's first stop was Skopelos, where he picked up the Cretan prince Stafilos from the bay of the same name. The Minoans had an eye for a scenic spot as well as a good harbour; Panormos, one of their other settlements, is a ravishingly beautiful bay with a perfectly sheltered yacht anchorage in a winding inlet.

Skopelos was a pleasant enough island, with an appealing old town, good beaches and a pine-coated interior dotted with monasteries, but our goal was the more remote island of Alonnisos. This is the site of Greece's only national marine park, set up in 1992 to protect the endangered Monk Seal. Spin-off benefits for tourists include the cleanest water in the Aegean and plenty of fish on the menu, as local stocks have risen since commercial fishing was banned. Good business for local fishermen means they, too, are behind the conservation efforts; a few years ago seals were killed on sight as competitors for the dwindling shoals.

Most people stay in the little port of Patatiri or in the quiet old town which perches on top of the hill. This was largely abandoned after an earthquake in 1965 but many of the old houses are now enjoying a new lease of life as holiday cottages, restaurants, cafes and craft shops. One thing that strikes you is the lack of rubbish, usually a big problem in Greek beauty spots. The best way to explore Alonnisos is on foot or by boat. Caiques shuttle to and from the pebble and shingle beaches or take visitors around the offshore islands which form part of the marine park, mooring in remote bays for swimming and snorkelling.

More than a dozen walking trails have been restored and signposted and you can buy a good local guide to the pick of the paths, many of which wind down to deserted beaches. If you would rather travel in company, Chris Browne at Ikos Travel organises some interesting itineraries outside July and August. We explored a remote gorge with him and were thrilled to see a huge Bonelli's Eagle take off from a rock just feet away. The seals are secretive, but dolphins, falcons, hawks and wild goats can often be seen in this protected environment.

Alonnisos is definitely different, and the lack of sandy beaches has kept it free from the mass tourism that has disfigured neighbouring Skiathos. "Tourism may be slower here, but we want to pass this special island on to our children rather than make a quick profit," says Diogenis Theodorou, boss of local agency Alonnisos Travel. "Big hotels and tour operators would mean all the money leaving the island. You only have to look at Skiathos to see that cheap tourism is a disaster. People come here in small numbers for the walking and the marine park, and that is better business in the long term."

When a leading businessman rather than an idealistic expat expresses this kind of sentiment, you know you are on an island whose heart is in the right place. Green Greece is alive and well on these rocky shores where seals nest in secret caves as well as under the leaves of the Pelion.

PELION AND ALONNISOS

GETTING THERE

Jane O'Callaghan travelled with Sunvil Holidays (tel: 0181-568 4499). A week in the Pelion in September or October costs from pounds 412 per person and in Alonissos from pounds 328. Two weeks combining both costs from pounds 440. Return flights with Olympic Airways to Athens, through Flight Bookers (tel: 0171-757 2301), cost pounds 145.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Greek Tourist Office (tel: 0171-734 5997).

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