A few weeks ago, with just a small backpack each, my traveling buddy Carrie and I left for a much-awaited trip to the Pelion Peninsula. Otherwise known as Pilio, this peninsula is near Volos, one of the larger cities in Greece. It’s known for its picturesque mountain villages, gorgeous sea views, friendly people and hearty, traditional dishes. This trip was filled with Greek mini-adventures and minor miracles, and was my very favorite trip in Greece yet!
Luckily for Carrie and I, the administrative secretary for the Farm School, Zena, helped us out a lot with the planning for this trip. Minor Miracle #1: Her family is from the region, and I was therefore once again the beneficiary of the enthusiasm Greeks often show for sharing their favorite parts of their home country. As this region is very traditional, and accessible mostly by car (which we didn’t have) or a very complicated, relatively ambiguous bus schedule, we absolutely could not have pulled it off without her help!
After taking the bus to Volos, we boarded our next bus, which would take us up into the hills to the small villages of Portaria and Makrinitsa. Before I continue, you must understand just how hard it can be to take long-distance buses in Greece. The biggest bus stations have websites, some of which post schedules; but the schedules change on holidays, which is when we do most of our traveling. In order to get correct information, you have to call the bus station, and while I speak enough Greek to get by with the aid of body language and gestures, I’m pretty much helpless on the phone. And when you’re in a village, you also have to find out where the bus stops, and flag it down as it comes roaring past. On top of all this, when you finally reach your destination, you have no way of knowing whether it’s your destination or not unless the driver feels like announcing it or you manage to ask someone. Essentially–you have to rely on locals. And you have to speak at least a little Greek.
We got off the bus in Portaria, where we would be staying for the night, and walked along a gorgeous mountain road to get to the nearby village of Makrinitsa. The sun was shining, we could see out over all of Volos, and for the first time in far too long, I had a chance to bask in nature: creeks of varying size and crystal-clear water wound down the mountainside, and fantastically old trees stood watch all along the road. We also enjoyed the glow of the first signs of spring, and saw several beautiful wildflowers and blooming trees along the way.
Both Makrinitsa and Portaria are centered around a Greek flag-bedecked plateia (town square) and offer a number of nice-looking tavernas and domatias (rooms for rent), as well as a few churches and pretty, alpine-looking houses, all connected by paved roads and cobblestone walkways. After wandering around Makrinitsa for a bit, we stopped for lunch, where (Greek Mini-Adventure #1) I tried rabbit for the first time!
We decided to stay overnight in Portaria instead of in Volos, and I highly recommend doing the same for anyone visiting Pilio. We found a lovely mountain lodge to stay in for very cheap off-season prices! After walking back to Portaria, I cat-napped and did some yoga while Carrie read (we totally have our travel-buddy routine down by now!) before setting off for dinner. I had delicious homemade pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, onions and capers, and we split a wonderful salad with sun-dried tomato dressing. It was a hugely satisfying meal, and my love for the hearty, lovingly-prepared dishes of these mountain towns was confirmed!
Greek Mini-Adventure #2: And then we walked back to our hotel, where we accidentally crashed a dance party being thrown by a large crowd of retired Greeks.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Greece is full of awesome surprises!
The next morning was wonderfully lazy. After a quick Greek shower (hand-held shower head, no curtain) we gorged ourselves on the awesome breakfast spread in our hotel: tiropita (cheese pie), milopita (apple bread, as Pilio is also known for its apples), quince jam (quince may be the single most underrated fruit out there), kolokithopita (pumpkin pastry) and coffee. We did some more wandering–which, at this point, we absolutely excel at–and spent hours writing in our journals and people-watching. Because it was a holiday, everyone in the village was in the plateia, and we even saw a tiny parade of Greek children!
We then had to wait outside the kiosk, which was where we were told the bus would stop, and catch the bus to Zagora at 2, which is when we were told it would be there. Being Americans, and therefore placing high value on efficiency, punctuality and order, this was hard for us. But we managed just fine (Minor Miracle #2!), and soon enough, we were high-fiving to our success on the bus to Zagora!
The bus took us up and over Mt. Pelion, past beautiful forests, cute towns, snowy summits and even a ski resort.
Greek Mini-Adventure #3: Our next task? Find Magda.
We didn’t know much about this “Magda” before we met her. Zena arranged for us to stay with her that night for a very reasonable price, but we didn’t know if it would be in a hotel, a domatia (domatia means “rooms,” and represents a form of traditional Greek lodging), or simply her house. We didn’t know how old she would be or if she would speak English. We just knew that we had to go to the plateia and ask anyone we saw for Magda.
We found Magda’s domatia with no problems whatsoever. Magda was very friendly, though she spoke almost no English, and our room was great! It was our first domatia experience, and we were happy to find clean, comfy beds, a balcony, a fridge and a shower with a curtain.
For dinner that night, we had spetzofai, which is probably the most famous dish from this region. It’s sausage cooked with peppers in a thick, flavorful oil. So fatty. SO GOOD. Carrie and I both loved it, and the sausage in the spetzofai we had was amazing!
The next hurdle we had to clear was that of figuring out the bus schedule for the next day, as we needed to get to the coastal town of Agios Ioannis. While we were at dinner that night, we asked our waiter if he knew anything about the bus schedule. He told us that there were no buses to Agios Ioannis the next day, which we later confirmed with Magda. He also offered us a ride with a friend of us who is a taxi driver, for 20 euros (which turned out to be quite the deal, as it’s about a 45-minute taxi ride!). We agreed and said we’d meet him at the kiosk at 11 the next morning.
Since we had a few hours in the morning before heading to Agios Ioannis, we set out to find the famous shop of the Women’s Agricultural Co-Op of Zagora. After waiting for thirty minutes or so (at the in-Greek orders of a stout woman in a hairnet) for the shop to open, we were delighted to find a little store with jars upon jars of homemade jams and spoon fruit (preserved fruits in syrup). I purchased quince jam and quince spoon fruit, both of which are absolutely delicious! And after visiting the shop, we went to find Zena’s cousin’s bakery. It turns out Artemis was waiting for us, and she not only sat and talked with us in excellent English for a good half hour, but also gave us each a free pastry for breakfast!
At 11:00, we went to the kiosk to meet Nikos for our taxi. He told us to wait ten minutes for it to come. After twenty, a friendly English-speaking waitress from the taverna where we met Nikos, who we had talked with for a little while the night before and liked very much, approached and explained that the taxi driver had had to go to Volos unexpectedly… but that his son would gladly take us to Agios Ioannis in his 4×4 pickup! She explained that they knew the son, and that he was trustworthy.
At this point, I had a choice. I could say no, and both lose a chance for adventure and have to find another way to get to Agios Ioannis. Or I could say yes, knowing that everyone in Zagora knows one another and since the son knows Nikos, Nikos knows Artemis, Artemis knows Zena, and we know Zena, I could trust that everything would be okay.
Greek Mini-Adventure #4: S0, with little to no hesitation, we put our packs in the back of the pickup and climbed in the front seats. We then spent the next 45 minutes careening around twisting, narrow mountain roads, and talking with Yiannis. He was about our age, liked some American hip-hop, will be a taxi driver like his father when he turns 21, and offered some great insight on local life, including the fact that he says the villages are definitely growing in size under the influence of the tourist business.
Agios Ioannis is an utterly adorable coastal town. Carrie and I spent our time there eating seafood, wandering along the beach, and looking for treasures in tidepools!
Minor Miracle #3: While resting for a bit at our hotel before going out for dinner, Carrie spotted dolphins out in the water! It was a beautiful sunset, and the water was pearly pink with the reflection of the light. Because of this, we could clearly make out a group of three-five dolphins swimming in the sea, clearly moving together. I didn’t manage to catch a picture, but the sight was breath-taking!
My guidebook mentioned the nearby village of Damouhari, which sounded absolutely delightful, but it was less helpful as to how to get there. When we asked our hotel manager, he said it was a 20-minute walk, but that “You have to know the paths.” Nevertheless, he pointed us in the right direction, and we set off with high hopes.
Greek Mini-Adventure #5/Minor Miracle #4: We found the little paths and arrived victorious in almost no time! The walk was lovely, taking us right along the coast through olive groves, and we were rewarded with an absolutely gorgeous little village.
We spent a couple hours basking in the glow of Damouhari and exploring more tidepools before walking back to Agios Ioannis, having one more spectacular seafood lunch and catching the bus for home.
This was my very favorite trip I’ve taken in Greece thus far. We were simply so lucky! This trip would never have been possible or as amazing as it was without the unfailing kindness of the Greek people we’ve met. On the bus back to Thessaloniki, I was brimming with happiness, humbled by the wonderful people we met and beautiful sights we saw, and so happy to be alive, in a Citizen-of-the-World kind of way.
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