Plan a trip to the Pelion Peninsula and you’ll find forest-clad mountains, quiet beaches, a profusion of Mediterranean wildflowers and some of the best hiking in Greece – often along painstakingly restored cobbled donkey trails
By Genevieve Leaper
Halfway down the Aegean coast of Greece, a long peninsula curves around the Pagasetic Gulf like a beckoning finger. This is the Pelion, named after King Peleus, father of Achilles, and home of the centaurs.
Until a few years ago, I had a stereotypical view of Greece as a place of mass tourism and crowded beaches. Then I discovered the wonderfully unspoilt and surprisingly green landscapes of South Pelion.
The area has higher rainfall than many parts of Greece, with streams tumbling down the forest-clad hillsides even in summer. This is one of the lesser-known areas of Greece, with varied scenery and much to appeal to walkers and nature lovers alike.
The Pelion is at its loveliest in spring, when it enjoys mostly sunny weather and temperatures of around 15-25°C. From March to May, a shifting kaleidoscope of colour sweeps across the landscape as different flowers bloom. Anemones are among the earliest, their pink and purple hues followed by blood-red poppies in a sea of yellow. There are tiny irises that open for just a few hours on a single afternoon, tall stately asphodels and a bewildering variety of orchids. Of the Pelion’s 52 orchid species, tongue orchids (serapias) can be found in huge numbers in the olive groves and the bee orchid family with their insect- mimicking flowers are easy to spot. My favourite is the naked man orchid – not just for the name, it is a beautiful flower.
And, of course, the flowers attract insects. Familiar butterflies rub wings with the more exotic, such as the scarce swallowtail and Cleopatra. Grasshoppers scatter from every step with a flash of red or blue wings and well-camouflaged mantises lurk in the undergrowth. The sounds of spring include the bird-like calls of the marsh frogs, nightingales and the constant background hum of honey bees.
I decide to stay in Milina, a small village on the peninsula’s more sheltered west coast, but accommodation can be found in most of the hill and coastal villages – which all make good bases to explore South Pelion. The region is famous for its olive oil and the cultivated land around the villages is dominated by olive groves.
For my first walk, I opt for a short 8km/5-mile circular route that takes in Lafkos village. Ascending a shady valley from Milina, I come to rest at a tiny chapel by a drinking fountain. I fill my water bottle with cool, natural spring water – no need to buy bottled water here. Springs and whitewashed chapels are features that are typical of the area.
The return journey down the sunnier side of the hill is equally steep but easy underfoot as the paths are paved with stones. These expertly crafted cobbled paths, known as the kalderimia, were mostly built in the 18th century, a time of prosperity under Ottoman rule. Wide enough for laden donkeys, they were used to connect the villages and to transport local olives and honey.
Restoring the paths
Gradually, with the arrival of motorised transport, the kalderimia fell out of use. Some of the old paths were torn up in the construction of new roads, others simply disappeared into the undergrowth. Many routes could have been lost from memory, had a local non-profit group, the Friends of the Kalderimi of South Pelion (FKSP), not come forward to restore long stretches of these paths. I’d spotted their yellow waymarkers on the Lafkos path and arrange to meet Julie Carpenter from the organisation in Horto, the smaller village next to Milina.
She tells me that two British residents got together with locals in 2008 and founded the FKSP, having realised the cultural significance of the paths and potential for walkers. Julie, a keen walker who had been coming to Greece for many years, now calls the Pelion home.
With the help of local men from the villages who remember using the kalderimia, she explains, the group set about searching out, clearing and mapping these old paths. To date, the FKSP’s 470 members, from Greece and beyond, have restored and signed 150km of paths. The emphasis now is on maintaining this network, rather than finding more paths – as well as running popular weekly walks (all welcome).
South Pelion Way
There are marked walks throughout the South Pelion, varying from an hour or two to an energetic all-day hike. In several places, it is possible to walk right across the peninsula from coast to coast – such as from Kala Nera to Tsagarada via Milies – and there is plenty of potential to combine walks.
The new 60km/37-mile South Pelion Trail does just that, beginning in Kato Gatzea on the peninsula’s west coast, near Volos, climbing up to Agios Georgios at over 700m and winding through several hill villages, before dropping down to Platania, where walkers can treat themselves to a paddle in the Aegean Sea or a recharge at a kafeneia (coffee house). Just a short stroll further west over a low headland along the coast, there is a prettier beach at Mikro – and a taverna beneath a plane tree where you can sample the local firewater, tsipouro.
The Aegean shore, more exposed than the gulf, has the best beaches, with the longest stretch of sand at Potistika and Melani. From Katigiorgis, walkers can escape the heat of a summer’s day, and enjoy shady trails through pine trees to Vromoneri, before finishing with a swim in the sea.
It is also cooler up in the hills and there are several routes around Milies, where I head next. This village is the end of the line on the historic narrow-gauge railway from Volos. The train still runs as a tourist attraction in summer but it’s possible to walk along the track at other times. Leaving the train station and heading down the track, it’s an easy walk, roughly north-west, over to neighbouring Vyzitsa. The trail crosses the railway bridge over a deep gorge and passes Chiron’s Cave. In Greek mythology, Chiron was the oldest and wisest of the centaurs, tutor to Jason and a renowned healer. Bellerophon brought Pegasus to Mount Pelion for Chiron’s help after the winged horse was badly burned in his fight with the Chimaera. The cave is far from impressive and I found myself doubting whether it was really Chiron’s – without questioning the actual existence of a mythological character who was half-man, half-horse! Sadly, I have yet to see a centaur.
Tortoises and lizards
Beyond Milina, the peninsula narrows to a single spine, the Tiseo mountain, rising to 644m. I love this exhilarating walk with the sea on both sides and splendid views in all directions. On the eastern side, the cliffs fall almost sheer down to the sea and I’m surprised to see snow on the distant mountains.
It’s good to reach the summit. On a previous occasion, just as I reached the ridge, the tinkling of goat bells announced the arrival of a herd of goats and two teenage goatherds. Convinced a foreigner on her own must be lost, they insisted upon showing me back to the path I’d come up. Admittedly, it is easy to miss the way down off the ridge. The wild, uncultivated slopes of the mountain are covered in macchia – a typical Mediterranean habitat of dense, thorny scrub with pink and white flowered cistus bushes and strawberry trees. Tiseo mountain is the only place in Pelion that I have found tortoises warming themselves in spring sunshine after emerging from hibernation. They are becoming rarer in Greece as their wild habitats disappear, but lizards are still abundant everywhere. My footsteps frequently startle wall lizards sunning themselves, while the much larger green lizards are harder to spot, preferring to hide away in crevices.
It’s definitely worth continuing beyond Tiseo mountain to the very end of the peninsula. From the fishing village of Agia Kyriaki, with its fascinating old-fashioned boatyard, I follow another well-maintained kalderimi up to the hilltop village of Trikeri. From here you can walk down to the lighthouse on Cape Kavoulia and back along the coast, or out to Alogoporos and take the ferry to Trikeri island – the only inhabited island in the Pagasetic Gulf. There really are almost limitless opportunities to enjoy walking in this part of Greece. Perhaps we will meet on the kalderimia one day soon.
South Pelion Way 60km (37 miles) 4 days. Lafkos circular 8km (5 miles); Agia Kyriaki–Trikeri circular 7km (4⅓ miles); Milies–Vyzitsa circular 9.5km (6 miles); Tiseo mountain 12km (7½ miles).
Mount Pelion–Mount Mavrovouni 4.3/4.4 (£8.50, Anavasi).
A number of tour companies (including Ramblers Walking Holidays) offer walking holidays in the Pelion. There is also a wide variety of hotels, guesthouses and self-catering options (airbnb.co.uk, booking.com).
When to visit
Spring (March to early June) and autumn (mid-September to November) are the best times for walking, though there is a possibility of wet weather in March and November.
Volos is the closest airport, but UK flights are summer only. There are direct flights year-round from several UK airports to Thessaloniki and Athens, then take a bus to Volos followed by a less frequent bus service to the Pelion Peninsula. Car hire available in Volos.
friendsofthekalderimi.org, pilionwalks.com, walking-pelion.blogspot.com