We were originally supposed to be moving on to Turkey after our Greek Islands tour, but after our Turkey plans fell through, we decided to stay put in Greece and spend the two and a bit weeks we had up our sleeve on the Pelion Peninsula. We hadn’t really done a huge amount of research, but had heard good things about beautiful beaches, charming hilltop villages and a lack of Western tourists – all in all, it sounded like our kind of spot. We never could have imagined just how beautiful the Peninsula was, and how much we would love it.
The Peninsula is dominated by Mount Pelion. From there, cobbled donkey tracks and hiking routes link dozens of tiny (I mean really tiny) hilltop villages with low-lying seaside communities. The area is green with olive and fruit trees, which flourish due to the many waterfalls and rivers that run through the mountain. On the flat, there are dozens of seaside fishing villages – those on the west sit on the Pagasetic Gulf, and those on the east meet the Aegean Sea. The beaches are entirely different depending on what side of the Peninsula you pick. We wanted to get a good overview of the Peninsula, so opted for Kala Nera on the west coast, Papa Nero on the east coast and Milina in southern Pelion.
Stop One – Kala Nera: I would characterise our first 5 days on the Pelion Peninsula with one word – snot. We both got sick on arrival and spent most of our time at Kala Nera, sniffing, coughing and sleeping. In reality, Kala Nera was the perfect place to be under the weather. It’s a very sleepy seaside village with approximately 1000 permanent residents. It’s so small that the streets don’t actually have names, there’s just a grid of 4 streets down to the beach and 4 streets across. This made for an interesting time finding our hotel, which even Google couldn’t locate but, after that it was practically impossible to get lost. The village itself is one large olive grove that wraps around the waterfront, where the water is so calm and clear that you could easily mistake it for a lake. The main street runs along the length of the beach and is dotted with open-air tavernas, a butcher, a baker, a pharmacy and a handful of tourist shops selling water wings, Ray-Bon and Prado sunglasses and over-priced sunscreen. At the far end of the beach is a summer camp for military personnel and their families. And that’s about it.
All the things we had read and were looking forward to about the Pelion Peninsula were borne out in Kala Nera. The most noticeable of these was that the people (locals and holiday-makers) were almost all Greek. We overheard only a handful of people speaking English and it was a lovely change from the tourist overload of the last couple of weeks. The demographic was primarily families and senior citizens, which made for some really pleasant people-watching. In these parts the oldies seem to be the first people up swimming in the mornings and the last people to get out of the water in the evening. They paddle about with swimming caps on, lazing on inflatable rafts and chatting away to one another. We watched one hilarious exchange where an old-timer was practising his backstroke, only he hadn’t realised that he was only making contact with the water with one arm. The result was that he ended up doing a great big loop (kind of like when you lose control of your bumper boat at Rainbow’s End) and backed straight into an old gal behind him. In the process he obviously touched some things he wasn’t supposed to and there was an awkward moment while he tried to turn around and build up enough momentum to swim away.
In the evenings, the oldies sit outside their homes, or the tavernas in plastic chairs smoking, nursing a drink and playing Backgammon and Checkers and entertaining the local children. Older people are treasured here in Greece and each town and village has a cafe that is a dedicated meeting/socialising spot for senior citizens. It’s usually a very nice spot in the town where they can get together and watch the comings and goings.
When we weren’t recuperating at the hotel, we took walks along the promenade, drove up into the mountain villages of Milies and Vyzita and had a day at the beach of Lefakastro. The pace of life here is so slow that I’m not sure we would have done much more even if we had been feeling better.
Stop Two – Papa Nero/Agios Ioannis: We left Kala Nera on Tuesday after 5 days of recuperating. Next stop, the resort village of Papa Nero on the eastern side of the Peninsula. Our rental car for this leg was misleadingly called an “Ibiza”, but I can assure you it was no party. The main issue is that it is the most pathetic, gutless, snivelling little car ever created, which makes tackling the incredibly hilly and windy roads of Mt Pelion a bit of a disaster. We had a particularly unfortunate incident trying to make our way to our new accommodation, which saw us stall (in first gear) multiple times on a particularly nasty hairpin turn, causing the traffic to back up behind us, with the final result being us doing a massive burn-out before finally driving off in a cloud of dust much to the locals amusement.
I found the whole experience quite traumatic and managed to pull a muscle in my shoulder from holding onto the overhead handle so tight. Even though I wasn’t driving, it took me straight back to the days of driving lessons with Mum and Dad. Stalling made me think of trying to do hill starts or 3-point turns where lessons would end with me shouting at Dad “well if it’s so easy, why don’t you do it?!” (or slightly more colourful language) and then Dad swearing never to take me for another lesson because I was such an ungrateful brat; or those lessons with Mum where she was so nervous that she held onto the dash the whole time and made that weird noise where she inhales sharply through closed teeth while trying to pretend that she’s not looking for a seat ejector button.
It was a massive relief then to finally arrive at our accommodation. We stayed in a fairly basic motel that more than made up for what it lacked in bells and whistles with the most amazing view out over the ocean. The motel was located on a rocky outcrop, but was only a 5 minute walk down to the lovely little beach of Papa Nero, and a further 10 minutes to Agios Ioannis, which is one of the more popular resort towns for internal Greek tourists. Our host had checked multiple times before taking our booking that we were ok with cats, which is just as well given that the welcoming committee consisted of 20+ cats of various colours and sizes here. None was a patch on our Henry, but there were a couple of pretty cute kittens who got a fairly good squeezing during our 3 night stay.
The entire Peninsula has been hard hit by the drop off in internal tourism resulting from the debt crisis and everybody we met was so pleased to see us. We were getting ready to order a meal at one of the tavernas in Agios Ioannis on our first night when I asked the owner what he would recommend from the menu. Instead of rattling off his favourites, he invited us into the kitchen to take a look for ourselves. Off we trotted to the kitchen, where he talked us through pots and vats of various dishes – stuffed aubergine, lamb with lemon sauce, meatballs, stuffed vine leaves etc, all made lovingly by his Mum. I found the whole experience incredibly exciting, mainly because I could pretend for a couple of minutes that I was hosting my own travel/food show.
As well as the Greek classics, the Peninsula has its own speciality dishes and produce. It is known for producing olives and olive oil, chestnuts, apples, figs, liquor and beautiful sausages. There is such an abundance of fruit and vegetables grown that you can buy them practically anywhere – the service station, the information centre, the pub, on the side of the road, or off the back of one of the trucks that drive through the village with a loudspeaker enticing people out of their homes to buy melons (like a very PC version of Mr Whippy). What can’t be sold fresh is made into jams, marmalades and candied fruits by the local woman who have formed collectives where they get together to make and sell these products.
The following day we took a walk from our accommodation around to the next bay and the beach of Damouchari. This beach is very famous within Greece, because it was selected as one of the locations for the movie Mama Mia (the terrible version with Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan trying to sing). The locals are still very proud that their wee village was given top honours by Hollywood and literally haul you in off the street to show you where the custom jetty was built, where Meryl Streep did the dance number for “Dancing Queen” and to give you the scoop on things like how nice Meryl Streep’s hairdresser was. Our quiet stroll through the village ramped up a bit when we decide to follow one of the old donkey tracks up the neighbouring hill. It was hard slog, especially in the heat, but we were rewarded with amazing views at the top.
Stop Three – Milina: The last stop on our Pelion adventure was the village of Milina in South Pelion. We were already pretty taken with the Pelion before we arrived, but Milina seriously up the ante. We loved the little village with the usual selection of tavernas, souvlaki stores, bars and knick knack stores, our accommodation with its own private beach looking right out over the Gulf and the dolphins that whizzed by just as we were settling in for an afternoon drink. It was so still in the evenings that we could sit on our terrace and listen to the live music being played at the bars in the village.
During our time in Milina we inherited quite possibly the saddest, mangiest cat on the planet. She didn’t seem to have a name, but loosely belonged to the motel and was getting up there at the ripe old age of 11 years. What started off as a saucer of milk, turned into sharing leftover sausages and, before we knew it, we were trawling the supermarket aisles trying to decide what brand of jelly meat an almost-dead cat would prefer. We may have only stayed 4 nights, but during that time unnamed mangy cat enjoyed roast chicken, Pelion sausages, Whiskas jellymeat, saucer after saucer of milk and probably more attention than she’s had in a very long time.
Days were spent sun-lounging, reading books (I’m averaging a book every two days) and swimming. In the evenings we’d cooked dinner in the apartment, feed unnamed mangy cat and then head down to the rocks to star-gaze and lounge about on the sun-baked rocks enjoying a few cold ones. Our conversations ranged from the mildly intellectual (Do people in the northern and southern hemispheres see the same stars? Answer: Not really – the sky that we see gradually changes as you move from the North Pole to the South Pole), to the idiotic (How bad would it smell if you got caught short and had to poop on one of these hots rocks? Answer: You wouldn’t hang around to find out). There weren’t many topics not covered in some way.
Our time in Greece, and Europe has now come to an end. It has been a fantastic 2.5 months and we have got very comfortable travelling around this part of the world. We have seen some amazing things, been to great places, met wonderful people and eaten like it’s an occupation. We’re sad to be leaving, but it’s time for the next adventure. This time tomorrow we’ll be winging our way to India. We have an arsenal of hand sanitiser, baby wipes and Diastop at the ready. Wish us luck!