Last week we left you up a hill, we’d parked between Makrinitsa and Portaria. Both beautiful tourist trap villages around 700m above the city of Volos. Beautiful yes, but we were stressed.
We’d had too many “manoeuvring ArchieVan in a space where a Smart car would be cramped” moments.
In compensation. We’d had the best dinner that we’ve eaten in Greece at the fabulous Krista Hotel. All the meat is farmed by the family, and most of the veg too. We saw the farm up the hill next day.
On Saturday morning I woke enthusiastic about the photos I’d planned to take of the incredible view from up here.
However on Saturday morning the cloud level started way below us, then went up, up, up.
We wandered up the road to see Makrinitsa.
The village has one of those ridiculous titles like Birmingham’s “Venice of the north” (has anyone asked why nowhere is called the Birmingham of Italy?). It’s called the “Balcony of Volos”.
This time it’s utterly deserved.
The village is scraped, like oil over canvas, up a stupidly steep hill. A hill that drops near vertically to the city hundreds of metres below.
Folk have harvested herbs here for centuries, and still make a living from packaging what many see as weeds. There’s a good smell on the air.
In the main square the plane tree is several hundreds of years old and has sheltered more generations than anyone can remember. It’s still a monster from one side, but a mere shell from the other. It’s hollow now, but important still.
The paths mounting the hill are impossibly steep. Further up many of the houses are dilapidated, and the interest increases.
But the view?
The view is obscured.
This Saturday morning we’re in the clouds. Seeing more than twenty metres only happens now and then.
It matters not. And perhaps it helps us concentrate on the village we’re in, rather than the city and sea below.
Over the top.
I remember when even the expression “over the top” was used with caution, its wartime significance still raw.
Today over the top meant crossing the pass at Chania, at about 1075m. Deep snow was piled either side of the road, its crystals sparkling in the low winter sun.
The west side of the peninsula was a good 10 degrees cooler, and the gradient severe.
Slipping in the van is terrifying. It only happened once in our 15km descent, but it sent my pulse racing.
Oops. Have to stop for a moment’s digression.
Grayson Perry has a show on 6Music tonight and he’s playing Koyaanisqatsi, the soundtrack to an influential Philip Glass film that my much loved friend Peter Holden introduced me to. Thank you Peter. Thank you Grayson. Genius that many won’t appreciate, but worth exploring if you have a curious mind.
Anyway. Where were we?
Slipping down the frightening 1:8 hill towards Agios Ioannis.
Eventually the snow disappeared and the temperature rose.
For a minute or two we could relax.
Then we plunged back into cloud. Visibility was down to seeing the side of the road. The drop that you knew must be there was even more frightening.
Our 20 mile drive took 90 minutes.
But it was worth it.
In the morning we chased Meryl Streep across Damouchari Beach, where some scenes of Mamma Mai were filmed. As we wound around the crazy little roads I wondered at the stress of the guys driving the generator lorries that all film crews rely on.
Over the hill.
The Pelion is a small peninsula, but it packs a spectacular visual punch.
The east is serious.
Facing the Aegean the east coast is all gorge, ravine and challenging mountain road. It’s often marked as two lanes, but only an Austin 7 could pass its counterpart on these small roads.
We arrived after our slowest ever day’s drive in Afissos on the west side in time to witness a great sunset over the layered hills of the mainland.
28 miles. Two hours. At an average of 14 mpg (usual c.32 mpg). We didn’t reach top gear for the day. It was hard, occasionally nerve shredding, but utterly brilliant.
Winter reigns here. The dominance of olive trees means that you rarely see winter colours in Greece, but here the slopes are such that even slave labour couldn’t make planting the hills productive all those centuries ago. Planes, maples and other broad leaves are showing off their yellow and orange best.
Keep it local. Olive day.
Our last three miles are down a stupidly steep hill.
The whole way is lined with pick-ups as the Greek world has turned out to harvest.
Here the south west facing slopes are olive planted. And today is a great day to reap the year’s plump crops.
Whole families gather the sharp tasting fruit from nets, or just pick them from the ground. Sacks or crates are loaded onto the trucks, and ferried a couple of miles down the hill to the processing plant. At the factory you can buy oil from olives that hung on trees only a few of hours before. The air is pungent here.
Another day in Pelion Paradise.
The sun shone and we delayed our onward drive.
A swim before breakfast, a beach shower (bloody cold). We read, wandered, and felt the joy for the whole day and our view gradually unveiled in the clarity of evening. Marvellous. It’s memories of days like these that get you through the hard stuff.
There aren’t many cities in Greece.
Volos is the first we’ve visited on this trip (Thessaloniki was more of a drive by than a visit). With 131,000 people it’s small, but feels huge to us.
It’s a port and brings all of the interest of dodgy characters and minted characters and services for them all.
In summer it’s probably a great place. Much of the front is lined with 1960s flats that wouldn’t look amiss on the French Med. Millions were ploughed in during the late ‘90s creating a park and sculpture garden that must have been beautiful at the time. Now it’s the place where hard drinkers, drug takers, and petty law breakers hang out. Such is the strain on resources in a country where tax evasion is a national sport.
Despite the rain we weren’t on a downer. The Christmas lights were on and they’re a LED spectacular carpeting the sky of the shopping streets where people while away their evenings drinking coffees under outside heaters.
Greeks love to be outside to eat and drink, even in winter. But they don’t like to be cold. Electric heaters, gas heaters and occasionally fire pits pour out the heat. Shops are all super heated, but leave doors open to welcome you while the meters spin off their hubs. Never mind global warming by greenhouse gases, these guys are cutting out the middle-man.
The regional drink is tsiporo, the evil clear spirit made from the distilled pomace (waste) of grapes used in wine making. It has been my downfall, but I do like a nip now and then. In supermarkets you can fill your water bottle with 50 per cent alcohol for just €7 a litre.
Here they serve it tapas style, with a meze of small plates that’s truly generous.
The cafés and bars that offer such are called tsiporadika.
We ordered an evening tipple and were brought smoked herrings with beans, salmon, sardines and cheese spring rolls (really). That was simply to accompany two glasses of Satan’s Spit. It would have easily been enough for dinner, but we’d already ordered a few other dishes.
In a café our coffee was no more expensive than you’d expect in a city, but came with samosa sized spanakopita, Christmas cake and sweet pretzel.
To the ferry.
The plan was to take the ferry to Evia on Thursday, but a shaft of sunlight hitting the port drew us there early. The last boat was on its way, and with hardly a thought ArchieVan was on board.
With heavy clouds all around, low winter sun made the channel between Glifa and Agio Kampos a beautiful journey.
£20. 20 minutes. And we’re on our island home.
Ethiopian goats introduce my favourite drug.
Melvin Bragg will later discuss the history of coffee. Starting from an Ethiopian goatherd noticing his beasts getting frisky after eating particular berries, through to the massive industry (and rip off) that it has become today.
Finland may be the biggest drinker of coffee in the world, but I reckon the Greeks consume the most caffeine. The Fins drink a sloppy weak stain that even they refer to as dishwater. Here coffee is strong, spoon standing stuff. The original Greek coffee leaves a deep sludge in the bottom of your cup. Your latte or cappuccino will almost always be better than anything from Starbucks. Even an old guy on his knackered tractor is likely to carry a plastic cup of frappe as he goes about his day.
We need a bath. Now.
Minty has worked out when she last had a shower.
It wasn’t recent.
My halo remains intact, I shower at the beach, but for some reason my wife favours hot water if she’s to stand beneath it.
Epidsou was just the place.
We headed there to check out where we’ll meet Rick off the ferry next week, then gone to check out the sights.
In typical Greek style this place is a potential gold mine that’s left to rot, though not at all elegantly.
Wander along the sea front, past the one smart hotel, the Thermae Sylla, and suddenly you’re confronted by steaming rocks, a stream running as if straight from a kettle.
We needed no encouragement.
We stripped off and headed for the source of the heat.
In the Martian landscape we languished in rock pools at a comfortable bath temperature. Even Minty swam, safe in the knowledge that she could warm up in a natural hot tub.
Churchill, the Onasiss family, Maria Callas and a long stream of others took the waters here even before The Cornish Wanderers made the site famous. Yet it’s so downtrodden we could easily believe we were the first.
We splashed around for ages before anyone showed interest. Then I dried my fingers to take a picture of the Israeli couple who joined us.
Long dead hotels where the stained marble stretches into the distance gave a hint of the town’s once glorious past.
But what of now?
The rich are health mad. Right now.
Soon they’ll be spending their millions on protecting themselves from climatic disasters. The time to reap is now. Come on Greece – this place has such potential.
The perfect beach.
10 miles from Epidsou. Every mile along immaculate still waters.
There’s a gap between the olives. It’s a track to a beach. But it’s steep. So very steep.
I walk it. Nervously.
I look at the weather forecast, see that there’s no rain expected.
And decide to go for it.
So here we are. And this is possibly the most perfect spot that we have camped at to date.
Across the sound there are snow covered mountains. As the light falls, villages in the hills make themselves known. Little fishing boats ply the waters. Further out the ferries carry folk to the mainland.
There are times in life when all aligns for the good. If we miss them we miss the very essence of life. Tonight we caught such a moment.
The perfect beach, in perfect company.
The moment will pass, in fact I’d not be writing had it not already passed.
But we caught it. We’ll remember it.
We even had an Abba party.
And I said these words “30 years ago I’d never have believed that I would ever utter the words that Abba were brilliant beyond most people’s understanding”.
But there it is. In print.
My rock gods have ever been Bowie and Nick Cave, but Abba rule in pop.
And on the music front. Right now I’m listening to Michael Nyman’s soundtrack to The Piano. It’s the first time I’ve heard it in years. And. Just like all those times before. It has reduced me to tears.
I don’t actually know what Club Med is, but I suspect it’s one of the many things I missed during my younger years of intense angst, dark clothes and meaningful reading.
However there’s a Club Med resort around the corner from our Perfect Beach (upper case intentional) and it looks wonderful. Wonderful in winter without a soul. Fill it with excited Instagram wannabees and I may be less positive, but for now it looks like a great place to unwind.
We’re on Evia for six weeks. Maybe more. One day in and I’m excited to explore its offering.