Saturday, 21 April 2012

Pelion (Part I: Finding Tsagarada)

We're high up in the densely forested mountains of Pelion. It took a lot of winding mountain roads to get here but we made it. Currently it's 7:00 am and a strange fog is rolling in. Because we've been in Athens for so long without a real chance to escape into the countryside seeing fog is a somewhat strange and mystical sight, especially up here.  For reasons unknown I woke up early and decided now would be a good time to do some Blogging. Besides, it looked like my wife and son wanted to do some sleeping in. OK, to be honest there are other reasons for getting up so early, but Blogging was one of them.

Since a few days have already elapsed I guess I should start at the beginning. I'm guessing this is OK to do when Blogging, as I'm thinking this is something between Twitting and writing a column for a newspaper? Remember I'm the new guy so if I haven't got it right I'm sure someone will let me know eventually. Anyway, after the mad morning rush to get on the road and on our way we finally made it out the door around noon. It was a late start but what else could we do? The baby had to be feed, which is something like preforming a surgery, and we had to fill up the car with gas. Filling up wouldn't have been so bad if gas wasn't 1,91 a liter! You heard me correctly my American friends, 1.91 Euros a liter. So it was that finally when baby and car were full we were off.

With the baby sleeping and the roads being open we were quite lucky on this part of the journey. Looking back, there were only a few intermissions of crying and heavy rain, something that turned a four and a half hour trip into nearly six hours. I think one of the biggest delays we ran into was asking a guy on a motorcycle in Volos how to get to Tsagarada (our final destination). While giving us directions I think the guy could see we were having a hard time taking them all in so he told us we could follow him on his bike and he would get us in the right direction. Once he got us going in what he said was the "right direction" I asked him how far Tsagarada was before we parted. His response was, "20 minutes." We gave him so much praise till we found out there was a much shorter way. The way the motorcycle guy told us to go was the one hour way, where as there is a coastal road that's about half that time, so we were told. Regardless, I believe his way was the most scenic which led us to snowy mountain peaks littered with emptied ski resorts (Chania) and down into dense jungle-like forest.
Through Chania

Through Chania

Down the mountain from Chania

Down the mountain from Chania

Down the mountain from Chania

One of the many waterfalls/rivers you'll see on the way to Tsagarada if you take the motorcycle guys route

Putting the extra time aside I have to say that the ride was quite amazing. We went through some of the lushest forest I've ever seen in Greece. As we chugged along passed waterfalls, rivers, and moss covered boulders breaking through the dark forest I thought about the myths of the centaurs. According to Greek Mythology the Centaurs use to live in these woods, and after passing through them I could truly see why and how these legends came into being.

Up another mountain or two, through some beautiful little villages and we finally made it to Tsagarada. Now was the time to get everything out of the car, settle into our room, get something to eat and get ready for the midnight Easter service at the local church. It looked as though we were well on our way to a little relaxation. I was sure this was going to be the case as my wife had spoke to the owner of the Guesthouse Niki and explained to him that we would need a spacious, clean room for 3-4 days, maybe more. Of course she went into details about us having a baby unto which the owner promised us one of the best rooms in the house and assured my wife, the nervous mother, that the room would have plenty of space for our son.

Upon meeting the hotelier he quickly took us to our room and disappeared; he seemed very busy with something and didn't really have time to properly greet us, as is the custom for most Greeks. When we opened the door we were a little shocked to see a small, dark, dusty room filled with spiders and ants and decorated with old dingy mohair rugs, which were sun-faded red, something that didn't really help. This was definitely not what he had promised us. Not by a long shot. In defense of the bugs, I'd like to let it be known that my wife and I are OK with critters being in the room, and because of our close proximity to the forest I think we could totally understand it if we saw a few ants and a spider or two, but this was more like an infestation rather than a friendly visit. I think the worst thing about Guesthouse Niki, besides the owners deception and those red rugs, was when we asked the owner where our son would sleep unto which his response was, "The couch." In regards to booking rooms, even after you've carefully read the reviews and spoken with the hotel staff or owner, I suppose the lesson learned is that you never know what you're getting till you actually get there. Despite all the frustration we decided to make the best of it for the night and then head out the next day in hopes to find something, and somebody, more accommodating.

After we unpacked a few necessities we decided to get a little bite to eat before the midnight service. We found ourselves at a tavern in the square of Tsagarada, Agia Paraskevi, which is named after the church that's there. The tavern was the only one in the square so there weren't lots of choices. When we got in and sat down the waiter came over and gave us a menu. We looked over the menu and ordered, but everything we ordered the waiter said he didn't have. We finally decided on a Greek salad and some mushroom pasta all of which was very poor in quality. I was tired and hungry, and my heart sank when those less than appetizing dishes were put out in front of us. It seemed like Pelion wasn't turning out to be as great of a place as I had imagined it to be. But we had to be positive, it was Easter after all, the biggest holiday of the year in Greece and probably the only "vacation" I would get for many months to come.

When we finished our not so traditional meal we walked down into the square to kill some time before the service started. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a massive Plane Tree next to the church.

I don't think I've ever seen such a grander tree in all my life. Later on I did some research on this tree and read that its believed to be about 1000 years old and is one of the oldest trees in Europe. I should probably end that sentence in a Herodotus-like style with, "at least that's what they say."   But after seeing it, and not knowing much about trees, I would totally agree with what they say!

As midnight was drawing near people gathered in the square for the church service. Soon the priest came out lighting the candles of fellow worshipers with the Holy Flame, and when the finally liturgy was read fireworks were shot into the air in a spectacular announcement that Christ had risen. "Christ is risen," someone said to me. "It is true," I responded.

The crowds dispersed and went their separate ways to attend their midnight feasts. After these midnight Easter services it is customary to eat a meal of meat soup (Mageiritsa) to prepare those that have been fasting to eat heavier foods on Easter Sunday, foods like roasted lamb. The soup is quite good if no one tells you what its ingredients are: a unknown mix of liver, kidneys, heart, tongue even the feet of the slaughtered animal in question. As delicious as it sounds we were too tired and only felt like going to bed. So back to Guesthouse Niki we went in hopes we'd at least get a decent nights sleep.

In the morning my wife packed as I went down stairs to the reception desk to check out. As I tried to explain the situation to the owner he merely shrugged and walked away from me when I was in mid-sentence. At that moment, to tell you the truth, I honestly expected more. Being part of the Yo! Tours Team I've run into a lot of hotels and hoteliers while we were on inspection that didn't make the cut. For the most part it's because the owners didn't have the heart. It all boils down to the simple fact that if you want a successful business you have to put your heart and soul into it. In short, you have to care. The owner of Guesthouse Niki obviously didn't have what it takes to run a successful hotel, which is really too bad because the place had so much potential.

It was around noon when we finished packing our things. It was also Easter Sunday and we were starving. We made a decision to eat first then try and find a new place to stay, which we were certain would be difficult on Easter day. Where were we going to have our royal Easter feast? Luckily my wife had read a review that a woman by the name of Aleka was famous for her cooking and who also happened to own a restaurant and a hotel. Aleka's is easy to find as it is on the main road across from the post office in Tsagarada. When we got to Aleka's we were the first to arrive which was perfect because the place was soon packed full of hungry fasters waiting to taste the delights of Aleka's famous cooking! We ordered salad with feta cheese, potatoes and goat. That's right, goat. Originally I thought my wife had ordered lamb but found out the next day that it was actually goat. I'm not sure if it was because I hadn't eaten meat in past 40 days or what, but that was some of the best goat I've ever had. Actually, I think that was the first goat I have ever had.  Although the price was a bit steep (55 Euros for 2 people), and the portions were a bit small, I would say that Aleka's is the best restaurant in the center of Tsagarada. If you go, dare to try something different and order the goat.

Our bellies were full and we were a bit tired from the meal. Unfortunately we still had the labor of finding a new place to stay. Upon inquiring about rooms one of Mrs. Aleka's daughters showed us a room at Aleka's hotel, a hotel conveniently placed above the restaurant. The rooms were tastefully decorated and the price was very good (50 Euros per-night), but still it was too small for the baby's needs. We thankfully declined and headed down the road to a place called Iris.

Iris Apartments was a slice of paradise compared to Guesthouse Niki. The rooms were very spacious, tastefully decorated, had a nice balcony with a wonderful view of the mountains and sea and were very clean (and cleaned every morning). So we took 3 nights with pleasure when they said they had availability. The staff of Iris Apartments were also very kind and hospitable which was a plus plus. The breakfast (5 euros per-person) was a very good deal as it had unlimited food options (even chocolate crepes) and unlimited coffee options! Whatever you asked for it would show up on your table at no additional cost! 5 euros for breakfast remained 5 euros for breakfast all you could eat! With a nice place to call home for a little while and in a more relaxed frame of mind we could properly start planning our days and enjoying our time.

One thing that always came up whenever I did research about Pelion was the tree, which we saw, an old stone bridge and a steam train which one could take from one village to another. After a good nights sleep and a hearty breakfast we set out to find the old stone bridge that could be seen on postcards and books throughout Pelion. When we went looking for this bridge it became hard for me to believe how difficult this major-village-icon was to find. We asked numerous people where the bridge was located but no one seemed to know for sure and only seemed to give us a general idea of where the bridge was. After stopping and asking for directions a few more times along the way we finally spotted a sign on the side of the road just before leaving Tsagarada that pointed the direction to the old stone bridge.

  If you can't read Greek I imagine this bridge would be impossible to find as the only sign pointing the way was a small one written in Greek (see above photo).

Parking on the shoulder of the road we went walking down a narrow stone path that led us to the old stone bridge. This bridge was something out of a fairy tale. It looked like one of those bridges you see in the movies, the ones haunted by a troll or something, it was totally medieval! Although it was quite beautiful during the day I think it would have been creepy to visit at night. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Interesting thing about these stone bridges is that supposedly they were the only ways you could get from one village to another in the mountains of Pelion. Then I began to think about it, "Shouldn't there be more of these bridges?" Later I asked around, but nobody seemed to know where any other bridges such as this one were. I can only assume that most likely they were either consumed by the foliage of the jungle-like forest and hidden, or they were destroyed long ago; their materiel used to build walls, houses or roads. I guess we'll never know.

There was still a lot of day light left and the baby was looking rested enough to take another little trek. Stopping at a local grocer we asked him what was the best beach in Pelion to which he answered, "Agios Ioannis". We had seen pictures of the various beaches in Pelion and most of them looked nearly virgin. We had to see at least one before we had to leave. Inquiring about the distance from where we were the grocer said, "20 minutes." We had experienced this before. It seemed like no matter where we were in Pelion, or no matter where we wanted to go, the locals would always tell us, "About 20 minutes." I guess its kind of like what they say in the States, "a country mile." So, if  you're ever in Pelion and a local tells you, "20 minutes" you should probably expect 30 minutes to an hour and a half. Good thing is you'll get wherever you want to go eventually. Agios Ioannis only took us about 40 minutes to get to from Tsagarada.

  As soon as you hit the road that runs along the beach of Agios Ioannis you'll most likely not be too impressed by the abandoned hotels, sparsely stocked mini-markets, and sad looking cafe's posing as "snack bars". But if you look toward the sea and go all the way to the other side you can park your car and walk down a long causeway to get to the beach. It's there that you'll see a beautiful beach and the clear waters of the Aegean Sea. Even though some storm clouds were rolling in it didn't stop us from laying on the beach and letting our son run around and play on the soft, tiny, white pebble beach. The pebbles were so small that it was very close to being something like sand in regards to its comfort. Across from the beach there were some nice looking studios that would probably be an absolute dream to rent out for a one week summer getaway. Because of its location and the way the current market is I would bet one could get a pretty good deal on one of those studios. I only hope I'll have enough time to come back one day and find out for myself.

Now that the morning fog is turning into a storm I suppose its a good time to conclude this part of the Blogg. Looking quickly over at what I've written it would appear I've got a lot of editing to do, but I'll have to save that lengthy process for another day. Since it looks like its going to be a wet and nasty day I guess we'll spend it trying to entertain our son. Ten plus hours of acting like a clown isn't the easiest thing to do, but we do it out of love. I see a lot of funny faces & silly talk on the horizon.

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