Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Pelion (Part III: 300 Year Old Mansions & Saying Goodbye)

The sun was out and the weather was near perfect as we got back on the winding mountain road to get to Makrinitsa.We had another late start and had to abandon our search for the old steam train. But I asked a local before we left Tsagarada and he said that we could always catch it near Makrinitsa, so off we went. Fate would have it that we took a slightly different route, unknowingly of course, that led us to the very top of Chania to where the ski lifts were. But this was quite nice because the road was free and clear. It was also really beautiful to see the Spring sunlight reflecting off the embankments of snow piled high on the side of the road. Eventually the road led us back into the dense forest, then to a mountain road  where we followed a panoramic view of Volos below.  Our son, lucky again for us, slept most of the way.
On the way to Makrinitsa we caught many glimpses of Volos in the valley below.

I didn't know what to expect of Makrinitsa. I had heard that it was one of the most popular villages in Pelion, that it was close to Volos (14km?), and had read that the famous Greek Painter Theofilos had resided there and painted a mural that could still be seen on the wall of one of the local cafe's.

Before getting to Makrinitsa we made a quick stop in a village called  Portaria.We were hungry of course and my wife had heard about a very good restaurant in Portaria that we had to check out. I'm still wondering where she got all her information from. It was also funny that with all the eating we were doing our little vacation was turning out to be a food tour of the sorts (something my wife jokingly told me). But in all seriousness she was kind of right which was fine by me. Besides, one of the best introductions to a culture is at their table.

The name of this restaurant was Kritsa. Kritsa was set in the main square in Portaria and like all the other squares we visited in Pelion this one had a big tree in the center of it as well. Kritsa was not only a restaurant, but also had a few rooms above the restaurant that you could rent out. It was kind of like Aleka's but on a smaller scale. Since we had already planned to stay in Makrinitsa we never bothered to look at the rooms. I'm certain the rooms must have been nice since the restaurant itself was very, very clean and decorated quite nicely. Even though some clouds were rolling in we chose to sit outside under the large plane tree.

The service at Krista's was good and the atmosphere, as I've already alluded to, was very serine. Kritsa's must have been the locals choice as it was the only restaurant in the village that appeared to have the most locals/people eating at it, which is always a good sign in Greece when your thinking about eating somewhere. Looking over the menu I ordered the same old goat. For some strange reason I was hoping that no matter where you ordered goat in Pelion it would taste the same as the amazing goat I had in Zagora. Unfortunately for me it didn't make the cut. However, in defense of Kritsa's cooking it wasn't bad by any means, it just didn't match the superiority of the other villages that were higher in the mountains of Pelion. On a good note, the rocket salad was out of this world and big enough for three. We also had the tztzilava, which is always delicious, and a special dish only served in Pelion which consisted of seasoned wild greens and fried eggs (Χορτα με αβγα τιγανιτα).

Χορτα με αβγα τιγανιτα Wild Greens & Fried Eggs an interesting combination

Kritsa Hotel and Restaurant telephone number (country code for Greece is 0030)
After the meal we made our way to Makrinista, which is so close you could walk to it in about 30 minutes. At the main entrance to the village there is parking and so long as its not busy you'll probably find a space if you're driving. If your taking the public bus (KTEL) it stops a little ways away from the entrance (maybe a 5 minute walk). If your staying the night in one of the village mansions you can drive through the village and park at the end. I do NOT recommend this at all as the road is narrow, really its a pedestrian road, and at the end there are only 3-4 parking spaces available which are usually taken. Also, there are no lights or mirrors to indicate if someone is coming from the opposite direction, so if this were the case who would back up? Word of advice, don't expect the Greek to back up. It ain't gonna happen.
Not the exact road going into Makrinitsa, but a very good example of the narrowness (road/path on the other side of the village).
When first entering the village of Makrinitsa you'll probably be hit by the powerful aroma of fresh cut herbs from one of the shops at the entrance that sell these mountain herbs in decorative bags. The further you go the more shops you'll see. Shops offering souvenirs of all sorts; from preserves to Guns-N-Roses t-shirts to handmade toys Makrinitsa has little gift ideas for everyone.

The pedestrian road will lead you into the village square, and like all the squares in Pelion, you've guessed it, there's a big tree adorning its center. This plane tree was a bit different from the others we had seen before because it had a hollow center; still alive mind you, but hollow. Other than the huge hollow tree you will find a beautiful lions head fountain built around the early 1800's and the church/basilica Agios Ioannis, which I believe was built around the same time period.  Just opposite of the church, at the far end of the square, there's a spectacular view of Volos in the valley below. Its quite an amazing view.
The Hollow but Living Plane Tree

Ag. Ioannis Church and the Lion Head Fountain

Nice views of Volos from the other side of the square
For this part of the journey we didn't have anything booked as far as accommodations go. After our experience at Niki's Guesthouse we decided it would be best to go in blind. My wife decided she'd take up the burden of finding a room, which was better in my opinion because sometimes my needs don't exactly match my wife's. So she left me and our son in the square to play and explore while she went up and down the many steps of Makrinitsa. Because the whole village is built pretty much on the side of a mountain, hence the name Makrinitsa "Balcony of Mt. Pelion", one will be faced with many steps and rough cobbled stone inclines. This was so much so that I began to think of the tours we have done in the past for those with special needs, and how difficult, if not impossible, Makrinitsa would be for them to relax and explore.

My wife climbed countless stairs in search of a suitable room while my son and I relaxed under the plane tree's branches. To pass the time I ordered a Freddo Espresso. and for my son a chocolate milk (mostly milk), but when an hour had elapsed we both began to get a little restless. Out of the stroller my son went and we walked into the church to see what was inside. Inside the church there was an old mural of an angel holding St. John's head on a platter, a mural that looked like it was in need of some TLC. Out of respect, and as it is custom for Greeks, we left a lit candle and a little prayer behind us.
The Mural in Ag. Ioannis (note the deterioration at the bottom)

Above the pulpit. Check out those wood rafters.

Only priest are allowed behind the iconostasis

Leaving a prayer candle
 We also stopped by the central fountain to get a closer look at its engravings; a weird mix of lions, dragons/griffins, and what looked to be early Christian iconography. I speculated this fountain was Greek and not Turkish only because there were living creatures and people carved on it, something I believe is forbidden in the Qur'an. As we gazed upon the clear cool water coming from the brass lion heads I saw a few locals come by for a quick drink or to fill up their water bottles. I will say that the tap water in all of Pelion seemed very cold and refreshing, but I didn't have the courage to try the water from the public fountains. I'm sure it was good, but I just couldn't bring myself to it.
The Lions Head Fountain

After my son and I ran around the square a bit my wife finally showed up. Excited and exhausted she had come back with what she thought was the perfect place. The only problem, she said, was that there were a lot of steps to climb. What could I do about that? It was obvious that every place had steps that needed to be climbed. Unfortunately if you're staying in Makrinitsa you'll not only have to climb those steps, but will have to climb them with your luggage. In my case I had to climb those steps, outside the hotel and inside the hotel (we were staying on the top floor), with my luggage, my wife's luggage, our sons luggage and oh...lets not forget the stroller. It was quite the workout, but this was one of those "labors of love".

The hotel we stayed at wasn't really a hotel at all, but one of the few remaining mansions of Pelion that go back to the early 17 & 1800's. Most of these mansions are roughly about 300 years old with some of the most example ones being situated in Makrinitsa, Portaria, Vizitsa & Tsagarada. If you should decide to stay in one of these mansions I would highly recommend the Sicilian Mansion or Αρχοντικο Σισιλιανου as we did. Was it worth bringing all of our luggage up to the top floor? Absolutely YES! Was it worth 60 euros per-night 100% YES! Anna, the owner, was a wonderful hostess. She made sure we were very comfortable and prepared a breakfast with homemade goodies such as jams & preserves, cakes, breads and much, much more. The breakfast area of the mansion is a new addition to the mansion but wonderfully executed. The style and structure of the breakfast area is a perfect match to that classical Pelion architecture. Hands down it was the best breakfast we had in all of Pelion, and a perfect way to start the day. The mansion as a whole was tastefully decorated and finished off with some paintings Mrs. Anna's husband had done. Anna had placed us on the top floor because no one was there, which in turn gave the baby plenty of space to run around. Each level of the mansion had a sitting area/living room with chess tables, couches, chairs and little tables decorated with crystal flask filled with complementary brandy. One can tell when they first walk into the place that the owner has put their heart and soul into making the mansion an inviting place for visitors to stay. Another fine feature of our room was the view. When you opened the window you could see Volos, the sea & mountains in the distances, and then right below us was the church and the village square. You really couldn't ask for anything more than an elevator :)

Our Room

Our Room

 Its a bathroom with cool black and white tiles!

View from our room of the village square

Enlarged photo so you'll have the number. Country Code +30 and Mrs. Anna speaks perfect English.

Of course no village would be complete without us trying out one of the local taverns. Walking out of the square to the other side of the village there is a place called the Paradise Tavern A+B (ΠΑΡΑΔΟΣΙΑΚΗ ΤΑΒΕΡΝΑ Α+Β). There are actually many taverns that were called "Paradise Tavern" so I guess that's where the "A+B" comes into play? A shortage of names perhaps? Only a local would know. Anyway, the Paradise Tavern A+B served some really yummy food at very reasonable prices. I had the Veal in Red Sauce (Μοσχαρκι Κοκκινιστο) again and wasn't disappointed by any means. Sitting outside on the veranda of Paradise Tavern offers a very nice view while you're dinning.
Paradise Tavern A+B. 
 After taking strolls through the village and a nice walk to the neighboring village of Portaria we decided to inquire about the steam train. Mrs. Anna was kind enough to give us information about the train departures and returns, but sadly we were to early in our quest. The old steam train had just started running and was only operating on Saturdays and Sundays. Later on in the summer it runs everyday. I really hated the fact that we missed it as it looked like a very interesting thing to do while in Pelion. There were also ferries from nearby Volos going to the unique islands of  Skiathos, Skopelos and Alonissos, but time and money told us we'd have to save that for another day.

So it was that after a few more walks through the village and a couple of more delicious meals we had to bid farewell to Makrinitsa and the villages of Pelion. For sure we'd return, maybe in the summer for those lovely beaches, or in the winter for some skiing in Chania, or could it be that random weekend for a little hiking in those magical forest of the centaurs. As we were making the drive back home I thought about our stay in Pelion. One simple thing dawned on me and that was that Greece may be a small country but its a country filled with a lifetime of unique and beautiful discoveries.

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