Come for the nature, stay for the culture!
Pelion is a peninsula on the eastern side of the Greek mainland. There are 24 villages throughout the area and one big city, Volos, which is the sixth largest city in Greece.
Pelion is a place where culture has not yet died out. The simple way of life and Greek customs here happily lag behind the rest of a rapidly changing world.
We spent two months exploring this spectacular peninsula like kids in a candy shop. The beauty never got old. On our hikes and walks by the shore, we completely wore out the phrase “Wow, it’s so beautiful here!”
You’re sure, for at least for 16 reasons, to love it (and you may never want to leave!)
Blue Flag Beaches
Pelion is a mountainous peninsula, so after a good day’s hike through the hills, you can wind down at any number of spectacular beaches. You have a choice of gorgeous pebbled beaches, on the east coast, or stunning sandy beaches on the west coast. Both the Pagasetic Gulf (on the east) and the Aegean Sea (on the west) are renowned for their crystalline cleanliness. Throw in a pristinely kept coastline and you’ve got the ingredients for Blue Flag beaches.
(Above: Pics of the Pagasetic Gulf)
One of the Pelion’s Blue Flag beaches sits only a couple kilometers from the center of Volos city (the “big city” in Pelion, sixth biggest in Greece) and Volos harbor. The Volos harbor has been used as a port for hundreds of years, yet where you’ll still find hundreds of boats today, the water remains perfectly crystal clear.
P. S. The Pagasetic Gulf used to be a lake, before a volcanic eruption opened it up to the sea. The water here is quiet and calm, without waves. The lack of waves allows you to see right through the water. The Aegean Sea is much the opposite, as it acts like a true ocean with, small, but ample waves.
(Above: the Agean Sea beach)
(What’s a Blue Flag beach? A Blue Flag certification is awarded to beaches that meet high environmental and quality standards as decided by the Foundation for Environmental Education. It’s a pretty special award in Europe.)
Location and Convenient Transportation
Pelion offers all the beauty the islands do, without the long haul to get there. It’s quickly and easily accessible from the two largest airports. Volos, the city at the top of the peninsula and the main travel hub for Pelion, is only a four hour bus ride from the Athens airport and a two hour bus ride from Thessaloniki. (There’s also a Volos airport, but it doesn’t seem to be used much.)
Within Pelion, the KTEL bus company runs frequent routes between the 24 villages. The buses are big and nice, possibly bought in 2004 when the Olympic trials where hosted in Volos. It cost us 1.9 euros to go 19 kilometers from our town Kala Nera to the “big city” of Volos. And it cost us 3.3 euros to get to a town on the Agean side. The public buses will get you to towns right on the water on the east coast, but it doesn’t get very near the beaches on the Agean side. Getting to the sandy beaches is best done with a car. (There are lots of car rental companies in Volos. We used Thrifty for a week.) For everything else, you’ll be perfectly mobile with the KTEL buses.
Moreover! Significant sites like the monasteries at Metorea and Mount Olympus are close enough for day trips, and being on the mainland, won’t require any ferries! But if you do want to take a ferry, you can easily take a boat from Volos to the nearby islands of Skopelos and Skiathos!
Also, back in the day, a train was built to transport crops between towns in the center of the peninsula and Volos. It still runs today, but as a tourist attraction. It’s way more expensive than the bus, but it’s a beautiful and fun way to hop between some of the villages.
We came to Pelion directly after two years of travel in Asia. Experiencing Asia was fantastic in so many ways, but we were constantly challenged by the complete lack of cleanliness there. The spitting, throwing trash, absence of soap, and never-been-washed squat toilets… that wasn’t our cup of tea. Our appreciation then for the immaculate cleanliness of the Greeks couldn’t be any greater than when we visited the Pelion.
Clean floors! Clean bathrooms smelling of bleach, with soap by the sink! Even in the middle of fall, Pelion roads and yards were still perfectly free of sticks and leaves, thanks to meticulous sweeping. I looked into a little bakery with no action going on, just one man manning his station in case anyone went in. In Asia, you’d probably see the employee sitting, looking down at his phone, playing some game. But this Greek guy was washing the already clean display glass. That made me smile.
It’s such a huge relief when you know that the food you buy won’t make you sick. Also in contrast with Asia, you can drink the water straight from the tap here, which means that the water used to grow your fruits and vegetables won’t make you sick either. Thank you, Pelion!
While reading up on Greece before arriving, we found some blogs that said Greece was just as affordable as South East Asia. That’s a pretty big claim considering SE Asia is the most inexpensive area of the world.
(Here’s a cool crowdsourcing website that shows the typical costs of living around the world. Click here to see prices in Pelion. It mentions that the average monthly wage is $600, after taxes.)
After living here for two months (staying, almost entirely, in one place), here’s my conclusion. Greece is incredibly affordable, if you do it right. After the tragic economic crisis and catastrophic bail in, the Greeks are, very sadly, hurting financially. But since many richer Europeans from, say, the UK and Germany, come often to visit, the Greeks have begun, smartly, renting out their rooms, both in private homes and in hotels, for very competitive rates. This may not apply so much if you are bouncing around, only staying for one or two nights in each place, but if you stay even five nights in one place, you’d likely be able to work out a deal for your accommodation.
Because Pelion caters to a large inflow of tourists in the summer, then drains out to only expats and locals in the off-season, it’s the perfect place to look for an apartment before or after the busy season. The infrastructure to host you is in place, but it comes without a high price, since tourist-related demand plummets in fall and winter.
For example, the hotel room we were in goes for 100+ euros per night in the summer. We are renting it for 400 euros a month in October and November for the three of us. That works out to be the same $5/night, each, rent that we were paying in South East Asia. Food in Pelion is cheaper than in the US, but definitely not quite as cheap as SE Asia. However, the quality and range of options is immensely superior here. Also clothing in Greece is very expensive and not often high quality.
(We did find this cool mansion-turned-hostel in one of the villages.)
Since we have a kitchen to cook in, a rarity in SE Asia, I am actually spending the same amount daily as I was in SE Asia. Although, it’s important to note that I’m not traveling a ton and it’s off-season. From what we hear, Greece becomes very expensive and popular from June until August.
Walk down the many beautiful lanes through the villages and you’ll notice that just about every home has some kind of fruit trees and/or a garden. The produce you pick up from the grocery store will almost certainly be local, just picked, and in season.
It’s November and olive harvest season here now. Since the man at our grocery store in Kato Gatzea is so friendly and kind, we asked him which olive oil in his store was best. (All the labels were in Greek.~) He went in the back and brought out a liter bottle of extra virgin olive oil from his own trees and sold it to us. That was the best oil we’d ever had. 🙂
(Those poisonous-looking orange berries pictured above can actually be eaten and made into jam~!)
We also got the amazing opportunity to harvest olives with a local Greek family! They had 300 trees.
When the Turks invaded Greece in 1393, they destroyed just about everything in their path. But when the Turk leader saw Pelion, he was stunned by its beauty and claimed it for his mother. Unlike everywhere else they went, Pelion was not rampaged. The mountains slipping down to the sea with its quiet villages and farms were let be.
Pelion is known for its unique forests in the center of the peninsula, for its extensive olive groves covering the mountains, its ski resort, the crystal, clean water with lots of little islands and islets to explore, rivers and beautiful farms, orchards and home gardens.
(Group of four below: Pelion Ski Resort in autumn)
The Pagasetic Gulf on the eastern coast used to be a lake before a volcano eruption opened it to the sea. Springs bubble up from beneath and rivers feed into into it from the mountains. In some areas you can see the fresh spring water mixing with the salty sea water.
Most of the nature here has been left untouched or taken care of, and saved from greedy builders. As long as that doesn’t change, the Pelion won’t lose its charisma.
Mountain Hiking Trails
Mountain trails crisscross the entire region and could be explored for an eternity. In the 18th century, a network of stone paths, called kalderimis in Greek, were built connecting the towns. They were built for the donkeys they used to transport produce between the villages. Modern-day farmers wanted to tear the paths up, now that there are roads and vehicles, but a heroic bunch of locals saved them. Now there’s a committee called Friends of the Kalderimis that regularly maintains the many paths for hikers to enjoy today. Click here for a link to find out more about their work on the paths and how you can get involved if you so wish!
The routes are marked with a little yellow hiker sign and/or colored dots painted on rocks or trees to guide the way. We also used the phone app maps.me to look for paths.
All of the hiking levels are easy to moderate. You could follow them for days. Or if you only have a day and want to get somewhere far, do what we do: hike to another town, then take a bus back home. You will find the most spectacular views, and you don’t have to hike long to be well rewarded with some.
There are also paths following the shores of the Pagasetic Gulf. Check out the links on this page to see all the hiking trails in Pelion, where they go and their level of difficulty.
You can also find water to fill your bottles with along the way!
As there’s a bakery on every corner, you could call bakeries a cornerstone of Greek culture! Besides the actual loaves of hearty bread, you’ll find cakes, baklava, chocolate mousse, turkish delight, jellied fruit, sweet bread, and everything else under the Greek sun. And everything is made fresh each morning, just for you. 😉 (Beware though, Greek sweets are often very sweet!)
If you don’t want to get fat (good luck with that here…), you can get spinach and cheese pastries to pack before you head off on one of the many gorgeous hikes. These bakery chefs are masters in the art of thinly layered pastry. Prepare to be amazed. And completely addicted.
Greeks like to talk, drink coffee, and watch soccer, all at the same time, together in a taverna. A taverna is just a small Greek restaurant or cafe. These tavernas are often family businesses and rarely a chain. I actually haven’t seen a McDonald’s or any kind of fast food chain anywhere we’ve been in Greece! And you know what kind of music they play in these tavernas? Greek music! Wowza! I can’t tell you know nice it is to hear a country’s own music and not just J Beiber or T Swift!
It’s refreshing to see human beings getting together and just talking, without staring at their cell phones. That’s actually how we met the Greek couple who we befriended and harvested olives with. Both grew up and still live here, but simply went out to another village to have a meal together and talk. It’s something so normal, but seemingly so rare in today’s world.
So if you want to feel really Greek, grab yourself a coffee, and instead of rushing out on your way, sit and sip a while. No one will mind if you stay for hours; in fact, that’s the norm!
Twenty-four villages, one big city, and old train running through them, that’s the Pelion. Everyone seems to knows each other, and each village is quirky and quaint in its own way. Each one has a little grocery store, a bakery, a Greek orthodox church and a handful of tavernas. There’s not much, but it’s the simplicity that makes these villages so attractive. If any specific supplies are needed, the big city Volos is close by and has everything.
You won’t find a movie theater or signs of commercialism, just the basics and homes. There’s something wholesome in the simple life, in not being entertained every second. It allows for peaceful walks, a long talk over coffee, reading, or time and space alone in your own noggin to recharge the imagination, for a change.
There’s a lot of distraction today. These villages have been held back in time. Some ancient buildings have been beautifully restored, although there are many that still wait for TLC. The famous, old-time mansions have mostly been renovated into hotels or hostels. And, I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge fan of the grey slate, white wall, wooden shutter combination of the homes here.
There’s some excellent woodwork around, done by hand, as well. Check out this Last Supper scene expertly carved by a Pelion local!
When people think of Greece or Spain, they most often associate them with good ole warm Mediterranean weather and sunshine. Pelion gets crazy busy in the summer months for this reason. It becomes fairly hot in the summer, making it perfect for beach vacations.
Those in the know flock here from June to August. Prices skyrocket and the beaches are packed. But in September, you’ll start noticing hints of fall, although the weather stays mild and pleasant. Pelion is said to have some of the mildest weather in Greece. It’s well-loved for the faithful sun that remembers to shine each day, unless it’s the rainy month of November.
It stays warm most of the year, but the seasons do change. You’ll have crisp, cool days towards the end of the year and opportunity enough to wrap up in scarves, curled by a fire with a book. On these days you can look up into the mountains and see columns of blue smoke rising from each chimney. The mountains get snow in the winter; you can even go up to ski if you like. And some winters, snow falls by the coast as well.
Outdoor Activities Galore
From skiing, to snorkeling, to boating, to horse back riding, to camping, to trail running, to berry picking, you name it, if it’s an outdoor activity, chances are you can do it here.
If you fancy camping, I’d very highly recommend the Sikia campground. To get there, just take the bus from Volos towards Kala Nera and have the bus driver drop you off at Sikia. (Views from Sikia Campground below!)
Apart from the rare seals, dolphins, and fish to see, many pets and farm animals have Pelion for their home. While hiking through the mountains you’re bound to pass donkeys and chickens or turkeys, horses and a cow or two grazing nonchalantly in olive groves and fields, and if you’re lucky you might get to see a shepherd and his dog herding a flock of sheep. Our own way back from a long hike, we found a pen of goats and got to meet the farmer who sold the goat milk.
(I’ve only got about 5,000 more shots like the ones above. XD)
No matter where you go, it’s almost guaranteed that a cat will pop out to say hello and a dog will follow along as if you’re taking him for a walk. I don’t understand it, but the cats and dogs here are the sweetest that I’ve ever met. And there are so many of them! I love it! We rarely had a walk to the grocery store and back where we weren’t accompanied by cats, dogs, or both.
Some of the stray dogs that will wander around with you or sit in tavernas waiting for a bite may be big, but they are well-behaved and sweet. They used to be owned by expats, but were left on the streets when their owners moved. They are communally taken care of now and have all seen their local village vet.
There’s also a large penalty in Greece for hitting a dog, so you’ll notice that every car stops or drives carefully when a dog meanders in the road.
I noticed a single street light and realized that, outside of Volos, it was the only one in Pelion I had seen. A month later I finally saw a police man, and thought the same thing. Sometimes the air force practices flying their planes in this area, and you can certainly hear them, but they haven’t done it too often in our two months here.
Even from a distance, you can hear the lapping of the water on the shore, simply for the lack of other noises. People drive pretty slowly and cautiously on the “highway” through Pelion because of it’s millions of curves, and because of the not-very-smart dogs who like to randomly pop out onto the road, or nap on the edge of it. So even the road is quite quiet.
If you’re in search of peace, as long as you come here off-season (any month that isn’t June-August), this is the place to be. Don’t worry though, it’s not creepily quiet. You’re still likely to hear a chicken’s cluck, a horses’s whinny, a child’s laugh, or our favorite, a group of sheeps’ bells.
You’ve got all kinds of history in Pelion. There are quirky facts, myths, ruins, and lasting traditions. The oldest houses sit safely on mountains because, back in the day, no one lived near the water for danger of pirates and marauders. Pelion owns the cool bragging right of opening Greece’s first girl’s school. You can also still find women’s cooperatives selling homemade soaps, crafts, and jams.
There are ruins from the 7th century BC and was the famous settlement of Iolcos, hometown of Jason, that Greek hero from the myth Jason and the Argonauts. (If you don’t know the story, or it’s been a while since you’ve read it, here’s a hilarious summary of the epic journey, courtesy of shmoop.)
Remember Mr. Tumnus from C. S. Lewis’s Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe? The Tumnus character was a centaur, a mythical creature with the head, arms, and chest of a man, but the body and legs of a horse. Those supposedly dwelled in the mountains of Pelion.
The infamous Greek gods also were said to travel from their home on Mt. Olympus to vacation here in the summers, too. I guess that’s saying something in favor of the place.
In good community spirit, the Pelion still throws a handsome number of fun festivals throughout the year. Click here for a list of festivals, their dates and which village will be hosting it!
Going along with the amazing abundance of produce that’s grown here, there seems to be a celebration to accompany each harvest. You can gorge on fresh pears in August, then apples in September, for example. These festivals are so old-timey and friendly. And as the wise Greeks know, what would a festival be without some traditional food and music?
We got to check out the chestnut festival in Xourichti.
There were booths set up with all local produce and products, friendly people, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire! It was all of our first time trying a chestnut. I had no idea they tasted kinda like a potato. So good!
Every place is different, so it’s hard to compare, but this is definitely one of my favorite areas so far in our travels. I must say, Pelion has got it all. The only thing missing is you! 😉