Take it step by step
From Page 5
For those with island-hopping on their minds, neighbouring Skopelos is only an hour away by ferry. Red-roofed white cottages clinging to pine-covered hills create a bold impression as the boat draws near. Formerly a low-key destination popular with Greeks, MammaMia! made Skopelos a star. The 105-step climb to Agios Ionnas (scene of the film’s wedding) and romantic beaches now draw international crowds.
No one leaves these islands willingly but Magnesia has more to reveal. Three hours from Skiathos by hydrofoil is the mainland port of Volos, a historic city edged by cafes and marinas, lying deep inside the Pagasitikos Gulf. It is a fitting place to commence fresh odysseys. Near here Jason launched the Argo, according to legend, and a so-called replica has been constructed recently based on ancient ship-building methods. The timber came from Mt Pelion. Rising to the east of Volos, it surmounts an arm of land that divides the gulf from the Aegean, and commands views of both.
It is a two-hour, twisting-and-turning bus trip to reach Mt Pelion but a better plan is to take the 19th-century train. The journey begins at Lechonia near Volos, pauses at a couple of stations and ends at the plane tree-shaded village of Milies. This is an enchanting trip into centaur country. Old Smokey rattles over steep passes, into tunnels and through silvery olive groves where stone farmhouses and grazing animals cling to hillsides facing the distant sea.
Sadly, no mythical creatures are sighted, although Chiron, a centaur wise in matters of health, continues to exert his influence.
At Portaria, one of the most popular of the region’s cool-climate villages, visitors patronise stalls selling freshly picked medicinal herbs. What power must reside in polytrihi (for the hair, stops it from falling out) and balm-mint (controls high blood pressure). Tourists who are young, smug and hirsute airily buy liqueurs instead.
Skiers flock to Mt Pelion in winter but walking is a year-round pleasure. The area is crisscrossed by 2500km of kalderini , paved donkey trails that rise and fall through fertile terrain.
Glowing pomegranates bend boughs, apples as crisp as the climate fill roadside baskets at farm gates, olives pepper the ground and every footfall is a negotiation with spiky chestnut burrs. At Xourihti, the rustic and mesmeric combine at a chestnut festival held on a plateau overlooking the sea. Local farmers have gathered to sell all kinds of produce and snacks, such as chocolate chestnuts and syrupy fruits in tiny cups. No wonder the 12 gods of Olympus summered up here.
On this Aegean side of Mt Pelion is the coastal village of Damouchari, so stunning it was a stand-in for some of the Mamma Mia! island scenes. Apparently it is possible to trek down to this car-free haven along trails that begin near here in Mouressi. I plan to make it part of my next odyssey. In Greece, one step inevitably leads to another. Leonie Coombes was a guest of the Greek National Tourism Office.
Further travel information on Greece is available from the Greek National Tourism Office in Sydney. Phone (02) 9241 1663; www.gnto.gr.