Take it step by step

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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.

Check­list

Fur­ther travel in­for­ma­tion on Greece is avail­able from the Greek Na­tional Tourism Of­fice in Syd­ney. Phone (02) 9241 1663; www.gnto.gr.

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