A French father and his son, three Austrians, a young couple from the Netherlands and two Greeks. No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke, it’s a list of the participants in the activities I’m set to undertake here on Mount Pilio. All of us, despite our nationality or our age, feel our hearts racing as we look down at the great waterfall. Some of us have to overcome a fear of heights, others worry about the first shocking touch of freezing water, and others still are concerned they might fall. We’re about to rappel halfway down a vertical cliff 26 meters high before sliding down smooth rocks into the thundering waters. Our experienced trainer stands in the center of our group, encouraging us and imparting some final directions. Everything is being recorded on a small, waterproof camera – a memento of an adventure that requires bravery and determination.
Canyoning, which is traversing canyons using a variety of techniques, is available as an activity in various places in the eastern Pilio region. Visitors from all over the world come to Tsagarada, Mouresi, Kissos, Milies or Portaria not just for the beautiful natural environment, the good food and the restored mansions they’ll see there, but for the outdoor adventures on offer as well. Is this need for adrenaline-fueled escapism born out of living through a year and a half of pandemic protocols and lockdowns? Only time will tell, but more and more people are seeking out greater contact with nature and the rush of excitement that various types of outdoor activities afford them. Rappelling, trekking, canyoning and many more terms have been added to our vacation lexicon, and Mount Pilio is one of the areas in Greece where you can try them all, and much more.
Elves and fairies
One of the villages in Greece most in harmony with its natural environment is one that doesn’t really look like a village at all. The community of Tsagarada extends across approximately seven kilometers and has no singular main square. Instead, the verdant forest filled with plane and chestnut trees is interrupted by four settlements that together make up the village. Each hamlet has a square of its own, and each encircles one of four churches: Aghios Stefanos, Aghia Kyriaki, Aghia Paraskevi and Aghious Taxiarhes. Previously, these small communities were linked by forest paths alone. Today, these paths are still used, but there’s also a labyrinthine asphalt road whose twists and turns perplex many visitors.
In the shadow of the eastern slopes of Mount Pilio and under the coolness of the plane trees, Tsagarada maintains inviting weather conditions throughout most of the year. In the summer, the temperature ranges between 20◦ and 25◦ Celsius during the day. As you climb the slopes, the olive groves closer to the sea give way to chestnut and plane trees, while even higher up, above the village houses, beech trees begin to appear.
Every square in Tsagarada has its own, gigantic, plane tree, the most famous of which is in Aghia Paraskevi; its wide lower branches extend several meters straight out from the trunk. At approximately 1000 to 1200 years old, it is often claimed to be the oldest plane tree alive. Its roots extend far under the square, which was built around the tree many years ago. In Tsagarada, chestnut trees probably outnumber plane trees – almost all inhabitants own stands of chestnut trees, which means much of the forest here is private land. The value of these local chestnuts as an agricultural product has recently increased as Italian companies have begun purchasing Pilio chestnuts, and several locals have intensified their production. The forest in Tsagarada is a source of income, either through tourism or chestnut production, but it’s also a natural resource. Wood from the chestnut tree is used as firewood; every autumn, permits are granted so locals can harvest and sell chestnut logs for wood-burning stoves and fireplaces around the country.
A great way to explore the chestnut forests around here is on horseback. The horses have been trained to move slowly and carefully up and down steep hills, making this one of the best ways to discover the area above Tsagarada. From your seat in the saddle, you’ll see thick ferns blanketing the ground around the trees as your mount carries you steadily along.
Canyoning in Kissos, rappelling in Milies
For canyoning, we drive to Kissos, and then continue on foot along a dirt road. This isn’t the only canyon in the area suitable for canyoning, but it’s ideal for rookies such as ourselves. We learn all the necessary techniques of rappelling – descending rock faces with the aid of ropes – and then we’re off. Sliding down rocks, dipping in and out of the cold water, rappelling down the canyon sides and wading across the stream make this experience both exciting and enjoyable. The body suit, the helmet, the harness and that experienced guides from Canyoning Mountain Escapes make you feel safe, despite the pounding of your heart before each new challenge along the way.
That particular blend of fear and joy is also what you feel as you step off the De Chirico Bridge, located just outside the village of Milies. This bridge is part of the railway track connecting Ano Lehonia and Milies. Designed and constructed by the father of the famed artist Giorgio De Chirico, the bridge hovers over Agion Taxiarchon Creek at a height of 42 meters.
Based in Volos, the True Adventure company organizes several activities; rappelling from the De Chirico Bridge and then river trekking (traveling along shallow rivers and creeks without using watercraft) along the creek below is a unique experience. The company guides also explain the ins and outs of rappelling: the way the rope works, how to make sure you descend at the appropriate speed, and how to work the two security brakes when necessary. Yet none of this is really what you think of as you make the decision to take the plunge. With the verdant river far below, you take a deep breath, step off and find yourself hanging in a void. As soon as the rope tightens, you regain control and begin enjoying the view as you slowly descend.
Hopping from rock to rock in the creek, which is what river trekking involves here, is certainly exciting. The main goal is to find the easiest and safest path to follow, whether that includes clambering over large rocks, swimming across a deep pool or wading through a section where the creek widens and becomes shallower.
Electric bicycles in Portaria, hiking on the mountain
We take a journey to Portaria for a ride on electric mountain bikes from Bike Or Hike, a company that rents out both pedal-powered and electric bicycles and offers guided bike tours on routes throughout almost all of Pilio. Within the first few kilometers you cover on an electric bicycle, you’ll realize that the main goal isn’t really exercise, it’s exploration, and that the motor that is helping you through the uphill climbs will also make long-distance rides a lot easier.
The Pilio area is also ideal for hiking aficionados; it has a good network of trails, many of which are based on old routes the locals used before today’s roads were built. From almost every village, you will find paths in varying levels of difficulty and duration. Following careful studies, the Long Pilio Trail is in the process of being created – this 168-kilometer hiking trail will traverse all of Pilio. Starting at Kamari in the north, it will terminate at the southern end of the peninsula, in Aghia Kyriaki in Trikeri.
As we return to Tsagarada after our bike trip, we see horses emerging from a dirt path just off the main road, and a jeep belonging to a canyoning company coming from Kissos. Soon the canyoning courses will begin, as Mount Pilio is also where people take hands-on classes to become professional guides and trainers. The summer may be ending, many visitors may be departing, but the magical forests of Mount Pilio are always available for those in search of excitement.
Tsagarada is 374 kilometers north of Athens, via the Athens-Thessaloniki National Highway. Take the Volos exit and then follow the signs to Portaria and Hania. Estimated cost of round-trip travel is €130 for fuel and tolls. From Thessaloniki, Tsagarada is approximately 255 kilometers south, and the estimated cost of round-trip travel is approximately €90.
Kalderimi Country House (Mouresi, Tel. (+30) 24260.494.53, kalderimihotel.gr). In a quiet spot on the edge of the village and boasting wonderful views of the Aegean, this guesthouse features seven elegant rooms with all modern comforts: COCO-MAT sleeping systems, a custom-made bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room. The large guest house can easily sleep a family of four, and features an attic, a fireplace, and chestnut flooring. Breakfast includes artisanal bread, savory pies, eggs cooked to order and local products. From €80 with breakfast.
12 Months Luxury Resort (Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 24260.488.94, 12hotel.gr). Nestled on a verdant slope just above Tsagarada, this hotel offers double rooms and suites, spa, restaurant and outdoor activities. From €94, with breakfast.
Amanita (Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 24260.497.07, amanita.gr). You’ll feel right at home with the warm hospitality of Filaretos Psimenos and his family, who will be happy to direct you to the most beautiful spots on Mount Pilio. Rooms are immaculate, and the breakfast consists of homemade delicacies. From €65, with breakfast.
The Lotus Tree Activity Lodge (Portaria, Tel. (+30) 24260.999.22, thelotustree.gr). At this restored mansion dating from 1884, you can enjoy both your stay there and a number of activities organized by the guesthouse. From €56, with breakfast.
Rastoni (1.5 km outside Milies, Tel. (+30) 24260.862.86, rastonipelion.gr). Nestled in the forest between Milies and Vizitsa, this guesthouse, where pets are welcome, is ideal for relaxation. Traditional breakfast is served. From €55, with breakfast.
Itamos (Agii Taxiarches, Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 24260.495.83). Traditional dishes, including boubari or lamb souvlaki, are prepared with expertise, while the menu also features more experimental selections, such as fyllo-wrapped feta with tomato marmalade, and courgette carpaccio with parmesan and red pepper paste. The linguine with wild mushrooms and jamȯn is simply a must-have.
Ta Pente Fi (Makis) (Kissos, Tel. (+30) 24260.312.66). Perfectly grilled juicy lamb chops, mutton cooked in a wood-burning oven and served on parchment paper, and airy sourdough bread are all specialties here. The chicken kontosouvli, cooked on a skewer, is also exceptional.
Hamenos Monokeros (Aghia Paraskevi, Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 24260.499.30). Visitors taking in the verdant foliage, the tall plane trees, the flowers and the treehouse might half expect to see a unicorn (the restaurant’s name means “Lost Unicorn” in English) here. This heavenly setting is the stage for some exceptional dishes, such as the duck confit with caramelized onion sauce; beef chuck mock tender with mushroom gravy; and lasagna with wild greens and feta cheese.
Paradisos (Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 24260.492.09). Located on the main road and with a large patio area, this is a classic taverna offering homemade savory pies, grilled meats and other dishes such as goat stew and oven-baked lamb.
The Platia (Mouresi, Tel. (+30) 24260.494.15). As you admire the wonderful sea views under the shade of the trees, indulge in local meats and fresh salads. The boubari and local sausage are delicious.
Me Mostra (Portaria, Tel. (+30) 694.447.7683). Just off the main road, on a small pedestrianized street, this eatery is reminiscent of the tsipouradika of Volos, with fine seafood dishes such as monkfish tails, grilled mackerel, shrimp saganaki and grilled calamari.
Coffee – Drinks
Agnadi (Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 24260.496.66). This establishment on the square is a meeting spot for friends to enjoy a coffee, breakfast, or beverages during the day and wine and other drinks in the evening.
Αpalou (Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 24260.497.27). Its small balcony stands in contrast to its wide range of menu items, from hearty salads, fluffy pizzas and juicy burgers to cocktails and homemade desserts.
Po-Pizza Coffee Bar (Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 24260.491.58). You can enjoy coffee, breakfast, snacks and exceptional pizza under the plane trees in the square at Aghios Stefanos.
Canyoning Mountain Escapes (Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 693.241.8001, mountainescapes.gr). Approximately 3-4 hours in duration, from €50 to €120, depending on the route.
True Adventure (Volos, Tel. (+30) 697.293.4764, trueadventure.gr). Approximately 2 hours in duration, from €35 – €80 for rappelling and river trekking, depending on the number of participants.
Bike Or Hike (Portaria, Tel. (+30) 698.209.9620, bikeorhike.gr). Bike rentals from €18 a day, bike tours from €25.
Horseback Riding Tours (Tsagarada, Tel. (+30) 693.751.1551). One hour duration, from €25 per person.
Every weekend, the steam-powered Pelion train completes the 1-hour, 35-minute route from Ano Lehonia to Milies, running alongside verdant slopes and crossing the De Chirico Bridge. Departure is at 10:00 every Saturday and Sunday morning, returning around 15:00. Tickets cost €10 (one way); book your tickets at tickets.trainose.gr
Most activities are available all year round, weather permitting.