Rites of Green Magic in Pilio
Visit the welcoming foothills of Tsagarada, in eastern Pilio, to marvel at the traditional architecture, take long walks in the woods and swim in the Aegean.
I pick up the classic edition of Alice in Wonderland, take a step back, run and land on the page with the bewitched forest. Or so it seems. With that childlike sense of invincibility that makes you believe you can actually jump into the pages of a fairytale, I round the last few bends in the road and arrive at theÂ heart of Tsagarada. As I park and unfold the map at the side of the road, under the thick forest of beech, plane and horse chestnut trees, I canÂ hear the creeksÂ carrying the water from the tall peaks. There is no point in wasting any more time on the paved road: Tsagarada is aÂ multifaceted, sparsely populated village with distinct neighborhoods and the most charming houses, well-maintained cobblestone trails, with mushrooms and wildflowers alongside orchards with crunchy red apples, delicious pears and a wealth of garden vegetables â€“ all a good distance from where my car can reach.
Under the gigantic plane tree (the circumference of the trunk is 14 meters) and with theÂ Church of Aghia Paraskevi, built in 1719, in the background, I have my first cup of coffee for the day as I gather strength for a hike. Following the lane next to the historic Lost Unicorn Hotel, I find myself gazing at theÂ Nanopouleios School, designated by UNESCO as a work of art. A representative example of neoclassical architecture built in the early 20th century, it now houses the elementary school. An equally impressive Pilio-style stone building is theÂ Achillopouleios School. Originally a secondary school for students who didnâ€™t aim to attend university, and later a commercial school, it is now open to the public. TheÂ digital folk art museumÂ it houses features miniature copies of traditional tools used in the region, and a photo exhibit (Tel. (+30) 24260.492.38).
I continue uphill through the other neighborhoods of Tsagarada â€“Â Aghios StefanosÂ andÂ Aghia KyriakiÂ â€“ and finally arrive atÂ Taxiarches. According to tradition, local merchants who had emigrated to Egypt returned and built their mansions on large estates which evolved into these modern-day neighborhoods. Most of the mansions now stand in ruins, choked by ivy and gradually becoming lost in theÂ lush greenÂ embrace of the Mt Pilio landscape. Beyond, life continues at its regular pace in houses which are a little more conventional and modern, with tidy courtyards and well-tended flower pots of hydrangeas and camellias.Â WaterÂ flows everywhere, quenching the thirst of the earth and visitors.
EveryÂ local squareÂ is a good stopping point, but it is worth staying a bit longer at Taxiarches, which marks the end of the route. TheÂ Church of the ArchangelsÂ became famous when it was discovered that its excellent acoustics were due to the 48 upturned earthen jars on the roof and five communicating underground wells. The wall paintings are another reason to visit this lovely church.
ButÂ Pilioâ€™s magicÂ is more than just its densely wooded mountain slopes; from the heart of the forest, you can reach the beach for a swim in no time at all. The elaborate path to the seaside atÂ DamouhariÂ begins at Aghia Paraskevi Square. I set off downhill between the houses; I pass through the stone-paved lanes, cross over the main road, and walk past the familiar chapel ofÂ Aghios Efstathios. Just behind the bell tower of the Aghia Kyriaki Church, I disappear into theÂ shady gorgeÂ and continue to the kiosk at Agnanti. Time for a rest.
From here on, I have the sea breeze andÂ infinite viewÂ of the Aegean to keep me company. A steep downhill with an incredible view of the sea leads to the most intricateÂ stone-paved pathÂ at a spot calledÂ Kagiolia, and a few minutes later, I am swimming in theÂ cool watersÂ of charming Damouhari. So many years later, and the memories of the filming of Mamma Mia! still linger. Itâ€™s not easy to forget that the relatively obscure village of Damouhari won out over so many islands and beaches competing to be the setting of the film.