Two weeks in Volos – a trip in the hills on a little train, a drive to Meteora, industrial history, tsipouro and views from Makrinitsa.
We ended up staying 16 days on the breakwater wall in Volos, much longer than originally intended. Some days were taken up with rainy weather, a few more whilst we both suffered from a sleep-inducing lurgy but mostly we stayed so long because we really liked the city.
We started off tending to Emerald’s needs. The broken bow roller needed repairing before we could anchor again so we walked around to the fishing harbour to see if we could find any workshops. No workshops, but what we did find was Theofilus Marine Services where the owner translated before a fisherman whisked Colin away on his moped to take a look at the problem. In the meantime I was entertained by another fisherman and was given beer and potatoes in a yummy casserole sauce! I think I got the better part of that deal! On his return the fisherman declared they could solve our problem and would call on us tomorrow. Then that same evening we heard a ‘kalispera’ and the chug chug of an engine off Emerald’s side. There was the fisherman with the new part; he hopped on and fitted it and it worked. We hadn’t expected the problem to be resolved so quickly!
Day two was diesel day – filling the 8 empty cans that we carry on deck at the Shell petrol station one road back from the quay. The cheapest diesel in Volos at €1.159 a litre. Rather than using the dinghy to ferry them the 500m between quay and Emerald, Colin decided to use the barrel trolley with three 20l cans strapped on. All good if only it was flat all the way…. A humpbacked bridge stood in our way which joined the end of the breakwater to the land, providing a gap for small boats to pass under. And quite a steep hump it was with the slippiest surface known to man – marble stone worn smooth by the passage of hundreds of thousands of feet. With a small amount of peril three journeys were successfully completed, gripping onto the handrail on the down slope and hoping our feet didn’t slide out from under us. Then the very next morning, the local council came and stuck down new grippy strips. Oh the timing!
Emerald now cared for we could head off to explore. The area behind the quay is set out in a grid with one way streets for traffic. It’s a bustling, vibrant area full of cafes (a lot of coffee gets drunk in Volos), shops and fast food restaurants. A few streets back is a pedestrian area with plenty of big name chain stores to keep any shop-a-holics happy – there was even a Marks&Spencer. We were amazed how busy it was, even outside the university city’s term time. The afternoons are quieter with most shops observing siesta, then in the evenings it comes alive again, as people head out for a promenade or to meet in one of the many bars.
We’d read in the Greek Cruising Guide there there was a potential problem with being on the breakwater with unruly behaviour and drug use. We didn’t experience any. The breakwater was mostly deserted during the day except for a handful of fishermen or strollers. Around 6pm it became busier with families and groups walking up and down or sitting on the wall chatting. We were parked about 400m out, most groups gathered down the landward end. However hard we inhaled as we passed the groups we couldn’t detect any illicit substances. One evening we had a group sat on the wall next to us playing some music. After a while I stuck my head out – one of the guys came over and asked if we’d like them to move. I guess they didn’t realise anyone was onboard. They were just a group of friends out having a chat, they didn’t even have any beers with them!
Things to do in Volos
Volos is a port city but it has plenty of charm. It ancient times it was known as Iolkos and believed to be the place in mythology where Jason set off with his Argonauts on his quest for the Golden Fleece. A replica of the Argo sits along the main quay along with a smaller sculpture in bronze. There are lots of sculptures and statues adorning the many parks and green spaces, flowers decorate the quayside and there is some interesting street art.
Fishermen sell their wares from the back of their boats along the fishing harbour quay with a fishmarket also close by. On Saturday morning an organic veg market visits opposite the fishmarket.
The main quay seems to be taken up with locals’ permanent moorings with laid lines and electric and water pods. The inner basin also looks like it is monopolised with signs saying “private moorings”. It’s a shame the city hasn’t provided any visitor places other than along the breakwater. It was mostly ok out on the breakwater but there isn’t any power or water and in a northerly blow (more on that later) it’s not the best place to be.
The Little Train of Pelion
The train had been recommended by friends to ride up and walk the 15.5km back down the tracks. The number 5 bus took us to the start of the journey in the town of Ano Lechonia for departure at 10am. We thought we’d arrived with plenty of time spare but almost didn’t get to go as we were told it was full. We managed to get the last two seats due to some no shows and a few people in the queue behind chose to stand. So if you’re visiting in summer I’d recommend booking, either by phone (see website) or at the train office in Volos, a couple of roads back from the breakwater.
Relieved to be on we chugged off at a sedate 20km/h up into the slopes of Mt. Pelion, swathed in the greenery of olive, plane and pine trees the views getting better the higher we climbed. In Greek mythology the lush hillsides were the home of Centaurs – half man, half horse – known for their wild and barbarous nature, so we’d better keep our eyes peeled in case we were attacked! An emergency stop for sheep on the line and some impressive bridges added to the adventure. After 45 minutes we stopped at the halfway station for 15 minutes where there was a cafe and olive museum then back aboard for the final assent to Milies and the most impressive bridge of the trip – a rare example of a straight bridge with a curved track.
A few minutes later we alighted at Milies where people power was put into action. The engine detached and chugged under it’s own power into the turning circle. The driver then called for strong members of the watching passengers to come up, who gathered around the front of the engine, gave a good heave and with encouragement from the audience, spun it 180 degrees. Off it chugged (the engine now full of children) to attach itself back to the carriages, now facing the correct direction for it’s return journey.
We walked up a steep cobbled path (are ambulances on permanent standby in wet weather in these places?) to the village square, where a huge plane tree spread its leafy arms to provide a shady spot to lunch. Tempting though it was, we went for a cheese pie instead. An old church sits alongside with beautiful woodwork and frescoes inside.
Time to head off to walk back down the track. There were handrails across the bridges and warning signs in Greek – perhaps it translates to “don’t stray off the path?” In places the pebbles laid to protect the track were annoying to walk on, but there were also long stretches of hard-packed earth alongside the track which was easier on our feet.
We had it in our head that we must get back to the bottom station before the train so had a deadline of 4:30pm…. We marched on keeping a 30 minute buffer between us and train and arrived at the bottom with the buffer intact. Then 15 minutes later the train pulled in! It was early but of course there had been plenty of places to wait well off the side of the track all the way down so we could have had a much more leisurely stroll!
The train used to be steam and it’s known locally as the “Moutzouris” – the thing that turns things black. It has now been converted to diesel so no more black and no more hot coal dust setting the dry grass alight. The line to Milies was completed in 1903 and originally ran all the way from Volos where the tracks still remain.
The six monasteries of Meteora sit upon lofty pillars of rock, inland near the village of Kalabaka, 145km from Volos. Trains and busses make the journey but they don’t give much time at the site if all you want to do is a day trip. So we hired a car (summer extortionate rate of €60) and set off on a cloudy morning for the two hour drive through the agricultural flat lands ringed by distant craggy mountains.
When we arrived we were taken aback by spectacular scenery, the rocks rising straight up from a flat as a pancake flood plain. The clouds broke, the rain stayed away and the temperature was a manageable 30c. There are 6 monasteries, each one charging €3 per person to go inside. We decided to visit a nunnery and a monastery to give us a good mix, starting off with St. Stephen’s nunnery. This is the easiest for access and it was probably a mistake to visit this one as it was rammed with tour groups who jostled and pushed their way past us to get the best spot for their tour guide’s speech. Maybe it was that, maybe it’s because we’ve seen so many beautiful churches during our time in Greece or maybe it was the way the nun seemed so delighted to take my money; it was rather underwhelming. The best part was the vividly imaginative, painted frescoes in the church depicting many gruesome ways to die at the hands of other people.
From St. Stephen’s we walked on down to Holy Trinity, the monastery used in James Bond’s “For Your Eyes Only” (which we’d watched for research purposes). It stands aloft an isolated tower of rock with access via a winding staircase carved into the side. We climbed up to the entrance for the views and experience but didn’t go inside; we also noticed a less strenuous way to travel – a monk cable car which we guess is for bringing supplies across (and probably monks).
Along the road there are stopping places and amazing views. We continued around to Varlaam, the second largest, accessed across a bridge and another staircase cut into the rock. and which was a much more enjoyed experience than St. Stephens. The staircase was only made in 1921; before that supplies and monks were hauled up and down in a basket on the end of a rope. The legend goes that the rope was only replaced when God’s will let them break!
The museum had some interesting displays on a monk’s life, the self sufficiency they needed living on an isolated rock and on the monastery’s history. In one room there was a 12,000l wine barrel, but unfortunately it was empty.
The church had grand frescoes and red and yellow coloured glass in the upper windows created a beautiful effect, but it was rammed with tour groups who as one left, another arrived. Outside was a patio with a fantastic view and despite the people it was possibly to find a quiet spot to take in the surroundings and try to imagine the solitude of life here. The monks’ quarters butted up right to the edge of the rock – it was slightly alarming to see scaffolding in place along some of it. Lets hope none of them sleepwalk as it’s a long way down. Later on we spotted an alarming rock fall and huge cavern underneath Varlaam’s rock pillar – yikes!
The monasteries don’t open every day and Tuesday was the turn of the Great Meteoron, next door to Varlaam, and the largest, to be closed. We drove up anyway for a look at the outside and the views which was worth it. Heading back the way we’d come, we took the fork in the road down to the village of Kastraki, passing a couple more monasteries along the way. From down below we got the chance to look up at the buildings towering way up above us.
We’d ummed and aah’ed about whether to visit Meteora, thinking it might be too similar to Cappadocia. Yes they both have pillars of weathered rock, formed into strange shapes, but each location has it’s own special beauty. Meteora’s rocks are grander in scale and their rise from the flat river valley leads to some dramatic scenes. The history and architecture of the buildings was interesting, the only negative was the large groups. Overall we were glad we’d visited.
Brick and Tile Museum
The Brick and Tile Museum has given new life and purpose to a former factory. It’s a tasteful restoration showing how the clay was extracted from the earth, passed along conveyors where it was jiggled around and filtered to remove impurities before going into the moulds and being baked in the kilns. Colin was very jealous of the tools in the workshop.
The museum is next to the old town, where the remains of the fortress of Volos can be seen.
The mountain of Pelion rises majestically behind Volos with villages clung to it’s steep sides. A bus winds it’s way around hairpin bends up to the village of Makrinitsa several times a day for the bargain price of €1.80. The Queen Victoria cruise ship had arrived into Volos that morning so we were a little wary of it being full of crowds but they must have gone elsewhere. The houses were very different from what we’ve seen in the rest of Greece, stone clad, with grey stone roofs and the upper level overhanging the lower ones. They had a kind of Germanic, Alpine look to them. The hillside was so steep that each house had spectacular views without the house in front blocking it. The leafy square had a pool for watering donkeys, two huge plane trees and an old church and all around water trickled down channels and out of fountains.
The views were amazing and the village rightly deserves it’s nickname of the “balcony of Mt. Pelion”.
Having failed to spot any centaurs during our train track walk, we tried again along the Centaurs Way, a gentle stroll up through a deciduous woodland, alongside a burbling stream. The trail starts along the road between Makrinitsa and Portaria. Despite the name, the centaurs were all hiding but it was a lovely bimble; it felt like being in an English woodland on a (rare) warm, summer’s day. Some of the bridges were rather rickety though – maybe this is a ploy by the centaurs to catch some prey?
Food and Drink – Have a Tsipouro or Two
When in Volos, one should tsipouro! Tsipouro is a locally made spirit distilled from grapes, similar to grappa and ouzo. The tsipouro tradition is that you buy a small bottle and with it comes a selection of meze plates, typically seafood. On one of our strolls we’d passed a tsipouradiko (Ta Filarakia) away from the seafront that was full of locals so headed back another day for an afternoon session. The anise version was preferable over the non-anise which was what I would imagine petrol to taste like. But the meze food was lovely – octopus, prawns, smoked fish, calamari, anchovies and baked vegetables.
And why stop at one – another night we headed to MeZen where this time we were presented with a 50cl bottle of tsipouro. Oh dear….. With that we got 6 dishes and huge basket of toasted bread. Another great selection of seafood and vegetables; however if I had to choose a favourite it would be Ta Filarakia simply because we got calamari!
There are many options for food and drink and so many bakeries with delicious looking cakes on display. We became slightly addicted to the Farine cafe whose freshly baked bread and changing selection of cakes helped us put on a few pounds.
For fantastic coffee we liked PicoPoco with it’s eclectic artwork on the walls.
Volos also has it’s own craft beer brewery who make an Argo Golden Ale and an intriguingly named brew called a Molatov IPA. We searched out a bar called “Valentin Curious Bierkneipe” which sold both brews and is located in the old town, behind the railway station. They had a big selection of real ales and German beers, unfortunately the prices were a little eye-watering, but with a Molatov packing 7% alcohol, only a couple was needed to send us home slightly merrier than when we’d arrived.
The Sting in the Tale
The weather forecasts had a 60% chance of thunderstorms for the night we got back from Meteora. We kept a close watch on the lightning strikes page on the DHMZ website and saw a few cells forming north of Volos. The wind moved round into the west which was blowing along the breakwater onto Emerald’s stern. Darkness fell and still the storms kept north.
Then with a loud bang and several flashes a cell formed to the west. We’d already checked the fenders were at the right level for the current state of tide (we had been getting a 50cm tide change) and we stuck a few electrical items into the oven. but there wasn’t much else to do but hope it passed us by.
Suddenly a violent gust hit Emerald side on, leaning her over. The wind had gone north as the sky went crazy with rain lashing down and regular lightning illuminated the scene with it’s acid white brightness. There was a sharp snap as the guardrail broke and the two fenders tied to it dropped down Emerald’s hull. We grabbed jackets and dashed outside. She was now lying directly against the rough edge of the concrete. We tried to pull the fenders back up but despite our best efforts there was nothing we could do to push a 17 tonne boat off the wall with 40 to 50 kts of wind blowing her on. We moved fenders from other spots as close as we could to the impact zone but mostly we had to helplessly watch Emerald crunch against the side in the driving rain with waves crashing over our feet.. The noise was awful.
After what seemed like hours (but was really only about 10 minutes) the wind eased a touch, enough for us to finally pop the fenders and our fender board back up, tie them onto anywhere we could and stop the damage from getting worse. Another 30 minutes and the storm had passed allowing us to survey the damage – deep scratches in the hull under the toe rail and a few scuffs lower down but the toe rail was still intact and the scrapes weren’t too deep. The broken guardrail doesn’t matter as we also had a stainless steel bar across the same space from when we used to fasten the solar panels on there. Yes, we know we should have had the fenders tied there in the first place – lesson learned! We can put it down to cosmetic damage and a few more battle scars for Emerald to wear. We really hate thunder storms!
Before We Got to Volos – Ormos Ptelou
We left Skiathos on a hot, still morning, with barely a ripple on the water. We motored off towards the mainland and within a couple of hours the wind had filled in from astern giving us a cracking downwind sail all the way to Ormos Ptelou where the waves surfed us in. Around a headland and into Pigadi and the seas eased. Expecting to see no other boats, we were surprised to find 3 charter boats anchored! We dropped in 6m in the head of the bay, off of a concrete breakwater that had a yacht bouncing up and down on it. Holding wasn’t great and it took two attempts before we were happy.
The bay was a great place for Perseid spotting, not much light ashore and the hills hid the rising moon for long enough for us to count 10. Unfortunately that’s all that was great; the mossies were out too and got plenty of bites in whilst we laid on deck. When we went to bed, a bar ashore started up. As that quietened down at 4am the anchor alarm sounded! My fault as I’d set the alarm area too small for the amount of chain out. We then finally got a few hours sleep.
The day wasn’t much better with strong gusty winds which set in from the east rather than north as we expected. Our guess is that the wind gets bent around the hills and funnelled down the Trikeri Channel. Oh hum. At least the bar was quieter that night.
Monday was a much better day. Light winds meant we could get ashore and begin our quest to walk to the tower on the hill. But we failed. We followed a road which on Google maps looked like it went to the tower. It started off as concrete, turned into a dirt track and then fizzled out in an olive grove. We scrambled our way down to the road below and vowed to try again tomorrow.
Whilst we’d been out we came across the next bay east, Ormo Loutro, with 4 yachts anchored before a lovely looking sandy beach. A beach bar ashore but it was a weekday and we reckoned unlikely to be going much beyond darkness. So we motored around and as we dropped in 17m Colin noticed a problem with the anchor roller – it was only being held on one side. We managed to McGyver a solution, but it was only temporary and we needed to get it fixed pronto, especially before we did much more anchoring.
So onto the evening. We waited patiently for the beach bar music to end. 10pm, still going. Midnight yep, still playing boom boom rubbish. We learnt that the next day was Assention Day and a National Holiday so a day off work. Earplugs were called into action and we got some sleep.
The second attempt on the tower was a success. Walking along the main road from Pigadi we found a signpost pointing upwards and we completed out quest. Not a lot left other than the tower and some overgrown walls, but the views were stunning. The rolling hills looked like they’d been covered in a big, green fleecy blanket.
Our quest complete, the next day we headed straight to Volos, deciding against anchoring anywhere else before we got the anchor roller repaired.
Car hire – we visited a couple of local hirers who wanted €72 per day, so after a search online we plumped for Sixt at €60. The journey took two hours out and 10 minutes longer on the return. The difference is that we took the local road on the return trip to avoid the €3.90 toll. Roads were quiet.
12th August: Skiathos to Pigadi, 21nm (12nm sailed)
Anchored in 6m in position 39 02.171’N 22 58.789’E Holding is patchy – we held on our second go but other boats were having trouble getting set. Wind blows from the east during the afternoons, some swell works it’s way in. Small min market ashore, bars and tavernas.
14th August: Pigado to Ormo Loutro, 2nm travelled
Anchored in 15m in position 39 01.928’N 22 57.785’E Deep (>15m) until very close in. Good holding in sand/mud. More sheltered and less swell than in Pigadi. Taverna and beach bar ashore.
16th August: Loutro to Volos, 22nm travelled
Tied up alongside harbour breakwater in position 39 21.282’N 22 56.854’E No water or power on the wall. Iron rings set into the face of a concrete lip to tie to. In the afternoon the wind blows mostly from the south. If there are strong north winds forecast we wouldn’t recommend staying on the wall.