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Magic of Greece's Pelion Peninsula

March 09, 1986|PHYLLIS WHITE | White is a Venice, Calif., free-lance writer.

MAKRINITSA, Greece — Everyone in Europe, including the tourists, complains about the tourists, hordes of them, arriving by plane, train and bus and swarming all over the landscape. Dreadful.

But now something is being done about this profitable problem. Greece is inviting those same tourists to visit in the winter and swarm all they want. The country is gearing up for round-the-year visitors, and if you have ever bucked the mobs on the Acropolis in July, you will appreciate the calm delights of uncrowded winter.

Along with the celebrated monuments, ruins of former glories and mythological magic to be absorbed, there are fine inns and hotels to relax in after a hard day's sightseeing. But why settle for such commonplace, though comfortable lodgings when you can have a mansion? And nearby, such stylish, though rather un-Greek, activities as skiing, to boot?

Largely Ignored

All this is possible on the Pelion Peninsula near the busy seaport of Volos, built on the site of Iolkos whence Jason and his adventuring Argonauts set sail in search of the Golden Fleece.

The Pelion (Pilio, Peleon, depending on which map you read and whether you speak Greek) has been largely ignored by American tourists, who tend to flock to Athens and the south. European travelers, however, have been coming to this ruggedly charming area for years and it is a big favorite with Greek tourists who claim this as the veritable heart of Greece.

Pelion is steeped in mythology and magic. Almost a mile high, it is the mountain of the centaurs and somewhere near the summit, it is said, is the cave of Cheiron, whose advice Jason sought about taking over the throne of Iolkos. Cheiron was called the wise centaur, as opposed to his half-man, half-horse kin who weren't so much into philosophy as they were into wine and wenching.

On one of its foothills, overlooking the Gulf of Pagassitikos, Argonaut Peleus and sea nymph Thetis were married, but an uninvited goddess got jealous and tossed a golden apple into the crowd. The apple was addressed "to the fairest," so naturally the invited goddesses got competitive and Paris of Troy judged that the treasure was meant for Aphrodite. Thus Athena and Hera got a bit miffed and fixed Troy's wagon from then on.

Luxurious Homes

Despite these negative vibes, or perhaps because of them, more than 20 villages have spread up the steep slopes of Pelion over the ages, and in many of them wealthy folk built luxurious homes to get into the cool, hassle-free air, away from the hustling seaport of Volos.

About 10 winding miles up the mountain, one of the most beautiful villages has been dubbed a Traditional Settlement by the Greek government. Other villages have 18th- and 19th-Century homes converted to guest houses, but Makrinitsa has three of the best. Delightful mansions they were and the government, together with private enterprise, has restored them to their former grandeur, adding modern fixtures.

For the dedicated Grecophile, to whom everything is gorgeous, Makrinitsa takes the baklava. It is at the end of an offshoot of the road from Volos, which means you have to do a little luggage portage, but nothing major. It is set on the steep slope, held together by donkey-and-a-half-wide cobblestone paths.

The action, as in all Greek villages, is in the central square shaded by huge old plane trees and lined by the small Byzantine church of Agios Ioannis, a fountain that doesn't always work and a large taverna, the Pantheon, called "the balcony" by natives. The whole square is tiled and sits at the edge of a sheer drop.

As one arrives at the square there is a sign pointing to the mansions. One, just where you stand, is Koulourizos (also known as Xyradakis in the tourist brochures), the next at the center of the village is Sissilianou, and farther, away from the square, is Mousli. Each has a tremendous view down the mountain across the plain to Volos and the blue Gulf of Pagassitikos.

Colorful Entrance

The villas were named by their original owners. Mousli, for instance, is a Turkish name, but because the place was built after the Greeks won independence from Turkey (and thus disliked them intensely), no one can say why. Never mind, it is a place to enjoy.

The entrance to Mousli is through a grape-arbored patio, lined with colorful four- and five-gallon olive oil and feta cheese tins containing beautifully cultivated flowers of the season. In the summer, the flowers are huge rhododendrons and single and double chrysanthemums.

The villa is of stone, brightly painted and tiled, three stories high. The first level is staff quarters and kitchen, the top two floors for guests. Each floor has a big central living room with comfortable chairs and tables, large cushions on the floor around some low tables for coffee and conversation.

Off this area are three guest bedrooms of good size, with private baths and ample windows with wooden shutters for unparalleled views.

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