I CAN still smell the mulchy earth, hear the water coursing through the land as it cascades down tiny streams from the mountains, see the lush trees, flowers, plants growing independently, freely, yes, one could even say boisterously. A cobblestone pathway leads from the square of Aghia Paraskevi to what is now a derelict hotel, once known as the Xenia, one of the government’s respectable and well maintained accommodations that began to degrade through the 80s nationwide until it shut down completely in the 90s. The pathway threads past old stone houses with tiled roofs, and I recall as a child the smells of rotting figs and goat excrement, the thorny wild berries my sister and I would pick and stick into our mouths without hesitation, the colourful explosions of fuchsia and crimson and bouganvellia that spread across entire walls.
As children, we would visit Tsangarada every single summer for two weeks, staying at the Xenia, swimming at the stunning Milopotamos beach, with its massive rock natural gateway separating the beach into two, and caves at its end, and dining in Aghia Paraskevi square most nights. The evening would start with games with other kids in the square, although as a solitary child very much consoled by her own fantasy life I often chose to climb atop the giant, four hundred year old plain tree and watch other children scream and kick balls around and laugh. Our parents would sit sipping Campari and soda, or beer or Greek coffee and as the evening grew dark we would join them for a walk up to the taverna, in a steep walk along a row of basil plants. After dinner, my mother would drive the short distance back with their friends along the regular road, and my father, my sister and I would walk back to our hotel along the cobblestone path, holding a torch and singing, often the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. My father would flash his torch at the goat poo, which were life large black pellets, and joke that our walk was strewn with chocolates, and finding this hysterically funny, my sister and I would laugh. It was especially on those nights that the Pelion became ingrained in my senses, for as we walked in the pitch darkness shining only that little torch, the sounds of running water and cool, fresh smell of the wet earth and vegetation, the crickets and sometimes the bats or owls became powerfully enhanced.
We stopped going to Tsangarada when I was around 11, and I didn’t go back until I was in my mid 30s, when I travelled there from the Sporades islands as part of a writing assignment for a travel guide. I went there feeling excited but also afraid of the nostalgia I would be faced with, and indeed, when we drove to Milopotamos beach and I saw the road above it packed with parked cars and the beach below with bathers, I immediately returned to our car, took a few deep breaths and asked that we please get away from that dreaded sight immediately. For I had still been vibrantly living in the memory of the last time I had visited that beach, when it was almost always empty, an endless stretch of sand that we usually shared with a few German families who parked their tents their and a handful of locals, and the way it has become today was just too shocking to face. Admittedly this was at the end of August when anywhere in Greece is at its busiest, and upon going back a few year’s later in early June the beach seemed almost back to its old ways, and I managed to enjoy it to the full.
Our next stop in rediscovering my Tsangarada was by heading the old Xenia hotel, which I knew had been shut down for years, but wanted to revisit just out of pure nostalgia. I especially wanted to see a bronze statue of a grey wolf that stood on a white marble pedestal and that as a child I used to ride and even tell my secrets to, for in my fantasy world the wolf was my guardian and friend. The hotel garden was unruly just as I’d imagined and the building itself sad and desolate, just as I’d imagined, but my wolf was still there, at least in spirit.
Next, we walked to Aghia Paraskevi square along the cobblestone path. It was daytime, and 20 years later, so the magical ambiance was gone, but the path looked exactly the same, if a lot narrower and shorter. As we reached the square, I took a deep breath and smiled with gratitude to see that it was kept intact – no glossy cafes or shops, or anything else that could affect its quaint and touchingly timeless beauty. There stood o platanos, my childhood castle-tree, in all its glory, part of its giant branches held up by a thick scaffolding just as an old person would be held up by a sturdy nurse, or a frame, underneath it a sprinkling of small round metal tables and chairs belonging to the kafeneion, that still serves muddy Greek coffee and traditional sticky spoon sweets, or glyka you koutaliou.
And tucked away in the corner of the square, just where the cobblestone path ends and the square begins, stands The Lost Unicorn, an elegant hotel housed in what was once the village post office. I immediately took a liking to the hotel, as its ambiance was even older than my childhood memories, reminiscent of an early to mid 19th Century world that would never threaten the still intact beauty of my beloved places here.
The hotel, decorated with impressive and sometimes even quirky and unique antique objects, statues, materials and other physical features, a glittering chandelier, grand piano and chequered brown and cream floor in the restaurant’s interior with the external part to the restaurant sprawling out on a beautiful stone veranda, has few bedrooms and a library where you wish it would rain all day so you could relax reading or playing board games.
We stayed at the hotel for a few nights, soaking in the Tsangarada energy, driving off to nearby villages and beaches in the daytime, stopping by water fountains on the roadside where cold, crystal water gushes out as it threads its way down from the mountains, and relaxing at the outdoor hotel restaurant in the evenings. The ritual included returning from our daytime activities, having an afternoon nap, having a shower, dressing for dinner, and placing ourselves at the table to enjoy the chef’s fresh, seasonal, mostly organic fare. Dinner time on the veranda always ended up with us meeting the people at nearby tables – usually introduced to us by Christos and Clare, and discovering their stories. One couple we met lived on Pelion and invited us the following day to see the home they had just refurbished – set in a thick forest with streams and panoramic views of the sea and hills, and although we had only met less than 24 hours earlier we left their new home with a fresh-frozen chicken, vegetables they had gathered from their land and a two litre bottle of wine, all of which they had insisted we take. The ambiance and comfort of The Lost Unicorn had been so warm and home-like that, meeting and chatting there we had felt as though we knew each other for years.
The Lost Unicorn feels like an old villa belonging to someone you are very fond of who once was a worldly explorer and where the treasures sourced from all over are gathered to create home sweet home. To complete the feeling of a stylish yet endearing holiday home, there are a couple of resident cats and dogs in the hotel and its grounds. Many guests enjoy walking them in the surrounding areas, and they also provide excellent company for joggers on those splendidly scenic runs. Owners Clare and Christos keep the hotel running in tip top condition without ever allowing the place to quite catch up with the outside world – a difficult art to manage. The hotel has won great respect by chance and recommended visitors who have come to stay there from near and far, and rates highly in global reviews. It certainly rates highly in mine, and I only wish there were more like it – then again if there were, it wouldn’t be as special.