To say Volos loves its brandy is an understatement. There are up to 600 tsipourádika (brandy bars) in this attractive Greek port city at the foot of Mount Pelion – and locals drink the local tipple, tsipouro, like water. Head to Volos, three hours north of Athens, and you'll find the taste of a spirit that fuels an entire region.
Made from the pomace of grapes left over from wine production, tsipouro contains up to 45% alcohol and originates in the northern regions of Greece. In the 14th century, the legendary monks of Mount Athos, in Macedonia, set about making the most out of the whole grape, distilling tsipouro for the first time.
Now, it’s served up in suspiciously small bottles with the option to drink pure (a sharp kick not for the faint of heart) or anise flavoured. Many Greeks add water or ice, transforming the seemingly innocent clear beverage into a mysterious glass-trapped cloud.
Tsipouro is big business in the Thessaly region of Greece, roughly midway between Athens and Thessaloniki on the mainland, and especially in Volos. Forget post-work beers, tsipouro is the order of every day, served up with a side of seafood meze.
A brandy odyssey of Volos should start in MeZen – hotly tipped as the best tsipourádika in Volos’s town centre. Even at 10pm, the place is likely to be buzzing.
People spill out onto tables in the street, adding ice to tiny glasses of what looks at first glance like water, but turns out to be tsipouro. Calamari, grilled sardines, fried anchovies – all classic Greek fishy dishes – float past on their way to diners.
Dinner invariably starts with a 1L bottle of tsipouro on the table. Glasses are half-filled with the anise flavoured spirit. Then the meze arrives – with salty dishes like creamy taramasalata, mackerel and roasted peppers, the tsipouro will begin to make sense.
The clear choice
At 6.30am in the morning, the tsipourádiko proprietors of Volos can be found strolling the harbour, pausing by each fish-packed vessel to carefully curate the day’s meze.
In Volos, lunch can begin as early as 11am and the tsipourádiko was traditionally a place for labourers to stop off for a drink after work. In the city centre, this ritual is still very much alive and applies to everyone these days.
At lunchtime in Kavouras, a glass-fronted tsipourádiko tucked into an inconspicuous side street, locals cram around meze-packed tables, each with its own collection of tiny glass bottles at varying degrees of emptiness.
“It's a very local tradition and it's good value for money”
“In Volos, we don’t go out to have a drink in a bar or go for a coffee in the afternoon like other Greeks,” says one local, Alexandros. “Most people finish work at midday and head out for a tsipouro,” adds his friend Natasa. “It’s a very local tradition and it’s good value for money – you buy a drink and you get a dish with it.”
In its most authentic form, a tsipourádiko crawl involves a languid afternoon getting progressively full as opposed to increasingly drunk. That’s the secret to a great tsipouro experience.
In Volos, Greek hospitality is distilled as strongly as its tsipouro. Most of the old-school tsipourádika in town bring over a round of meze plates per glass. If you’re in a group of five, for example, you can pay for just one glass of tsipouro and head home fed and watered. Perhaps this is why business is booming for Volos’s tsipourádika.
But Volos isn’t just worth visiting for its drinking culture. Winding far above Volos through pine trees and meadows polka-dotted with poppies, there's Mount Pelion and the stone houses of Makrinitsa, Portaria and Palia Chania.
These villages offer a version of Greece not so synonymous with sandy beaches and seafront tavernas. Some of the villagers in these mountains put onion or bread in their tsipouro when it’s fermenting, to add more flavour.
Just a half-hour from Volos’s harbour is the ski resort of Agriolefkes and, as you climb higher up Pelion, you might pass snow.
Hiking paths also snake through the villages for rare days of cooler weather. On the other side of the peak, a 20-minute drive from the snowcapped top, there's Damouchari Beach – a pretty, pebble-lined cove.
Legend has it that Jason set sail from Volos’s crystal clear waters with the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. If he’d been witness to modern Volos, with its combination of mountain and coast, comprising skiing, sailing, kitesurfing and hiking in one, and its unique tsipourádiko culture, perhaps he wouldn’t have been quite so keen to rush off.