24th June 2019
Our resort is located on Sithonia, the middle leg of the triple-pronged peninsula that comprises Halkidiki on the north-east coast of mainland Greece. Far from overrun by tourists, it is still relatively unknown, a blissful haven of tranquillity, unspoilt beauty and peaceful beaches. But to fully explore what the area has to offer, having access to wheels is essential. Public transport is non-existent in Greece, taxi fares exorbitant and free-wheeling on a motorbike best left to those with sufficient experience to handle the roads, traffic and the machine… We opt for the safety of an off-road experience with Greek Adventures: leave the driving to the experts and the fun to us!!! And in less than a day we cover it all: Greek myths and legends, a dash of more recent history, mountain and hill views and, of course, Greece wouldn’t be Greece without the allure of the endless azure sea and blue skies, pristine secluded beaches and a relentless influx of Europe’s summer yachting community. Sithonia has it all.
First on our route is Nikiti, a picturesque village nestled among verdant, gentle rolling hills. Nikiti dates back to a time when pirates raided seaside towns and locals sought refuge and safety inland. Eventually lack of opportunity turned the place into a ghost town as the younger generation left for bigger cities to find better jobs and prosperity. Falling in disrepair, Nikiti caught the eye and imagination of entrepreneurial visitors – mainly German and Austrian – who in the 1980s bought up the properties and restored them to former glory and grandeur, carefully preserving the typical Macedonian character: the white-washed walls and red-tiled roofs. The result is a little gem, brimming with holiday-sun-seeking tourists in summer and quietening down in the cooler winter months. Unfortunately, we are on a tight schedule to cover as much as possible of what Sithonia has to offer, so we barely get the chance to explore the small community. We breeze through with a just a brief stop at the bell tower, housing giant ancient bells in the more recently restored tower, and a quick glimpse at the 19th century Agios Nikitas church. Making a mental note, ‘Next time!!’.
Onwards we venture, into the mountainous centre of Sithonia. ‘It’s a less touristy area,’ our driver explains, as he skilfully guides his robust off-roader along the bumps and gullies of a dirt track. We are heading for the crest of Mount Itamos, or Dragoudeli, to the 24-hour manned fire station overlooking the forested hills.
At 811 m, it’s the highest point on Sithonia, an ideal spot for surveying the surrounding woodlands for fledgling smoke columns before they become fierce fires that spiral out of control. When the skies are clear, you can spy Mount Olympus to the West on the mainland and Mount Athos to the East. But even on a hazy day, the views are spectacular and very much worth the bouncy ride to the top. And for those with energy to spare and in need of a break from the beach, there are plenty of hiking tracks here, although at the height of summer they will appeal more to the early birds. By the time we reach the top, the sun is already nearing its zenith, and in spite of the mistiness, it’s far beyond sensible hiking weather…
But this wouldn’t be Greece if there wasn’t at least a bit of myth and legend attached to Mount Itamos and it doesn’t take long for us to be caught up in the mysteries of days long gone. We may not be atop Mount Olympus, which happens to be only around 150 km away, but it appears the Greek Gods definitely left their mark on Sithonia. Even the very name ‘Sithonia’ heralds from mythology as it is derived from none other than the name of Poseidon’s son, Sithon.
Halkidiki, often referred to as Chalkidiki in Greek lore, is rumoured to be the site of an epic battle, fought between the Olympian Gods and the Giants, sons of Gaia (Earth). The fight didn’t end too well for the colossi, with one of the giants, Egelados, still very much alive but buried under rocks on neighbouring Kassandra, the most westerly of the three-fingered claw. Every so often he tries to struggle free causing the area to shudder and rumble. Clearly, Athena – the goddess responsible for throwing the rocks and burying Egelados – was not such a good shot. Although most of the rocks ‘fell’ on Kassandra, some also landed on Mount Itamos in Sithonia, leaving a landscape dotted with enormous boulders at odds with the rest of the mountain.
Of course, geologists have their own take on the events. In their view, the geography of Halkidiki is the product of a volcanic embrace between the geotectonic units of the Vardar-Axios Zone and the Serbo-Macedonian Massif rather than a brutish skirmish between earthy and godly forces. And as the word for earthquake in Greek is ‘egelados’, they may have a point. The beautifully weathered and smoothed granite boulders have more likely been deposited on Sithonia as a result of earthquakes or volcanic action… Just not such a gripping story.
After our short dip into ancient history, our journey continues down the mountain: a pastoral drive through olive groves and vineyards, past freshly shorn sheep sheltering under shady trees.
We skirt the edges of the peninsula, along enticing stretches of beach and rocky coastlines, unfolding a hikers’ paradise too fleeting to absorb through the windscreen of the fast-moving car. It’s impossible to take any decent photographs unless we come to a stop here and there… I
We briefly pause at a small beachside boatyard, where locals have deserted their tools and vessels to take respite from the heat. Greek siesta in full swing and not a living soul in sight… Of course, these could just be abandoned ships as money has been tight in Greece since the economic bailout crisis and people struggle to make ends meet, let alone pay for costly repairs of their fishing boats. According to our guide, monthly wages have tumbled dramatically and now average around €300. Hardly enough to cover essentials.
Lunchtime beckons and our driver has just got the spot: a traditional Greek family restaurant at the harbour front of the busy fishing village of Porto Koufo. We are way too late to watch the fishermen unload and sell their haul, but right on time to enjoy their catch. And whilst the seafaring folk are hard at rest at home or napping in their boats, we settle down for a bite to eat. Not only is the fresh seafood we order absolutely finger-licking delicious, it is followed by an unexpected large and sumptuous dessert. ‘It’s customary for restaurants to add that little extra,’ our guide explains. ‘It’s a sure way of pleasing and retaining clientele…’ I love the idea of Greek of hospitality, who wouldn’t when faced with a dessert like ours…
Porto Koufo is not just about fresh fish and seafood. Tucked away in a cavernous cove, it is the deepest natural harbour in Greece, its entrance hidden from the Aegean Sea by the curves and curls of sheer rock faces. ‘Don’t venture too far in the water,’ our guide warns, ‘the bottom just drops away once you reach the darker shaded water…’ And to be honest, that part is a mere couple of metres from the narrow strip of beach.
Of course such a ‘secret’ location does not remain secret for ever and the cove and lake were first mentioned by the great Greek historian, Thucydides, in works dating back to almost 500BC. Only a bird’s eye view of the region shows how the entrance to the cove is invisible from the sea, something that caught the eye of the Germans during WWII. They used the cove to station submarines: the lake’s large depth made the u-boats undetectable from the air whilst, at the same time, they could be deployed at sea at short notice.
Today, there is not much evidence of war-mongering in Port Koufo and by lunchtime, many fishing boats have disappeared. With mooring spaces along the harbour vacated during the daytime, yachts and pleasure boats quickly fill the void; time to give sea legs a break and top up on-board supplies. Others save money by dropping anchor just a short distance from shore and make their way to the quayside with small rowing boats or motorised dinghies. Life in the marina is an eclectic mix of luxurious yachting and more budget-conscious sailing fanatics with just one thing in common: a love of life at sea… I think I could do that too… Now there’s a challenge!!!
Great to finally see a bit of real Greek life, just not enough to satisfy my hunger for experiencing different cultures and different ways of life. The trip only whetted my appetite for more… Maybe next year, who knows.