Tag Archives: Halkidiki

A day in the life of Greece.

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.

Travel as the masses do: all-inclusive Greece getaway…

18th-25th June 2019

Low on funds – I haven’t worked a day since taking leave from the world of gainful employment last September – these days I travel on a heavily restricted budget.  Fortunately, it doesn’t mean that travel is totally impossible, it is more a case of ‘adapting expectations’… 

I have toyed with the idea of trying out Couchsurfing, a scheme that attracted a rather negative response from my daughter. 

‘Mother, really…  Couchsurfing???  Do you know what Couchsurfing is all about??’ 

I do, as a matter of fact, and clearly possess a rather more trusting view of human nature, but it has to be said… she has a point, there are always risks, although some of my more memorable evenings of late have been with Airbnb hosts. And for me the joy of travelling is as much about meeting inspirational and interesting people, as it is about conquering soaring mountains..

I have momentarily shelved the thought of exploring a few corners of Europe overland, a-la-‘Race Around The World’: making things up on the cheap as you go along, finding bed and board with hospitable strangers, munching street food, or using overnight trains and buses to save on accommodation cost.  As these days budget airlines service every corner of Europe, there is no competition, and I reluctantly exchange adventure for convenience and economy… At least my daughter will sleep more soundly…

With very few commitments on the horizon, I can take advantage of the glut of amazingly cheap last-minute deals flooding the internet.  It is still June, just outside holiday peak season and fantastic pickings at rock-bottom prices plentiful.  Greece it is!! Halkidiki.  4-star. All-inclusive. For one whole week.  It’s the kind of holiday I haven’t subjected myself to for a long time, the kind of non-adventure beach-bum holiday that only requires a bikini, a towel and lots of sunscreen.   And, of course a book or two to stimulate the mind, because to be honest not much else will be stimulated whilst I’m lying comatose on a sunbed for the best part of the day.  It is not my kind of holiday, but needs must!!  It’s a hard life but I can do it if I have to…

Of course, some things are too good to be true, and rock bottom prices for classy hotels surely come with some hidden surprises…  So it was that two days after booking the holiday I took a closer look at the small print next to the glossy picture of the stylish rooms we could expect to lounge in.  With just a mere ten days to our departure, the hotel was in the midst of renovation work with the grand opening scheduled two days before our arrival.  I sighed at the prospect of noisy building work drowning out noisy music.  With any luck we should be just ahead of noisy children in the swimming pool.  But hey-ho, what else to expect from a cheapy get-away, at least the sun would be guaranteed…

A Ryan Air flight from Stansted to Thessaloniki added its own challenges.  The bikini, towel and sunscreen essentials I had envisaged stuffing in my smallish backpack quickly grew into a more substantial pile, including my laptop…  I know, why take a laptop on holiday!! Before booking the package holiday I had discussed the luggage issue with Simon who, at a loose end and in need of a break from the tedium of life, gallantly agreed to accompany me on this trip. 

‘Let’s just pay for at least one suitcase in the hold.  Much cheaper than adding it on later…,’ I had suggested.

But men being men, he’d been convinced his small carry-on case would fit the bill, and to be honest it didn’t exceed the allowed dimensions at all… I, on the other hand, bought myself a little space in the underbelly of the aeroplane to accommodate my slightly oversized carry-on bag so I could keep my precious laptop safely in view on the plane.

Queuing to board, some unease started brewing as passengers were divided into two distinct groups: priority boarding and non-priority boarding.  Penny-pinchers as we were, we had refused to fork out for getting on the plane before everyone else…  Who on earth bothers??  It appears: everyone else…  and with paying the priority premium came the added bonus of actually being allowed to take your carry-on luggage inside the plane.  Size restrictions were of no consequence for the likes of us who hadn’t read the small print.  My bag was OK, because it was a soft, small backpack… A new Ryan Air policy of hidden charges to fool those who do not regularly fly Ryan Air.  Poor Simon had to pay up.  No way was his little solid case allowed on the plane with him; in the hold it must go at an additional cost of £25 for the outward leg.  It made my £12 paid online when checking in seem a real bargain…  And we would have to pay the same again if we wanted to bring our luggage with us on the home stretch.  But hey, it’s a holiday… Smile and lesson learnt.

We arrived in Greece just before midnight. Our body clocks still on UK time, it felt early.  We piled into the waiting van to be transferred to our hotel and, A.C. on full blast, set off into the pitch-dark Greek countryside.  After an hour we swept up the drive of our newly refurbished hotel.  The grounds looked immaculate, the pool inviting, the reception desk bare and unmanned…  Hello, were they not expecting us??  

It took a while for a confused and befuddled staff member to appear and an animated conversation with our Greek tour chaperone ensued.  Of course, Greek not being a language that is commonly studied, we had to wait until the end of the debate to get the low-down.  The hotel was not ready, hadn’t we been told?? No A.C., dust everywhere.  But no panic, another hotel had been arranged for us, at least for tonight.   Suitcases reloaded, we clambered back on board, this time full of trepidation rather than anticipation… 

We needn’t have worried.  The next hotel had been awaiting our arrival.  With rooms allocated in a jiffy and a barman still on duty well past midnight, the holiday was back on track as we all took a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach… Maybe this hotel would do, no one really fancied spending a week hotel-hopping… A smelly room aside – which was remedied the next morning with new plumbing in the en-suite bathroom – the ‘new’ hotel turned out a winner.  Two awesome swimming pools inside the complex and a balmy sea a mere two-minute amble through an olive tree lined path away, we were in seaside and holiday nirvana… 

And the food!!! To die for! My only previous experiences of ‘all-inclusive’ dated back some years and centred around three-star hotels where food monotony reigned.  Not in our hotel.  Variety and quality!! Just not very Greek, more catering to the tastes of a less adventurous clientele and children.  Still, in amongst the pasta, rice, fries and sausages a few gems: crumbly feta, succulent dolmades and stuffed peppers, fillet steak and salmon sides, freshly caught local fish and seafood, and of course, moussaka and souvlaki.  

But it paid to get to the restaurant ahead of the masses, before other guests – predominantly hailing from the Balkan region with a dribble of Polish and Russian tourists – descended and heaped plates with starters, main courses, desserts, cheese and fruit all at once…  Gluttony galore.  Tables laden with food for a week to be devoured by a twosome as if there would be no tomorrow.  And the leftovers, of which there were plenty, destined for the bin.  Such a waste…  In all honesty, I ate far too much too, unable to resist temptation, but in good old-fashion only took what I could comfortably consume before leaving the table.. 

Breakfast for two…

Excursions proved more challenging.  Not having a car at our disposal, and balking at the prices of renting one, we were at the mercy of taxis ferrying us to various starting points.  Not a viable option either as often the taxi fare alone exceeded the cost of the trip we had in mind.  So, instead we devoured books, bobbed on the waves on sea kayaks and car-shaped pedalos, spent a lot of time in the pool and in the evening, when the heat had abated, hiked to nearby sunset spots as Greek life passed us by…

On our last day, we treated ourselves to a little bit of the real Greece though… (to be continued)