Halkidiki: Queen of the North
The 3 fingered claw that is Halkidiki, up on the north of Greece is special. It has seen continuous action since at least 300 BC when King Phillip of Macedonia and later his son Alexander the Great ruled the world from the small town of Vergina. It is the undisputed king of the north (winter ain’t coming).
Thessaloniki, the capital of the north breathes a different type of air. Considered as the Istanbul of the Balkans, it has been visited by dozens of invaders who’ve left their mark. Unlike Athens, which remained a provincial backwater during most of its modern history, Thessaloniki flourished as an administrative and cultural beacon. With a robust Jewish population that numbered well into the hundreds of thousands, Thessaloniki is a cultural gem with many influences ranging from the aforementioned to Ottoman, Frank, Byzantine, Frank, Slavic, Roman and Venetian. Its character is one of multiculturalism and high culture, embodied by its Rotonda, Ottoman waterfront castle and the Roman aqueduct, not to mention what still lies hidden underneath.
So you have to wonder. Where to all these northerners go on holidays? The answer is simple: they don’t have to travel far. The 3 pronged peninsula offers everything you’d expect from a holiday in Greece, plus much more.
Out of the 3 peninsulas, only 2 are accessible to the public, since the third one is populated by Athonite monks in a World Heritage monastery complex that dates back to 800 AD. But more on that later. The other two peninsulas; Kassandra and Sithonia are good to go. And the action is go. Kassandra is the most cosmopolitan and developed, while Sithonia is more Zen-like. Pick and choose.
The 550 km of beaches are incontestably spectacular. Our personal favourites are Kavourotrypes, Karydi, Alykes, Sarti and Kalamitsi, but with so many it really does depend on what kind of beach day you want to have. Some offer water sports, scuba diving and various other activities to keep boredom at bay. Other are more relaxed and conspicuous by the absence of any organization. As always with Greece, the beaches are the least of your worries. With the 3rd most blue flags in the world you shouldn’t have problems on that front.
Halkidiki is at its best when nature is involved. The mighty Mt. Cholomondas and its oak, chestnut and pine trees soars in the background, but what this mountain lacks in size it makes up in diversity and splendor. Many flora and fauna are to be found here. Nearby Mt Olympus is a mere 3 hour drive. Feeling lucky? Hiking enthusiasts, you’ve been warned.
History & Culture
This part of Greece has history oozing out of every crevice and crack. Literally. The metro line due in Thessaloniki has been dormant for years now, because they keep bumping into this necropolis or that theater or some other fresco. If you want to keep up with the history, you’ll want to visit the cave of Petralona and admire the surroundings which yielded one of the oldest human skulls ever found. Fast forward a few eons and the stage is set for the Titanomachy; the mother of all battles between the Titans and the Gods of Olympus. Hollywood’s got nothing on it.
Fast forward a little more and find Stagira town: a small village in the region that gave birth to Aristotle. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of mankind. Wander through Aristotle park and find inspiration knowing you’re walking on the same stones that the great man walked on, too.
If you’re interested in the spiritual and the theological, rejoice! The peninsula of Mt. Athos will leave you in a daze. The 1,500 or so monks live in total isolation from the world in 20 monasteries, keeping with a long ecclesiastical tradition. Entrance to females is strictly prohibited, as is tradition, while men are only allowed under certain conditions. The folklore, traditions, culinary habits and life in general are a source of pride amongst the Orthodox monks, who fiercely guard their way of life against external threats.