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Travel

My Great Greek Adventure: Halkidiki, Northern Paradise

About an hour’s drive south of the city of Thessaloniki is the peninsula of Halkidiki. There are three peninsulas to be exact, that jut out from the mainland and each have their own unique beauty and way of life. As in most places in Greece, Halkidiki has an ancient past, perhaps more ancient than usual. Excavations in the area like at Petralona Cave have revealed cave dwellings and human remains dating back 200,000 years. Civilizations that flourished in the area include the Thracians among others, until the Spartans undid the partnerships established there in 379 BC. Later Halkidiki would fall into ruin and occupation along with its northern neighbor, the city of Thessaloniki.  

Ancient battles also took place here – some in the Mythological Realm. Age-old stories paint the battle between Zeus and the other Olympian Gods against the Giants. The leader of the Giants, Enceladus, notoriously lost the battle and was said to have been buried under Halkidiki. The earthquakes that often hit the area are fabled to be Enceladus attempting to escape from his earthly grave. The civilizations that flourished in Halkidiki were valuable to the whole of Greece, fighting against common enemies and challenges.  

Halkidiki is geographically comprised of three peninsulas of almost equal size, jutting out into the Aegean Sea and resembling three fingers. The main ancient cities in the region were called Potidea, located on the most western peninsula Kassandra, and Olynthus a few kilometers away. These cities were instrumental in defeating the Persians and orchestrated their own rebellions against the invaders. In 348 BC Halkidiki would become part of Macedonia and unified with newly founded cities like Thessaloniki.  

Of the three peninsulas of Halkidiki, the most eastern is considered to be the most sacred. Named Mount Athos, this became the home to the first monastery in the area in the 9th century AD. Often called Agion Oros or the Holy Mountain, there are presently twenty monasteries built on the land, and inhabited by two thousand monks. Monks are believed to have lived on the peninsula as far back as the fourth century AD. One of the most well-known monasteries on Mount Athos is the Great Lavra. Built in 963 AD, the monastery became the largest of the twenty that would come to exist, and was able to accumulate wealth and status. The monasteries, although somewhat shielded from the terrors and wars in the rest of the country, were not entirely unaffected by them. Despite this, they have survived until today, and continue to house thousands of devoted monks. One setback for travelers is that no women are allowed to enter the Holy Mountain. This is because the Virgin Mary was said to have visited Mouth Athos and asked Jesus to save it for her as her own paradise. This request is still honored today. It is considered one of the most important sites for Orthodox Christianity.  

The middle peninsula, called Sithonia, is largely undeveloped and green. There are few villages in Sithonia, and the majority of the land consists of a vast pine forest. The villages that are developed are small but incredibly charming. Agios Nikolaos, at the beginning of Sithonia near the mainland, was welcoming and had all the necessary amenities – a pharmacy, supermarket, and the traditional taverna restaurants that cook with only the freshest and organic ingredients. People who live in these small villages love to meet travelers, and will greet you with the utmost hospitality. In Agios Nikolaos and its neighboring towns like Nikiti, you will find a wide selection of hotels and home rentals to choose from close to the beach and crystal clear water. Another popular beach destination less than fifteen minutes from Agios Nikolaos is Vourvourou. This area once belonged to the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, but now is mainly home to vacation rentals and long sandy beaches. Continuing down the west side of the peninsula, you will find along this scenic route many excellent beaches, both large and small. Another popular stop is Kavourotripes Beach close to the town Sparti. This is more of a rocky beach, but worth the extra adventure due to its beauty. The southern-most tip of Sithonia is rich in beautiful sandy and pebble beaches, one of the best being the secluded Porto Koufo Beach and the ancient ruins of the town Toroni. The southeastern side of Sithonia has many great beaches as well, but these tend to be more off the beaten path and used for camping or nudist beaches. 

The third and westernmost peninsula of Halkidiki is Kassandra. This is the most developed and tourist-frequented part of Halkidiki, and attracts many travelers from the Balkans. There are many towns and an abundance of accommodation to choose from, as well as lots of culture and history to enjoy. On the western side of the Kassandra peninsula you will find the archeological sites of the Temple of Poseidon and the ancient city Mende, along with the Possidi lighthouse and its adjacent beach. If you are looking for a party, then this part of Halkidiki is for you, with beach bars and clubs surrounding the whole peninsula. The most popular ones being located in the town of Sani near the top of Kassandra, and the towns Chaniotis and Pefkochori towards the south end. The southern towns are more populated and have a larger selection of restaurants bars, and shops. The beaches in Kassandra and Halkidiki regularly get Blue Flag recognition from the Foundation for Environmental Education for being of outstanding quality, one of the most famous being Afytos Beach, recognized for its alluring crystal blue water.

No matter where you go in Halkidiki, you are sure to find the same scene of dreamlike sea and sand. Depending on your interests, you can choose which peninsula of Halkidiki suits your vacation checklist. If you are interested in the spiritual and historic, then Mount Athos is for you. If you are looking for a beach getaway, Sithonia is quieter, and Kassandra is where the party starts! 

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