The Halkidiki Peninsula is “Poseidon’s trident” which consists of three smaller peninsulas: Kassandra, Sithonia, and Athos. They are about 100 km from the Thessaloniki airport. Athos is the place of religious tourism, Kassandra is suitable for non-poor young people and tourists with children, which means it can be noisy. We hypothesized that the Sithonia Peninsula would be the perfect choice for relaxing holidays. It was a mistake.
The Sithonia Peninsula is the “middle tine” of the trident. Villages located every five to ten kilometers along the coast come to life only in summer. Peace and quiet. There are occasional hotels and the summer houses of Greeks who come from Thessaloniki to relax for the weekend. A vacation on Sithonia is a voluntary escape from civilization.
Villages like Nikiti and Neos Marmaras, big by Sithonian standards, are empty from September to May. There is no hint of a supermarket, fruit market, or cafe. You are forced to take a taxi even if you need a pharmacy. It turned out that we booked a hotel in such a place—thank God, only for a week.
The hotel, Village Mare, in Metamórfosis is located in a small bay and has a private beach. The water was clear and not too deep. Two chaise lounges and one umbrella were cheap, three Euro daily. Vacationers were mostly Serbs, some Greeks and Germans, but the most important thing was that 99% of them were with small children. Who among you recently used the word “peace”?
The distance from the hotel to any signs of civilization was about four kilometers along the beautiful sea, but unfortunately without the slightest hint of a pedestrian sidewalk. Only roadway. We like to walk a lot, but to survive in a place like this more than a week without a car is difficult. We soon lost our patience and started to find bus tours.
You have to go far beyond the Sithonia Peninsula for the ancient Greek archaeological sites. It is not a problem with a car, because roads in Greece are good and don’t have traffic jams. You will comfortably reach all the attractions described below.
But let’s imagine you didn’t rent a car. Where to go and what to see?
Daylong bus tour to Olympus, Dion, and Vergina
Mount Olympus is the former abode of the ancient Greek gods. Today Olympus is open for tourists, and of course the best way to explore it is to come on a hiking expedition that will take no more than two days. Yes, two days, but it’s for hiking fans.
By the way, Olympus has as many as four peaks (2800-2900 meters). You can conquer the peak of Stephanie called the throne of Zeus. In the town of Litochoro, at the foot of the mountain, it is possible to replenish water supplies and have a cup of strong Greek coffee before a difficult climb. Next stop will be only at the altitude of 1100 meters, in the village of Prionia. Special houses for resting, open from May to October, are waiting for the most courageous tourists at the altitude of 2000 meters. From there, it is 2 to 3 hours to the mountain top.
However, the narrow serpentine road encircles Olympus, so you don’t have to risk your legs, low back, or heart in the August heat. A tourist bus will drive you to the top and you see … the mountains, like two drops of water similar to any mountains on this planet. Nothing more. The ancient gods didn’t leave any traces behind. “Unbelievable and unique impressions” (a phrase from the guidebook) depend entirely on your imagination.
Another attraction is Dion, the town of Zeus. Today, it is not quite a town, but the excavations of the ancient stadium, theater, and baths. If you are still alive in this 35-degree heat, Vergina will be your reward. Are you interested in Greek history, but don’t like hiking and travelling by car? In this case, I would recommend to start right with Vergina. The former capital of ancient Macedonia, Aigai, turned into a small village, but in the 3rd century BC it was a place of ritual royal festivities and burial of the Macedonian kings.
In the vicinity of Vergina, archaeologists have discovered the tomb of the Macedonian king, Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. Excavations were conducted there for several decades, but archaeologists only got lucky in 1977. Excavating big mounds, they stumbled on a rich marble facade and tightly sealed metal door. The ancient burial ground was not looted.
Inside, they saw rich wall paintings, pottery, silver and bronze vessels, weapons, and armor of a noble warrior. His helmet was decorated with an image of the goddess Athena, a unique shield had ivory and gold inlay. The intact marble sarcophagus stood on the rotten wooden bed. Inside of it, archaeologists found a massive golden casket with a multi-beam star familiar to us from images on Macedonian coins. Under the lid, purple and gold clothes and a beautiful gold wreath covered the remains of the warrior.
The age of the tomb was identified from the arms and ceramics found in it, the form of silver vessels, the type of tombs, and the style of the wall paintings. It could be assumed that a gold crown found in the tomb was the royal diadem. The tomb was dated the second quarter of the fourth century BC, and nobody has disputed this fact. The king who died in Macedonia between 350 and 325 years BC could only be Philip, the father of Alexander the Great. Later, anthropological examination of the remains also showed that they belonged to a man who died between the age of 40 and 50 (it is known that Philip was 46 when he died).
Excavations still continue, and in the deeper levels, archaeologists discovered a city with a huge theater, the one where the king, Philip II, was killed.
It was a holiday in the city. A daughter of King Philip was getting married. The crowd gathered under the hot sun. Everyone’s eyes were on the arena. A brother of the king’s daughter and her groom appeared, and Philip, surrounded by bodyguards, walked to the throne. Suddenly, one of the bodyguards, Pausanias, stabbed the king with a dagger. Several people rushed to the fallen king, and the others started to chase the killer. Pausanias was already near the gate, where his horse was waiting for him, when spears pierced his back.
Gossip, denunciations, and intrigues were the norm of life in the royal family. Philip came to power, killing five of his brothers. The king had several wives, and each one wanted to see her son on the throne. Being in old age, Philip fell in love with the young Cleopatra who bore him another potential heir. Later, another wife of the king, Olympias, personally eliminated the young rival, Cleopatra, killing her and her baby.
Although the relationship between Philip and his eldest son, the future Alexander the Great, was tense, Alexander organized a lavish funeral for his father. A huge mound was erected, the corpse of the murderer was hanged at the base of it, and his sons were executed.
In Vergina, you might visit the unique museum, arranged directly in the tomb. It’s gorgeous, with a special temperature and humidity, and carefully thought-out lighting. Treasures of the ancient Macedonian kings mysteriously flicker behind the glass windows in the deep twilight.
The tomb stores at least one more secret. Scientists found a second sarcophagus with another golden casket that contained bones of a young woman under scarlet royal brocade, and an incredibly beautiful diadem. It is difficult to take your eyes off the diadem, believe me. The researchers suggest that these are the remains of Meda, the wife of Philip. Probably, she went into another world consciously, after her husband. So it becomes clear why such a beautiful and expensive item was placed with her remains. This diadem was in recognition of her heroism and self-sacrifice.
The brightest pages of the history of Macedonia are connected with Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great. Ancient legend said that the royal dynasty would collapse if any of the Macedonian kings were not buried in Aigai. As we know, the dynasty ended with Alexander the Great who died and was buried in distant Asia.
Unfortunately, photography is strictly prohibited in the museum (we were trying to break the rule, but it did not work), therefore we can show only photos by more lucky (or sly) visitors of the museum.
A bus tour to Meteora: only for the insane!
August heat and a five-hour drive (350 km) in a crowded bus. By noon, you will arrive in the town of Kalambaka located at the foot of Meteora. Lunch, a cursory examination of two monasteries, and a return trip of 350 km. There is a more acceptable version of this bus tour: with an overnight stay in Kalambaka. But it is also not so comfortable. Everything is much easier with a rented car. The road is excellent. In the evening, you will get to the hotel near the monastery rocks, have a supper with the famous moussaka, sleep, and early in the morning, you go to meet Meteora.
The main advice: at first, visit the Great Meteoron Monastery, the largest and most interesting one. It is best to do it before the arrival of several dozen buses with tourists. You just will not feel the sanctity of this place in the terrible bustle of “pilgrims,” mostly from China. We stopped in Kalambaka for two days in the middle of January and realized that it was not enough. If you have opportunity, stay in Kalambaka at least for three nights. In fact, Meteora (but not the mount of Olympus) invites you to walk and admire the monasteries and beautiful nature.
An excursion to Athos: several hours on the road just for nothing
- To approach Mount Athos closer than 500 meters is prohibited.
- For women, visiting this monastic state is prohibited.
- For men, it is better to begin applying for permission to visit the monastery a month before the trip.
In general, if you are not Orthodox Christian, there is nothing for you to see.
I often heard the opinion that the most interesting places in Greece are Athens, Meteora, and the Temple of Apollo on Mount Parnassus. I do not agree. There are Delphi, the Corinth Canal, the palace of Knossos on Crete, the Crusader fortress in Rhodes, and the blue-white island of Santorini. I recommend exploring unique historical sights of Greece in the fall, winter, and spring, and to start your acquaintance with the country not from Halkidiki beaches, but from the Greek capital, Athens.
Greeks are very proud of their country and its history. If you still decide to take a trip from your Halkidiki beach, you will hear from the guide that every Greek represents ten olive trees. Greece has no competition in this area. This is the largest figure among the European countries. Unfortunately, even this amount of olives can’t ensure a comfortable life for Greeks.
I suspect that the economic crisis in Greece will last for some time because Greeks demonstrate a specific approach to life. By the way, their ancient ancestors despised physical labor. It was a society of philosophers and orators, and slaves did all the work. Modern Greeks don’t resemble the profile of the ancient ones. They don’t have slaves, but they inherited an aversion to physical labor.
Ask a Greek a simple question, “Why is the soup not ready?”
“Because it’s hot.”
Such an answer is universal.
“Why is the beach not cleaned?” “Because it’s hot.”
“Why is the shop closed?” “Because it’s hot.”
Achieving economic prosperity with such an approach to life and work seems problematic. But they are wonderful people. It is hard to find a frowning Greek. And they are lucky to be born in a country that was once inhabited by the gods themselves, at least, according to Greek myths.