The French writer, Andre Gide, once a said “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
In a Post-Covid world, there are still those who remain a little hesitant, possibly even reluctant, to make that all-important first step abroad in search of adventure and new experiences.
Countries are doing their bit; removing many of the Covid restrictions that made travel, first impossible, and more lately, less than welcoming.
However, for those living in the North of Wales, the thought of going anywhere via Manchester International Airport, has been marred by media reports of personnel shortages, endless queues and poor customer service.
Still, it has to be done. It’s early May 2022 and we’re heading to Skala Fourkas, a small seaside town on the smaller Kassandra peninsula in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Chalkidiki itself is a peninsula of Thessaloniki and the three minor peninsulas of Kassandra, Sithonia and Argos jut out of the bottom, like the three-pronged trident of Poseidon, or a cow’s udder, depending on how romantic you feel at the time.
It’s an area that teems with tourists in the summer. Greeks, Germans, Dutch and British, crowd the beaches, fill the bars and linger over long lunches in the many restaurants and tavernas. Around the edges of the extensive agricultural economy that produces olive oil, wines, green olives and honey for international consumption, lie multitudinous small resorts which survive on the tourist Euro.
It’s been a tough couple of years with the economy in lockdown due to the pandemic. In a part of the world where most money is made in a fragile few months from June until the end of September, removing even that opportunity has hit some small resorts hard. The international cost of living crisis as well as the Greek economy has meant that prices have risen but Mediterranean wages have painfully failed to keep abreast.
And yet, it’s hard to describe the absolute beauty of this part of the country. It’s pre-tourist season and there’s little traffic on the roads. The fields are an intense green, the hedges and trees are in leaf and the flowers are out in profusion. Osteosprermum and rock roses abound; purples, yellows, reds and whites bring so much colour to a country which will become arid and sun-baked in just a few months.
If you ever want to see Greece devoid of the chaotic tourist and full of the colours of Spring, then go out of season. You’ll meet only locals and be guaranteed that warm welcome the Greeks reserve for those who understand the true beauty of the mountains, the land and the sea.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
We leave Manchester International on a three hour flight that takes us out over Norfolk and the North Sea, down through Belgium and then south-east over Germany, Montenegro, Kosovo and into Northern Greece.
Manchester International wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. A couple of hours traversing from Arrivals to Departures. Yes, I know it seems a lot, but the media made me expect far worse. Makedonia Airport in Thessaloniki was far easier. EU, Schengen and non-EU passengers all in the same queue, none of this ridiculous Brexit segregation that we’ve grown to expect from reading the tabloids.
We collect a rental car, squeeze the bags onto the back seat and ourselves into the front… and head south.
Less than an hour later, we arrive at the sleepy seaside town of Skala Fourka. It’s easy to see that this is a relatively new village and the sheer quantity of rooms, apartments and houses must make this a lively, buzzing centre during the summer season proper. But, at the moment, summer has still to arrive and the beach bars, tavernas, fish restaurants and trendy ‘dine and dance’ cafes are closed. Well, almost. There are a few supermarkets open as is the Artisan bakery, a few smaller cafes and the odd beach shop.
But, the benefit to us, as travellers, is that we almost have the beach to ourselves. And what a beautiful beach it is. Backed by a village of low-rise accommodation and two-storey villas; the golden strand of Mediterranean sand leads down to clear waters on a pebble base which ensures water with the clarity of glass. Across the bay – far into the distance, the mountains of Thessaly and the great Mount Olympus still show their snow-covered tips.
This is a seaside village that faces due west. The sun rises on the plain of Kassandra and bathes the town all day, but every evening, the whole village is bathed in glorious sunsets as the sun casts the last of it glow across the Thermaic Gulf before disappearing down behind the far off mountains.
We’ve rented Hemera House, a family-owned Airbnb in a small block of residential holiday lets and permanent homes at the edge of the village. From here to the central square is a brief ten minute stroll, five minutes if you walk between the salt water and the sea’s strand, but it’s far enough out of town to be private and, during the high season, presumably a little less of the frenetic traffic.
The house sleeps six, but for the next fortnight, there are just the two of us, so we stretch out and enjoy the views from the three balconies. The gate to the beach is less than twenty yards from the kitchen door with the sea less than ten yards from there.
And there is no one else here? Well, almost no one. Julia, who lives nearby up keeps going missing and her son walks the beach calling for her. Dimitri and Jimmie, Greek and German respectively, are supposedly working on renovating the house next door, but tend to arrive late and leave ridiculously early.
The owner is Darko Dimitrov, a musical arranger, who is currently in Turin with the Montenegro Eurovision Song Contest entry, ‘’Breathe’”, sends his father round regularly to check on progress with the work. His father, Slave Dimitrov, is also a musician and a recording artist in his own right. He speaks very little English, but sighs deeply and shakes his head at the indolence of builders and the fact that, no matter what time of day he arrives, they are never actively engaged in what they are being paid to do. I tell him to come back between 9.30 and and 10 a.m. when he has a good chance of seeing them, if only drinking coffee and chatting. This is the time to make good progress in building, he tells me. In a matter of weeks, it’ll be too hot to do anything after about noon.
After a lunch of Tiropita, Greek cheese set into a filo pastry and Mythos beer, we stroll through the town. The trees are full of oranges and lemons and we collect a few ‘windfalls’. The restaurants are preparing for the season, everything has had a fresh coat of paint and there are wonderful corner tables under olive trees, made perfect for those Shirley Valentine moments.
The cafes and restaurants are newly painted in that typical combination of Greek sea blue and shimmering white that one expects on islands like Santorini but there are also trendier beach bars, cafes selling gyros and places where you can ‘dine and dance’…presumably not at the same time? Or, maybe so, maybe they’ve just dispensed with the soup course?
Just at the end of the town is the newest, and biggest Lidl I’ve ever seen. Food and drink from the town mini-markets or the Ellennika larger supermarket is not cheap, so Lidl is going to be hugely popular this summer. It’s very new. There’s a car park for at least 300 cars and I feel spoiled for choice as my little Fiat Panda is….the only car there. The assistants seem very pleased to see me and continually smile as I load up my trolley with local Greek white and red wines, local beers, local bread, Greek salad products and meat for the barbecue all labelled and stamped as having been sourced without wasting endless air miles. It’s good to see. I feel guilty that this is not local shopping but, at least it’s regional.
In May, the sun still shines almost all day and the temperature reads 24C – but it feels warmer than this when the breeze drops. The sea is still refreshingly cold. Well, no, it’s cold – at least in the morning. But by 3 p.m. it’s certainly accessible without goose-pimples. . Whether that’s refreshing or not depends on your disposition, tolerance and personal thermostats. There’s one regular morning swimmer. It’s not me, by the way. It’s a lady (I suspect it might be Julia) who emerges from the waves in a floral swimsuit and, well let’s just say, she’s well-covered in more ways than one. She heads away, between the houses – presumably home, too used to the freedom of the chilled waters to need a towel. It’s after this morning routine that she seems to go missing for the rest of the day…
The first afternoon’s peace is shattered. The builders next door have downed tools after demanding money from the father of the owner, got drunk and disappeared. Father is not best pleased and quizzes us, but we know nothing as Manuel would have said. Realising he’s not exactly on a winning streak, he does what most men would do in his position, he returns home and fetches the wife.
My goodness, now here is a force with which to contend. I’m on the phone to my son in Oman when she arrives. Her English is far better than her husband’s and she is clearly not best pleased at the lethargy being shown by the local artisan classes.
“Finish your call and then I want a word with you!”
Do I look like a local builder? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.
By the time I say goodbye to our son, she has calmed down a little. She smiles and she asks where we are from.
‘Wales’ I say ‘Ha!’ comes the reply.
And then the worst impersonation of a Cardiff accent you’re ever likely to hear…but we laugh and she tells me that before the Euro and the Greek economic crisis, there were regular flights out from Cardiff and Gatwick bringing Welsh tourists to this part of the mainland.
She’s off to search the local bars and hideaways to find her employees…and she returns a little later with possibly the foreman, possibly the agent…maybe even the architect. Thankfully, whoever he is, he’s sober and she discusses progress, or lack of it, quietly and politely. Her husband, standing a few paces behind – clearly knowing his position in life, he smiles and shrugs. So it is the world over, I suspect?… (another rhetorical question)
The east coast of the western peninsula.
The Kassandra peninsula is the most western of the three ‘prongs’ that emerge at the lower end of Thessaloniki.
It’s easy to reach all parts of the peninsula in quite a short drive. We head north to Siviri and then cut inland, through Kassandra and Kalithea to Afitos on the eastern coast.
Afitos has the reputation of being one of the most photographed and picturesque villages in the area. It’s built on a hillside leading down to shingle and sand beaches. The village is a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets, stone houses and endless displays of flowers.
It’s touristy here, in a very tasteful way. Cafes and restaurants abound, but there is still an abundance of local life. School’s out by 1 p.m. and an almost endless line of students make their way down through the village – all heading for an afternoon on the beach. No urgent homework for them, that’s for sure.
We pop into Mandanis bakery and buy a Margarita loaf. Six rolls, baked in a Bundt and resembling the daisy flower. By lunchtime, the deck ovens are cool and most of the baskets are empty. Bread is popular the world over, and nowhere so much as in Greece, I dare say.
Still, Afitos provides a wonderful backdrop while we sit sipping thick Greek coffee and nibbling on freshly baked bread.
We head south now, along the only route to Polichrono, then Chanlotis and finally to Paliouri. All along this route, there has been extensive tourist expansion. Luxury villas and hotels have been built, mainly on the eastern side of the road, tastefully hidden in wooded glades with their own access to the beaches. Each small town has its usual strip of everyday shops, supermarkets, cafes and bars, but nowhere is too big or untidy. It reminds you a lot of those small towns in Arizona that you drive through on your way to somewhere else.
It’s not easy to drive from Paliouri to the furthest point south, Cape Paliouri. The road is rough but it would take a four-wheel drive vehicle, sadly, not a Fiat Panda. . From there and directly south, lie a few islands and then, eventually, Athens. Head east and it’s Limnos and, very soon, Turkey and the coast of Izmir.
We head home via Agia Paraskevi where the beach is dominated by the massive Thermal Baths and Spa and which dwarfs the picturesque village of Loutra.T hen, it’s on to Nea Skioni, where the old deserted hillside fishing village has made way for a newer development down at the harbour and, sensibly, a lot nearer the boats and the sea.
By 5 p.m., at this time of year, the sun has warmed the shallows up sufficiently not to take your breath away when you first walk out into the sea. It’s still cool but the latter part of the day is more comfortable than first thing in the morning when the chill of night has yet to be burnt away by the Mediterranean sun. It’s time for a daily dip.
And, it is so very beautiful.
Living along the Thermaic Gulf, at the shoreline, was a precarious existence. With your back to the sea, you were clearly vulnerable from attack from the land. At night, or in the early dawn, you were also vulnerable from the sea.
It’s no surprise that many of the fishing communities that dot the whole coastline here started life as villages up in the hills, a few kilometres away from the sea’s strand.
Skala Fourka, where we are staying, is a relatively new development but Fourka itself is four kilometres inland, in the hills and in a slightly less vulnerable spot.
Another such village is Skioni. Ancient Skioni used to be known as Tsaprani and was abandoned in 1930 and the villagers now live a few kilometres away, on the coast at Nea Skioni. The churches remain and are sites for pilgrims who wander up to remember the old ways. In its time Ancient Skioni or Tsapraini was besieged by Athens (423 BC) as punishment for welcoming the Spartan general Brasidas during the Peloponnesian Wars. It resisted for two years before surrendering, after which every male was slaughtered by the Athenians for their treachery.
Siviri, on the other hand, was built as a coastal village and its economy comes from local fishing as well as tourism. The waters around here are tranquil and shallow, ideal for families, but the Greek government has been insistent that there will be no high-rise development. Small hotels and blocks of apartments sit sympathetically into the environment of pine forests and wooded glades and small restaurants provide ideal locations for those long meals at the edge of the sea and evenings watching the sun disappear into the western horizon.
Whereas the eastern coast of the Kassandra peninsula, the most western of the three peninsulas, the western coast itself has avoided major development. The waters might be a degree or two cooler here and there is usually a gentle but cooling breeze. It’s the sheer unspoilt beauty that one has to admire and for which the visitor can be grateful. Let’s be honest, whilst there are properties for holiday makers, it has the feeling of being ‘residential’ rather than being the creation of purpose-built compounds.
At the Takis Fish Tavern in the main square here in Fourka, there is the Shirley Valentine table. The restaurant is at the edge of the sea and in the corner of the outside verandah is a small white deck built around an olive tree. On the deck is a small white table with two, pale blue painted chairs and a white tablecloth. It faces due west and takes in that glorious sunset that happens every single night. Just before sunset, the whole deck and this part of it in particular is bathed with golden light and you say quietly to yourself:
“The only thing I ever wanted to do was travel. I’d like to drink a glass of wine, sitting by the sea, watching the sun go down”
It’s perfect, and that is not an exaggeration.
We dine on fresh sardines and grilled pork, with slim fresh Patates Tiganites, the distinctive Greek fried potato, plump olives and a salad of fresh leaves, warm beef tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and croutons.
The waiter tells us he’s from Thessaloniki and comes here for the summer season. We’re two weeks early, which is fine by me. Once the season gets underway, he tells us that it’s so very busy that people have to reserve tables days in advance. Every lunchtime and every evening they are full to the brim.
That must suit the dozens of Greek cats that hover at the edge of the boardwalk, by the restaurant doors and also creep under the tables around your feet. They are clearly unionised. The big tom cats, the uglier ones with bits missing from their ears and a look of ‘Go on, just try it!’, sit furthest away and send the young beautifully-marked marmalade and grey cats to put delicate paws on your leg or arm as they look you pitifully in the eye while never quite taking their gaze off your plate.
The waiter shoos them off with a loud clap of the hands and tells us they are well-fed at the end of service from the kitchen door. They’re just enterprising, he adds, as he serves us more chilled house wine, slices of halva and shots of the local tsipouro, a grappa tasting ever so faintly of aniseed.
We wander home. The village is livelier than we’ve seen it. The shops are open late selling Greek honey, cosmetics, soaps and traditional gifts. The usual tourist outlets selling ‘tourist tat’ are definitely in the minority here. The population has multiplied by…well, maybe fifty people. It all feels like a rehearsal for nights to come when the shutters on the apartments will be flung open and the streets will be filled by visitors from Greece, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK.
From the upper balcony, we watch a couple of late swimmers stretching their back stroke in the moonlight but the wine has taken effect and we seek welcome sleep, listening to the sound of the waves breaking gently on the shore.
Turtles, snakes and a tortoise.
After a late breakfast, or was it an early lunch, we head south east to Polychrono, a pretty seaside resort with a decent-sized village attached.
On the way, we manage to steer round a rather large snake with a yellow underbelly, trying to cross the road without being reduced to a rather wide belt. Not feeling inclined to help it on its way, we slow down and make sure that it’s still there in the rear mirror as we drive off.
A little further on, we have to slow down again. This time we stop. A large tortoise is crossing the road. Careful to make sure we work out which direction it was going we pick it up and move it to the edge of the field. After all, at that speed and with that amount of effort it must be galling if some passing do-gooder picks you up and puts you back where you were an hour earlier and facing the wrong way. I don’t think I’ve seen a tortoise in the wild for years. There was a time when you could buy them as pets but thankfully, that practice seems to have almost stopped and it probably saved hundreds of thousands of the lovely creatures from cold hibernating deaths in British gardens, garages and sheds.
We’re heading for Mavrobara Lake. It’s a gruelling 3km walk from the roadside outside of Polychrono. It’s very, very uphill all the way. The summit is 300 metres from the road and the temperature is well into the late 20’s. There are those intrepid visitors with four-wheel drive vehicles who try to manage to reach the top, but for us with little rental cars, there’s no option other than to park up and put our best feet forward.
In wet weather, the track must be a nightmare. The deep ruts are testament to that. In the sand and the dust, we see further evidence of snakes in their tell-tale tracks zig-zagging across the road.
Eventually, we arrive at the lake. It’s home to two species of endangered turtle. Emys orbicularis and Mauremys caspica – the European Pond Turtle and the Caspian Turtle, respectively. There are also quite a few frogs and a good stock of tadpoles. It’s a very peaceful place and probably more the size of a large pond than a lake But, it clearly never dries out and the turtles flourish here.
Oh, and there are the ants. They breed big ants here. Half an inch of pure muscle, shifting dead beetles on their backs, they are busy, busy, busy. They deserve their reputation as industrious little beings. We give them a wide berth.
The track is all downhill on the way back, and for that we’re grateful. We pass Italian hikers and a lone bare-chested German who looks like he means business. All he’s missing is the lederhosen and an Alpine yodel.
We stop to admire yet another snake that’s out looking for its tea but making bad choices trying to cross tarmac. This one is a little over three feet long and brown with a small head. You can tell the extent of my ignorance in being able to identify the species of any of these reptiles…never really wanting to get that close, if I’m to be perfectly honest.
It’s Sunday, and it’s noticeable how the tavernas in every village, town and beach resort are full. Clearly, there’s a strong tradition here of eating out on a Sunday. The last vestiges of pleasure before the weekly grind starts all over again.
It takes about an hour to drive from the Kassandra peninsula north, across the Nea Potidea canal and up into what is referred to as Central Chalkidiki,
Immediately, you notice the change. The main town, Polygyros, has a business-like feel to it. The traffic increases and, whilst it’s pleasant enough and a useful source of all those things we need, it’s worth only a short stop and then there’s the desire for quiet roads and endless countryside,
We head north east to Arnaia. It’s very agricultural here and, in the Spring, the edges of the field are full of yellow gorse, red poppies, daisies and blue ribwort. Olive groves are well trimmed and healthy. Beehives are everywhere; almost every corner of every field seems to have a stick of hives. Even the bees seem bigger, as well.
What does strike you is the absence of livestock. We’ve driven for a long time now and we haven’t seen a cow or a goat. Interestingly, the restaurant menus tend to be either pork or chicken dishes. There’s very little evidence of lamb. And I’m not sure why not? Is it because the Greek Isles tend more for the tourist than here on the mainland? An interesting question.
We climb the 600 metres from sea level up to Arnaia. It feels very different, almost Alpine. The guide book refers to it as a ‘Brigadoon’ of wooden and stone houses. It’s certainly a curiosity. The stone houses have timber balconies and the roofs slope in a way that would suggest winter snows. The streets are cobbled and two huge schools right in the centre of the village draw in students from miles around.
We sit drinking coffee in the company of a convoy of BMW motorcycle tourists from Istanbul. Motorcycling looks fun, but once they’ve had their break and been to the cafe’s toilet, it’s quite a performance getting ready for the next leg of their journey. On go the boots over their leather trousers and braces. Then the jackets and the balaclavas, the helmets and the gloves. Hang on, someone can’t find the key, so most of it comes off again. Got it…..and the process starts again. The communal rag to wipe visors is passed around and pillion passengers, who all seem to be wives or girlfriends, climb up into position.
‘Bikers’ once had quite a reputation. But these are in the ‘mature’ stage of life and this is not a cheap hobby. They have intercom links between bikes and cameras fitted to their helmets or handlebars. There’s a determination in the way they gather in the street outside of the cafe and a hierarchy, clearly. All but one couple ride R1600s and the couple with the Ducati know their place and bring up the rear.
On the way home, we pass Ancient Olynthos. It’s probably one of the best preserved Classical cities in Greece. Odd that it only lasted 84 years before being destroyed by the Persians. So much for classical longevity.
The wind changes
Overnight, the wind has changed direction. Instead of coming from south to north and creating little ripples off the surface of the Thermaic gulf, it’s now coming from north to south, turning the waves and churning up the water with fine sand. There’s a storm a’comin’. Well, okay, there’s only a 3% chance of rain but the sky over the mountains in the distance are dark and ther’s a stiff, albeit warm breeze.
We decide to drive to the eastern coast of this western peninsula where we know the threat of rain will be diminished and the coast will be protected by the western side of the Sithonia Peninsula.
Our first stop is the lovely town of Kalithea. Already, it’s baking hot and there’s not a trace of wind. just south of the town is the Ammon Zeus sanctuary. It’s one of the most important temples in this part of Greece. Temple and bath installation date back to late 5th century BC.
To be honest, it’s been reduced to foundations but you can still trace the outline of the rooms and the bath houses. The hedges were in full bloom …which can be daunting when you close in for a macro shot of the flowers to be greeted by the smiling face of a rather large bright green snake.
It’s a little more developed on this side of the peninsula, presumably to take advantage of the sheltered coastline and the sea is definitely a degree or maybe two warmer. Not by much, though.
We head for Nea Fokea, a sleepy fishing port that has developed into something of a beach resort as well.
High on a bluff sits a St. Paul’s Byzantine tower and chapel. There’s a group of visitors standing around drinking wine and chatting to two guides, instantly recognisable in their Tom Conti white shirts and black trousers.
I stalk the edges, picking up snippets of conversation. They are British, and rather well-spoken from the Home Counties, by all accounts. They are ‘of a certain age’, which leads me to suspect that they are either off a cruse ship and having a ‘wine and culture’ day out or enjoying a slightly elongated wine tour.
“We’re the Greeks involved in World War One?” asks one smartly-dressed lady.
“Yes”, comes the reply, “but it was a little complicated.”
What do they say? History is written by the victors? It gets worse….
“Ah”, says our lady visitor, “but they obviously were on the right side, like the UK.”
UK! You could almost hear the unfurling of the Boris flags that they’d brought along!
I mean the word ‘complicated’ doesn’t even touch the sides…but perhaps, it’s better to live and let live. There are times and places for historical perspective, opinions and views. It’s not today, here in Thessalonika, despite the fact that North Macedonia suffered so badly,.,,
I just wish people would do their homework.
A change in the weather
The forecast is for rain, but we don’t see any. However, it’s clear that seventy miles away across the Gulf and as the crow flies,high up in the Itamos mountains, it’s a different story.
Far away, the top of Mount Olympus ( 2918m) is covered with fresh snow. Skies have been dark and both sheet and forked lightning have lit up the skies and provided an evening show.
For us, over the other side of the gulf, it’s meant a change in the wind direction, now coming from the north, and this has also forced a drop in temperature by a degree or three. It’s made the flies a little more active as well, and hungry.
Although it’s not mosquito season, not quite yet, a few early diners have been out seeking an early-season meal. My other half has been bitten and her arm is infected.
We pop into the local pharmacy. The pharmacist was probably off on the day they covered ‘bedside manners, customer service and how to smile at potential patients’.
“It’s infected. You need to see a doctor. The nearest Health Centre is in Kassandria, ten kilometres down the big road. Go there. I can give you cream but, no sun, no sea, OK?’
A few minutes later, we pull into the car park at the Health Centre. We’re still under COVID rules, so everybody is wearing masks and no one is allowed inside until it’s their turn. Just like home, the gatekeeper is the medical receptionist. And, just like home, it’s not enough to ask for an appointment. There is the discussion about your ailments and the subsequent diagnosis. I think all medical receptionists are qualified consultants, surgeons and recipients of Nobel Prizes. It must be a requirement on the application form.
After only fifteen minutes waiting in the sunshine, she emerges with a prescription.
We cross the road to the Pharmacy and hand in the prescription. Antibiotics and cream, and strict instructions to sit in the shade.
I hand in my passport. Remember, this is post-Brexit. EHICs have expired and there are no alternatives, yet! We live in Wales where prescriptions are free and over the border, each item is £9.13 and we’re told this is a subsidised price because of the NHS.
Here, in Greece, we pay £16 for two items. We’re not part of the Greek Health system, we’re ‘in off the streets’ and we’re not in the European Community.
Once again, Brexit might have happened, but it’s not working.
And so, we reach the end of our time here in this beautiful part of Greece.
I always wondered what Greece would be like if you could remove the seasonal visitors and live life like the locals. Whilst we must remember that it’s the seasonal visitors who are relied on for income, if you ever want to see Greece in its full colour, come in Spring. You won’t regret it.