Sitting at a beach side café in Possidi on the Halkidiki peninsula of Kassandra, this North American was struck by an unfamiliar scene. People were reading – not on tablet computers, not on smartphones or with wires dangling down from their ears. They were reading books, magazines and newspapers while relaxing in their umbrella shaded beach chairs. The sun glinted off the warm aqua blue water of the Aegean and both young and old were in the moment.
Soft jazz played in the background at the covered beachfront café of the Hotel Possidi Paradise. The music was soft enough to still hear the waves – soft enough to carry on a conversation in a normal tone of voice. Soft enough to hear children laughing with delight while they enjoyed the sea with older siblings and grandparents. Guests were busy with a Greek national pastime, dining.
This slim sliver of a village, Possidi, was but one iconic white washed small town among dozens that dot the pine and olive tree covered hills of the Halkidiki peninsulas creating the summer playground of Greek Macedonia. Fingers of land jutting into the Aegean, Kassandra, Sithonia and sacred Athos have, like all of Macedonia, been at the center of turbulent times since the 4th century B.C.E. In the 21st century the only turbulence seemed to be the long lines of cars every summer weekend that bring holiday seekers from Thessaloniki and Eastern Europe.
Driving the modern well-maintained arteries that hug the coastline of the peninsulas made exploring easy. A few interior roads access villages in the hills. It was difficult to get lost especially armed with the well-written and informative guide “Halkidiki Inside Your Dreams” by the Halkidiki Tourism Organization. Yet even if one did take a wrong turn, they would be apt to discover a small Orthodox church on the side of the road, a centuries old Byzantine tower, an archeological site from antiquity in a field, another secluded beach and everywhere the sweeping vistas of farmland and blue water.
In the seaside village of Loutra, lunch at Capitan Taverna combined excellent traditional Greek cuisine with a classic atmosphere. Costas Vamvakas opened his restaurant in 1977, and it has maintained both its popularity and quality since. An old grape arbor heavy with fruit covered the flower bedecked dining porch. Olive trees anchored the corners and a fountain burbled softly. Slightly warm dolmades with bright mint notes were paired with a chunky tzatziki sauce. Creamy, salty, fish roe taramosalata with a hint of dill enlivened fresh pita bread. A platter of fresh roasted sardines with parsley, olive oil, tomato and lemon were a gift from the Aegean Sea itself.
Just a few miles from Loutra was the Spa at Agia Paraskevi. Known for its hot sulfur springs, southern Kassandra has long been sought by people suffering bone and muscle disorders. With a commanding view of the sea, the modern spa facilities include pools, saunas, steam baths and hydro massage.
Pefkochori has become one of Kassandra’s most popular summer tourist destinations. Its long beachfront pedestrian walkway becomes a seaside carnival of cafes, food vendors, a small amusement park and shops. A number of accommodations are located in Pefkochori, including the excellent Flagra Palace Hotel and its fine dining at Ambrosia.
The larger, more mountainous peninsula of Sithonia mirrors Kassandra in beauty. Neos Marmaras, the commercial and tourist center of Sithonia, was a pile of red tile roofed white buildings that hug the hillsides and spill down to the wide crescent beach. Pine trees shaded the terrace of Taverna Horiatiki Gonia, which overlooked the harbor bustling with yachts and fishing boats. The taverna’s fish soup was a flavorful broth with carrots, yellow squash, potatoes and herbs. Paired with crusty bread and olive spread it was difficult to not just sit for the entire afternoon.
A short distance inland and commanding panoramic views of the coast lay the restored village of Parthenonas. This small mountain hamlet with impressive stone buildings was virtually abandoned by the late 1960s. It was rediscovered within the past couple decades and has emerged as an architecturally protected village desired by artists and at over 2,000 feet elevation, anyone seeking its cool tree shaded atmosphere. The peace and quiet, almost silence, was palpable wandering its streets.
Halkidiki and its peninsulas were an easy drive from Thessaloniki, Macadonia’s capital and the second largest city in Greece. A land of relaxation, numerous secluded beaches and iconic rural life, yet it possessed all the amenities a tourist would desire. But it was wandering the countryside unplugged that let the soul be transported back to another era.
Note: the author was a guest of the Halkidiki Tourism Organization and the Flegra Palace Hotel