Seeing the other Halkidiki

The real Halkidiki holds many surprises in store for those willing to look a little further than the beaches, hotels, seaside holiday homes, cafes, nightclubs and campsites. There are the smaller coves near Ierissos and Nea Roda and the architectural beauties of Afytos on the Cassandra peninsula. Also of interest are the lesser-known Varvara in northern Halkidiki and Vavdos with its unusual plane tree and marble pulpit, the traditional village of Parthenonas above Neos Marmaras (the oldest village in the prefecture) that is now slowly being destroyed by commercialization, and the «Professors’ Beach» at Vourvourou that got its name from the numerous nearby holiday homes belonging to Thessaloniki University faculty members. Or one can go to barren Diaporos, the largest of a number of islets near Ormos Panaghias, the island of Gerochristos, the beautiful Spalathronisia, the «crab holes» of Sarti, the unspoiled bays from Neos Marmaras to Koufos and Alatobares, and the ruins of Olynthos and ancient Toroni that Australian archaeologists have been slowly excavating for 20 years. Then there is Portaria with its famous apricots, the wheat fields, beekeepers, the old houses in Sykia, the mansions of Arnaia, the last charcoal factories in Vrastama, and the boatbuilders of Ierissos that use only cypress trees from Mt Athos for masts. Further afield are more secrets in store, of which the following are a small selection. DRENIA. A string of uninhabited islets just a short distance from the island of Amouliani, with beautiful beaches. On the largest are olive trees and pine trees, while pumice stones can be found on the beaches. Caiques from Ouranoupolis take visitors over to the islands and back to the mainland at nightfall. Fortunately, recent plans to build homes on these islands have come to nothing. SANCTUARY OF AMMON ZEUS. The most underrated archaeological site in Halkidiki, near one of its most popular beaches. According to archaeologist I. Papangelos, the Doric temple was destroyed during an invasion, probably in the third century BC. PITSAKAS, NIKITI. In Halkidiki, the pine tree is knowns as pitsakas, from the ancient Greek word pitys. A conifer bearing this name on the beach at Spathies, in Nikiti, is considered unique and estimated at over 300 years old. Melina Mercouri had the tree declared a natural monument. It is considered unusual not only because of its size but also because its roots are almost at the water’s edge. OLYMPIADA, NEOHORI. Over a distance of about 20 kilometers, the variety of vegetation forms a microcosm of all the forest ecosystems found throughout central and northern Europe, with a wealth of pharmaceutical and aromatic plants (238 of the total 850 species), which visitors once used to harvest in such large quantities that they are now in danger of disappearing altogether. The area is an important habitat for many birds, chiefly birds of prey. Wolves, foxes, jackals and wild pigs, hares and small deer find refuge in its deep valleys. UMBRELLA PINE FOREST, NIKITI, SITHONIA. One of Greece’s four umbrella pine forests is on the peninsula of Sithonia. Part of it was recently destroyed by fire, but it is flourishing once more. Not far away, on the road from Nikiti to Sykia, is the chapel of Aghios Pavlos. According to tradition, the Apostle Paul passed by this place when traveling around Greece. He was thirsty and struck the rock with his cane, causing water to flow from it. Water still flows from a fissure in the rock. In Sithonia, 1,114 species of plants (three of them endemic) have been recorded, a considerable number, given the total of 6,000 species found in Greece as a whole. MAVROBARA, CASSANDRA. This spring is above Polychrono on the Cassandra peninsula at a height of 280 meters, surrounded by pine forests and lush vegetation. Covering about 0.2 hectares, it is about 5 meters deep. In winter, its waters flow into a nearby waterfall. Some experts say its waters come from Mt Olympus, as is the case with other springs on the Cassandra peninsula.