by Elizabeth Willoughby
“Eating is all about memories,” says chef George Palisidis. “General George”, as he introduces himself, is a man whose passion for food is tangible and whose enthusiasm is contagious as he talks about pairing and enjoying and what makes a good meal. When one looks at wine and cuisine the way George does, it’s as if experiencing them for first time.
Greek servings are small, beautiful and numerous. Here, according to chef Palisidis, is the way to eat. Raise your plate to your chin, close your eyes and swirl the dish while breathing in deeply through your nose. Pause and savour whatever memories waft your way. Then, in typical Greek fashion, eat, chat and wash it all down with the local varietals recommended to accompany each dish. Science agrees with George, by the way. Smell connects to the part of our brain associated with memory and emotion. From an aroma, the brain can reconstruct a memory that includes sounds and visuals.
Over dinner George talks about the Chefs Club of which he is a member. The club is responsible for the implementation of the ‘Greek Breakfast’ certification standards in Halkidiki, northern Greece. Any establishment serving a morning meal with the official ‘Greek Breakfast’ label must use culinary products sourced from within 115 kilometres (with documentation to prove it), the dishes must be creative and stylish in presentation, and they must taste good, naturally.
Try this road trip of General George’s Halkidiki, a region known for its wine, seafood, mountain game, herbs, honey, olives and oil, and where the ‘three legs’ of the Kassandra, Sithonia and Mount Athos peninsulas jut into the glistening Aegean Sea. Halkidiki’s 1,500 beaches along 550 kilometres (342 miles) of coastline top the Blue Flags chart for Greece with environmentally pristine beaches and marinas. If you have more time, there are nearby regions of northern Greece included in this tour. Check out the forgotten old inland city of Serres, venture up to the forest rich mountains bordering Bulgaria and down to the macro climate of Lake Kerkini. Then head back down to Pieria, Greece’s smallest regional unit, where mighty Zeus resides on Mount Olympus and archeological sites prevail alongside the Thermaic Gulf’s blue waters.
1st stop: Kassandra Peninsula
74 kilometres/ 46 miles from Thessaloniki International Airport ‘Makedonia’ (SKG) to Blue Bay Hotel
Prearrange your car rental timed for your arrival at SKG airport and head straight towards family-friendly Kassandra laden with beach resorts. Byzantine remnants and ruins are here, there and everywhere, so stop and peruse whenever it suits you, but do make time for a wine tasting at Tsantali. Today one of the largest wine producers in Greece, the Tsantali family has been making wine since 1890 and manages its privately-owned vineyards and supervises its cooperatives. See if it is possible to tour their wine and ouzo production facilities as well as the smoother tsipouro, an anise-flavoured spirit made with the pomace of the red grapes after vinification. For some generations-old atmosphere, ask for a peek at the musty, oak barrel wine cellar; cool and dim, it’s made extra spooky by the density of cobwebs.
In Potidea, just past the narrow canal at the thinnest stretch between the mainland and peninsula, Marina and its palm, pine and chestnut trees overlook a tiny fishing port and the Thermaic Gulf. Don’t let the ‘tavern’ tag mislead you at this multi-award-winning restaurant. Seafood is the specialty here; think fish egg tarama, shrimp and orzo, octopus and tiny, deep fried calamari for starters. Come hungry.
Then make your way to Blue Bay Hotel, a family-owned hotel that overlooks the Torean Gulf from 60 metres (197 feet) up and 75 steps down to the beach. Spacious suites combine natural materials and colour tones in luxurious comfort. Walk the 600 metres (under half a mile) into Afytos, a settlement that can be traced to the 1st century. Overlooking the sea and well-stocked with restaurants, cafes and tourist offerings, the compact village is a colourful hodgepodge of homes and shops set along hilly stone alleys, stairways and streets without sidewalks.
Alternatively, if you can sustain a minimum five-day stay, consider the Sani Resort, named after the nearby Sani Wetlands bird sanctuary and reserve that guests can also visit on foot or by bicycle. Sani Resort contains a marina and four distinct resorts within. Developed according to customer feedback over 40 years, if you plan it right, you could dine in a different restaurant every night. For over a decade, Sani has been holding a week-long Greek cuisine festival each May, called Sani Gourmet, when various top chefs get creative with traditional Greek dishes. Even before a dish reaches your nose, it’s a piece of art on the plate. Don’t miss the Sani Music Festival (July through mid-August), whether or not you stay in this all-encompassing luxury resort.
2nd stop: Sithonia Peninsula
±75 kilometres/ 47 miles from Blue Bay to Ekies
Plan to arrive at Ekies All Senses Resort in time for lunch. In this eco friendly resort on Vouvourou Bay, you won’t want to miss a single meal at its beachside restaurant. In typical Greek fashion, small servings combine local ingredients in delightful ways: ink squid risotto with shrimp and krokos kosani saffron sauce, followed with sea bass and eggplant salad, followed with Greek yoghurt and wildflower honey, then panacotta and halva…
Afterwards, drive over to Domaine Porto Carras for a wine tasting. It’s the largest organic vineyard in Greece. The vineyard, port and resort complex were created by eccentric jetsetter John Carras in 1970, so it comes as no surprise that it was a playground for the big names of the day, including Jackie Onassis and Salvador Dali, whose sketches of his friend John are framed on the wine tasting room’s wall. Today (2018) the resort retains the aura of its former grandeur along with some wear and tear in some of the suites, but the wine tasting room is modern enough. Porto Carras’ Limnio wine uses an ancient grape native to Limnos Island – it was the favourite of Aristotle (the philosopher, not the shipping magnate).
Next day, join Nikitas Stratos on an inland tour of Sithonia by jeep. Bounce along coastal roads and up into pine forest with stops at lookout points for views of the Torean Gulf to the west and Singitic Gulf to the east. Stratos knows the back roads well, even when they’re furrowed by streams and encroached upon by grass and ferns. He is also full of fun anecdotes of Zeus and his offspring, and he makes a mean Greek coffee at break time, but it’s up to you to read your fortune from your cup’s coffee grounds.
3rd stop: Mount Athos Peninsula
Mount Athos Peninsula
±106 kilometres/ 66 miles from Sithonia to Eagles Palace
(including the 55-kilometre/ 34-mile winery detour)
Head inland from Ekies to Domaine Claudia Papayianni in Arnea for a wine tasting before making your way to Eagles Palace. Claudia began her venture into wine-making in 2003, when she purchased some wheat fields and turned them into vineyards. Not a typical vintner, Claudia is young and female. She only gained respect from other vintners once her wines began winning industry prizes. Do a wine tasting in her cellar, designed to look and feel like old caves despite her state-of-the-art facilities.
While in Arnea, take a peek into St Stephanos Orthodox Church. When it was destroyed by fire in 2005, the church sought to keep the main pillars to rebuild on, so dug around them to test their strength. In doing so, they discovered a Byzantium church underneath. The new St Stephanos, completed in just over a year after the fire, contains Plexiglas windows in the floor to view graves and parts of the original church. Arnea is also a centre for preserving traditional art, song, dance and customs. There are museums of 18th-century textiles and utensils and unique house facades in the old neighbourhoods.
The elegant, family-owned Eagles Palace resort (in Greece only a five star hotel can use ‘palace’ in its name) has achieved an unexpected sense of seclusion to complement the beautiful ocean views and impeccable level of service. The wine cellar includes the Tornivoukas family’s own wines and the kitchen uses the family’s own olive oil. You can try both at the Kamares by Spondi restaurant. Or, have the chef pair a five-course meal for you, which could include sea bass Carpaccio flavoured with lime and served with Moschofilero Skouras white wine, and lamb fillet cooked with rosemary and marjoram served with aromatic potatoes and Agiorgitiko Skouras Nemea.
Since females are not allowed on Mount Athos and since males need to apply for entrance well ahead of time, take advantage of being so close to Ouranoupolis, the small port village from where morning boat tours depart to view the monasteries along the coastline. The closer you are to the front of the line on the dock, the better your chances of getting a table on the lower, covered deck, though most people head to the upper deck presuming it will have a better view (it’s the same as below but with less sun/rain/wind protection). Refreshments and souvenirs are sold on the ferry, as well as in the mainland shops leading towards the dock. The three-hour cruise reveals details and historical facts about the coastal monasteries the boat passes, which are relayed to passengers over the sound system (don’t sit under a speaker).
If beaches are your thing, opt instead to stay on Ammouliani, the island just two miles out from the beginning of Mount Athos peninsula, accessible by ferry from port Tripiti.
Formerly a dependency of one of the Mount Athos monasteries, Ammouliani was home to a couple of monks and some labourers until refugees arrived in the 1920s. It has grown in population to around 600 today. This number balloons in the summer, however, with tourists coming to enjoy the island’s beaches.
At only 4.5 square kilometres (1.7 square miles), the island has 22 beaches that vary in size and infrastructure. Small and remote beaches are accessed by dirt roads that wind downhill through low vegetation until they reach the sand, where maybe a tent is set up and a jeep is parked nearby, or a kayak has been dragged up onto the shore. The long stretches of beach have soft, clean sand out to the shallow, clear water surrounding the island, which supports boaters, anglers, divers, swimmers and all manner of floating devices for recreation seekers. The large beaches are serviced by restaurants and bars, and their lines of numbered umbrellas and lounge chairs are serviced by wait staff.
The village is on Ammouliani’s eastern shore where the ferry comes in. To accommodate the locals and visitors are numerous restaurants and stores, hotels and B&Bs throughout the steep, nameless streets. Helianthus is a guesthouse that shares the main square in the town centre with the Church of St Nicholas and two other stone buildings built by the monks in the 1800s. Recently renovated from the owner’s home into the guesthouse they now run, Helianthus has been in the same family for three generations, since they arrived as refugees as a result of the ‘Greece-Turkey population exchange’ nearly 100 years ago.
Read an extended version about the Ammouliani Island experience here.
4th stop: Serres
138 kilometres / 86 miles from Tripiti Port to Elpida Resort & Spa
145 kilometres/ 90 miles from Ouranoupolis to Elpida Resort & Spa
There are still a couple of things left to do on your way out of the Halkidiki region en route to Serres. Drive north from Tripiti/Ouranoupolis along the east coast (40-50 minutes) to Olympiada, but just ahead of the town stop to wander about the partially excavated ruins of Ancient Stageira, the birthplace of Aristotle, founded around 655 BCE. There are two sites here to visit. Next to the road is a trail to the South Hill where the Acropolis is. Visitors can walk around its Classical wall, circular water tank and military guard rooms, as well as take in the pretty vista, whose surveillance capabilities are probably why this site was originally chosen.
Then walk down the steep hill (or drive) to the second site called North Hill to stroll about further remains of antiquity uncovered throughout the forested area. The stoa, agora, sanctuary and even a tiered house overlooking treetops and coastline are well worth exploring. Aristotle was born in Stageira in 384 BCE and went to Athens when he was 18 to study in Plato’s Academy before becoming a teacher of Alexander the Great. Take your time in Stageira to picture the famous philosopher and his contemporaries going about life on the grounds. As with many city ruins throughout Greece and Turkey, it’s not difficult to imagine life as it once was amongst the walls, roads, carvings and platforms.
Now, head to Olympiada for lunch at Akroyiali, formerly called Germaniko after owner Dimitris Sarris because he’d spent some years in Germany. Dimitris runs the seaside tavern and hotel with his sister, Loulou, who is flown into Athens every now and then to appear on Greek television cooking shows. She also gives cooking lessons to guests. “We support our grandmother’s cuisine,” says Dimitris, which includes dishes such as stuffed pastry with pastrami, stuffed pepper with rice and aromatic herbs, zucchini minced with herbs and potato, and steamed mussels in mustard and lemon sauce with pepper. Try their retsina, the family table wine, after a tsipouro, and end your meal with a piece of Loulou’s walnut cake with nutmeg, date and sesame seeds.
Finally, drive on to Serres, quickly check in to Elpida Resort & Spa, then head out to soak in the atmosphere of the old town while it’s still light out. Harking back to 500 BCE in literature (mentioned by Herodotus as Siris, the place where Xerxes left the sacred chariot of Zeus during his march to Greece), the town displays Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Greek influences. Serres today is the second largest city in northern Greece and pleasantly devoid of tourists while it reemerges from Greece’s financial woes of the recent past. Check out its Byzantine Acropolis, St Nicholas Church and Tower of Orestes and enjoy the site’s great overview of the town and beyond. Then head downhill to observe the neoclassical buildings, the old churches (they close at sunset), peruse the pedestrian commercial streets (Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons are market days), and people watch around Liberty Square where young and old congregate daily, truly enjoying their space in the world. It’s a joy to witness. After dark have dinner and drinks indoors or out. Kathodon is an excellent option that locals return to regularly for its tasty, traditional Greek fare and comfortable setting. Alternatively, if you’re craving more social interaction, just look for congregations of people and choose the establishment you fancy the most, before taking a cab back to the resort.
The next morning, daylight will accentuate Elpida’s spaciousness and large windows that overlook the park-like surroundings and neighbouring forest and lake. Such features, as well as the full spa downstairs, will temp you to stay put, but there are some worthwhile out-of-town sites to investigate, so plan to stay in ‘The Valley’ for a couple of days to get the most out of it. Before hitting the road to Fort Roupel, consider booking any late-afternoon spa treatments that you may desire when you return.
This first side trip, Fort Roupel, is 45 kilometres/28 miles north of Elpida, in the mountains just shy of the Bulgarian border. Due to Bulgaria’s dissatisfaction with the redrawn maps after WWI, a worried Greece began the 10-year project to build a line of 24 fortresses along their shared border for protection. Construction workers were brought in blindfolded and worked at night for two or three months in restricted sections before being replaced by new workers. Thinking that they were actually mining, complete secrecy was enabled for four years until WWII came knocking, but only 21 of the forts were ready and the underground infrastructure was incomplete. Roupel, the sixth built, was the biggest of the forts and proved to be impenetrable.
Today, Fort Roupel is managed by the Greek army and tours are guided by one of the residing soldiers, who describes the Fort’s history and its most interesting battles. As great a yarn as they come, you’ll hear how the Nazis, unable to take the Fort, went around it and conquered Thessaloniki instead; trying afterwards to convince Commander Georgios Douratsos to give up Fort Roupel was still another battle — of words.
The tour then goes underground. Throughout six kilometres of tunnels with two-metre-thick walls, 1,000 soldiers at a time could be stationed here with supplies for one month. Scenes are staged using mannequins to give visitors a picture of what life was like there in 1941. There’s also an above-ground museum displaying uniforms, weaponry, paraphernalia and a model showing a cross section of the underground establishment. Re-enactments are held here twice a year.
Next day head over to the Kerkini port, less than 60 kilometres/ 40 miles northwest of Elpida. Lake Kerkini is an artificial lake that was created in 1932. Iannis, the owner of nearby hotel/tavern Oikoperiigitis, created an environmental centre for Kerkini to protect the lake through his self-built infrastructure, his educational programs, and by lobbying local authorities. His guesthouse was built using local materials, he uses traditional boats for lake excursions, and his experienced guides, often Vasilis, are filled to the brim with facts and figures of the resulting effects of the lake on the environment and wildlife. Despite the boat returning to port, you’ll sense that Vasilis is only getting started with his sharing of knowledge. Wildlife viewing, outdoor excursions, photo tours and bird watching are possible year round here, even when the lake freezes and the ground is blanketed in snow. Scientists and students come to Oikoperiigitis to conduct studies and research, tourists and nature aficionados for the close-up wildlife and photo opportunities.
Staying overnight here is an option, but even if you don’t, do take a peek at Oikoperiigitis accommodations. They’re unique. Then stay for lunch in the traditional hall or outside under the natural tree canopy. Buffalo is restaurant Ydrogaia’s specialty: “You can taste buffalo meat balls, sausage, burger, steak, …” that all go very nicely with a fresh Greek salad, but if buffalo is not your thing, the fish is fine and so is the wine.
5th stop: Pieria, the land of Zeus
Cavo Olympo Luxury Hotel & Spa
170 kilometres/ 106 miles from Elpida
180 kilometres/ 112 miles from Oikoperiigitis
Once again, you could find yourself at a resort, in this case Cavo Olympo, and not feel compelled to leave. It’s a smallish accommodation (only one story above the ground floor) that does not allow children, so there are no throngs of people; the only 49 rooms and suites are spacious with clever use of space; it’s set right on the coast so you can dip your toes into pools or into the Aegean Sea; you can eat by buffet or a la carte, along with the sommelier’s advice there’s no chance for culinary boredom; there’s a full spa underground and oodles of little areas in which to relax above. It is not difficult to find a degree of privacy outside your room. Cavo Olympo has four colours: blue water, green flora, white furnishings and sunset. Its bright openness emits a calm and relaxation from the moment a guest enters the front door.
But, as usual, there are still some things worthy of your time outside of the hotel premises. Here, you are in the foothills of Mount Olympus, Zeus’ throne. It is possible to climb to the summit if you have the right equipment and are prepared to camp overnight. Various outfitters can make such a hike possible. Cavo Olympo’s front desk is a great source of information on the local sites.
For the non-mountain climbers, a day devoted to St Dionysios may be in order, which includes the ‘new’ monastery (9 kilometres/ 6 miles from the resort), the old monastery from 1542 a little further along, and a holy chapel that requires a mountain hike of less than an hour round trip. Literature states that in the 16th century, St Dionysios dedicated his life to prayer and contemplation and founded the St Trinity Patriarchal Monastery, though it’s still referred to as the Old Monastery of St Dionysios. Whether you’re religious or not, these are interesting Greek Orthodox sites to wander about, especially since Mount Athos’ monasteries are inaccessible for most people.
Drive to Litochoro and turn right at the police station. A couple of kilometres further is the New Monastery of St Dionysios. Here visitors may walk about the property, enter the Orthodox church, visit a museum and buy souvenirs and cheese in a souvenir shop, but women are not permitted to visit the monks’ cells behind the iron door. In case you forget, it is well signed in several languages. Whether or not strange men are permitted to snoop about the monks’ cells is not indicated.
A few kilometres more up the paved, snaking mountain road is a parking lot and the pathway to the Old Monastery of St Dionysios. The ruins of an ancient wall still stand at the outer boundary, and several buildings inside, destroyed by the Nazis, restored by EU funds, are in use and visitable: the church, a long hall, kitchen, etc. Monk accommodations are cordoned off. As with every monastery I’ve seen, the grounds are groomed, serene and adorned by nature. Monk-produced products are for sale in a building closer to the parking lot, with shiny religious trinkets, oils, essences, soaps and honey produced at Mount Athos monasteries.
Leading from the Old Monastery and from the nearby parking lot are rocky, dirt paths weaving down through the picturesque mountain forest and over stream to the Holy Chapel of St Dionysios, where plenty of devotional candles have been left behind by visitors. The tiny, white and blue chapel sits under a rock jutting out overhead giving the impression of a shallow cave. Behind the chapel is a spring, beside is a sleeping place. It is said to be where St Dionysios spent time as a hermit. The forest is beautiful. The hike back is uphill and a good workout.
Another good old/new way to spend a day: the old Palaios Panteleimonas town and the new one. The old town is 17 kilometres/ 11 miles from Cavo Olympo. The only way to reach it is by a narrow, switchback road. Hope that you don’t end up behind a bus — there’s no way to pass and it’s much better to be ahead of a busload of tourists. The reason to visit Palaios Panteleimonas is to see the old Greek-style stone buildings, though the condition of the buildings is too good to be so old. New or renovated, it’s an attractive, densely constructed, stone-house town with mountain-steep, narrow streets in every direction, very pretty and very accommodating with shops, restaurants and guest houses.
A few kilometers further on is the new Palaios Panteleimonas. The reason to visit here is for lunch at Chalet Castello, a guesthouse built into the steep slope. Take the elevator from the street up to the restaurant level and choose a table on the balcony for an ideal view of Platamon Castle, the 13th-century mediaeval fortress sitting atop a forested hill with the sea as a backdrop. Today the castle is used for open air concerts and theatrical performances every summer. It’s a picture postcard scene; breathe it in. Then order house wines and enjoy the homemade breads with olives as you decide what to order for lunch.
On your way back to Cavo Olympo, consider a pit stop at Gallaria, the train station cum beachside bar on the coastal road a short distance from the resort. The station’s tower presents a scuba theme displaying underwater wonders of the area in pictures and video format. Outside, the old train tracks continue up to Gallaria’s entrance and then reappear inside under a transparent floor.
Last stop: Thessaloniki
88 kilometres/ 55 miles from Cavo Olympo
14 kilometres/ 9 miles (45-minute drive during rush hour!) from Excelsior to SKG
To wrap up your tour, drive east to Thessaloniki and check in at the well-located Excelsior downtown. This elegant boutique hotel restored as much original turn-of-the-last-century features as was possible, including the facade, marble staircase that squeezes around a tiny elevator, and Art Deco balconies. Dinner in Charlie D Brasserie is a tasty French cuisine experience, with offerings such as marinated mackerel appetizer, roasted chicken with French beans entree, and profiteroles with pistachio ice cream and chocolate sauce dessert.
Give yourself at least one full day to get a taste of what Thessaloniki city has to offer before flying home. It is, after all, over 2,300 years old. Take a stroll around the downtown core’s streets, where the Modiano meat and vegetable market, Aristotle Square (especially during a festival), the boardwalk, White Tower and Archaeological Museum are all within close proximity. The Museum of Byzantine Culture has a notable collection of Byzantine art, and Thessaloniki’s old walls provide the best views of the city. Consider hiring a certified English guide for a few hours, such as Foteini Lykisa (email@example.com), who has a good knowledge of the city’s history.
After such a tour you might build up a thirst. Zithos, only a few minutes walk northwest of Excelsior (walk with the water to your left), claims to be the first beer house in Greece (there’s a second location near the White Tower — walk with the water to your right). Zithos does its best to source Greek products for its dishes. Their lamb and pork souvlaki goes down oh-so-well with one of their micro-brews, or wine for that matter. Just a few minutes’ walk further is Xaroupi restaurant, which is getting consistently good reviews on its Cretan cuisine. Said to be the healthiest diet in the world, a salad with artichokes, strawberry, almonds, walnuts, spinach, soft cheese, seasonal vegetables, grilled mushrooms and a vinaigrette sauce of orange, honey and balsamica is just the beginning of another memorable meal.
Don’t forget General George’s advice: raise your plate, close your eyes, swirl, breathe and remember. Whatever memories come to mind while you linger over the aroma of your dishes, you won’t be short of new memories of northern Greece and its cuisine scene.
My gratitude to Halkidiki Tourism Organization, Thessaloniki Tourism Organization and PASS PARTOUT – Tourism Marketing for helping me put this extensive road trip together. They make great partners for travel planning in Greece. Do contact them.