Gulf of the Gods
From the beaches of Halkidiki to the city sights of Thessaloniki, northern Greece has it all. Its beauty has to be seen to be believed, says James Williams. Photography by Jamie Lau
It’s a blissfully calm morning as my car climbs the step mountain roads of o Halkidiki, and above the low hum of the engine all I can hear are the chirping of the birds and the trees rustling in the breeze. Thick pines carpet the hillside, and the road, full of twists and turns, every now and then allows a vista of pure blue sea, beckoning me to dive right in.
Son road signs are pointing me to a differerent beach every kilometre or so – too many to choose between. I decide to simply follow the next turning, and traverse a bumpy lane past fields of olive trees, wild flowers and tall marshy grass, leading eventually to a multi-coloured beach bar perched on a cliff. Fanning out below is a gorgeous stretch of sand, lapped by the clearest of waters. No wonder the locals call Halkidiki “paradise”.
Lying within easy reach of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, the Halkidiki peninsula is best known for its three straggly “fingers” – Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos – each with their own unique traits. Though tempted by the bustling international resorts of the first finger, and intrigued by the mysterious monks who inhabit the third, I’ve settled on the middle finger, Sithonia, a wild and wonderful place that attracts nature lovers more than partygoers.
After picking up my hire car from the airport, it takes me just over an hour to reach Ekies All Senses Resort, nestled in the idyllic Vourvourou Bay, where comfy sun loungers line up along the private beach and a jetty leads into the shallow waters of a nature reserve. It’s quite easy to get lost in the space and serenity of it all.
Unique in these parts, this incredible design hotel is all thanks to the vision of owner Alexandra Efstathiadou, who used to holiday here as a child. Architects and designers took the original hotel and gardens and created three unique “houses”, where the 64 rooms and suites each offer an intimate hideaway. The loft suites have gorgeous thick wooden beams and a terrace with a hot tub. Down below there’s a fashion shoot-worthy pool and spa treatment rooms, and all around are views to the mountains and sea. Alexandra was concerned that the hotel should be as environmentally friendly as possible. Only non- toxic paints have been used here, and there is a water recycling system.
The hotel is a great base for exploring some of Sithonia’s numerous beaches – some easy to find, some completely hidden. My drive takes me along dramatic mountain roads, all the way down to the tip of Porto Koufo, a stunning natural harbour where people moor their yachts and go ashore for a fish supper.
There’s a really chilled out vibe to Sithonia, a part of Greece that remains largely off the tourist map. And after a few days of swimming, eating and being close to nature, I can assure you – you’ll never want to leave. That said, while you’re in the region, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see Greece’s second city of Thessaloniki.
What’s on in the city
TOP EVENTS COMING UP IN THESSALONIKI
THESSALONIKI INTERNATIONAL FAIR, 10-18 SEPTEMBER
Perhaps you’re among the 250,000 heading to the country’s biggest consumer trade fair? Technology, agriculture, food and drink and the environment are all part of the programme.
REWORKS, 16 & 17 SEPTEMBER
Experience the best of the city’s young creative talent at this innovative music and arts event. DJs, bands, installations and exhibitions all make for an electro-fuelled weekend to remember.
DIMITRIA FESTIVAL, SEPTEMBER–NOVEMBER
The city’s showcase arts festival combines music and dance with theatre, cinema and street events. Expect famous artists from Greece and abroad to perform. WWW.DIMITRIATHESS.GR
THESSALONIKI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, 4–13 NOVEMBER
See movies, attend talks and workshops and meet top directors at this engaging film event.
It’s time to head for the bright lights, but just before I reach the Thessaloniki I take the opportunity call in at the award-winning Domaine Gerovassiliou vineyard (WWW.. gerovassiliou.gr), whose amazing wine I tried at Ekies. I also take a look around their Wine Museum, where owner Vangelis has amassed a collection of 2,600 corkscrews – testament to his passion for viticulture.
Tasting great wines from the Macedonia region is just one of the many highlights of a stay in Thessaloniki. Anyone who loves the idea of eating plates of Greek mezedes will feel right at home in a city famously passionate about its cooking. But you can also expect a spicier twist, thanks to a profusion of dishes made with the local hot peppers, and places serving the cuisine of Asia Minor – a reminder of the cultural DNA of a city that next year will celebrate just 100 years since joining Greece.
Having ruled for 500 years, the Ottoman Empire left quite a mark on Thessaloniki.
This afternoon it’s all made clear to me by my tour guide, Constandinos, who takes me to the city’s ancient bathhouses, as well as the classical Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda – a remarkable church/mosque/Roman temple that has a minaret, Christian mosaics and a domed roof similar to the Pantheon’s in Rome.
It’s just one of scores of unexpected sights in Thessaloniki, whose city centre is peppered with beautiful Unesco-listed churches. St Paul visited here in 50AD and the city was one of the first bases for the spread of Christianity.
Wary that he has overloaded me with history, Constandinos diverts us to one of the best patisseries in town, Hatzis, where he orders a plate of honey-soaked baklava for me to try. This town is crazy about sweets, and its trademark bougatsa (a custard-filled doughnut) and toureki (fluffy bread coated in chocolate) draw sweet-tooths from all over Greece.
Yet nothing can prepare me for the feast laid on at To Kreopoleion, or “The Butcher’s” (8 a meat restaurant near the port. I tell my hosts I’m not feeling that hungry, but they insist I squeeze in some buffalo-meat soutsoukakia (long, spicy meatballs), pork in buffalo-milk pasta, sautéed beef with fried egg and chips and a little ox-tongue. There’s also the superb red wine produced by the Mayor himself.
After a strong Greek coffee we hit some museums. Down on the seafront is the White Tower, an atmospheric former prison whose well-presented exhibits tell the story of the city. Nearby, we travel further back in time at the neighbouring Byzantine and Archeology museums. Next door to each other these two superb, modern spaces host artefacts like a gold burial crown belonging to the father of Alexander the Great – unearthed in nearby Vergina.
Back in the 21st century, you can easily live like a king at The Met Hotel, a new five-star near the port. A member of Design Hotels, it wows you with everything from its slick, spacious rooms and suites, to contemporary artworks that seem to occupy every corner. There’s more than a touch of glamour in
the air if you head out onto the rooftop, for a cocktail and some sushi beside the pool, against a cinematic backdrop of the city skyline. And downstairs, diners are enjoying the Greek fusion cooking on offer at stylish Avenue 48 restaurant.
It’s never to late to party in this town, so while I still have the energy I venture out to Valaoritou Street, a nightlife hub in the city centre. Breakdancers stage an improptu party on the dance floor of hipster bar La Dose, students cram into trendy Elvis and groups of friends share shisha pipes at pavement cafés blasting out rock music.
Towards the small hours I’m tempted into old-school music hall Vendetta (3 Ethnikis Aminis), amid locals scattering flowers and singing. The band is playing a classic by bouzouki maestro Vassilis Tsitsanis, who wrote some of his best songs in Thessaloniki during the 1940s. Provided I can keep going, it won’t be long before I join the other patrons standing on the tables and throw some of those flowers myself.
Where to stay
THE MET HOTEL
VIPs and celebs adore these five-star designer digs, which feature a rooftop pool, first-class dining and gorgeous views. Situated near the port, it’s only a five- minute trip into town on the free shuttle bus.
EKIES ALL SENSES RESORT
A first-rate, family run design hotel, Ekies makes a great base for exploring Sithonia. Or you could just hang out on the private beach, treating yourself to spa therapies, fresh juices at the bar and great food in the beach- front restaurant.
Situated on the west coast of Sithonia, this grand resort sits in lush grounds, with 9km of sandy beach on your doorstep. It also boasts thalassotherapy and spa centres, golf, diving, horse-riding and an organic vineyard.
Thessaloniki airport is located 15km east of the city centre, and a bus service operates from outside the terminal. Hertz (www.hertz.com) is Ryanair’s exclusive rental partner and offers special rates for passengers when you book your flight.