Exploring Halkidiki: In Aristotle's footsteps

Head to Halkidiki to discover the secrets of this quiet corner of Greece


One of the most stressful things about exploring somewhere new is navigating unknown territory. Not least when so-called cast-iron coordinates lead to a dusty dead end rather than the promised Instagram-worthy view.

So when my husband Martin was emphatic that our cycling route should definitely take us away from a smooth tarmac lane and onto the kind of knobbly path that makes you worry for your teeth, the scope for broiges was massive.

Were we, I wondered (loudly), really supposed to be bumping through fields with no discernible road signs, while sandpapery heads of wheat scraped our legs and the sun beat down from a peerless blue sky?

Actually no. Not at all. But this time, it really didn’t matter. After all, we’d travelled to Halkidiki to explore the secret corners of this rural region of northern Greece. So wasn’t getting lost and finding ourselves in the middle of the countryside — the sea a shimmering snapshot of blue on the horizon — just a charming (if unexpected) part of the remit?

Anyway, when lush pine forests prickle the skyline and the breeze from the Aegean is soft and balmy, who needs to stress about location location location? The journey rather than the destination is a key part of the pleasure.

And so we pedalled on, enjoying the unfolding scenery and the still silence of a hot afternoon before finally turning around to retrace our steps. For the uninitiated, Halkidiki might conjure up images of a Greek Costa Del Sol rather than such peacefully idyllic diversions.

A place to enjoy long, sun-drenched beach days and, after sundown, even longer nights downing endless cocktails to the sound of live, sometimes booming, music.

And sure, there are a few lively resorts but to label Halkidiki this way is to miss a huge trick.

After all, this is the place where Aristotle did his walking and thinking. One of the walks in the area is even known as the Aristotelian Trail, after the famed philosopher and teacher of Alexander the Great.

Here, you’ll find plenty of time for quiet contemplation as you walk from the modern coastal village of Stagira to the ruins of Ancient Stagira, where he was born in 384BC.

A million miles from package holidays and happy hour. It’s one of countless thyme-scented walking and cycling trails to enjoy in Halkidiki, especially if you visit outside the area’s peak-time popularity.

And the great outdoors is only the start of what there is to discover, including villages such as Olympiada — named after Alexander the Great’s mother — with its natural harbour, seafront tavernas and encircling mountains.

For Halkidiki isn’t one single destination. Shaped like Poseidon’s trident, the area is divided into three peninsulas — Kassandra, Sithonia and Mount Athos — which are also charmingly referred to as the “three fingers”.

You can visit all three too — unless you’re a woman. Mount Athos is a female-free monastic community: the monks say the only woman allowed on Mount Athos is the Virgin Mary.

The first finger, Kassandra, is only a 50-minute taxi ride from Thessaloniki, the starting point for most international visitors. A short way down the peninsula in Kallithea, we book into the Ammon Zeus hotel, with its traditional Greek feel — who wants a soulless uber-luxe hotel that could be anywhere in Europe?

Unlike other hotels in the area, it also sits right on the beachfront, so we can enjoy Halkidiki’s famously translucent, greeny-blue sea from our bedroom balcony or over breakfast.

The lively town of Kallithea, with its bars and restaurants, is only a ten-minute walk away, but after a day of exploring, the hotel’s location allows us to retreat for some peace. Another big plus is that the Ammon Zeus is officially termed one of Greece’s “Bike Friendly” hotels by sustainable tourism development agency Nattour and the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature.

So not only does the hotel have bikes of its own, it can organise bikes of any description thanks to its partnership with a local rental business.

In my case, that means an e-bike so that when the mercury or the roads began to climb, I can still keep up with my cycle-mad husband without breaking a sweat.

You don’t need wheels to find one of the first hidden attractions of Halkidiki, as it sits just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. The ruins of the temple of Zeus Ammon were inadvertently discovered during hotel restoration work in 1969; today it’s a protected archaeological site, rendered even more peaceful by the natural beauty of the landscape.

But we do make the most of our pedal power during the rest of the trip. One day, we set off early to visit the hilltop village of Afytos — only five minutes by taxi or half an hour by bike.

With its pretty stone houses, alleys and fountains, as well as the impressive church of Agios Dimitrios overlooking the main square, it feels beautifully unspoilt, although you’ll still find plenty of sea-view tavernas and little shops selling ceramics and Greek gifts.

After seeking out a tiny viewing spot with its expansive clifftop views of the Toroneos Gulf, we gingerly edge our bikes down to the sheltered sandy beach below and a closer look at the enticing water.

Another morning we head to Nea Fokea, where a chunky Byzantine Tower looks down inscrutably on the colourful fishing boats bobbing in the village’s compact port, many of which haul in catches of tuna and sardines for the local tavernas.

Swap two wheels for four and you can discover even more — although Halkidiki’s distinctive trident shape means it can take longer to get around than you might expect. As the crow flies, the distance between our hotel and the town of Ouranoupoli on the third finger is only 33 miles. By road, it’s 71 miles.

But it’s worth the nearly two-hour journey to visit this small harbour town, home to the tower of Prosphorion, a Byzantine building now used as a museum on the area’s history.

If you’re looking for a true getaway, it’s a short boat trip from here to Ammouliani island, with its resident population of just 547.

Or for a temporary Robinson Crusoe moment, hire a boat and simply ask your skipper to moor up anywhere you find a deserted stretch of sand.

However you choose to explore, from its quiet beaches to its fascinating history, Halkidiki is a magical part of Greece. Those famous three fingers on the map may well point out to sea — but they also beckon you back, tempting you to uncover more of the area’s treasures.

Getting There

Flights to Thessaloniki cost from around £110 from Gatwick and Manchester with easyJet. Aegean Air also flies from Heathrow and Manchester to Thessaloniki.

Double rooms at the Ammon Zeus start from around £146 per night.

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