Jutting southwards into the Aegean like Poseidon’s trident are the three peninsulas of Halkidiki, a popular weekend escape from Thessaloniki. Each stretch of land has a unique character, together forming a microcosm of the mainland’s charms.
It’s just after lunch on an late autumn afternoon, and Halkidiki is giving me the middle finger. Please pardon the expression. And the misdirection. There’s no uncouth confrontation here; no fiery argument that concludes with rude gesticulations and expletives. But there is an abruptness in the way that Sithonia — the second of the three ‘digits’ that point out from Central Macedonia into the Aegean — has dispensed with any suggestion of urban life.
One moment it’s there, in the towns of Arnaia and Polygyros. The next, it’s vanished, the road struggling southeast towards Ormos Panagias and Fteroti. Here the landscape is all flinty coves on rocky shores and pine-covered slopes, rearing up to the central peak of Mount Dragoudelis.
The three ‘fingers’ of Halkidiki are a distillation of almost everything that’s evocative about Greece. Mount Athos, the easternmost of the trio, is its soul and sense of tradition. Even in 2021, visitors are only allowed to enter this enclave of 20 monasteries via special permits and observance of the rules — one being that women are excluded entirely.
By contrast, Kassandra, the westernmost finger, is as welcoming an environment as you can find in the Mediterranean: a seek-and-hide destination where luxury resorts decorate the sands (Porto Sani and Sani Dunes on its west edge; Afitis Boutique Hotel on its east).
But Sithonia, pinned between its two siblings, is different again. A simpler matter — lost neither in prayer nor five-star finesse.
Evening is drifting in when I reach Porto Koufo, which adorns the middle fingertip. Tourism feels mildly more in focus here than in laid-back towns like Sarti, yet this is still a location for unfussy seaside escapes. Small studios and hotels are laid out at the top of a long inlet, next to a marina where a clutch of smart yachts at rest seem like intruders from another world.
At Taverna Nikos, the menu is starting to think of winter, offering the slow-cooked stew of pork and local louvidia (string) beans that’s a staple of the ‘cold’ months in Halkidiki (when the mercury barely dips to coat-wearing weather by British standards). I eat it with one eye on the water. Porto Koufo is one of Greece’s largest natural harbours, but so secluded that German U-boats used it for unseen lurking during the Second World War. Mirroring its surprises and quirks, this fact makes Sithonia a literal case of a place with hidden depths.
PUBLISHED 4 MAR 2021, 06:12 GMT