One of the main goals we have in Travel Bloggers Greece – both as travelers and as bloggers – is to experience and promote Greece’s lesser-known destinations. One of our other goals is to promote Greece as a year-round destination. We recently had a great opportunity to discover more destinations that further that vision.
The truth is, that even if Greece were landlocked, it would still be one of Europe’s most impressive countries. It’s these corners of Greece we love discovering, perhaps most of all. Moreover, since these are often not tourism hot spots, visitors have a good opportunity to really take in the local character. It’s not just the cuisine – made for locals and not tourists, or the lack of crowds. Above all, it’s the sense of human connection. When it comes down to it, it’s the people we remember most of all from our travels.
This was also the vision of Sofia Bournatzi, the director of the tourism marketing company Pass Partout and the author of the online magazine pass2greece. Sofia organized a trip with the cooperation of Very Macedonia and Visit Halkidiki. Tzina Varotsi of Eikones & Psithyroi arranged the trip with Sofia, and brough Chrysoula Manika of Travel Passionate and me – Amber Charmei from Provocolate along. Our trip included Pella – especially the region around fabulous Edessa, and Halkidiki.
But this was not the beach/beach bar Chalkidiki you are thinking of: This was off-season Chalkidiki – the Chalkidiki of traditional stone villages, monuments, and even a surprising hot springs. And also a Chalkidiki of unbelievable vistas of the sea under the sweet autumn sunshine, free of crowds.
Edessa – the Fira of Macedonia
Honestly, we were puzzled. On our itinerary was “Waterfall.” And, a day later, “Pozar.” Our local hostess, Katerina Kalaitzidou of the Municipality, decided to let it be a surprise.
We knew about the waterfall- Greece’s largest, and the thing Edessa is most known for. Honestly, it’s so beautiful and impressive, and the air is so charged with freshness and energy, the waterfall is reason enough to put Edessa on a weekend agenda.
Edessa has one of the most dramatic settings in Greece. It’s like the Fira of Macedonia. Santorini’s Fira is set on a cliff over the caldera; Edessa is set at the very edge of a cliff high above the fertile Macedonian plain. Water flows all through the town in canals, the sound and scent of it everywhere. It feeds large plane trees that shade much of the town- Edessa is very green..
The hospitality in Edessa is warm and genuine, and has a small-town charm we loved. Fall evenings see the Cantadores – a group of 40 or so singers – serenading the town.
The Edessa Region
The nature around Edessa is fantastic. We visited Panagitsa, overlooking the valley and Lake Vritta. There are fabulous hiking trails. The 2,528m Mt.Kaimaktsalan – also called Mt. Voras – is one of Greece’s most popular Ski Centers. The town preferred by most skiers and other winter vacationers is the traditional stone village of Agios Athanasios.
On a future trip, we look forward to seeing this all from the air- the Edessa Glider club offers rides by pre-arrangement on Sundays, from April to October.
Fans of authentic regional cuisines will love the Edessa. A bountiful area, the food was zesty and rich. In Agios Athanasios, at Kalyvas, we dined foraged mushrooms and wild boar by a roaring fire.
Lake Vritta is not only a protected wetland – over 250 species of fantastic birds visit the lake throughout the year – it’s also a place rich in history. In fact, when we visited, we were greeted with an amazing sight – Men dressed in the traditional uniforms of Macedonian soldiers during the Balkan Wars were boating silently among the reeds.
One of the most famous hot springs of Northern Greece is also near Edessa. The springs of Pozar – a Serbian name which means “beneath the fire” – flow beside a river in the woods. There are several natural pools and one large swimming pool, plus many indoor pools – private and for groups. We enjoyed bathing in the 37 degree water under the trees, by night. Some of Pozar’s facilities are open 24 hours a day for round-the-clock wellness and recreation.
In pretty Giannitsa, we visited the Folklife museum for a very novel exhibition. Stefanos Ioanidis – an English teacher at the local elementary school – has a remarkable passion. For a quarter of a century, he has made many trips following the path of Alexander the Great into Asia. He has documented how Alexander is portrayed in distant lands.
Our visit to the Pella region concluded with a visit to the magnificent museum and archaeological site of Ancient Pella. The museum, opened just a decade ago, describes vividly the life of the ancient Macedonians through artifacts, mosaics, furnishings, jewelry, and household items.
Another highlight was visiting the exquisitely refined mosaics in situ. We wandering the well-planned streets and saw the enormous central Agora of the elegant town. Pella served as the model for all the cities Alexander would build on his campaign.
Kassandra and Sithonia – the first two legs of Chalkidiki
Chalkidiki – a beautiful peninsula with three “legs” (the third leg is Agios Oros, a famous community of many Orthodox Monasteries) is a famous summer destination, known for fantastic beaches. Locals also know the hidden Chalkidiki, and this is what we explored with Passepartout.
We stayed at one of the most authentically beautiful all-inclusive resorts we had ever seen – Acrotels Pallas Athena. The five-star resort, on the beach of Elia and spread over 30,000 square meters, is all Greek in style. The duplex suites are of traditional stone architecture, and the pool areas and other buildings are a pristine white simple architecture, with an island feel. The food was fresh, plentiful, local, and delicious. This is a perfect spot to have as a home base while you explore Chalkidiki.
We visited the main town of Sithonia, beautiful Nikiti. Slightly inland and built on a hillside, this traditional village among the trees could just as easily be in Pelion.
Then we took off for an exploration of Kassandra. Chalkidiki’s first leg is famous for its lively atmosphere and great beach bars. But there is a different side to Kassandra. We started in Nea Fokaia, where we saw a Byzantine tower. Less known, but more interesting still, is the holy spring of St. Paul. According to legend, the saint fled here to escape persecution from pagans and he baptized new Christians in a spring, deep within a cave. Water still flows from the holy spring. You can visit, but only it you are willing to pass through a very small tunnel.
We then continued to Afitos. This traditional stone seaside village is mainly built on a cliff high above the beach, looking toward Sithonia. The views are incredible, and the mood relaxed.
Then we came to a surprise. At the end of the leg we came to Agia Pareskevi. You can smell it before you see it. Amid the thick tall pines are thermal therapeutic springs rich in sulfur. The municipality has built an excellent bathing facility, with a sauna, hamam, and indoor and outdoor pools, perched high above the sea with spectacular views. The water is almost milky, and leaves your skin gloriously soft.
Polygyros and Arnea
On the last day of our Chalkidiki trip, we explored the villages of the more mountainous inland. Here, we saw monuments of the Greek War of Independence. We also marvelled at the scenery – rolling hills and thick forests. Arnea is a refreshing town, with abundant cool water flowing from a plane tree in the central square, and sellers of local (excellent) honey. Arnea is all traditional stone architecture.
A highlight of Arnea is the Church of Agios Stefanos. After a fire, the restoration revealed the ruins of a 4th century Christian Basilica, later Basilicas, and a number of tombs. These are visible through the glass floor of the Church.
Chalkidiki’s capital is not by the sea but at the foot of the slopes of green Mt. Holomondas. Polygyros is a lovely – and lively – town centers around the park of six springs.
Our trip of the urban centers of Northern Greece confirmed for us once again that Greece has so much more to offer the visitor than beaches and an endless summer. We saw some fascinating and refreshing destinations that are worth visiting in any month of the year.
Written by Amber Charmei of www.provocolate.com