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Destination: Greece

Shoreline to Monastery

Discovering Chalkidiki's hidden beaches and bays

March 30, 1997|JOHN McKINNEY | McKinney writes the Travel section's Hiking column

THESSALONIKI, Greece — To most ears, Chalkidiki (pronounced hal-key-dee-KEE) sounds like a remote Greek island. Actually, it's a three-pronged peninsula that dangles about 40 miles southeast of Thessaloniki, the country's second largest city. The city and peninsula are part of the northern region of Greece long known as Macedonia, home turf of a local boy made good--Alexander the Great.

Chalkidiki beckons the coast walker with about 300 miles of shoreline and (somewhat) undiscovered resorts and beaches that are among the cleanest and most tranquil in Europe. Secret pocket beaches and hidden bays are the reward for hiking away from the resort area.

Anyone whose impression of the Greek landscape was formed by a visit to one of the country's sparsely vegetated islands will be astonished by the lush green landscape of Chalkidiki. Fields, vineyards, olive groves and pine forests cover the region's coastal bluffs and foothills.

Chalkidiki hoteliers are among the most enlightened in the travel industry--at least when it comes to hiking. The Chalkidiki Hotel Assn. has designed and sign-posted more than a dozen trails. Visitors can follow the footpaths, marked by red circles on boards, from resort to resort or undertake more ambitious outings through the coastal mountains. (The hotel group has published a pamphlet detailing the trails but, alas, it's available only in German.)

Chalkidiki's gateway city, Thessaloniki (pronounced thes-a-lown-EEK-ee), is considerably less hectic than Athens, and one can visit almost all its attractions on foot. Begin with the Archeological Museum (corner of Angelaki Street and Stratou Avenue), which highlights ancient Macedonian history. The most intriguing exhibit is the undisturbed tomb of Alexander the Great's father, King Philip II of Macedonia.

The Museum of Byzantine Culture (just west of the Archeological Museum), housed in a modern, red brick, Byzantine-inspired building, has extensive collections from the Byzantine Empire (AD 395 to 1453). In Byzantine times, only Constantinople, capital of the empire, was more important than Thessaloniki.

From the museum, walk a short distance south to the seaside and the White Tower, the city's most distinct landmark. The tower, a prison and execution site during the Ottoman occupation of Greece, has been converted into a museum that displays exquisite icons, coins and frescoes.

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One of the great delights of Thessaloniki is to take what the Greeks call a volta (stroll) along the seaside promenade that extends about two miles east from the White Tower. A sunset or evening walk, with a stop at one of the cafes located along the promenade, adds up to a night to remember.

If you're really adventurous, take a walk through the Upper City, Ano Polis, also called Ta Kastra (The Castles) for the many castle-like towers perched on the hilltops. Get great panoramic views of Thessaloniki from the Byzantine-era Tower of Trigoniou and from Vlatades Monastery, said to have been built on the spot where the Apostle Paul preached during his visit to Thessaloniki in AD 49.

The three prongs hanging off of the bottom of the Chalkidiki peninsula are the smaller peninsulas of Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos. On the Kassandra appendage, the most developed arm of the Chalkidiki peninsula, the resorts are a mile or two apart, and you can walk along the beach from one to another. Paths lead through pine woods and over to Sani Beach, where a marsh offers sanctuary for a multitude of resident and migratory birds.

Trails on the middle, Sithonia segment of the peninsula are a bit more of a challenge than on the other two because the beaches are backed by rugged hills. One of the best walks is the coastal jaunt from Europa Beach to Porto Carras. The walker encounters 35 little bays along the way.

Chalkidiki's most intriguing section is Athos, a goodly part of which is called Agion Oros, loosely translated as "the Holy Mountain," or Mt. Athos. The Holy Mountain has several faces: an Aegean landscape of astonishing beauty; 20 monasteries of architectural genius that will not be seen again; and 2,000 Christian monks living much the same as their brothers did 1,000 years ago.

The Holy Mountain, holy ground for the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, is a self-governing monastic republic. In keeping with male monastic tradition, women have not been permitted to set foot on Mt. Athos for more than 1,000 years. In fact, visits, except by male religious pilgrims, are highly discouraged.

The closest most travelers can get to Mt. Athos is the nearest coastal town of Ouranopolis, "the Heavenly City." From Ouranopolis, a resort town, the visitor can hike to the border of the monastic republic or board a sightseeing boat that cruises the Athos coast and offers glimpses of several of the Holy Mountain's extraordinary, castle-like monasteries.

Ouranopolis itself offers several good walks. One is a bluff-top jaunt over to Koumitsa Beach and a walk that offers marvelous views of the Holy Mountain.

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