The Halkidiki Holiday - Sweaty Summer Cycling in Greece's "Jewel of the North"
In Greece, they call it the “Jewel of the North”. The Halkidiki Peninsula is the most popular spot for domestic tourism beach holidays. Sure, all the foreigners take over the islands like Santorini and Corfu, but when the Greeks themselves want a classic Greek beach holiday fix, they know where to go - and it’s not on any of the islands; it’s on the mainland and just a short hop from Greece’s 2nd largest city of Thessaloniki. It also happens to be a wonderful destination for a relaxed cycle-tour holiday and if planned right will still allow for plenty of beach time, as I discovered during a week back in mid-August.
I could never quite figure out whether it's referred to in the singular or the plural, as the Halkidiki Peninsula (or peninsulas) is in fact three distinct long spits of land that almost look like three fingers reaching out into the Aegean sea. The northernmost one is largely off limits as it’s the site of the most sacred monastery in Greece. Visiting requires permits, there are no bars and women are banned from visiting. None of the above really fitted with our idea of a summer holiday, so we focussed on the lower two peninsulas.
The middle peninsula is called Sinthonia, which has a reputation as the more off-the-beaten-track, nature-oriented, and secluded of the two. It didn’t disappoint, and the visual scenery as we slowly made our way around fulfilled every stereotype of Greece in summer. It might only be about 100 kilometers to loop around Sinthonia, but there are still 92 beaches to stop at for a swim if one was so inclined. It’s hard to call out every favourite swim spot here, but Kavourutrypes and Kalamitsi probably competed for the top spot.
As if the white sands and clear waters weren’t enough, whenever the cycling veered away from the coast we were treated to classically rugged Meditteranean surroundings, on sandy dirt roads with sharp gradients we’d plotted using maps.me taking us through dense green woods, or olive groves, or vineyards. Occasionally we’d hit patches so sandy that we’d be forced to get off and walk, but luckily they were few and far between.
As we get older (both myself and my cycling amigo with whom I plan these summer holidays are chugging through our 40s) we tend to slow down the distance covered and increase the time to appreciate what we’re passing. Thus the trip was planned around 7 full days in the Halkidiki, comprising five days to cover 275 kilometers with a rest day in the middle and another rest day at the end.
Our “middle” rest day was in the principle town of Sinthonia, Neo Marmaras. Despite only having about 3500 permanent residents, it’s summertime population is closer to 20,000 and it is sufficiently rammed with beach bars, restaurants and late night cocktail bars that it ticked all the relevant boxes for a rest day. Last year, our Albania cycle tour ended with a night in Corfu (Greece) where a decent cocktail couldn’t be found for under 10 Euros, but in Neo Marmaras they were in the 7 - 9 Euro range, suggesting that everything here is priced for the domestic market rather than the foreign tourist. This same dynamic played out in restaurants as well over the course of the week as the spending money for the trip seemed to keep stretching further than we’d anticipated….
Another day was spent leaving Sinthonia around the mainland for the southernmost peninsula, Kassandra. This day generated its own delights, with countless tiny beaches, hidden away from the main road and often enjoyed by just a small number of people. Some of them didn’t have any sort of services at all, but we found that a couple of beers left in a freezer overnight were still nicely cold at morning tea time.
The lower peninsula, Kassandra, still had plenty of charm but was also more built-up and developed, with some hotels we passed looking seriously expensive including several that seemed to be resorts designed with the idea that guests didn’t really go anywhere else. That said, there were still plenty of secluded beaches to be found as well as we alternated between pavement and chasing old gravel roads that were usually traffic-free. If anything, the resorts sometimes provided a nice alternative as a place to sit and take a beer. At one of them, our fastest route down the coast was to cycle right through it, as sticking to the road resulted in a long detour inland. The friendly security guard who was staffing the traffic barrier arm at the entrance didn’t mind at all, telling us we were welcome to stop for a swim and use their beachfront bar if we wanted, so we took advantage of both.
Cycling in 30-35C (85 to 95F) temperatures on plenty of sharp inclines tends to eat up a lot of calories, so we made sure to put plenty of calories back in. The day usually started with a visit to a bakery which were everywhere, always with a nice mix of savoury (Burek-style pastries filled with white cheese, spinach or ham) and sweet (donuts loaded with chocolate). They would always offer Greek coffee as well as, similar to Turkish coffee and basically industrial strength tar with coarse coffee grounds lurking in the bottom of the cup. It pays not to drink the last bit!
But Greek food really came into its own in the evening, and was always something to look forward to. Unsurprisingly seafood was popular, and as a hungry cyclist the range of pasta dishes made with seafood were always appreciated. Nothing like a mixed seafood risotto or linguini to taste brilliant and load us with carbs for the next day. Away from the many seafood other highlights included the traditional Greek slow-roasted lamb shank known as Kleftiko, a local version of Lasagne they call Pastitsio, and vegetarian delights of aubergines or peppers stuffed with cheeses and herbs.
The Halkidiki is a marvellous place, and visiting from London it had a genuine off-the-beaten-path aura insofar as I don’t think we came across anyone trying to speak English as a first language. Watching the interplay of everyone around us in bars and restaurants, this seemed to be a very Greek place which felt a real contrast to the one night we spent in Corfu at the end of our Albanian cycle tour last year - in Corfu Old Town, it felt more like the only Greeks there were the ones working. If you want a taste of real Greek seaside life, you can’t do much better than the “Jewel of the North”.