Friday 15th April 2011, Sithonia, Chalkidiki Peninsula
For the last couple of days I've been itching fit to drive me crazy. Ian counted nearly 80 bites on my neck and arms and I've almost emptied the tube of antihistamine cream we brought with us. Ian however doesn't have a single bite. Why me is a mystery, as is what caused them. With so many dogs surrounding Modestine on the dreadful campsite every night, and following me to what I euphemistically call "the showers", I was worried I might have picked up fleas!
This morning, despite promises that there would be some warm water, we discovered somebody had left the dilapidated shower running all night. It was the last straw. Cutting our losses we moved on. It had been a useful base for visiting Thessoloniki but I've rarely been so glad to leave a campsite.
We are now staying on a very pleasant site right beside the sea. We discovered it from the internet and it's everything the other site wasn't. After really wonderful hot showers and a complete change of clothing and bedding, we hung blankets and duvets to air in the sea breeze while we commandeered the campsite washing machine. Tonight our laundry is drying suspended between a couple of palm trees on the beach. Hopefully, if we did have any unwelcome travelling companions they've now gone. There is nothing so wonderful as feeling really clean and wearing fresh clothes. The itches are still driving me potty but gradually improving I think.
We cannot enter Turkey until 23rd April so we are killing time until then. This is annoying but we didn't anticipate so many difficulties finding anywhere to camp so never expected to reach here so soon. Ideally we'd like to enter and leave Turkey a week earlier than intended but Modestine's insurance permit won't allow it.
The Chalkidiki Peninsula is definitely the nicest area of Macedonia we've yet discovered. While the top is almost isolated from the mainland by a couple of large lakes, the base is divided into three long fingers of land stretching out into the Aegean Sea. We are on the middle one, reputed to be the nicest. Across the water we can see Kassandra, reported as brassy and tacky, crowded with weekend homes of people from Thessaloniki who flock there every weekend. Beach resorts are surrounded by concrete jungles of holiday villas and it all sounds rather horrid. This finger of Sithonia seems to be everything Kassandra is not. It's beautiful with steep wooded hillsides of pine trees with tracks leading down to little coves and sandy beaches edged by palms and olives. Geologically it seems to be granite and green schist, a change from the limestone and sandstone we've seem until now. It's also very subject to seismic activity but seems peaceful enough so far.
The next finger, which we cannot yet see from here, Mount Athos, we will not be visiting. It is entirely male dominated and women are not permitted to visit! It is a monastic stronghold with dozens of monasteries. There is a physical barrier cutting the peninsula off from the mainland and it is accessible only by boat and only to specially selected men who have to apply for a permit months in advance. Only ten foreign adult males per day are allowed to land and must stay overnight in one of the monasteries. Apparently at one time absolutely everything living there was male, including all the animals. Gradually though, the monks began to yearn for soft boiled eggs and buttered soldiers for breakfast and it was eventually decided that hens could be allowed to exist there as a special exception.
Today has been pleasantly warm and yesterday's violent winds have dropped. On our way down to the south of Chalkidiki we stopped to visit Olynthos. At last we have found an ancient Greek site in a lovely setting overlooking the sparkling blue sea and surrounded by hillsides covered in olive groves. We found so many such sites when we visited the Peloponnese it has been a disappointment to discover how few there are in this area of Greece. Scattered around the site with its low red stone walls and deep cisterns for storing water, are pine trees and olives, oleanders and flowering shrubs. Spring flowers grow amidst the ruins and at last the scarlet poppies have reached us here in Greece. We also encountered two tortoises and countless lizards. Regrettably there was only an hour until the site closed for the day at 2.30 when we arrived so we rushed round in the hot sunshine and there was no time to visit the interpretation centre. We were almost the only visitors all day. So frustrating! The site is a fascinating example of a town laid out on the principles of Hippodamus of Miletus, a sixth century BC philosopher who developed the grid system of town planning. Laid out in the late fifth century the town had broad avenues crossed regularly by side streets. Each block had ten houses in two rows of five, back to back with an alley between them that included a drainage gulley. The houses were spacious with an internal court and a main reception room frequently with a mosaic floor. These mosaic are made of pebbles rather than tesserae and are among the earliest known in Greece. Built on two low hills beside a river which was dried up when we visited, the town had been quite important in antiquity. It recovered from an attack by the Persians in 479BC to become the leader of the Chalkidiki league of 32cities. In 348 BC it was attacked by Philip II of Macedon and razed to the ground. This time it did not recover and reverted to the shrubs and wild flowers which still cover much of the two hilltops. As we left we were delighted to discover the remains of a horse-powered quern. Two stone wheels originally set opposite each other and linked by a square wooden axle rotated in a circular trough.
Saturday 16th April 2011, Sithonia, Chalkidiki Peninsula
Today we have been suffering from burn-out and needed some down time to recover from our exhausting couple of days around Thessaloniki and the traumas of the campsite there. Leaving out laundry drying on the beach overnight we were quickly asleep and didn't wake this morning until nearly 9am. The sun was even more sluggish and hasn't really thrown off its blanket all day. Somehow we just couldn't get going, making excuses for cups of coffee and early lunch until we decided we might as well give in and spend the day here. It is after all, a very beautiful and peaceful place and we are in no hurry.
So we took a stroll on the cliff tops where we saw nobody but where several wild dogs watched us nervously, unaware just how nervous we were of them. From the cliffs we had splendid views across the clear waters of the Aegean Sea to the peninsula of Kassandra and to several green offshore islands, including Kelifos, which looks like a giant tortoise. Behind us the interior of Sithonia rose up as steep woodland on the slopes of the grey granite hillside while near to, the rock plants and wild maquis gave the impression that we were strolling through a gigantic rockery. Blue flowering thyme mixed with yellow gorse, large leathery agaves struggled for dominance over spiky cactus plants and the poppies, pink convolvulus, wild sweet peas and miniature purple lupins sprinkled the roadside grass.
After lunch on the beach we unplugged Modestine from the electricity and drove back along the coast to explore the little town of Neos Marmaras we passed yesterday. It's the largest place on the peninsula and is currently busy getting itself ready for the tourist assault expected from Easter. (This year Easter is at the same time here as elsewhere in the Christian world.) The town straggles around the bay with endless tavernas and bars, still deserted. Generally the town looked rather scruffy with just too many plastic drinks cans littering the streets. There are though, some attractive apartments for rent and a harbour of small sailing craft. White geese plodded around on the shoreline while through the crystal clear water of the bay we could watch fish swimming right down on the sea bed. Further round, at the fishing port, the boats were moored up and fishermen were busy repairing and sorting their nets.
Before returning to the campsite we drove up into the mountains to the pretty village of Parthenonas with traditional stone-built houses, each with its wooden veranda, set amidst olive groves and with wide views down to the coast.
Back at the campsite we discovered we have new neighbours, from Bosnia. They lack the luxury of a campervan but the young couple and their two small children have been having a wonderfully exciting time putting up their tent, blowing up the air beds and preparing supper. The baby has crawled into everything while the toddler has been in and out of the sea carrying buckets full of tiny fish back to show his parents. We've also met a young couple from Bulgaria who have warned us not to expect too much of their country when we visit later and advised us to avoid the Bulgarian Black Sea resorts which are being over developed.
Sunday 17th April 2011, Nikiti, Chalkidiki Peninsula
We've been attempting to make something of nothing today. There are only two campsites listed as open between here and the Turkish border and either of them could be totally unreliable. We've still several days we need to kill so decided to potter gently round the rest of the peninsula of Sithonia exploring the little villages along the way. A campsite listed as open back on the mainland was only a short distance back along the route we'd taken from Thessaloniki which would be ideal for the night.
So off we set along the western side of Sithonia down to the furthest tip jutting out into the Aegean Sea. We turned off down to a little beach searching for a Byzantine fort at Toroni The fort turned out to be closed and overgrown with weeds, its ancient tumbled walls contouring a little headland. A short walk up into the woodland behind however gave us a view down onto the ruins from a grassy track covered with wild flowers.
The nearby village of Toroni was horrible. Unfortunately almost every Greek town and village seems to be vying for the title of nightmare capital of decayed tourism. They are ugly, messy, unfinished, run alive with cats and dogs and smothered in graffiti. Roads are broken and potholed, while huge rubbish skips, overflowing with plastic bags torn open by the cats, litter the roadside. Wherever there is human habitation there is ugliness. Invariably there is a bar or tavern. Almost invariably too it is deserted and looks unlikely to reopen. Most properties have a sign advertising rooms to let but the top floor is frequently still under construction – though building work has long since been abandoned. It is all very depressing.
The argument rages here in Greek Macedonia concerning the continued use of the name for the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
In contrast to the towns, the countryside between places of habitation is stunningly beautiful, lonely and silent, except for the wind blowing in across the cliffs from the furthest tip of Sithonia.
Rounding the headland we caught our first glimpse of Mount Athos, topped with snow and swathed in cloud as it rose some 2000 metres almost sheer from the sea. It marks the far tip of Chalkidiki's third finger, the male dominated monastic republic of Agion Oros from which women are banned.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ian's mum who died eight years ago. Wanting to mark the day in some way we turned off down to the sea to park in one of the larger villages. It was Palm Sunday and a few ladies were making their way through the village, their arms burdened by huge fronds of very spiky palm leaves from the trees that grow wild on the hillsides here.
We soon discovered the church. To our surprise it was locked! However, as seems quite common, nearby we found a little shrine to a couple of the local saints. Inside was a small altar with a religious icon. Further icons covered the walls with a cross and a stand for candles just inside the door. We lit a couple of candles, one for each of Ian's parents. We are sure Ian's mum would have been tickled pink to think we'd lit a candle for her at a little orthodox shrine on Palm Sunday in a remote corner of Greece.
All over Greece we have noticed men fiddling with their komboloi or worry beads. They do it on the buses, while driving, sitting in cafes, anywhere in fact. We took some home for friends on our last visit - they make a change from jangling the car keys. Today we bought another set intended as a gift for someone. However, we've been fiddling with them ever since and may need to look for yet another set before we leave Greece.
Passing a little cafe we noticed a sign in English advertising Cream Pie and went to investigate. It turned out to be delicious flaky pastry filled with cream and apples and smothered in cinnamon and icing sugar. We were served glasses of chilled water with it. That's the custom here. No matter what you buy to eat or drink it comes with a free glass of water.
From then on the day has gradually deteriorated. The east side of Sithonia is nowhere near so beautiful as the west. It is scattered with derelict campsites and ugly concrete villages dedicated to tourism but as yet completely unprepared for the coming season. Not a hotel, campsite or guest house has yet opened and everywhere is deserted. Down on the beaches the sand was littered with plastic detritus washed up by the waves and it all looked remarkably depressing. What on earth do people find to do in such places when they end up there for their summer holidays without transport? We were bored and depressed enough just looking at the places, with a lovely vehicle to take us on to somewhere more interesting.
Finally the coast road brought us back to the mainland again and as it has started to rain we headed back to find this campsite. Our hearts sank when we saw it. Set in pine trees it looked dismal, overgrown and neglected. The barrier was down and a phone number beneath a sign in Greek seemed to say we were to ring if we wished to stay. I've been searching for my mobile ever since we left England until I heard from Kate that she'd found it in the study back home! Not much use to us in this predicament! Into the bargain, five cats and three dogs discovered us. The dogs started barking frantically which had the advantage of attracting the attention of a couple of Bulgarians doing odd jobs around the site. Using sign language and some by now rather jaded smiles, we persuaded them to raise the barrier and let us in. There is no hot water, no showers, no toilet paper and only one functioning loo for the entire site. We got a bit frantic as they lowered the barrier behind us and prepared to go home for the night. Their signalling indicated we should phone when we wished to leave. Our signalling indicated we had no phone!
At this point, enter a Dutch couple in a camper van! No problem, they assured us. They'd been coming here for 10 years and knew how to open the barrier. They also told us it would cost us 12 euros and we could leave the money with them. We later learnt that they came every year for six or eight weeks and did odd jobs around the site for the owner. It took them four days solid driving to get here from Amsterdam but this would be their last trip because the site was closing down. I asked why they came and didn't they get bored. Apparently not, but they didn't seem to do anything except read and walk down to the beach. We walked down there this evening. There is a jetty for launching boats and a few inches of sand. Our boredom limit lasted 30 seconds maximum.
Thank heavens for a bottle of retsina, a hot supper, our Turkish guide book and a dvd which we are now off to watch.
Monday 18th April 2011, Kavala, Macedonia
We survived last night quite comfortably despite temperatures falling to 5 degrees and a steady rainfall all night. We spent the late evening watching Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey" which was a touch surreal all alone in an isolated spot on the Greek coast.
We've also survived today pretty well considering the basic facilities we had at the campsite and by 9.30 were up and away. It's rained for most of the day and it's been really chilly.
Today has been spent mainly following the coastal road eastwards. It has been a pretty drive, full of twists and steep hillsides. A navigational error sent us up a steeply winding road for ten kilometres before we could find anywhere to turn round. We'd been seeking the ancient site of Stagira, birthplace of Aristotle in 384BC. It's set on the coast, but we ended up in the modern town of the same name, high in the hills above. In the end it wasn't so bad, as we discovered our first ever philosophical theme park and a huge statue of Aristotle to boot. Actually it was more a soggy patch of wet grass with various "hands-on" things to try and discover. Discs to twirl, a column of water to create whirlpools in, a pair of stone "ears" where we could whisper to each other over a huge distance and clearly hear what each other was saying, and a variety of other exciting things to play with, except that the grass was too long and wet to get to them.
Whenever we stop anywhere dogs mysteriously appear. They are generally quite young and docile. We've wondered how they survive and whether anybody feeds them. Today we found out that they live by cannibalism! I nearly ran over one on the road eagerly tucking into his late companion who'd recently had a disagreement with a motor vehicle. So that's why they hang around the roadside. The odds are that one of them will become a road victim and that will feed several of its friends and siblings! It's all a bit sinister and puts rather a different slant on the advert "Chum meat for dogs"!
Down at the coast again we found the ancient site of Stagira unattended and the gate unlocked. It really was an impressive site though I found it hard to visualise little Aristotle scampering through the surrounding steep woodland of kermis oaks learning the skills of medicine from his father, physician to the Macedonian court there. Certainly the location of the site was splendid, high on the cliffs overlooking the sea with a sprinkling of green islands off shore. The bedrock is granite while inland the hillsides look definitely volcanic, beautiful though, covered in thick green woodland.
The motorway through to Istanbul runs a few kilometres inland but we've avoided using it wherever possible. Twice we found ourselves swept on to it but have turned off to follow the deserted coastal route, passing through some quite pleasant little seaside villages. To our immense relief, the campsite we hoped would be open, actually is. As usual we are the only people around, except for a British campervan about six times larger than Modestine. We understand Kavala is an interesting town while inland there is the ancient city of Philippi, so there is enough to keep us occupied for a couple of days.