Monday 29 May 2023

Halkidiki - Food, Fashion & Friendships

 Kalispera! I hope you're enjoying the same gloriously sunny weather as us. I spent all weekend in a bikini and my Greek tan has been topped up very nicely. As Jon's glued to a Bank Holiday war film I thought I'd crack on with the final instalment of the Halkidiki travel blog. 

Each morning, after Greek yogurt and salad, bought from the supermarket, prepared in the room and eaten on the balcony, we'd head out, either for one of our walks or straight down to the beach where - after a break for a late & lazy lunch - we'd stay until gone 6pm.

Despite finally joining the 21st Century with a mobile phone, there's been a distinct lack of food photos so here's just a few of our lunchtime salads eaten in the various seafront tavernas. Unlike many of the Islands, Halkidiki's prices are really reasonable, with the bill for salad, a basket of bread, water and two large beers costing under €20. Two homemade breakfasts with seeded grapes the size of gobstoppers, juicy strawberries, crisp green apples and a generous dollop of full fat Greek yogurt worked out at a total cost of €2.60 per day.

When we travel we want our evenings to be like our days, low-key, laid back and authentic, no nightclubs, no karaoke, no tribute bands, no quiz nights, sports bars or Irish pubs and definitely no curries (unless we're in India!), Chinese buffets or roast dinners. We don't leave the country to experience what we can get at home. We like nothing better than sitting outside a little taverna beneath the stars chatting until late into the night sharing a bottle of wine and some good, honest, home-cooked food. We make a beeline for places with checked tablecloths, painted chairs with rush seats, bouzouki music, menus without photographs of the food and we never eat anywhere where the waiters stand outside trying to entice passers-by in. 

Our evenings always started (and usually ended) with a rum & cola on the balcony. We'd head into town for a beer and eat around 9pm where our fellow diners would be predominately Greek. Dinner for two with a carafe of the local red wine in Polychrono costs between €22 - 30. Most of the time Lord Jon & I would share a selection of mezzes - dolmades, kolokithokefedes, gigantes, saganaki, grilled mushrooms, baked mouth is watering remembering it! Occasionally Jon fancied a meat dish so rather than plough through the menu I'd ask the waiter to bring me a meat and fish-free alternative (don't ask for vegetarian food as many Greeks consider fish a vegetarian option!)

This Greek version of ratatouille, served at George's Taverna, was absolutely delicious.

As was the gemista (stuffed tomatoes and peppers) at El Gato Negro.

You can always tell when someone's never been to Greece - they order puddings! Don't beware Greeks bearing gifts, as it's usually food and drink. If we didn't get homemade cakes, pancakes and ice creams we'd be given starters or jugs of ouzo and raki.

For the first couple of evenings the temperatures dropped to around 16°C so we were glad we'd travelled in jackets. 

Dusk in Halkidiki is magical, the sky turns the most delicate shades of pale blue and lilac and the setting sun sparkles on the water with a rosy-gold shimmer. It flatters even the most sun-starved skin tone.

Although I'd bought both these dresses months ago, it was the first time I'd worn them and goodness me, did they get a positive reaction! Apparently my wardrobe was the main topic of conversation when we walked through the Ammos bar to go out every evening. 

The closest taverna was the top rated El Gato Negro and, with a certain black cat having adopted us only a few weeks before, it was inevitable that we'd have to pop in. 

And it turned out that owners, Demetrius and Panagiotis, were Charlatans fans! 

The food was sensational, the resident cats were gorgeous and the brothers very generous with their drinks on the house. One of the Tripadvisor reviews simply said "You're mad if you don't go!"

On the way out every night we'd stop for an outfit photo...obviously it was really hard to try and stand somewhere that looked Greek...not!

As the week wore on, the evening temperatures got warmer and we threw caution to the wind leaving the jackets back in the room.

We met John & Cheryl one evening - other than the guests in Ammos, Brits are very much in the minority in Polychrono, the majority of tourists being from Eastern Europe and Greece (many Greeks own holiday homes in Halkidiki). John & Cheryl are Greek residents and have lived there for 16 years. Despite being almost sick with envy over their lifestyle, we got on like a house on fire, went back to their stunning apartment for G'n'Ts and met up for drinks, dinner .... and more drinks a couple of night later. They told us that they usually give the few British tourists they encounter a wide berth but made an exception for us!

This was at the popular seafront taverna, Flegra, look at that view! Its where all the hip young Greeks head to on a Saturday night.

And all too soon it was Monday morning and time to be picked up and taken to the airport. Where's your bag? I was asked by the other guests, astounded that Jon & I shared luggage. No-one could believe I travelled without a huge suitcase. I mean this as a compliment, said one of our fellow travellers, but I thought you'd be really high maintenance as you always look fantastic. A couple of women asked me for some tips for packing light - I suggested to them that, rather than stuff a case with a different outfit for every day, just pack a handful of garments you absolutely love, that way you'll wear them repeatedly and always feel fabulous. This bargain Pink City Prints Tango dress being a prime example! 

With the exception of the foldable straw hat that I squeezed in at the last minute and didn't wear, everything else I took had an outing but as I only wore the strappy suntop and the green bikini once I could have reduced my packing even further. 

Ammos' owner, Christina and her twin girls accompanied us to the coach, hugged us and shed a few tears at our departure, whispering in my ear I love, love, love your cowboy boots!  Once we'd checked into our flight at Thessaloniki airport we consoled ourselves with a bougatsa, the Greek version of a custard slice. 

Our flight left on time and our arrival at Birmingham International was quick and efficient, we were on the train back to Walsall within forty minutes of landing.

 Polychrono exceeded all expectations and we'll definitely return and explore more of Halkidiki. The package holiday was a means to an end and although we'd much rather travel independently if the price (and destination) is right we'd not rule it out as an option. With our partial refund from TUI, our week away cost us under £200 each, we couldn't have bought the flight for that.

Thanks for reading - and for all your comments. See you soon!

Friday 26 May 2023

Halkidiki - Busy Doing Nothing

Kalispera! As I mentioned in my previous post, several of the reviews I'd read during my pre-trip research was that there was absolutely nothing to see or do. There is a folk museum in Polychrono but it was closed when we were there, there's also some ancient Greek ruins, unearthed during some recent construction work which are currently screened off. There's Halkidiki's historical main city, Thessaloniki, but the buses, still running on the Winter, pre-tourist season schedules, were sporadic and the express service, reducing the two and a half hour journey to just 60 minutes, didn't start until next month.We debated hiring a car but, rather than splash the cash, we decided to explore the immediate area on foot instead.

On our first day we decided to hike to Mavrobara in the prefecture of Central Macedonia just over three miles from Polychrono. Designated as an area of natural beauty, it stands 300m above sea level and the lake at its peak is home to two endangered species of water turtle, Emys Orbicularis & Mauremys Caspica.

On the way we passed a defunct olive oil press...

And a couple of tiny Orthodox churches.

As we discovered on previous visits, Greece's spring flowers are absolutely glorious.

The lake blew our minds, we had no idea turtles could be so noisy. I've owned a tortoise for almost 50 years and he's seldom emitted more than the occasional hiss!

After spending all of Wednesday on the beach, on Thursday we walked to Hanioti, the next town along the coast. On the way we bumped into Ross and Helen, our Ammos neighbours. They've been visiting Polychrono for 30 years - they love it so much, they've booked to come back in three weeks time! Together we ambled along, admiring the residents houses & their immaculately kept gardens and feasted on kumquats we plucked from the trees overhanging the road (in Greece people are welcome to help themselves to produce as long as they only take enough to feed themselves). After a frappe in the town square we went our separate ways, Jon & I walked along the seafront and window-shopped the high-end boutiques before walking back to Polychrono for a late lunch which, after clocking up a total of 7.5 miles we were starving.

We loved this novel way of turning unrecyclable plastic bottle tops into art.

Although it was warm throughout our stay we had a few light showers and several overcast days explaining why Halkidiki is very green.

There's a lot of money in the area and there's some huge houses - not all built in the best possible taste. We rather liked this post-modern villa, it's got the look of a Bond villain's lair.

The world's best olives come from Halkidiki and if you eat as many as we do you'll already know that.

The following day we walked in the opposite direction, taking the beach road from Polychrono to the village of Kryopigi. 

After a restorative frappe we wandered around the old village square, chatting to some locals (and their cats) before descending to the beach, walking back along the sand and stopping for a swim along the way (the water here is a couple of degrees than Polychrono). After lunch in one of Polychrono's seafront tavernas we slept off our ten mile walk on the talcum powder sand, punctuated with a refreshing swim in the Aegean.

As always we fantasised over which house we'd live in. Forget those swanky modern villas, give me a crumbling three hundred year old village stone house with shutters and a grape vine.

We rather liked the look of this derelict cottage, too but ruled it out as the gates were too narrow for Gilbert. 

We spent all of Saturday lazing on the beach in the glorious broiling sunshine but on Sunday we awoke to drizzle and a distinct nip in the air so, armed with a brolly (which, along with our jackets, we were able to pack away before too long) we walked back to Hanioti and had cappuccinos in a bustling cafe in the town square, packed with Greek families all dressed up and out for a Sunday stroll. We continued on our way eventually arriving at Pefkochori (Greek for Pine Village). 

After clocking up eight miles we rewarded ourselves with a large beer on Pefkochori seafront before some sightseeing and souvenir shopping. Lunch was - as always - Greek salad, a basket of freshly baked bread and a glass of the most delicious local vino (and we don't usually like white wine). We wandered along the jetty and decided that, rather than walk the ten miles back, we'd reward ourselves with a taxi home, a very reasonable €10.

The first time we've had a Greek salad with boiled eggs.

And there you have it. The museum might have been closed and the capital a bit of a chore to get to out of season without a car but there's absolutely loads to do in and around Polychrono as long as you have comfy footwear and a natural curiosity plus all that walking meant we could feast like Greek Heroes for a week and return to the UK weighing less than when we left it! 

Stay tuned for my final instalment.