The initial journey out of Thessaloniki was rather chaotic; some of the roads were pretty busy as it was Tuesday morning and some of the main roads had cars double parked, some pulling out, others pulling in, etc. etc. So we had to be on the ball for random cars appearing from all directions for a good hour or so. We headed south on the road that goes to the airport – thinking that this would be busy we were pleasantly surprised at the low volume of traffic. One downside was that it took us ages to actually get properly out of town (18km) as along this route there was an extended industrial/business park, as well as a couple of reasonably tough climbs to negotiate.
Our destination for the next few days was the Halkidiki region to the southeast of Thessaloniki. A few of the locals we have met recently had said that we should visit it as it is spectacular and has the best beaches and although we’re not really the types to sit on a beach, they are lovely to look at – and the Halkidiki scenery is supposed to be amazing too. Initially we were going to go around the coastline of the main part of Halkidiki as well as around the western peninsula. On day two out of Thessaloniki this changed to the middle peninsula (Sithonia) instead, as it’s a circular route rather than a “there and back”journey as would be the case with the western peninsula. There are three peninsulas and the eastern one (Mount Athos) apparently is only accessible to men, which although this has its merits I wasn’t too sure what Martina might do should I decide to take off on my own! And we did wonder if this is actually legal in the EU to have a “men only” area of a country?!
To be honest the cycling on Tuesday didn’t inspire either of us. The main road was just that, main – lots of trucks and cars etc. I had always imagined Halkidiki to be a remote paradise with small roads, fishing villages, a few tourist resorts, lots of olive groves, wild beaches, etc. But no, the road was really busy and it was almost like there was one long business park on each side of the road up through the hills. We did manage to get off the main road and down to the water’s edge eventually, which was much better, but still very built up – this time with tourist resorts, most of which were closed up for the winter.
We managed to get as far as just north of Neo Moudania when we decided to start to look for a camping spot, which we found right on the beach. A few people smiled and waved at us as we were setting up for the night, so we took it to be okay! Most things around us were closed anyway so there weren’t many people around. It was actually really nice to be right on the beach and far enough away from the water. We did our normal set up, ate dinner, sat and looked at the view for a while and was then in bed early.
We had an early morning coffee in Neo Moudania sitting next to the marina in the sun, which was a very nice way to start the day. Having chosen Sithonia peninsula as our route we had to go back on another busy main road, which begs the question where all these vehicles going to and coming from? There’s nothing down here! We tried to get off the main road as much as possible and each time we came back to it, it had calmed down just a bit more, so things were looking up. The scenery was still decidedly average and we were starting to feel a little disappointed with our whole Greek coastal adventure. We had lunch in Nikitti in a cafe by the beach – both choices of meal were excellent and fuelled us up for the afternoon.
Once out of Nikiti the scenery suddenly changed to became what we had expected of the Greek coastline – craggy rocks, bays, turquoise sea, fir trees, etc. The road had quietened down and hugged the coast so we had a couple of hours of undulating, but really nice riding. We set up camp on Paradise Beach where once again a few locals acknowledged that we were there, but nothing more than that.
However, it wasn’t locals that we should have been worried about – at midnight a van pulled up about 15m from our tent. Though it woke us up we were unduly worried at this point; they did leave the engine running for about ten minutes which wasn’t appreciated, there was a bit of talking outside and the doors of the van opened and closed a few times. We peeked out of the tent and came to the conclusion that the folks in the van we pulled up to spend the night here too. A bit of a shame, but then we’re happy to share! All quiet for a while then at about one o’clock the engine started and woke us up again – perhaps they were off? No, the engine just kept going. We knew that they knew we were there as they’d shone a torch on our tent when they first arrived, so we couldn’t understand why they’d put the engine on again. So, as there didn’t appear to be any sign of it being turned off, I knocked on their window to explain that we were trying to sleep in the tent right next to them. Not so much as a ‘oh, sorry we didn’t see you’ or some other apology, just ‘we want to warm our van up’ but said they’d turn it off in a minute, which they did, but it was a tad annoying to have been woken up in the first place – especially as it wasn’t even cold!
Anyway, next morning we were up well before them, so made no attempt at being quiet – now we all know two wrongs don’t make a right…
Back on the road and the scenery remained craggy and the riding very hilly, so it was slow progress. It was a dull and grey day mainly, so maybe it would have looked nicer if it was sunny because neither Martina or I were particularly wowed. We stopped for a coffee in Porto Koufalia, which is a very small fishing village with just one cafe open. It was very nice there and for once didn’t feel very touristy as there weren’t many hotels around, just a bunch of fishing boats.
Onwards and, in our case, upwards along the bottom of the Sithonia peninsula, to Kalamitsi where we had lunch. It’s a tiny holiday village on the side of a beautiful bay – everything was closed, but that didn’t matter and we found a nice place undercover to shelter from the rain and eat lunch.
We pressed on for another couple of hours, again the going was slow with tough hill after tough hill through a fairly heavy rain shower. In this weather temperature control is difficult…sweating up hills, getting cold on the way down and then wet, so we did the best we could with raincoats and fleeces. Then, as usual, at about 4 o’clock we started to look for a camping spot. The rain had eased off and the horizon looked much clearer, so things were looking up; plus we came across a campsite on a beach, which was closed for the off-season. As it’s a campsite it was perfect for us…just a bit of shame that they had switched the electricity, WiFi and water off! There were a few buildings around the place, one of which had a small veranda which we decided made a great sleeping area. No need to put up the tent, other than as a wind break – all we did was put the mosquito net up and our sleeping bags inside, bingo!
A little while later, sun had gone down, we were wandering around with our head torches on and were just about to tuck into our hot dinner when we heard voices. Damn – it looked like someone checking the site. We kept calm, continued our dinner and waited – two dogs came along first then a chap who was busy on his phone. He managed to tell us he was security before walking off whilst continuing his phone conversation. We didn’t know what to think – would he come back and tell us to poke off? The answer is no! He continued his conversation, did a cursory check of some of the site then left….probably the most ineffectual security man ever, but we love him! We cleared away our things and made the place tidy then spent a happy half hour looking at an amazingly clear night’s sky – and to think that just a couple of hours ago we were preparing to set up camp in the lashing rain! So, our first night under just a mozzie net and with the temperature at about 9 degrees we were both toasty warm.
Martina did start the night off basically wearing everything she owns, but had to shed layers as the night progressed! I, on the other hand, had a tee-shirt and underwear on and that was it, though I do have my own personal, attached fur blanket! When we put the lights out at about half nine the evening was clear and calm and the sea almost glassy smooth with just the very lightest of breezes and not a cloud to be seen. Cut to the middle of the night – wind had picked up, clouds had rolled in and it was lashing with rain. In the veranda, under our mozzie net we were actually fine: still nice and warm though the sound of the rain and wind did wake us up, but I’m sure this would have been the case if we were in the tent.
Next morning and the storm had passed, just a few straggling clouds, and we were greeted by sunrise over the eastern peninsula. All very nice from our viewpoint on the veranda. We had breakfast at the table on the veranda and also made sandwiches for the day. Martina’s comment that this was positive luxury says a lot about how we have changed as travellers when the ability to stand up whilst getting changed and make sandwiches on a table and not the floor are now deemed luxury!
We were on our way before 9am, as we didn’t have a tent to dry out, and were straight into tough, tough hills, all along the eastern coast. Very draining riding and slow too – 36km of difficult riding later we made it to Agios Nikolaos and we were absolutely starving! Agios Nikolaos is a lovely little town with winding cobbled streets and a nice small square, which has a number of cafes and bistros. We decided on one and then ate a humongous hot lunch! Apart from fuelling us up for the afternoon it also meant that we didn’t need to cook in the evening and could push on a bit further.
The scenery throughout the day was very pretty and the sunny weather did actually make things look nicer than the day before. The road out of Nikolaos to Pyrgradikia was especially nice as the road hugged the sea for the most part. However, the hill out of Pyrgradikia was just a ‘holy sh1t’ moment! Very steep and quite long, so all-in-all a load of sweat and grunting from both of us! We pushed on for another hour or so, through rolling hills, just to get some more miles in. We had hoped to get to Lerissos, but that proved to be a bit too far and made the decision to stop at Gomati for the night and found a very handy football pitch/camping spot just as the sun was dipping behind the hills. Luckily it didn’t look like it was used much (the weeds near the goal posts gave that away), so we felt fairly certain we’d be okay – one woman did come to walk her dog, but said it was okay.
Martina didn’t hear this, but during the night the goat herders we’d seen taking their flock up into the mountains in the evening, could be heard making a yodelling sound and then all their dogs replying. The night was very still and so the noise reflected off the hills, which was all rather eerie!
Sarurday morning was a quick up and out to Lerissos 12km away but the climb out of Gomati turned out to be a bit of shock at that time of the morning! The stop at Lerissos was mainly for a stock up at Lidl as Martina was starting to get withdrawal symptoms having not seen one for a few days! Then we had another tough climb along the coast by the town of Stratoni, after which it turned into a very pleasant, spectacular ride hugging the coast all the way to Stavros.
We had lunch by the sea watching a free diver (not too sure what he was diving for), which was pleasant had it not been for all the rubbish around us, a continuing theme I’m afraid. We booked a room for the night mainly so that we could have a shower as we’ve now worked out that 5 days is about our limit with regards to personal hygiene…!
So, Stavros is us nearly out of leaving the Halkidiki region and we have mixed feelings about it. Whilst a lot of it didn’t wow us there was some really spectacular bits. We recognise that we are here off season, but everything is closed – and we mean everything..Supermarkets, small shops and there are very few cafes etc. This almost caught us out even for water: there has been taps and free flowing water at the side of the road everywhere in Greece, but not in Halkidiki and especially on the peninsula we cycled around!