BY Sakis Serefas

| Dec 03, 2015

Destinations

My Hideaway

Prolific playwright, novelist, poet and scholar Sakis Serefas, Thessaloniki born and bred, takes us on one of his favorite escapes to the mountains of Halkidiki.

“There’s no place like Halkidiki,” goes the obsessive mantra of every hard-core Thessalonian when talking about beaches, vacations and other let-loose or go-nuts breaks. To such types, Halkidiki stands supreme, above any other spot in the world with a stretch of sand washed by the sea. Why travel to Ibiza, the Bahamas, the Caribbean or Malibu when Halkidiki is there on the map, ask fans of the peninsula.

But my mantra is “there’s no place like Halkidiki’s mountains.” Why? Being one of those people who enjoy reading encyclopedias and dictionaries, I present the following entries, each of which corresponds to an inviting destination that is just one hour’s drive (or one CD distance) from Thessaloniki. That simple.

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Galatista
Nestled in a hilly landscape just 40 kilometers from the White Tower, this marks the start of the undulating mass of majestic Mount Hortiatis. Stopping on one of its many pretty cobbled streets or at the entrance of its Byzantine tower, looking yonder? There’s the valley of Anthemoundas River, where in antiquity Alexander (yes, the Great one) came to hunt deer and wild boar. And there’s Mount Olympus across the way and beyond that, the sparkling waters of the Thermaic Gulf. We’re talking about a 3D spectacular! If you suddenly get a pang from the irresistible aromas wafting your way, follow your nose. Pelagia is probably cooking her famous slow-roasted goat in lemon sauce in her taverna. Grab a table. I may be sitting nearby, silently and reverently bent over my plate.

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Arnaia
A 20-minute drive from Galatista and 600 meters above sea level, this is a small town celebrated for its authentic charm and elegance, a perfect reproduction of the 10th century with beautifully restored traditional homes. I enjoy walking around its empty streets late at night, building stories in my mind. How many students walked through the doors of its imposing stone school, almost a century-and-a-half old? What kind of mischief did they get up to? What did travelers talk about as they dismounted their horses for a drink of fresh spring water from the tap that is still there, inside the main square’s age-old plane tree? And what sorts of games were played centuries ago by the children whose graves are on display beneath the glass floor of the Church of Aghios Stefanos? Such thoughts form the material for fascinating dreams when I lay down my head at Mitsio’s guest house, an old renovated villa near the square.

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Taxiarchis
This is my private sanctuary. Leaving Arnaia, I am there in the time it takes to listen to just half a CD. My second home for some 20 years now, the village looks as though it has been planted right in the forest. You must, without fail, start the day at the Doctor – as initiates know the proprietor of the traditional kafeneio on the main square – for a glass of tsipouro and a plate of fried anchovy or wood-oven baked chickpeas. If you happen upon a local playing traditional ditties on a fiddle, as is often the case, I don’t see you being in any hurry to get up and go. As you sit sipping your tsipouro and listening to the music, you will spot a cypress tree in front of an old house across the way. This was the very tree where rebel chieftain Captain Yiannis Parliaris hid over a century ago after jumping from the window of his home as the Turks approached to arrest him. Take a stroll around the village streets, lined with traditional Halkidiki homes, or get pleasantly lost in the woods on horseback (ask around for farms where you can rent a horse). The woods have well-marked trails that wind through the ash, oak and chestnut trees. And when you go for a meal of wild boar with mushrooms at Jimmy’s taverna, or for a night’s rest at Apolymeni Petra, Jimmy’s or Papayiannis’, say “hi” from me.