The area of Eastern Halkidiki is an example of how cultural and historical influences have no borders. Ottoman history enthusiasts might know that the heart of the region, the area historically known as Mademochoria, or in Turkish as Sidrekapısı, was one of the most profit-generating areas during the Ottoman Empire. Rich in silver and gold resources, it was developed in the 9th century in the present-day town of Stagira. Several fortifications of Machala, the capital of Mademochoria, as well as a recently restored Ottoman hammam nearby, are preserved and surround Aristotle Park. The park is an open-air museum overlooking Mount Athos, which displays installations showing the great thinker’s contribution to some of the proudest achievements of humanity. The ancient philosopher is the patron of the area, with all present-day activities revolving around him and his legacy.
Footsteps of the great philosopher
Occupying two hills of the Liotopi Peninsula, Ancient Stagira was a little settlement founded in 655 BC by the Ionian colonists of Andros. Although very prosperous at first, the city was devastated by king Philip II of Macedon, and despite the later rebuild, the place has begun to decline; six centuries later Strabo described it as completely deserted.
The reason why the place hasn’t been forgotten today is the legacy of its most famous son, the omnipresent Aristotle, who was born there in 384 BC. Although he spent most of his life in Athens, first with his studies in Plato's Academy, then later with his teachings for Alexander the Great, he returned to Stagira for a short period of time before his death. Still, residents of the ancient town have attributed to him importance and a respectable status. Aristotle is known to have studied every subject possible during his time, and it was even suggested that he was the person to know everything there was to know, a savant.
The latest archeological discovery suggests that people of Stagira have transported the ashes of Aristotle from the island of Euboea, where he died, to Ancient Stagira to build an altar. Although it has been destroyed by the Byzantines, the entrance making the memorial accessible to the pilgrims has been preserved. Later on, in Aristotle’s honor, the Stageiritans organized feasts and races, commonly known as Aristoteleia.
In order to follow the footsteps of the ancient philosopher, eight different hiking trails have been mapped out around the Halkidiki region, with the longest one being approximately 30 km. Three different paths cut through Eastern Halkidiki besides the one already mentioned, there is a route leading from Arnea to Varvara, as well as a two-kilometer walking path from Olympiada to Ancient Stagira.
The culinary tradition in Eastern Halkidiki is as old as the history of the region. The Ancient Greeks’ diet was simple yet varied, based on the local ingredients nature was providing them with. Today, when traveling around the region, one can see the great comeback of appreciation for local seafood, mushrooms and berries, and meat and wine. The reason behind this is more than just a temporary gastronomic trend.
Chef Dimitrios Tsananas Thessaloniki’s popular Met Hotel, a native to Arnea, says that the economic crisis is one of the reasons why Greeks had to change the way they thought about food. “People ended up with nothing and many of them came back where they were from. The farms that used to be shut down are now starting to operate again, providing the locals with great produce which they previously sourced from Italy or Spain,” he states. Current development is beneficial for the local cuisine not only in terms of sustainability, but first and foremost as a value added to the available varieties of food.
Among many local products, Olympiada mussels are reason enough to travel to the area. Feeding off of the sea and sweet water at the same time, they grow to be larger and tastier than those coming from other areas. Louloudia Alexiadou, owner of Hotel Liotopi and one of the local gastro-experts, says it is best to eat them only slightly seasoned because then you can still smell the sea on them and enjoy their full flavor palate. While serving four different takes on the local delicacy, her brother Dimitris recalls that when his family first settled in the area, there was no infrastructure not only to grow anything, but also to live. The Sarris family (Sarı in Turkish) came to Olympiada from Turkey’s Yalova region due to the population exchange agreement between Greece and Turkey. His family used to speak fluent Turkish, and the locals still use various Turkish expressions on a daily basis. “You can hear guys at the port yelling ‘gel buraya,’” he laughs. The events of the past helped the family to open up to foreign travelers and get involved in the tourism industry. “Everyone is welcome here,” says Sarris. “Tourism is not only musaka and mussels, it is about making people comfortable.”
Where to eat
A part of a larger touristic complex consisting of a hotel, spacious garden and a lounge area, Prasino Horio is also a popular locals hangout, with a full bar as a bonus for the evening. www.prasinohorio.gr
With an extensive menu of mezze and meat, Bakatsianos offers a wide range of local delicacies, paired with tsipouro and locally-made wines by Claudia Papayianni. www.bakatsianos.gr
Alongside a great choice of local seafood, the waterfront restaurant Akroyiali serves countless variations of Olympiada-grown mussels, which are an essential when visiting the area. www.hotel-germany.gr
Where to stay
Chorostasi Mansion is a traditional guesthouse located at the central town square, with rooms overlooking the Cathedral of Saint Stephanos and the property’s back garden. The building, dating back to 1896, is home to six rooms decorated in a simple yet warm and welcoming style. For more info visit www.chorostasi.com
Having been forced to re-settle from the present-day region of Yalova, Sarris family took residence in Olympiada where they run boutique Hotel Akroyiali, known among the locals as Hotel Germany. With 17 rooms and a waterfront restaurant, the place makes an ideal base for further exploration of the area. www.hotel-germany.gr;
Award-winning Hotel Liotopi, known for its homey atmosphere and cooking workshops conducted by the owner, is attracting visitors from all of Europe. Their kitchen is the focal point of the entire operation: homemade breakfast is served in the back garden, while delicious snacks are on display during the day. www.hotel-liotopi.gr;
Arriving and getting around
Olympiada is located a three-hour drive from the Turkish-Greek border gate in Ipsala, with Arnea being a further 45 minutes away. Alternatively, you can choose one of the daily flights from Istanbul Ataturk Airport to Thessaloniki and then proceed by car. Greek Travel Services can send a driver to pick you up at a designated time and accompany you throughout the stay. English speakers are not easy to find in the little villages, you might want to rely on the help of someone who communicates in both languages at ease. For more info visit www.greektravelservices.gr
What to buy, what to try
From 2000 bottles in 2006 to 150 thousand bottles today, Claudia Papayianni’s award winning Greek wine varieties, malagouzia, xinomavro and assyrtiko, are the local finesse that add unique value to any dining table. Blends with international varieties such as chardonnay and syrah are also available. www.cp-domaine.gr
Liquor enthusiasts will appreciate Mountovina, distilled honey extract slightly resembling tsipouro, granted a geographical indication of Halkidiki region. www.honeygeorgaka.com
The ignorants will claim that feta is just another type of beyaz peynir, but cheese enthusiasts will appreciate the distinction, and enjoy Karagiannis feta, as well as choriatiko, paneraki and other varieties of cheese available in markets across Greece. www.karagiannifeta.gr
Jams and marmalades from the abundance of berries that can be found in the forest on the slopes of Holomontas mountain are another must-try. Ask at the Lanara Cafe in Arnea if Angelos Gagani and his wife Fotini have any to offer. If you have some free time on your hands, the owner of Hotel Liotopi, Louloudia Alexiadou can even teach you how to make the delicacies.
From mid-May until mid-June, Eastern Halkidiki hosts Kouzina gastronomy festival, highlighting various aspects of the local culinary tradition. The event gives the opportunity to local and visiting chefs to expand their creativity and interpret traditional recipes with a modern twist. en.mountathosarea.org