Quieter please: in search of real Greece

The Halkidiki peninsula isn't new to tourism, says Tony Kelly, but it offers an authentic taste of this country in one of its greener landscapes

In the hills above Arnea, the cars were double parked along the small road leading to the chapel as the villagers made their annual pilgrimage for the feast of their patron saint, Modestus. From inside the chapel came the sound of chanting; outside in the porch, people were busy lighting candles, crossing themselves, and queueing to kiss the holy icon. A basket contained loaves of bread with candles stuck inside, together with bottles of wine and olive oil. As the priest intoned prayers over the gifts, a small boy decided to try out the toy machine-gun that his embarrassed mother had just bought him from a stall on the other side of the field.

In the hills above Arnea, the cars were double parked along the small road leading to the chapel as the villagers made their annual pilgrimage for the feast of their patron saint, Modestus. From inside the chapel came the sound of chanting; outside in the porch, people were busy lighting candles, crossing themselves, and queueing to kiss the holy icon. A basket contained loaves of bread with candles stuck inside, together with bottles of wine and olive oil. As the priest intoned prayers over the gifts, a small boy decided to try out the toy machine-gun that his embarrassed mother had just bought him from a stall on the other side of the field.

After Communion, the procession moved off, the priest swinging a censer, and two men carrying the icon. In a corner of the field, someone had set up a barbecue and a cauldron of soup was simmering on a huge fire. The priest paused to taste and bless the soup, made with the meat of a lamb slaughtered that morning. Then everyone sat down for a communal meal of salad, pickled octopus, bread, soup, rice pudding and sticky pastries accompanied by copious quantities of ouzo, wine and beer.

I stumbled on this festival during a visit last June to the Greek region of Halkidiki. Not to be confused with the island of Halki, Halkidiki is a three-pronged peninsula jutting into the Aegean sea near the city of Thessaloniki. The region is promoted as "Greece's green paradise", and although this is perhaps an exaggeration, it is noticeably greener than elsewhere, with large swaths of pine forest as well as cornfields, vineyards and olive groves. It also has more than 500km of coastline, including some superb beaches which are popular with Greek holidaymakers in summer.

Each of the three separate promontories that make up Halkidiki has a different character. Kassandra, the easiest to reach, is also the most developed for tourism, though on nothing like the scale of, say, Corfu or Rhodes. I stayed at the Kassandra Palace, a large hotel and family resort with lush gardens leading to the beach. In the nearby village of Kriopigi, some tavernas have English menus and British newspapers are on sale, but while tourism is clearly the main source of income, you could hardly say that the village has sold its soul.

Sithonia, the middle prong, is the most rugged and unspoilt, apart from the mega-resort of Porto Carras, where European Union leaders gathered for a summit a year ago. The northernmost peninsula, Athos, is mostly given over to Mount Athos. This is the self-governing republic and holiest site of the Greek Orthodox church, in the news recently because of the visits made to it by the Prince of Wales.

More than a thousand monks live here in 20 remote monasteries on the wooded hillsides, but visitors are not encouraged and women are forbidden (though the ban is being tested in the European courts by a female Greek MEP). The Prince was among the 10foreign men a day who are allowed to visit Mount Athos. The procedure is long and complex, though, and most people make do with a boat trip from the nearby port of Ouranoupolis, gazing at the monasteries from 500 metres offshore.

Halkidiki may not be known for its ancient sites, but in the foothills of the Katsika mountains is a site which makes Knossos seem like it was built only yesterday. The Petralona cave was discovered in 1959 by a local villager, Philippos Chatzaridis, and 40 years of excavations have revealed skeletons of lions, bears, hyenas, elephants and wolves. Most remarkable is a skull of Archanthropus, an early form of Homo Sapiens, which has been dated at 700,000 years old, making him the oldest human being in Europe.

Humans must have been here before that, though, because there is evidence of a fire around one million years ago, with ashes and burnt bones suggesting that men were lighting fires for heat, light, cooking and protection from predators. You can wander around the reconstructed cave and examine some of the finds in the on-site museum.

Another big attraction of Halkidiki, especially during the milder weather of spring and autumn, is its walking. The hotel association has cottoned on to this and, in an effort to extend the tourist season beyond the busy months of July and August, has commissioned a book of walks, published in English and German and available in shops and hotels. All of the walks are well waymarked with the sign of Poseidon's trident, which resembles the shape of Halkidiki on the map.

From the Eagles Palace Hotel on Athos, an easy walk led over the hills to Ouranoupolis, with fine views of the island of Amouliani and the mountains of Sithonia beyond. From Ouranoupolis, another walk of about two hours followed the coastline as far as the border of Mount Athos, marked by a police post, barbed wire and forbidding notices. Turning inland, I passed a ruined castle and climbed a forest path beside a deep ravine. It took me higher up the hillside, above a fertile valley of vineyards and olive groves, with wild flowers growing in the hedgerows and butterflies flitting across my path, before I returned to Ouranoupolis.

I rewarded myself with lunch at a beachfront taverna and a selection of mezes, those tapas-like starters that the Greeks do so well - fried cheese, fried courgettes, aubergine salad, baby sardines. Back at the Eagles Palace, I swam in the sea for a while and the dozed on the beach as the sun was setting over Amouliani. A good walk, a good lunch, sun, sea and sand ... the simple pleasures of a summer holiday in Greece.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The writer travelled with Olympic Airlines (0870-606 0460; www.olympicairlines.com), which flies return to Thessaloniki from £129.

Where to stay

He stayed as a guest of the Halkidiki Hotel Association (00 30 231 0429 020). B&B at the Kassandra Palace (00 30 2374 051 471) in Kryopigi starts from £45 per person per night, based on two sharing, and £90 at The Eagles Palace (00 30 2377 031 101) in Ouranoupolis.

Further information

The Halkidiki walking guide is available from hotels.

Greece National Tourist Office (020-7495 9300).

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