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Macedonia | Halkidiki

Halkidiki ...more on Halkidiki

Nea Roda, at the narrowest point between Mount Athos and the main Halkidiki peninsula, is also of interest historically. Here Xerxes, the king of Persia, dug a channel to shorten the route for his fleet during his second attempt to invade Greece in 480 B. C. (During his first try eleven years earlier, many ships had been thrown against the rocks by a violent storm and Xerxes had the sea whipped to punish it!)

For a change of pace, the route inland from the splendid sandy beaches of Ierissos to the traditional villages of Gomati and Megali Panagia travels through lush landscapes. The solitude found here could not be in greater contrast to the lively coastal scene.

In Sithonia, on the other hand, the coast is a contrast in itself. There are picturesque fishing villages, like Pirgadikia and Nikitas; charming coves at Vourvourou; old stone houses with half-timbering at Agios Nikolaos; and Byzantine fortifications at Toroni. But there's also hustle and bustle and plenty of nightlife at Neos Marmaras; luxury and elegance at Porto Carras, one of Greece’s major resorts; early Christian basilicas at Nikiti, Agios Georgios and Elias; and on the southwest tip, the mysterious enclosed harbor at Porto Koufo, called the «deaf» port because the sea is so still here that it makes no sound.

A tour of Kassandra, like a tour of virtually anywhere in Greece, is inevitably filled with echoes from the past. Potidea, with its medieval walls, dates back to 600 BC when it was founded by Corinth; Nea Phocea has a Byzantine tower on its waterfront; near Kalithea are the ruins of the Temple of Ammon Zeus, an Egyptian-Libyan desert version of the Greek god, said to have inspired Alexander to set off for the land of the Nile; and Kalandra, whose 7th century church of the Panagia has marvelous frescoes, and is believed to be the site of ancient Mendi, a colony founded around 750 BC by the Eretrians.

The cave at Petralona just outside Kassandra goes even further back. In 1960, the skull of a Paleolithic hominid was discovered here; its age was determined to be between 250,000 and 700,000 years old. It was subsequently determined as representing a missing link between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. Remains of what some scholars believe are the earliest known controlled use of fire were also found here. Adorned with stunning stalactites and stalagmites, the cave is a sightseeing must. The bones of long extinct animals excavated from it are on display in the adjacent museum, while some of the niches have been filled with reproductions of cave dwellers, making the cave even more fascinating for children. Another museum, at Polygyros between Kassandra and Thessaloniki, contains finds collected from archaeological sites all over Halkidiki and mainly from Olynthos. This ancient city is worth visiting as it is a model for the classical town planning first introduced by the ancient architect Hippodamos in the 4th century BC.