Every year, come a long weekend and the start of the holiday season, the Bulgarian media focus on this nation's border crossings with Greece, and start counting the cars in the queues. Ordinary Bulgarians, for their part, start filling their Facebook and Instagram pages with photos of beaches, ice coffee and tables groaning under the weight of plates of Kalamari and Horiatiki salad, and glasses of Ouzo and Retsina.
The reasons why Bulgarians – and those from farther away like Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia and even Ukraine and Russia – drive to Greece for the summer are many and varied. For hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians, it is easier to get themselves to the Aegean than to the Black Sea coast. The Greek summer is longer, the weather is better, the sea is saltier and full of fish, and there are more beaches than you can visit in a lifetime. Peace and tranquility surround you, and the food beats hands down anything anywhere in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea regions combined.
Chalkidiki, a peninsula east of Thessaloniki, is one of the preferred holiday spots on the Aegean.
Sandy beaches, tavernas and tranquility – Chalkidiki has all the right ingredients for a peaceful vacation
With a coastline more than 500 km in length, the three-legged peninsula has enough space to accommodate its summer visitors without overcrowding – and there are hardly any package tourists from western Europe, as they prefer the islands farther south.
Chalkidiki is a universe of stunning landscapes. Sand and pebble beaches, and rocky coves with picturesquely located pine trees, combine with the gentle hills of Cassandra, the westernmost "leg" of Chalkidiki, the low mountains of neighbouring Sithonia and the forbidding slopes of Athos. Chalkidiki caters for all tastes and budgets, from the exclusive hotels to the busy resorts, from private villas to camping sites and rooms to let in the sleepy fishing villages.
Chalkidiki's star beach is hands down Porto Koufo. Located at the tip of the Sithonia peninsula, it is hidden in a deep bay with a narrow outlet to the sea. The water is deep and blue, the surrounding mountains block out the horizon and, in spite of its popularity – with prices in the local taverns to match – it seems to have barely changed in the past 30 centuries. It also has its own place in history. Thucydides mentioned it, and in the Second World War the Germans stationed their submarines in what is the deepest natural harbour in Greece.
A narrow canal separates Cassandra Peninsula from the mainland
However, to find an excellent spot to lay your beach towel in Chalkidiki, you only need to drive slowly along the coast: sooner rather than later you will discover a place just for you.
The small towns and villages on the coastline are a delight to explore, with their laidback atmosphere and local history. On the days when they have an open market, they transform dramatically. The central street gets packed with the stalls of vendors advertising the quality of their olives, watermelons, tomatoes, spices, cheese, fish and eggs. The experience is much more rewarding than shopping in a supermarket, and is an opportunity to see the real Greece beyond the tourist industry.
Chalkidiki also provides for those moments when you want to see something other than the beach. Local sites of interest include Petralona Cave with its stalactites and stalagmites, the ruins of ancient Stageira where Aristotle was born, and the traditional village of Parthenonas on Sithonia.
Vourvourou, on Sithonia, has attracted sunbathers since the 1960s, when Thessaloniki professors chose it for their summer refuge
Mount Athos is the ultimate destination in Chalkidiki. Almost the entire peninsula consists of a monastic republic that was established in the 9th century and has barely changed since. Twenty fortress-like monasteries cling to its mountains, preserving treasures of religious art and a lifestyle that still measures time in the Byzantine way. It is a place of pilgrimage that is off limits to women – and all female animals, cats excluded. However, those men who apply for and get a permission to enter will have the experience of a lifetime. For women, there are regular boat rides along the coastline.
This final detail is what makes Chalkidiki unique: where else in the world will you find the pleasures of a summer vacation effortlessly mixed with deep spirituality and centuries-old history?
The monasteries of Mount Athos preserve medieval history and lifestyle that exist nowhere else in the modern world