Blue blue electric blue”
‘Sound and Vision’ David Bowie
When you think of Greece, you envision the ancient stones of Athens, or the wine-dark sea and alabaster houses of the islands.
Have you heard of the peninsulas? Going east from Thessaloniki, the second biggest city in Greece, you will see a ‘fist’ with three fingers. The top finger is Mount Athos, still the only region in Europe where a woman is not allowed to set foot; the middle one is Sithonia, while I visited the finger furthest south, known today as Kassandra, but in ancient times as Pallene or Phlegra.
(One of the delights of visiting Greece is hearing Shakespearean words such as Thrace or Phlegra in common use.)
A peninsula has many of the assets of an island, crystal clear waters, pale fine beaches, lots of coastline but is attached to the mainland. Geographically the whole of Greece is a peninsula, meaning Kassandra is a peninsula within a peninsula. .
Kassandra was almost destroyed by a forest fire in 2006 and as we drove down the peninsula we could see the sepia countryside turn green at the tip.
This region is also named Chalkidiki. It was once occupied by giants. Perhaps they ate the huge green olives, halkidiki olives, as large as eggs. The air smells of sweet figs.
The sweet village Afytos is worth visiting: stone houses overlooking the sea, artists ateliers and a series of painted feta cheese tins used as flower containers dotted along the walls (below). The restaurants and bars are open to the street, looking like stage sets from Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, lamplit yellow windows and laughing knee-slapping patrons.
Further along the coast, at Kallithea, are the 800 BC remains of the temple of Ammon Zeus -an Egyptian/Greek hybrid god, worshipped by Alexander the Great.
Food and wine:
A highlight of my trip was the sublime food at Kavouras Sea View Restaurant in the village of Kallithea: delicately fried strips of zucchini with tzakiki yoghurt dip; still warm newly-made dolmades flecked with dill; trays of small golden fish; a butterflied sea bream fresh as a smack with juicy wedges of sharp citrus; Greek salads, red and green.
Fresh tuna steak, fish gyros, a thick dark kalamata olive dip were the best thing to eat at the Tuna Fish Concept Restaurant in Afytos.
Far from being the latest trend, Natural wine never went away at the Tzikas Family Winery, they’ve been making it for 30 years. Attracted by the heady scent, I was invited by the winemaker to peer into bubbling clay vats of grapes and taste the wines: orange, white and my favourites, the intense reds, particularly the award- winning Syrah-Cabernet and the Limnio.
I recommend the cocktails at the Sani resort. They aren’t cheap: 14 euros for a Bloody Margarita, but are particularly well made. Besides you can look at the sumptuous plants and views of the hotel beaches- but way out of my budget at 300 euros minimum a night.
The star of Kassandra is of course the sea. It’s a place to relax and practise self-care.
Local children might be blasé about the turquoise sea that surrounds them but for us foreigners it’s something very special. The sea is clear, you can see your hand through it. Beaches are mostly white against which the Greek blue, often the colour of walls, chairs, and sky, is specific: deep, matte, chalky and intense.
Take a boat trip: I went on a pirate ship that takes an annual stroll along the coast, where there was live music, a gang plank, dancing.
A lady told me: “When we used to go on picnics when I was young, we never took food because there were octopus everywhere and sea urchins and we’d beat the octopus on the rocks and cook them over the fire. “
Every year in July there is a swimming competition , The Toroneos Gulf, between Kassandra and Sithonia, a distance of 26 kms. The PR for this press trip, Maria, blonde and green-eyed, once swam it in eight hours after a night on the Campari.
I swam every day: at dusk and dawn there was no difference on the horizon between sea and sky. Black eyed translucent fish pecked gently at me in the warm water.
I enjoyed the milky thermal baths, despite the eggy smell, of Agia Paraskevi, entrance is a mere 6 euros. (Sulphur water is good for your skin). If you book in advance, you can also experience honey or olive oil massages for an extra fee. Order Mountain Tea in the café,
Dolmas/dolmades/stuffed vine leaves recipe
I thought I made the best ones until I tried the still-warm vineleaves at the Kavouras restaurant.
- olive oil for cooking and drizzling
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 200 g long grain rice, ideally Karolina rice (https://hellenicgrocery.co.uk/product/great-karolina-rice-500g-2/)
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground mace
- 1 tsp sumac
- sea salt
- 250ml hot vegetable stock
- 2 glasses white wine
- 1 lemon, juice of
- 150 g feta cheese, chopped
- 150 g fresh mushrooms, finely chopped (to replace cheese for a vegan version)
- handful fresh dill, chopped finely
- 2 tbsp raisins
- 2 tbsp pine nuts
- 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 2 preserved lemons, chopped
- sea salt
- 1 tbsp dried mint
- handful chopped flat leaf parsley
- 400 g drained vine leaves or fresh
- handful fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
Heat the olive oil in a lidded saucepan over a low heat. Cook the onions until soft, add the garlic.
Add the rice and spices, cook for 5 minutes.
Add the hot stock, 1 glass of the wine and lemon juice.
Add the cheese or mushrooms and dill
By now you should have cooked it for 20 minutes and the rice should be ready, with dimples on the surface and most of the water evaporated. The rice should be slightly al dente.
Allow the mixture to cool and add the raisins, pine nuts, pomegranate molasses, preserved lemons, dried mint and fresh parsley.
Check seasoning, add salt if neccessary
Scald the vine leaves with boiling water for 2 minutes then refresh in cold water.
Take a deep frying pan and line with vine leaves.
Lay a vine leaf flat with the stem nearest you. Snip off the stem with scissors and put a teaspoon of the rice mixture at the base of the leaf, in the middle. Fold both sides in over the mixture and roll up the leaf from the bottom to the rop to make a sausage shaped roll. it should be moist enough to seal itself.
When you reach the small fragile leaves, use two overlapping, like a patchwork.
Place the rolled leaves in the frying pan with the seam facing down so that they don't unravel. Line the pan with the dolmas facing inwards in a circle. Repeat until all the leaves are stuffed with the mixture and the pan is full.
Place on the heat with a generous glug of olive oil and another glass of white wine. Simmer until cooked. Serve warm with yoghurt and fresh mint.