On our journey along the highways and byways of Chalkidike we shall first explore the shores of the Strymonic Bay. As we drive southwards, we shall find ourselves in ancient Stageiros, the birthplace of Aristotle, and we shall end up in Ierissos where flourished in antiquity the city of Acanthos. Here too we shall be driving amid luxuriantly green landscapes and beside golden beaches with limpid waters.
Our first stop is Stavros, a seaside tourist resort set amid the greenery, and blessed with abundant waters. The sandy beach is shaded by cool pine trees. Administratively Stavros belongs to the prefecture of Thessaloniki. Close by lies Ano Stavros with its charming old houses. North of Stavros we shall find Asprovalta – a popular summer resort with a lovely beach – and Vrasna, an old village in a luxuriantly green setting. Here stands a Byzantine tower, which is all that is left of a 14th-century dependency of the Esphigmenou monastery. Nearby is Nea Vrasna with its long beach. West of Stavros we come to the enchanting “Macedonian Tempe”, as the Rentina pass is called. It recalls the Thessalian valley of Tempe because of the richness of its vegetation and the river running through it (which here is the Rhychios). Further still, to the west, lies Volvi lake and the wetland around it with its rare flora, contributing to the matchless beauty of the site.
At Rentina we can still see ruins of a castle that was probably erected before 1162. Further to the west of the castle, on the road to Thessaloniki, we shall see the 19th-century church of St. Marina, with its slate-covered dome. Here, in antiquity, east of the church of St. Marina, flourished the city of Arethousa. It is said that it was here that, in 406 BC, the Athenian tragic poet Euripides was killed during a hunt, while he was a guest of Archelaus, the king of Macedon.
We are now entering the prefecture of Chalkidike. Fourteen kilometres south of Stavros we come to Olympias with its lovely sandy beach and its mussel farms.
The present-day village was built after 1922., by refugees from Asia Minor.
Two kilometres east of Olympias, on the small verdant peninsula of Liotopi, flourished ancient Stageiros. It was built around 650 BC by colonists from the island of Andros. After the Persian Wars, it joined the Athenian League, but defected from it in 424 BC, during the Peloponnesian wars, and went over to the Spartan side.
Later it joined the Chalkidiki Confederacy. In 348 BC Philip II sacked the city, only to rebuild it a few years later to honour Aristotle, whose birthplace this was. After the death of the great philosopher in 322 BC at Chalkis, his compatriots carried his remains to Stageiros, where they were buried. By his tomb, they built a great altar and established an annual festival, the Aristoteleia, in his honour.
In the 1st century AD, Strabo found the city deserted. In the 10th or 11th century AD a small Byzantine settlement was established on the north hill of the peninsula, of which the fortifications protecting it from the southern, landward side have survived, as well as a large water cistern on the summit of the hill. The excavations in progress in the area are constantly bringing to light new finds.
The city extended over two adjoining hills – the north and the south hill – of the peninsula. So far, excavations have uncovered, on the south hill, the wall of early Classical times protecting the city from the south, as well as some towers and bastions. On the summit of the hill has been discovered the citadel of Stageiros, which was in the shape of a right angle triangle. On the north hill, above the sheer cliff, part of the later wall of Classical times, probably built by Philip II, as well as the outside perimeter of the wall of early Classical times, have been uncovered, while on the southern foothills of the same hill has come to light the gateway of the early wall.
On the same hill, buildings of the 6th century BC, among them a circular edifice (perhaps a thesmophorion, a sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophoros), have been excavated, while on the summit of the hill has been found a Doric temple of the Archaic period, with a beautiful decoration on the pediments and metopes.
On the ridge between the two hills has come to light the agora of the city. Here have been uncovered some buildings of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, as well as paved roads and a portico of the Classical period. The entrance to this long and narrow building was effected through a grand stairway. Along three walls we can see a continuous stone bench, which accommodated the inhabitants during public debates.
Also among these finds were a large wine press, carved in the rock, and public storerooms and shops, in the floors of which were found large storage jars. Finally, a section of a central water supply system was found, by which water was brought to the city in clay pipes, as well as a number of houses dating from the Classical and Hellenistic periods, which have yielded a great number of smaller finds providing us with information on Stageiros during the 5th, 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Opposite the Liotopi peninsula lies the islet of Kaukauna, known as Kapros in ancient times. According to legend, this was where Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, after whom the present day settlement is named, was exiled by Cassander.
On the way to Ierissos, which lies at a distance of about 34 km from Stageiros, we shall see the Byzantine tower of Krouna which protected a dependency of the Chilandari monastery.
The long beach of Ierissos is washed by the waters of the bay of the same name and constitutes a pole of attraction for hundreds of holidaymakers. The modern settlement was built on this site after the destructive earthquake of 1932. Southeast of present-day Ierissos flourished ancient Acanthos, the most important city of northeastern Chalkidike and one of the important harbours of the northern Aegean. Its geographical position, which favoured the creation of a harbour in a strategic part of the Aegean coast, as well as its wealth in minerals and forests, contributed to its growth and development. Plutarch informs us that in Archaic times (7th and 6th centuries BC), the city had grown on the site of a prehistoric settlement, and tells us that it was colonized by both Andriots and Chalkideans, who settled there in the middle of the 7th century BC (655/654BC).
According Thucydides, the colonists had come from the island of Andros. A legend referring to the colonization of Acanthus tells that it was won by the Andriots, by ” the point of their spear”. The story goes that the Chalkideans and Andriots having arrived in the area at the same time – the city’s original inhabitants had fled on their arrival – each group of colonists sent out a scout. As the Chalkidikean scout, who was ahead, was about to claim the city in the name of his compatriots, the Andriot scout hurled his javelin, which struck the gate of the city. When both groups claimed Acanthos for their own and a trial was held to decide on the matter, the judgement was that it should belong to the Andriots because they had taken it “by the point of their spear”.
Although we do not have much information on the Acanthus of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, archaeological evidence points to a rapid growth of the city, which developed relations with Athens, with Euboea, Corinth, Chios, Samos and Rhodes, as well as with Olynthos, Amphipolis, Thasos, Abdera, Leibethra and the neighbored cities of Sane and Stageiros.
From 530 BC on it began to mint coins, which must have circulated widely in the known world of the time, since they have been found in both East and West – that is at Tarentum in Sicily, in Egypt, Syria, Persia and Afghanistan. They are made of silver and show on the obverse the emblem of Acanthus – a lion tearing a bull apart. These two animals are related to the worship of the goddess Cybele – the goddess of nature and of fertility who originated from Asia Minor and corresponds to the Greek goddess Rhea. The same group of animals has been represented on a marble relief of the middle of the 5th century BC, now exhibited in the Louvre, which had probably been set in the main gate of the city.
During the Persian Wars, the Acanthians treated the Persians as guests and offered them assistance, for which services they were richly rewarded by the Persian king. After the Persian Wars the city joined the Athenian League, but in 424 BC it went over to the Spartan side, while in 421 BC, with the signing of the peace of Nicias, it once again came under Athenian influence. In the 4th century BC Acanthus refused to join the Chalcidice Confederacy and in 382 BC helped Sparta take Olynthos and break up the Confederacy. From 348 BC it was part of the Macedonian kingdom. At the end of the 4th century BC, it was united administratively with Ouranoupolis, the new city founded on the site of Sane. Around 200 BC it submitted to the Romans. During the period of Roman, rule it prospered once again as a settlement of veteran Roman legionaries. It became Latinised and in early Christian and Byzantine times came to be known as Erissos, which may be derived from the Latin word “ericius”, meaning a thorn (acanthos in Greek), a name which some say, is owed to the thorns that grow abundantly in the area, while other scholars believe it refers to the shape of its fortifications.
In 1425, while Ierissos was in Turkish hands, it was plundered and its castle burnt down by the Venetians. In 1821., it took part in the Greek war of liberation, but when the uprising was quelled, it was burnt down and most of its inhabitants were killed by the Turks. The city of antiquity extended on the low hill which rises to the southeast, at a distance of 600 meters from the present-day settlement. The excavations in progress have yielded important finds, which testify to an unbroken habitation of the city of Acanthos from prehistoric times until 1932.
The finds that have come to light date from the prehistoric period, and principally from the Bronze and Iron Ages; among these is a “pitheon” of the late Iron Age, that is a storage space for wine, grain, and other products. Also discovered, were parts of the fortifications of Classical and Hellenistic times, ruins of a temple, probably of the Classical period, at the site of Alonia, and an edifice of the Hellenistic period with an atrium and painted decoration on the wall.
Two cemeteries have also been found and over 9,000 graves uncovered, yielding numerous finds that provide us with important information on the daily life and the activities of the inhabitants of Acanthos. Southeast of Ierissos we come to the seaside village of Nea Rhoda. Here, at the narrowest part of the third peninsula, are preserved traces of the canal opened by Xerxes during his second expedition against Greece, in order to spare his ships the dangerous circumnavigation of the peninsula of Athos. The canal linked the bay of Ierissos with the Singitic Bay. It measured 12 stadia in length, that is 2,900 meters, and it seems to have been sufficiently wide to accommodate two triremes sailing side by side.
Leaving Nea Rhoda, we take the road that, following the axis of the canal, leads to the opposite shore, where we shall find Trypiti, famed for its beautiful beaches. Here stood ancient Sané (of Athos), on the site of which the brother of Cassander, Alexarchos, built the city of Ouranoupolis in 316 BC. From Trypiti one can take one of the small boats that connect the mainland of Chalkidike with the small island of Amouliani opposite. It is the only inhabited island in the area, and its beautiful beaches will enchant the visitor. In Byzantine times, Amouliani belonged to the Athonite monastery of Vatopedi. After 1922., the buildings of the dependency were ceded to refugees from Asia Minor. Of these buildings can still be seen the church built in 1865., the clubhouse, the school and the 19th century boat-shed in which, in bad weather, was kept the small boat belonging to the dependency.
Eight km east of Trypiti, lies beautiful Ouranoupolis, the last village on the peninsula of Athos before we come to the borders of the Athonite republic. It is built on the shores of the Singitic bay and owes its name to the ancient city that stood on the site. In 1292., the Ouranoupolis region belonged to the Vatopedi monastery, but after 1922., refugees from Asia Minor came and settled here and established the fishing village we see today. The huge stone tower of Prosphorius, a relic of the old dependency, rises proudly by the sea near the quay of the small harbor, from which boats set off daily for Mt. Athos – the Holy Mountain of Eastern Orthodoxy.
The tower is the largest in Chalkidike. It was built in 1344., and has survived in very good condition. When its top floor crumbled, in the middle of the 19th century, the roof was repaired and the nearby lower side-tower was erected. The tower is wider at the base than at the top, and just beneath the roof project ten or so machicolations (an opening between the supporting corbels of a projecting parapet or the vault of a gate, through which stones or burning objects could be dropped on attackers). From the roof of the side, the tower rises a row of long and slender chimneys.
The tables and chairs set out by the tavernas under the shade of the trees tempt us to stop a while and savor the tasty mussels baked in a delicious tomato sauce, prepared according to an old Constantinopolitan recipe. A little further on, the beaches with their golden sands invite us to swim in the limpid waters. On the quay, people wait patiently to board the little boat which sails around the western side of the Athonite peninsula.
In the folk art shops, we shall find handmade goats hair carpets, as well as objects crafted by the monks of Athos. Three kilometers east of Ouranoupolis, on the border of the Holy Mountain, survive the ruins of Frangokastro, which was probably built in the 13th century, during the period of Frankish domination. To its east rises the guard post built in the middle of the 19th century to control the gateway to the Holy Mountain. Here is the boundary between two different worlds, the world of earthly concerns, and that of the monks. From here on lies the territory of the monastic state. The thickly wooded mountains of the Athos peninsula with their unparalleled beauty conceal among their folds dozens of monasteries and a number of sketes and kellia, in which are treasured unique relics of Byzantine and post Byzantine art.