From Peristera to Stageria

During this part of our travels, we shall get to know the rolling wooded hills and picturesque villages of inland Chalkidiki. We shall follow the road which links Thessaloniki to the shores of Chalkidiki that are washed by the waters of the Gulf of Ierissos. Before coming to Vassilika, we shall take a detour that will lead us to the eastern slopes of Mt. Hortiatis, on which perches the picturesque village of Peristera, which belongs administratively to the prefecture of Thessaloniki
In 870 BC St. Euthymius the “Later” came here and built the monastery of Peristeron, which consisted of two independent sections, one for men and one for women. The monastery was self-governing until 964., at which time it was ceded to the Athonite monastery of the Great Lavra, in whose possession it remained until the early 15th century. The village we see today was probably first built in the 11th century by the farmers working on the lands of the dependency of the monastery. Today, of the buildings erected by St. Euthymios, only the church of St. Andrew survives. It was the main church of the monastery and was built in 870 BC. It has four apses and five domes, of which the eastern apse, that of the Holy Altar, is flanked on either side by a long, rectangular vaulted chamber.

Before we leave this attractive village, we shall rest a while in the shade of the great plane tree and drink of the clear water that flows abundantly from the nearby fountain. We shall now return to the main road. After Vassilika, if we follow a detour of about 3 kilometers, we shall come to the monastery of St. Anastasia, at the foot of Mt. Adrianos, one of the peaks of Mt. Hortiatis. It was probably first built in 1522, when St. Theonas, the holy man who was later to become metropolitan bishop of Thessaloniki, settled here. According to legend, the monastery was founded in the 9th century AD, by the Byzantine emperor Leo VI the Wise, whose wife, the empress Theophano, endowed it with money and lands. After it was burnt down by the Turks in 1821., the monastery appears to have been abandoned for a period of time. It began to be rebuilt in 1830. A building erected outside the enceinte, housed the Ecclesiastical School of St. Anastasia from 1919., to 1970.

Of the early buildings of the monastery, only the domed ground floor of the south wing and the auxiliary underground buildings of its western side have been preserved. In the katholikon are kept the relics of the monastery’s founder, St. Theonas.

Before we leave the monastery of St. Anastasia and the surrounding region, it is worth visiting the church of the Holy Trinity which stands close by, to the east of the monastery. It is a double storied church, the ground floor of which was built in the 16th century. Also, about 500 meters before the monastery of St. Anastasia, we shall see on a hill the small church of the saints Kerykos and Julita; its frescoes, dating from 1830.-1840., were executed by an icon-painter from the workshops which flourished in the 19th century at Galatista.

Our next stop is picturesque Galatista – the Galatissa of Byzantine times – with its cobbled streets and many churches. It is believed that the prosperous ancient city of Anthemous stood nearby. Galatista is first mentioned in 897., in a document of the monastery of Peristera. In 1300., the village is recorded under the name of Galatissa. In 1500., the settlement and the surrounding area belonged to the Grand Vizier, Ishak Pasha but, in 1821., together with another 42 villages of Chalkidiki, the Turks put it to the torch, and it was then abandoned for a period of time by its inhabitants.

Interesting edifices surviving in the present-day village are the 14th-century tower and the two watermills nearby, which also probably date from the Byzantine period and were operative until 1945. Also of interest are the churches of St. George ( 1813. ). of the Virgin Mary ( 1835. ), of St.Demetrius ( 1830. ), of St. John the Baptist ( 1835. ), of St. Paraskevi, which was restored in 1835., and finally the church of St. Nicholas, which was built in 1842., and to which was added the belfry in 1868.

The next village on our route, alter a detour of about 6 kilometers from the main road, is Vavdos, built at an altitude of 938 meters on the mountainside. The huge plane tree in the square is one of the biggest in Chalkidiki. The settlement, mentioned in written sources since 1321., was burnt down by the Turks in 1821. In the sanctuary of the village, the church has been placed a marble pulpit with relief representations, most probably a 5th-century work that came from an early Christian church in the area.

We shall now return to the main road. After about 10 kilometers, a detour leads southwards and takes us, 14 kilometers further along, to Polygyros, the capital of Chalkidiki and the administrative and agricultural center of the region. It is an attractive town enjoying a good climate and lying in a verdant setting. It is built with an amphitheatrical altitude of 530 meters and commands a view of the three fingers of Chalkidiki. The town used to be called Polygeros, from “Poly hieros” ( very holy ) and is mentioned for the first time in a chrysoberyl ( a golden ornament representing a seal ), issued in 1079., by the Byzantine emperor Nikephorus Botaneiates ( 1078.-1081. ), as a dependency of the Iviron Monastery of the Holy Mountain. It later flourished during the period of Ottoman rule but, in 1821., after the unsuccessful uprising in the spring of that year, it was burnt down by the Turks and abandoned by its inhabitants. Shortly afterward its inhabitants returned and it soon became the most important settlement of Chalkidiki. In 1854., the town once again paid the price of an unsuccessful uprising and was harshly punished by the Turks, who ordered the slaughter of 27 of its notables. The town was liberated on October 18th, 1912.

Worthy of note is the Archaeological Museum of Polygyros, situated on Heroon Square. It contains displays from various parts of Chalkidiki, in particular from Olynthos, Ierissos, Torone, and Potidaea.
Among its exhibits, of particular interest is a half-finished Kouros found in the harbor of ancient Stageiros and dating from the 6th century BC; a late 6th-century clay sarcophagus of the Clazomenae type with an inscribed decoration, from the cemetery of ancient Acanthus; a bronze shield and a bronze brazier from Olynthos; part of a 4th century BC votive relief from Potidaea, a black figure amphora from Athytos depicting Dionysus and Ariadne, and dating from 500.-440. BC; clay elements of the roof of the temple of Ammon-Zeus at Kallithea, and finally, the funerary statues from Stratoni. works of the late 1st century BC.

Also worth seeing is the private archaeological collection of I. Lambropoulos, which contains objects dating from the prehistoric period until Byzantine times.

Before we leave Polygyros we might like to visit the 19th-century chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary that lies among the pine groves about two kilometers northwest of Polygyros, and celebrates its feast day on the 15th of August. North of the town rises the peak of Tsoukalas from where there is a splendid view over southern and western Chalkidiki.

Southwest of Polygyros must have stood the city of Apollonia ( of Chalkidiki ), which flourished in Classical times. It was an Ionian colony and, in 382 BC, played an important part in the war waged by the independent cities of Chalkidiki against the Chalkidean Confederacy. Until 348 BC, when it was destroyed by Philip II of Macedon, Apollonia had remained independent.

Southwest of Polygyros (6 km), at the place known as Palaiporta, have survived the foundations of fortifications that have been identified as being those of the wall of the ancient city.

Finally, at a distance of about 14 kilometers to the east, lies the village of Vrasta or Vrastama, renowned for its raki a strong clear liquor which contains about 40% alcohol. It’s distilled from the dregs left after the wine is pressed from grapes. These dregs are called the wine-must and here they make it from the fruit of the arbutus or strawberry tree. The village is one of the oldest in Chalkidiki – already mentioned in 9th-century sources -and possesses a number of traditional old houses and on a hill, an interesting church, built in 1814.

From Polygyros the road leads south and 14 kilometers further along reaches the shores of the Bay of Cassandra.

We shall now leave Polygyros and return to the main Thessaloniki – Stratonion road. If we follow the new road which takes us to Arnaea, the main village of northern Chalkidiki, we shall pass Geroplatanos, a village in a luxuriantly green setting, with abundant waters and a century-old plane tree on its square. A small detour will allow us to also visit Sana and Doumbia with their mineral waters.

The other road leading to Arnaea passes through wooded Mt. Hollomon. The drive through woods of beech, chestnut, and oak, through sunny glades and gullies is one of the most enchanting in the region.

We come to Arnaea, the capital of the district of the same name in northern Chalkidiki. It is built on the wooded foothills of Mt. Hollomon. Until 1928., it was known as Liarigovi. It owes its present name to the fact that certain archaeologists believe this to be the site of the ancient city of Arnes mentioned by Thucydides, while in the view of others, it is the city of Augaea. From the amalgamation of these two place names came the name of Arnaea.

On the hill of the Prophet Elijah near the town, survive ruins of a wall, which probably belonged to the citadel of the ancient city. The present-day town was probably created towards the end of the 15th century by laborers working on the lands of the dependency of the Athonite monastery of Kastamonitou. It was one of the twelve villages making up the “Confederation of the Mademia”. According to the French consul, M. E. M. Cousinery, it was actually its capital. In 1821., it was one of the many villages sacked by the Turks. Its inhabitants abandoned it for a period of time, but soon came back and began to rebuild it. Today we shall see many of the traditional 19th-century houses, about thirty village fountains, the old school built-in 1871. in the Athonite style, the belfry of the church of St. Stephen which adjoins the school and was erected in 1889., and finally the Kastangelos house, known as the “archontiko”, the mansion.

After their liberation, the inhabitants of Arnaea brought back and replaced on the bell tower their clock, which had been taken by the Turks to the village of Tepalides. The church of St. Stephen was first built in 1812., but was burnt down when the village was sacked and was rebuilt later. The “archontiko” of Arnaea is a large, handsome edifice, probably built sometime between 1821., and 1860. Its ground floor consists of a single room without windows at the back of the house, and another space to the right of the entrance, linked to the mezzanine by a stair. The openings in the mezzanine are very few. A hayiati occupies the largest part of the upper story, with a room on either side and a continuous space at the back, so that the ground plan has the shape of a wide Greek П.

In Arnaea’s main square we can enjoy a refreshing drink of cool water gushing from the fountain at the base of the trunk of a plane tree, while if we should happen to be here on July 26, we will be invited to join in the fête for the feast day of St. Paraskevi, which takes place in the lovely wood of Aghia Paraskevi about one kilometer outside the village.

Before we come to Stageira, our next stop, we may, if we wish, follow a detour, at the village of Paliochori, which leads south and comes to the large village of Megali Panaghia. The village used to be known as Revenikia and, during the period of Ottoman rule, was one of those that made up the “Confederation of the Mademia”. It is first mentioned in 942., in an Athonite document. It took its present name from the church built in 1863., on a verdant slope about 1.5 kilometers outside the village.

Where the church was later built, a miracle-working icon had been found by a woman from Revenikia, who was guided to the spot by a dream. The church suffered badly from 1932., earthquake and had to be almost entirely rebuilt. Of the old church has been preserved a carved wooden iconostasis,  probably created around 1870., by Bulgarian craftsmen, who had also perhaps carved the bishop’s throne.

Southeast of Megali Panaghia stands the ruins of the Byzantine village of Gomati which was abandoned by its inhabitants after the 1932., earthquake. All that can be seen now are some ruins of houses and remains of the old church and the Byzantine tower. The inhabitants of the village built a new village, further south, and called it Neo Gomati.

We return to the main road and drive towards Stageira, about 13 kilometers from Arnaea. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was known as Mahalas. In Byzantine times this was where stood the “Siderokausia”, the plant where the mineral ore extracted from the earth of Chalkidiki was smelted. Later, in the time of Ottoman rule, the settlement grew and, according to the traveler F. Hunt, became the capital of the Mademochoria. Its mint produced the silver coins known as “siderokapsia”. Here, in the 16th century was built a fortress, of which today only the ruins of three towers have survived. There were also inns, public baths, a marketplace, a Muslim seminary, a monastery, and mosques. All that has been preserved, besides the towers, are the ruins of the bathhouse, which we shall see before we enter the village, on the hill of Aghios Demetrios. We might also like to visit the park outside the settlement where stands a statue of the philosopher Aristotle, by the ruins of the tower of the Madem-aga. Of interest is the village church built-in 1814., in the form of a basilica.

As we leave Stageira we leave also the hinterland of Chalkidiki. We now come to the coastal village of Stratoni, known for its mussel farms. From here a road turns south and, skirting the coast washed by the waters of the Bay of Ierissos, leads to the town of Ierissos and from there to Nea Rhoda and Ouranoupolis, while another road leads northwards and links Stratoni to Olympias and from there to the villages along the Strymon Bay.

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