The Times January 09, 2010
- Ginny Dougary

My Greek trip brought back memories of naked fun in my youth, but would the country’s history add extra magic on my return?

zsithonia

Skinny tripping: Crab Hole beach can be reached only by boat or on foot

Floating in the cool water, the waves lazily lapping the tiny cove, all I can see are naked brown bodies.

A father attempts to inch up the ledges of one of the sculptural rock formations with his little girls; a drowsing figure with a sun-bleached red cap bobs along on a lilo; clusters of mahogany young women and men hang out, chatting or playing cards.

High above them, not far from a winding track, a more permanent sunbather has set up a small tent and a hammock. Crab Hole Beach, like all good nudist enclaves, can be reached, with some difficulty, only by foot or by boat.

My goal for this holiday is to sleep, rest and eat simply but well, without the pressure of being in a place where you feel guilty if you neglect to visit cultural sites. It doesn’t quite work out like that but the Crab Hole experience certainly goes some way to fulfilling the brief.

Our base is the Danai Beach Resort, a family-run (rather luxurious) hotel on the tip of the bluffs of the Aegean Peninsula, on the middle Macedonian finger of Sithonia in northern Greece. This is my third visit to Greece in 30 years and the only time I have not stripped off in public. The first trip was in the mid-Seventies, to the islands of Naxos and Paros as a student in my late teens.

That was the era of horrible loos, the treat of local honey-drizzled yoghurt (decades before its British supermarket ubiquity) to be eked out over breakfast and lunch (my boyfriend and I were broke), picnic suppers of feta and sun-sweetened tomatoes, and a bottle of retsina on the quay, watching the sun go down and stars come out, before we retired to our tent.

Later, we met up with friends who had secured sole residence of a beach, on a farmer’s property, and spent all summer naked, sleeping communally in a straw hut, buying vegetables from a man on a donkey, treading grapes, gorging on figs from nearby trees. The Greek beau of one of our party thrilled and appalled us by wading into the sea, armed with a spear, and returning with an octopus, all wriggling tentacles, before he bashed it against a rock and barbecued it over a fire.

Several decades on, when my boyfriend had become my husband (now former) and father of our two boys, we returned to Greece, this time to Corfu to stay in a well-appointed villa with my late mother. It was a bit more adventurous than the boys’ poor granny had bargained for.

After a day of heaving ourselves in and out of the sea to get on to our hired boat, followed by a perilous hike down a steep cliffside to a secluded beach, my aged mum cracked a heartfelt joke: “You know, there may be easier ways of bumping me off.” There was great interest in one particular painting the next term at my older son’s primary school parents’ evening: “Granny at the nudist beach.”

A decade later, while my younger, 18-year-old, son grooves it up in Mykonos,my partner and I are being driven past signposts pointing to beaches with the most un-Greek names of Goa, Bahia and Banana, now synonymous with the international rave scene. By the side of the curving road, there are a chilling number of shrines in memory of the kids who partied too hard and plunged to their deaths.

Demetri, our driver — who looks a bit of a raver himself with his shoulder-length hair, leather bracelets and cool-dude-shades, but who devoutly crosses himself every time we pass a church — points to Mount Athos on the other side of the sea.

This third Macedonian peninsula is a World Heritage Site, and self-governed monastic state, with 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries. It is accessible only by boat, and women are forbidden because we are descendants of Eve and so carry the same sin-laden genes of temptation. “Jackasses,” my American pal mutters after this earnest, slightly Talebanish explanation.

The new tourism market in this area is dominated by Russians, Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians. Demetri tells us that they “come here and meet the olive and fall in love”, so there is a big olive export trade, especially to the Russians.

The best things about the Danai are the restaurants and bar, which are all close to the beach. These really come into their own at night. You can sit at a long candle-lit marble slab, savouring grilled fish or meat and salad as you hear the soothing whoosh and retreat of the waves.

You can eat more formally with all the frills one level up, or go for gold at the Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal-inspired (and slightly unfortunately named) Squirrel, where an over-pompous waiter will endeavour to perform the same nitrogen fireworks. But this occasional pretentiousness is more than made up for by the staff, who are down to earth and sweetly welcoming to children.

One day we drive past olive groves, orange earth and white houses with terracotta roofs, goats huddled by the roadside, up the mountainous terrain into Parthenonas, a cobblestoned village that dates back to the 10th century.

We stop for a beer and meze at a vine-covered taverna. It’s another family-run concern and, when we visit, is more populated by tourists than locals. But it’s charming, nonetheless.

On to the lovely Porto Koufos, with three or four restaurants at its tip. We are advised to go to the farthest one, where you pick your own fish (delicious dorado, in our case). All around is the chatter of Greek families. Boats clink and there are red geraniums and lavender at our feet. In this instructive lesson of the simple, good life we are attended by the owner, named — what else? — Socrates.

We can do nothing more strenuous than loll around on our sun-loungers, with the odd mini excursion, but once we hear that there is something really worth seeing, not that far away, the descendants of Eve succumb to the temptations of history.

First stop is Olynthus, described as the most important cultural centre in Halkidiki during the Classical era, first inhabited during the late Neolithic period (3000-2500BC). From 432BC, it was the seat of an alliance of 32 cities in Halkidiki, and played a leading role in the political life of the region for a century before being destroyed by Philip II (the father of Alexander the Great) in 348BC.

It is a long slog up the hill but at the top it is incredible to step into the houses of those townsfolk, marked out by some of the original stones mixed with modern additions. You can see how the town functioned, the hierarchy of the wealthy and less wealthy, and how (mistakenly) omniscient, at that great height, the inhabitants must have felt. There are also several stunning mosaic floors.

But the real revelation, for me, is some hours away: the royal tombs at Vergina, the old capital of Macedonia, buried under a huge man-made mound and undiscovered for centuries. After experiencing the destruction wrought by Philip II at Olynthus, here is a salutary reminder of death’s great leveller — although to gaze into his burial chamber you might consider that all of us die but some corpses enjoy a more illustriously appointed resting place.

The tombs, discovered in 1976, were buried so deeply that the treasures are in pristine condition. And what treasures. There are wonderful murals, including the abduction of Persephone by Pluto with his late Rembrandt-like physiognomy; tiny ivory sculptures of Philip and Alexander’s faces, breathtakingly lifelike with all their human facial flaws; and beautiful silver urns, with the most delicate gold leaf filigree wreaths.

Visit these tombs if you can, particularly if you’re lucky enough to get a guide as good as ours (also called Demetri), who made ancient history as throbbingly alive and intriguing as the best pageturning thriller.

The other highlight is a trip on an immaculate boat, built in the style of an old schooner and controlled by Captain Stelios and his first mate, Kyriakos. The idea is to fish and eat the spoils, but we manage to catch only one tiddler between us.

Fortunately, the captain’s wife has taken the precaution of buying another fisherman’s catch of prawns and swordfish, which are fried in olive oil with oregano and lemon. Served on deck with crusty bread and a Greek salad, ripe peaches to follow, this is a feast of the highest kind. But best of all is shrugging off my swimsuit to glide through the shimmering, clear sea. It’s a brief taste of my own ancient freedom — for old times’ sake.

NEED TO KNOW

Getting there

Kuoni (01306 747008, kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights at the five-star Danai Beach Resort and Villas, Halkidiki, from £1,542pp based on two sharing. The price includes B&B in a junior suite, flights with British Airways, private transfers and an airport lounge pass in the UK.

Related posts:

  1. Did maverick magazine mogul Felix Dennis murder a man 25 years ago?
  2. Driving San Francisco to LA – Chlling out in style on the West Coast of America
  3. Travels with my son
  4. I stand in terror on the edge of the ice. What have I got myself into?
  5. Return to Indochine