Halkida: A charming forgotten city close to Athens

Halkida

What makes Evia so charming is that it is only 80 kilometres from Athens and separated from the mainland by only a bridge, yet it is very often forgotten about.

Evia is a vast island with Halkida as its capital. It is a city with an extremely long history and many loyal admirers.

Conducting a quick and unsubstantiated survey among friends and acquaintances, one can easily conclude that there must not be an Athenian who has not visited Halkida at least once in their life, even for a few hours.

It is a destination for all, so on weekends, it is filled with families, couples of all ages, and groups of friends – young and old.

However, although Halkida is consistently among the first choices of Athenians for an excursion, most of us often overlook the history and the hidden charm of the place and repeat over and over again the same itinerary, i.e., a walk along the seaside promenade to the red house, coffee break by the “crazy waters” of Euripus and then back to the car and off for fresh fish and seafood in the otherwise excellent ouzo taverns in Nea Lampsakos.

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The truth is that the modern city of Halkida has never betrayed its architectural past.

Walls surrounded the entire city until 1885 in a medieval castle, while an artificial moat made it look like a small autonomous island in the thin sea strip separating Evia from Central Greece.

Its strategic location attracted the interest of the city’s first inhabitants, who, sensing correctly that it would bring them power and wealth, settled in the area as early as the Palaeolithic era.

The first important prehistoric settlement with elements of early urbanisation (houses, roads, open assembly areas such as squares, and public utilities, such as clay pipes that drained rainwater) dates back to 3000 BC and was found 5 km northwest of Halkida at Manika.

The city of Halkida has taken its name from that time thanks to the specialisation of the inhabitants of Manika in metallurgy and copper trade. Halkida was founded around 800 BC, at the same time as the city of Eretria.

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The Venetian Negroponte / D. Gofas – D. Triantafylopoulos, Engravings of Evia, Collection of Yannis K. Karakosta. Society of Evian Studies, Athens 1999

Many centuries and countless chapters of history later, around the 6th century AD, Justinian fortified Halkida, as both the city and the entire island of Evia were of particular naval importance to the Byzantine Empire.

In 1205 AD, the most glorious period for Halkida began, the Latin period, during which the medieval castle was reconstructed, and its walls were strengthened, while the city became known as Negroponte, a powerful Venetian port and headquarters of the Venetian fleet.

Although by 1461 AD, Negroponte had been significantly fortified, it was unable to repel the attack of the Turks, who had already begun to spread into Greece, and finally, in 1470, Mohammed II himself conquered Halkida.

The city remained under the Turkish rule until 1833. Halkida retained its impressive walls and its multicultural character even after its liberation.

But in 1885, the Greeks demolished the legendary castle, and the building materials resulting from its demolition were used to cover the moat.

This is how Halkida reached its architectural present day, a city we often think we know quite well but which itself still holds countless hidden secrets.

The following stops in the modern city unfold another map of Halkida, hidden for years, and reveal the other face of this ancient city so that we can finally view Chalkida in a different light.

The new Archaeological Museum “Arethoussa”

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The new Archaeological Museum of Chalkida “Arethoussa” opened its doors to the public at the beginning of 2021/ Photo: Angeliki Kouroutzi

It was located near the port of Halkida during the classical and Roman times in the district of Agios Stefanos, where the springs of the mythical Arethoussa gush gurgling waters to this day.

It is housed in a 20th-century industrial building, the old distillery “Arethoussa SA”, which is an exhibit in its own right and has been declared a World Heritage Site.

The new Archaeological Museum of Halkida, “Arethoussa”, opened its doors to the public at the beginning of 2021 and constituted a valuable orientation medium for visitors to both Halkida and the whole of Evia.

The museum is thematic and presents four main aspects of Chalkida’s history – urban organisation, worship, economy, and cultural identities. It also includes sub-theme sections, such as the history of the building that houses it.

Short videos and multimedia applications accompany the museum sections, offering visitors a modern, interactive museum experience.

The museum is also accessible to people with disabilities.

The museum is free of admission. Opening hours: Monday – Sunday 08.30 to 15.30, Tuesday closed.

Visit the castle of Karababa

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The Karababa Castle was built in 1684 by the Ottomans/ Photo: Angeliki Kouroutzi

The impenetrable castle of Karababa stands proudly on the site of the ancient city of Kanithos on the mainland coast of Halkida, overseeing not only the strait of Euripus, but also a large part of the Evian gulf.

The fortress was built in 1684 by the Ottomans, who equipped it with 6 cannons below, 14 on the roof and another 20 on the ramparts, none of which survive. The two that remain in the fort today came from a Russian ship and were placed there by the Germans at a later date.

Today, inside the western rampart there is an exhibition area that houses many artefacts from the early Christian, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman periods of the city, starting from the 5th century AD.

The fortress was built in 1684 by the Ottomans, who equipped it with six cannons below, 14 on the roof and another 20 on the ramparts, none surviving. The two that remain in the fort today came from a Russian ship and were placed there by the Germans at a later date.

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The Karababa Castle offers a panoramic view of the city of Halkida/ Photo: Angeliki Kouroutzi

Today, inside the western rampart, an exhibition area houses many artefacts from the early Christian, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman periods of the city, starting from the 5th century AD.

In addition to its exhibits, the castle also offers stunning panoramic views. Stand on the eastern rampart, admire the view of the city and try to imagine what it might have looked like before the fall of the medieval walls.

The best way to get up to the fort is to follow the path around the fort. It’s a beautiful walk of 600 metres in total, through pine trees, prickly pears and flowers, quite passable and with breathtaking views.

The fortress can be visited daily from 08.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m., except Mondays, and entrance is free.

Take a walk in Halkida’s oldest neighbourhood

The castle district still exudes something of the charm and history of this place/ Photo: Angeliki Kouroutzi
The castle district still exudes something of the charm and history of this place/ Photo: Angeliki Kouroutzi

The heart of the old city still beats behind the Athanaton square, located just opposite the old bridge. It is a small district that used to be within the walls. As they call it, the castle district managed to escape the city's modernisation.

Thus, it still exudes something of Halkida's old charm and long history today. Explore the small alleys and admire the traditional two-storey houses with their cornices and iron balconies, many of which are unfortunately in decay today.

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Photo: Angeliki Kouroutzi

The remarkable thing is that in this tiny neighbourhood, the places of worship of three different religions managed to coexist peacefully during the Ottoman period.

The Church of Agia Paraskevi, the Jewish synagogue and the Emir Zade Mosque still stand just a block from each other to this day.

The Byzantine church of Agia Paraskevi, which is a historical monument, dates back to the 5th century AD and was traditionally founded on the ruins of an ancient Greek temple, as evidenced by the columns and pillars of the church, which bear Ionic and Corinthian capitals.

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Agia Paraskevi

Directly opposite the church of Agia Paraskevi is the house of Vailos, Halkida's Venetian governor, who was gruesomely sawed to death by the Ottomans when they occupied the city.

It is a rare architectural example that combines Venetian and Ottoman architecture and is well worth a visit.

The synagogue of Halkida is one of the oldest in Greece, while its Jewish community is the only one in Europe that has lived continuously for 2,500 years in the same city. The synagogue has been destroyed six times over the years, but each time, it was rebuilt in the exact same spot.

That is why the exact date of the first one’s construction remains unknown. In the Fallen Soldiers’ Square, a stone's throw away, stands the Emir Zade mosque, which now serves as an exhibition hall.

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The mosque of Emir Zade, just a few metres from Agia Paraskevi: Angeliki Kouroutzi

Built in the 15th century by the Turks, the mosque is in very good condition, although the minaret has been removed.

Agia Paraskevi is a parish church and is operating normally. It is open daily from 07.00 a.m. to 12.00 p.m. and from 5.00 to 7.00 p.m.

The House of Vailos is open every Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10.00 am to 4.00 pm, and admission is free.

The Emir Zade Mosque hosts the amazing collection of engravings by Ioannis Karakostas and is open every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. with free admission.

Angeliki Kouroutzi is a columnist for Travel.

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