The drive from Thessaloniki Airport to the Chalkidiki peninsula on Greece’s northeast coast is not unlike Tuscany, with rolling hills covered in ancient, twisted olive trees that spread out as far as the eye can see like figurines on a chess set on pale terracotta clay.
We drove to Ouranoupolis, known as the Gate to Heaven and the entry point to the holiest site of the Orthodox Church, Mount Athos, the holy mountain.
The breathtaking drive to Ouranoupolis on the border of Mount Athos takes two hours from the airport.
We stayed at the Xenia Ouranoupolis Hotel which is perfectly situated on its own beach but is also a two minute walk to the town promenade with restaurants, shops and the port where boats dock and depart from Mount Athos.
Ooronolpos is the last town before Mount Athos that can only be entered by boat. I visited the border wall, a two kilometer walk outside of town, where there is an atmospheric ruined castle called Frangokastro, which overlooks the border.
This is the castle of the Franks and in the Middle Ages a ‘Frank’ meant anyone from western Christianity, but especially an evil crusader type.
This peninsula is steeped in ancient history with Aristotle being born in nearby Stagira. Aristotle is probably the best-known walker because he strolls up and down while he teaches, and he is said to have said that the best thoughts come while walking.
It is therefore fitting that there is now a magnificent walk above Stagira overlooking the sea to celebrate the great philosopher.
What I love about a holiday in Greece is not only the great food, weather and scenery, but also the opportunity to immerse yourself in history from ancient to modern.
Every person and place has a story.
The city beach has an old tower, the story of which tells the story of the city.
The tower was first built by the Byzantines, then the Ottomans took it over and fortified it and then it became a place of refuge for refugees displaced after the war with Turkey in 1922.
Murals across the city commemorated the anniversary of the expulsion of over a million Greeks from Asia Minor a hundred years ago.
Ooranolpos is a fascinating town to stay in, unlike any other town in Greece I have visited. The monks are pescetarians and their influence lies in the menus of the seafood restaurants.
There’s a Pilgrim Passport office and plenty of souvenir shops with iconic Orthodox paintings and gold artifacts with lots of bling to lure the Russian visitors, who have been slightly floored this year.
All the pilgrims entered the mountain by sea from the port and it was great to watch the monks coming and going from the boats wearing the same black floor-length Cossack robes and all sporting gray tangled beards.
A uniform unchanged since Byzantine times. It is possible to take a tour boat down the peninsula to see all the monasteries on the beautiful cone shaped mountain.
Founded in the 9th century, Mount Athos is a self-governing monastic theocracy dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, and known for its purely Orthodox faith.
This led to the banning of women from Mount Athos 1,000 years ago. No human has been born on the mountain since women were banned, and the only relaxation from the ban is for female cats, which I was told by a local resident “can’t be controlled”.
Mount Athos includes 20 monasteries of various sizes clinging to the mountain and cliffs that sit high above the sea along the peninsula, some of which look more like medieval fortresses.
This religious republic under religious rule is recognized by the Greek government and more recently by the EU.
The mountain has 17 Greek and one Serbian, one Bulgarian and one Russian monastery. There are over 2,000 monks who lead a strict life of prayer, toiling the land and fishing in the surrounding sea.
The monks have exclusive rights to land and sea, with no outboats permitted within 500m of the shore.
The Holy Mountain can only be reached by sea and requires a pilgrim visa, which can take over six months in Thessaloniki.
But the mountain is a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians from around the world, with over 50,000 visitors. It’s rare that non-Orthodox Christians are allowed in, but Prince Charles is a huge fan and has visited him many times. The biggest and I would say flashiest monastery is the Russian Monastery and it had cranes around the grounds when I saw it.
Showing the construction work continues with cash donations from Russian billionaires.
President Putin has made a number of pilgrimages in recent years to bolster his reputation as a traditionally Orthodox Russian.
He even made the wine produced in the Russian monastery the official wine of the Kremlin.
Mount Athos has always been considered the guardian of conservative traditional orthodoxy.
At the Council of Florence in 1439, it was the monks of Mount Athos who refused to unite the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in exchange for Western military aid in the fight against the Turks, which eventually led to the fall of Constantinople.
This deep adherence to what they would call pure orthodoxy still reigns on the mountain today.
There are other great day trips available from Ouranoupolis including a short 15 minute boat ride to Ammouliani Island which has some of the best beaches in Greece and a pretty little town and the nearby Pena Island which is great for snorkeling.
Ryanair offers direct flights from Dublin to Thessaloniki until October.
To find out all about my trip to Halkidiki peninsulas including the amazing Sithonia region check out my Halkidiki Special Travel Tales with Fergal Podcast on www.traveltaleswithfergal.ie.