The Best Ways to Experience Mount Athos of Halkidiki
In Macedonia there is a place that takes us back to the times of Alexander the Great and the splendor of the Byzantine Empire. A land of Greece, which, as the cliché says, looks at the sea and still listens to the songs of the old Orthodox monasteries, but which, unlike its other sister lands, also tastes of red wine and sweet peaches.
Northern Greece is something else. It is pure Balkan, and a land that has lush forests and good rivers. Some of them like Evro or Axiós, which Homer baptized as “the river with a wide bed” and which empties near Thessaloniki. By the way, a city that is the capital of Macedonia and the second largest metropolitan area after Athens. Also the main university concentration in the country.
In search of the most divine Greece
Not far from Thessaloniki is Chalkidiki -or Halkidiki– a curious peninsula in the shape of a comic book character’s hand, with three fingers, which stands out for breaking the imaginary line that closes the north coast of the Aegean. Sinuous, steep, capricious, sculpted by nature with multiple points, gulfs and straits, Chalkidiki truly manages to mislead the traveler when one approaches it. Where is the open sea?
As in the rest of Greek Macedonia, the land here is fertile. There are multiple natural freshwater lakes. Nature grows vigorously. The landscape is perceived generous. Pastures and forests share the field. The sea and the mountains the best postcards.
Thanks to this beautiful and complex geography, and also because it is located at the gates of Asia, a peculiar and emblematic country stands here that is quite a curiosity: Mount Athos. An independent Monastic State of Greece -and therefore not integrated into the European Union- that maintains a status that is difficult to understand for the secular and advanced world of the 21st century.
Mount Athos – A whole world apart
Is it an orthodox Vatican? Not quite. Although for many it breathes a similar air. Athos, indeed, has his reason for being in religion. It is a country of monks that is located on a small peninsula to the east of Chalcidice, and that only swears allegiance to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Athos has no tarred roads, and bathing on its shores is prohibited. There are also no cities, with the exception of the small village of Karyes and the border port of Dafni, although its twenty monasteries can accommodate a population of two thousand people, originating from all corners of Orthodoxy: Greece, of course, also Bulgaria, Cyprus, Russia, Serbia etc.
The Mediterranean as it was before
It is not easy to get into the heart of Athos. No women allowed, to begin with. Nor female animals. Men’s access, at the same time, is very limited. After long prior negotiations, only the traveler who is invited by one of the monasteries can enter Athos. At the end of the day, only a hundred men, of which no more than 10% can be non-Orthodox Christians.
Mount Athos from the sea
Most of us have the consolation of getting on a ship that, every morning leaves at 11 am, and circles Athos for more than three hours. A cabotage that allows you to contemplate, and breathe, an unparalleled panorama on the Mediterranean coast. With the high mountains as a background, and accompanied by the thickness of a neat and intact nature, one comes to imagine that this is more a journey through a Swiss lake in the Alps than a navigation along the Aegean coast. A great way to explore the surroundings of Mount Athos is through a electric bike tour such as those of E-Bike Halkidiki.
Agia Grigoriou Monastery
Also surprising are the surrounding foliage and grasslands. Without losing its Mediterranean identity, the small peninsula of Mount Athos attracts for the frugality and the extension of its woods. Accustomed to a dry Aegean, so typical of the tourist Cyclades islands, the contemplation of a landscape so full of brambles, shadows and foliage disconcerts the traveler. The number of oaks and pines is unmentionable. Heathers, strawberry trees, lime trees and even chestnut trees clear at will. It is a natural world that hardly knows progress, and that besides being the most beautiful landscape in the Aegean is also the most virgin and genuine. Approaching Mount Athos is to be fascinated by a Mediterranean as it was before. A chosen place.