Mount Athos is almost a casualty of coronavirus, despite the fact that it was the main reason I came to Thessaloniki. The coach journey I booked has been cancelled and no operators are now offering the trip. But the hotel staff have galloped to the rescue and found me a taxi who will drive me 140 kilometres to Ouranopoli (at a price), from where the boat departs. The journey to the little port is very pretty, especially in the verdant vicinity of Halkidiki itself, replete with misty grey olive groves. The taxi driver says I don’t have to put on my seat belt - he has a fake plastic clip he inserts into the clasp to prevent the warning beep. 'Only made in Greece', he exclaims proudly. Well he said it…
Mount Athos, on the third, most easterly finger of the Halkidiki Peninsula, is 'an autonomously governed region of the Hellenic Republic, the most important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism in the country.' Commonly referred to as The Holy Mountain, it is home to twenty monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the 'Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople'. The monastic traditions here date back a long time, to at least AD 800 and the Byzantine era. Today, over 2,000 monks from Greece and many other countries live the ascetic life in Athos, isolated from the rest of the world. The Athonite monasteries are also known for their rich collections of well-preserved artefacts, rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense historical value - Mount Athos has been listed as a World Heritage site since 1988.
The special jurisdiction of the Monastic State, gives its leaders the authority to regulate the free movement of people and goods in its territory; in particular, only males are permitted to enter; no women have been allowed in for over a thousand years. So the only way I’m going to get close is by boat.
I’m fully expecting the boat trip to be cancelled, but it isn’t and the ship is as full as current regulations allow. No Seating areas are marked to space out passengers. Naturally, these signs are mostly ignored. The monasteries are currently home to 2300 monks escaping 'normal life'. Most of the buildings have idyllic locations, amidst the craggy gorges and green scrub of the peninsula. either by the waterside or perched high above the sea, so the occupants can be closer to God. Some are reminiscent of the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan. Here the Buddhist stupas are replaced by red domes or spires – green in the case of the monastery that houses Russian monks. While Simonopetra Monastery, soaring above the water, is reminiscent of the Potala in Tibet,.
Their decision to permanently self isolate does not prevent the monks from making the most of economic opportunities. Four of them, in full black priestly garb, descend on our vessel from a speedboat complete with baskets of ‘relics’ and other bric a brac for sale.
Thessaloniki is the second-largest city in Greece and the capital of the region of Macedonia, with over one million inhabitants, It is also a gentle seaside city that rewards exploration. It is one of those places where there’s a surprise round every corner. Usually in the form of an ancient red brick church with tiled and domed roof or an excavated section of Roman palace. And statues of Alexander the Great, naturally. Filling the spaces between the ruins are modern squares, boutiques and eating places. Every other building seems to be a café, bar or restaurant, ranging from the pleasingly traditional with wooden tables spilling onto the pavement, to polished metallic counters with steaming coffee machines.
The eateries stretch along the seafront and promenade to the newly renovated port in one direction (gleaming restaurants and museums). In the other, the city’s most famous landmark, the (originally Venetian, but renovated by the Turks) White Tower, looking out to sea.
Just off Aristotle Square is a labyrinth of street stalls and tavernas, a lively market area where everyone is exceptionally friendly, even though I’m not buying. In fact, everyone seems very friendly everywhere.
The fish in one of the traditional Thessaloniki tavernas is sublime - perfectly steamed mussels and grilled sea bream on a bed of stewed potatoes and carrot. Most of the restaurants in Greece present something extra along with the bill. Sometimes its the milky mildly aniseed spirit ouzo, but more often a delicious sticky dessert, maybe creamy yoghurt laced with honey. So, it's literally a sweetener and though enticing, probably not very healthy. What does The Aeneid say? 'Beware of Greeks bearing gifts....'
Thessaloniki is also known historically, as the co-capital, because it was the co-reigning city of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, alongside Constantinople. The most famous church the Hagia Sofia, dates from this time (seventh century). It is a sister to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (Constantinople). It is right in the centre of town, with its own square. There are numerous other pretty domed Byzantine churches beckoning., The
Another landmark is the rotunda church, just uphill from the Roman arch of Galerius. The Emperor Galerius did a lot of building here. His palace ruins are just across the street. There are a plethora of Roma ruins, full stop. A forum, baths, a restored theatre/odeon. It seems incongruous to find so many Roman remains in Greece, though it makes perfect sense chronologically.
Up a long steep hill - I took a taxi - is the 'Old Town'. Here there is a great view out to sea and across the port and more elderly buildings mixed up with newer ones. The old buildings in the Old Town aren’t as old as the ones down the slope, however, as this area was the one mainly settled by the Ottomans. Tavernas, villas and apartments make the most of the panorama, although for some the views are limited by the walls of the fortress and tower that once enclosed the ancient city. It seems that the Turks used old Greek columns for the base of their walls. Some Ionic rams horns are clearly visible at the bottom.
The Modernist is going to get five stars from me. The ladies in reception are the friendliest and most helpful of any hotel I have ever been to. The rooms are lovely and the breakfast utterly divine. The breakfast bar is arranged behind perspex, with due attention to Covid preventing hygiene and looks just like the best deli you ever saw. Seeded bagels dangling on little hooks. Fresh orange juice…
Greece joined the EU in 1981 and adopted the Euro in 2001.
Greece is renowned for its history and beauty. It's also a surprisingly diverse country - with varying scenery and sites to visit - ancient ruins - 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites -(Ancient Athens - Greece in the Time of Covid Part 7), Orthodox monasteries (Meteora - Greece in the Time of Covid - Part 3 and Mysterious Mount Athos - Greece in the Time of Covid - Part 2), beautiful beaches (about 16,000 kilometres of coastline), stunning landscapes (80% of Greece is mountains) and lots of islands.
The Greek Islands comprise more than 6,000 islands and islets covering much of the eastern Mediterranean. Four of the islands are volcanic. Only about 230 of the islands are inhabited. Just 80 or so have more than 100 permanent inhabitants. They are traditionally grouped into six major clusters:
Ionian: Off the north-west coast of mainland Greece in the Ionian Sea Crete and the Ionian Islands
Saronic: In the Saronic Gulf near Athens
Cyclades: A large, dense group of islands in the central Aegean Sea Cyclades - Marvellous Milos - Greece in the Time of Covid Part 5, Cyclades - The Mills of Mykonos
North Aegean: A loose island group to the north-east Northern Aegean - Super Samos - Greece in the Time of Covid Part 6
Sporades: A small, tightly-knit island group just off the east coast
Dodecanese: A long and loose string of islands that roughly follow the Turkish coast Dodecanese - Kos, Rhodes, Symi and Nisyros
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