We leave Halkidiki’s capital, Polygyros, on the western side of Mount Holomontas – a poem of lush vegetation and stunning landscapes – and head towards Ouranoupoli. As we drive along the pine-flanked mountain route, the twinkling blue sea in the distance appears elusive, like something out of a dream. Our immediate surroundings have a calming effect – something like decompression is taking place; we feel blessed. Over in the distance, we can make out Halkidiki’s other two peninsulas: Sithonia and Kassandra.
Athos, the mountain after which the third peninsula is named, rises before us majestically, its summit wreathed in cloud that seems almost permanent. We pass the villages of Ierissos and Nea Roda, and soon reach our first destination.
We park near the Byzantine-era tower of Ouranoupoli (City of Heaven), a place where, as its name suggests and its role as the gateway to Mount Athos demands, the secular meets the divine. At the port, just a few meters away, dozens of visitors are waiting to board one of the boats that sail along the peninsular coast without putting in anywhere. These mini-cruises are the only way for women to see the majesty of Mount Athos, as they are forbidden to step onto the sacred soil of the all-male monastic community. We hop on board.
It is a magical, mystical experience, so much so that even my friend’s comment about being lost in some fairytale doesn’t seem corny at all. The imposing monasteries, perched on hilltops and surrounded by untamed nature, exude a tremendous force, even at a distance. From the boat, I imagine how, within those castle-like walls, right now monks are reciting their prayers, their supplications traveling up through the sky, like notes of music, to reach the ears of God.
“The imposing monasteries, perched on hilltops and surrounded by untamed nature, exude a tremendous force, even at a distance.”
On our way back to port, I admire the islets of Ammouliani and Drenia, and I am seized by the urge to dive from the boat into the clear turquoise waters lapping their shores. I resist. After all, you should always leave something undone when visiting a place, so you have a good excuse to go back. Also, I’m pretty sure the captain wouldn’t like it.
We get back in the car and head to Eagles Palace, a hotel I particularly like, an elegant place with a great vibe. A glass of iced tea on the veranda is just the thing to brace us for the next leg of our tour. Chatting with the staff, we learn about the hotel’s annual artist-in-residence program. For about a century or so, some of the world’s most famous hotels have been inviting artists, writers and photographers to take advantage of the pampered serenity on offer so that they can find inspiration and be creative. The works produced are then presented in an exhibition or a special print edition.
Eagles Palace is very active on this front, which reminds me of another reason why I love Halkidiki: its visionary businessmen in the hospitality sector, who think beyond simply providing accommodation. They are proponents of culture who, in addition to the arts program, promote the local cuisine by inviting great chefs from Greece and abroad into their kitchens. They are also noted for their environmental sensitivity. This kind of mature, multifaceted approach to tourism is rare and valuable.
“We get back in the car and head to Eagles Palace, a hotel I particularly like, an elegant place with a great vibe.”
“As we drive along the winding road, we spot Athos again, this time without its ring of cloud, cleared away by a gentle breeze. ”
With such inspiring thoughts in mind, we drive to the second peninsula. The road is a grey strip that separates the green of the mountains and the blue of the sea, each of them presenting every tint of its color imaginable. This is Sithonia: warm verdant hues on one side, cool azure notes on the other, and you in the middle – we’re in a landscape that’s wild and beautiful in its own special way.
We don’t have any music playing in the car; it would be an intrusion. Even the wheels seem to sense the need for quiet, gliding more smoothly, more silently over the road’s surface. We open our windows all the way down to breathe in the scent of pine. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where the pine smells quite like this. As we drive along the winding road, we spot Athos again, this time without its ring of cloud, cleared away by a gentle breeze. We see the small bays down below near Vourvouras, the islet of Diaporos and a few other places whose names we don’t know.
The desire for a swim becomes irresistible. We opt for Akti Oneirou (Dream Coast), which I would define as an A-class boutique campsite: it has a wonderful beach (Manassu), excellent service, a very good restaurant, a mini-boutique with gorgeous beach stuff and an amazing bar. Our loungers come with comfortable cushions and, lying down, we gaze back at Mount Athos across the way. A sense of relaxation does not slowly overtake us; instead, it’s instantaneous. We fall asleep and take a half-hour nap, waking up with enough energy to see us through to the late night ahead.
Halkidiki has a way of bringing out the philosopher in you: the colors, the sights, the smells and the sea are like a symphony of simplicity reminding us how often we forget to appreciate the little things. On Halkidiki, I remember to live. I can say that, in that moment, I was happy. I was in the circle of the essence of existence.
On the way back west, we stop for a Greek coffee at Nikiti, a pretty seaside town that is famed for its excellent honey. Kassandra beckons. The thought that comes into my head a few kilometers later, as we reach the western-most of Halkidiki’s three appendages and the entire scenery, the air of the place, changes again, is how different Halkidiki’s three peninsulas are from each other: otherworldly Mount Athos, bohemian Sithonia and sophisticated Kassandra.
We stop, as we inevitably do, to admire the 1,250-meter Potidea Canal, which joins the Thermaic and the Toronean gulfs. History suggests the canal was first opened in 315 BC by the Macedonian regent Cassander in order to facilitate maritime trade, but its present form was created by more recent engineering works completed in 1930, while the bridge that crosses it was built in 1970.
As we get onto the newer road, we enter tourist land. Music is now a must: something upbeat, a little electronic lounge, to liven us up. We drive to Sani Resort for a walk around the marina and a spot of window-shopping at the boutiques that carry, among so many different international brands, creations by Greek designers such as Di Gaia, Yannis Sergakis, Thalia Exarchou and Kalfidis. We have a quick Nikkei cocktail at Sea You, make a dinner reservation at Katsu for sushi and then it’s full-steam ahead to Bousoulas Beach: seven kilometers of blue-turquoise sea and golden sand, a zen bar on a small hill… The living is easy. We stay until the sun disappears below the horizon in a crescendo of fuchsia, orange, gold and purple. It’s time for one last dip; now the sea is the color of lavender.
Kassandra evokes a different kind of happiness, one of being in touch with this world, our world. But just as Sithonia and Mount Athos did, it also exudes a special energy and it, too, speaks to your soul. And this is why we always find something pulling us back to Halkidiki, over and over again.
“We stop, as we inevitably do, to admire the 1,250-meter Potidea Canal, which joins the Thermaic and the Toronean gulfs. ”