I seem to have found myself in the middle of an Eastern European holiday destination. I have absolutely no problem with this, of course, but it is a curious feeling when everything is written in Greek first, Cyrillic second, then English last. I think the majority of visitors to the Halkidiki peninsula drive down from Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania – and you can see why. It’s heaven on earth here, the perfect getaway from the general misery of life in the rest of Europe.
Halkidiki is famous for its beaches, wine and olive oil – but only among other Balkan folk, apparently. I’m just glad to be away from other Brits.
Halkidiki is famous for one other thing – the imposing Mount Athos. It’s been solely inhabited by Orthodox priests since the Byzantine era, and is a highly spiritual place. Boasting a number of old, big and beautiful monasteries, it’s a world-famous place that absolutely must be seen.
If you’re a man, that is.
Women and female animals (except female cats, because consistency, people) are completely banned from this peninsula, and they’ve even got border checkposts and guards to stop you from sneaking in. A few women have done so in the past, dressed as boys, but the fact remains that the place is still completely sealed off to an entire gender.
Stolen from interwebs, see shoddy circle for Mount Athos’ location.
I can’t quite get my head around it. The reason is that it helps the male monks to remain celibate. But if they can’t control themselves, that is their problem, surely? You can’t just ban me. It’s not mine, or any other woman’s fault, if they can’t keep their promise to God. I just can’t even deal with this place.
Something else the monks of Mount Athos ought to know – banning anyone from anything only makes it more desirable. So, off I went to Ouranopolis (the nearest town to the border) to get a closer look.
Unfortunately, this was as close as I got to the holy mountain.
Turns out, there’s not a proper road to get to the border, so that put a bit of a damper on my dream. Reasoning that they didn’t deserve my time and attention, I headed back into town to see what was about. As it turns out, not very much, though the Byzantine Tower of Ouranopolis was quite interesting. You can’t go up it, but there’s an exhibition on the second floor about a British couple who helped an entire village of refugees during the Greco-Turkish war of 1922. When the Greeks got kicked out of Turkey for being Greek (and the Turks got kicked out of Greece for being Turkish), they didn’t have anything with them. Ouranopolis was basically built as a Greek refugee village, aided by Joyce and Sydney Loch, who I believe stayed in Greece for the rest of their lives.
I personally found the tower and exhibition interesting. But it’s up to you whether you want to pay the 2 Euros to not go up the tower.
All that history (and pent up anger about Mount Athos) was making me hungry.
Gyros as it should be – heartily stuffed with chips. No meat, of course.
While still seething at Mount Athos, I headed back to the Sithonia peninsula – where I am staying – and went to Lagonisi beach. In Greek, ‘nisi’ means ‘island’, and there are plenty of those at this beautiful beach.
It’s stunning, though sadly the islands are too far to swim to.
I spent my afternoon and evening swimming and snorkelling in the turquoise water (though there wasn’t a lot of ocean life to see – it was TOO perfect), then sunbathed by the pine trees. That’s another thing I love about Greece – the smell of fresh pine is glorious, and seems to follow you wherever you go. It’s a uniquely Greek aroma that carries me through moments I feel sad, and when I am not in this beautiful country to sense it for myself.
Another thing I love about Greece is the music. With a rich heritage of bouzoukia and laika songs, Greek pop is unique, and the language is a beautiful one to hear. I enjoy flipping on the radio in the car, at the beach, wherever – it helps me to better my Greek by listening to it, and I love to check out what bangers the young Greeks are listening to. Mainly, though, I’m just holding out for a bit of Queen Eleni. After searching the radio stations, I finally found her today. The first few lines of “Karamela” came on, and I couldn’t stop singing. I’m sad that I haven’t heard Fuego yet, but I’m happy to wait.
Halkidiki is also home to one of Greece’s biggest caves, the Cave of Petralona. Formed of red bauxite, limestone and calcium, the stalagtites and stalagmites are really something special. They also found the 700,000 year old skull of some bloke in there, one of the oldest in the world.
You have to take a bit of a naff land train to get up there, though you can walk if you’re really determined. They try to funnel you through rubbish tourist shops, but you can easily avoid these. When I got to the top, I was greeted by something even better than the caves… about 11 adorable cats. Being in Greece and surrounded by cats? Who even needs the cave?
Me and my new best friend. This little darling is only about 8 weeks old.
Two American women were extremely jealous of me. I guess I just have ‘mad cat lady’ tattooed on my forehead. Either way, the guide tore me away from my new best friend and forced us to go round the cave. You weren’t allowed to take pictures, but she wasn’t my favourite person in the world at that point so I did anyway. Sue me.
Shit picture, I know. It was dark in there, to be fair.
It really was impressive – it was a deep cave, filled with creepy caverns and stalagmites/tites that made the entire place look like a giant church organ. The red bauxite gave the place a very unusual feel, painting the walls a burnt terracotta colour as it cuts through the rock. When random villagers stumbled upon it in 1959, as they were looking for water, they must have been stunned. I certainly was.
Next up was the archaeological site of Olynthos, because after all that prehistoric geography stuff I felt a bit out of my depth, and retreated back into my historical comfort zone. It was a very long walk up a hill under the blazing sun, but when we got to the top, the sight of the town’s ancient foundations was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Built in the 7th century BC, the town was once the most powerful in the entire Halkidiki region. It was mates with Philip of Macedon in the 4th century, but then they had a falling out, and he took the place over. It was abandoned shortly after, leaving us the remains of an entire town. It’s got a grid system just like New York City, with streets being crossed by avenues, as well as a hugely advanced plumbing and water system.
The star attractions are the town’s mosaics, some of which have survived through the ages, just as beautiful now as they were then.
Stolen from Greece.com. When we were there, they were covered in dust.
Unfortunately, we only saw bits of the above mosaic, as the other two were completely covered by tarpaulin. They have to keep them protected somehow, and I suppose the main sightseeing season is over now. Booooo.
Time to get to the beach again, I think. Today’s sandy retreat of choice was Karidi beach, in the town of Vourvourou. Known for its beautiful white sand and shallow lagoon, it’s the perfect place to put your goggles on and explore the seabed, though you’ll want to get closer to the rocks to see more sea life. Though, I did see a man shifting washed up jellyfish and burying them, so you’ll want to watch out for those creepy bastards.
But I did a lot of swimming yesterday, so I wanted to do something a bit different today. I’ve never actually kayaked before, and if you cross the small headland to Mikro Karidi (small Karidi) beach, you can rent kayaks for just 12 Euros (one hour). So why not?
That yellow lifejacket is really killing my vibe. But it’s probably better than drowning.
My favourite Disney movie is, and always will be, Pocahontas. I started singing the song ‘Just Around the Riverbend’ to myself as I set off, because I couldn’t resist. Paddling the kayak instantly reminded me of the movie.
It was such a rush, especially because the wind picked up and it got a bit choppy – at points, I felt like I was flying over the crest of a wave. Really exhilarating – I’d love to do it again. Plus, the water was so clear you could see the bottom. It just looked so inviting, so at the end of my session on Boaty McBoatface I dived back in again.
Sadly, all good things come to an end, and my time in Halkidiki is fading away. I’ve enjoyed the wonderful weather, dreamlike beaches and being the only Brit around for miles, and though I don’t want to leave, sadly I must. Not to be dramatic or anything.
I’ll hit the road again tomorrow, travelling to Meteora, an unusual alien world where monasteries peer down at you from the tops of steep rock pillars. Hopefully, they don’t ban women there.