The Holy Mountain’s out of reach for Neil Sowerby but there are consolations
HERMIT monks, playful dolphins, then a picnic on our own private speedboat. An afternoon of bliss off the shores of Athos and Halkidiki. Awaiting us back at base sea bream carved beachside, a splash of local Malagousia white and a sunset to melt your mind. To call our stay at Eagles Villas idyllic would be to understate the case.
Escaping the fierce sun, we sipped strong dark coffees in an old school hotel bar and watched various bearded monks disembarking from the Athos ferry
We’d already got the taste for skimming the Aegean gulfs on the resort’s ‘Robinson Crusoe Experience’ where you are dropped off for a few hours on its own ‘desert island’ of Drenia, a mere 5km offshore, tucked in next to the larger, inhabited island of Ammouliani. The gentle stranding costs 50€, including refreshments.
And that’s where we felt the lure of Mount Athos. From the curving sands we could see the Holy Mountain, mantled in cloud far down the coastline. Iconic is an over-used term (and obviously real icons are everywhere here) but apt for the sealed-off realm of 20 Orthodox monasteries, clustering in its shadow. We had to go. But a view from out at sea would have to do.
For a thousand years the barriers have been up. Present yourself for one of the strictly controlled three-day permits at the basement border post in Eagle Villas’ nearest town, Orianopoulis, and you might well fail to convince them of your suitability. It’s simpler for a woman. You’re forbidden entry into this 300 sq km male-only dominion, home to some 2,000 monks and stunning treasures. Exceptions are made for female cats but even that took some doctrinal wrangling.
Athos’ backstory, littered with miracles, hinges on the Virgin Mary’s ship being blown off course as she travelled with St John the Evangelist to visit Lazarus in Cyprus. On landing in Athos she prayed to her son to dedicate the beautiful peninsula to her, which he did, meaning that other women were banned.
We shelled out for our second speedboat adventure under skipper Vassilis and were rewarded with views of several monasteries, notably the Putin-backed Russian Orthodox citadel of Panteleimon and the vertiginous eyrie that is Simonopetra, most spectacular of the 17 Greek Orthodox establishments. A huge sea swell, caused by air flow off the Holy Mountain, prevented us rounding the tip of this northernmost of the three fingerlike peninsulas that make up Halkidiki. So no glimpses of the cliffside huts where the most committed hermits fast and pray in utter solitude.
Instead, on our way back, by sheer serendipity, we encountered the most convivial of sea creatures – a school of dolphins adopted us, forming a guard of honour either side of the prow, almost close enough to touch. Even Vassilis, who knows every inch of this coastline, was impressed.
We were equally impressed by the abundant meze picnic hamper he produced after docking us in the tranquil inlet of Turkish Bay on Ammouliani, pouring us each a flute of demi-sec pink sparkler. Such a trip costs big bucks but it was worth every euro.
A short bus shuttle trip into Orianopoulis next day was far less spectacular but yielded a handsome fish lunch at the family-run Lemoniadis in a charming town that divides itself between tavernas and icon boutiques. Escaping the fierce sun, we sipped strong dark coffees in an old school hotel bar and watched various bearded monks disembarking from the Athos ferry.
The temptation was to never stray from Eagles Villas, a recent extension of the perennially five-star Eagles Palace Hotel. The view alone from our junior suite plunge pool was transfixing, a chance to solo chill, yet all the Palace amenities were at our service. Down on the glorious private beach kayaking, snorkelling, windsurfing and water-skiing were all available; I checked out the bar and discovered even Northern Greece does craft beer while my wife gave top marks to the Elemis Spa.
There are various on site dining options: two buffet restaurants, the Vinum ‘wine library’ with fine meat from its Josper grill, more elaborate dining at Kamares by Spondi and the shoreline spot we invariably gravitated to – Armyra, specialists in fish, where we ordered freshly caught bass or bream to share.
All the time treating Eagles’ drinks list as a primer in Greek wine, under-appreciated in the UK, yet minerally whites of the quality of Assyrtiko and Malagousia and dense reds such as Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro (a Northern Greek marvel) can be real stars.
Eagles Villas is made up of 42 stylish self-contained, cuboid hideaways, reached by a bridge from the main hotel. The aim is to blend buildings into the herb-laden hillside with the shimmering blue of the Aegean as omnipresent as the crickets that have chirped here since ancient times.
Our villa with pool was one-bedroom but others can have up to three, making them ideal for families. Out of season we didn’t see that side of it but there seemed ample kids’ facilities. For the older and less nimble on the climb up there are buggies to hail. All part of a hugely friendly service regime. Let’s call it: “Where Eagles Care”.
Thessaloniki is less than two hours away (and worth a visit)
Our Jet2,com return flight was Saturday to Saturday, so we had a couple of days left over to explore Thessaloniki. Greece’s second city is less than two hours’ drive away from Eagle Villas. Brave the initial commercial bustle and discover the elegant avenues leading down to the glorious seafront, at least the equal of Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. The wine dark waters of the Thermaic Gulf lap against the unfenced promenade, which runs for miles, broken only by the ancient White Tower and a singular, populist modern artwork, Giorgios Zoggolopoulos’ 13m high Umbrellas. Cue selfies. Far way across the Gulf, to the left of sunset, is, rather impressively, Mount Olympos.
Our Friday paseo with half of Thessaloniki’s population raised a thirst and we sought a palate freshener in The Hoppy Pub, just in from the White Tower. Here owner George Alexakis, perhaps Greece’s foremost craft beer fanatic, holds court, discussing the merits of Magic Rock and the ascendancy of Cloudwater. He and fellow pioneers even brew their own beer; the Flamingo Road Trip IPA was delicious.
On his recommendation we ate at a new, acclaimed Cretan restaurant called Charoupi. The name means ‘carob’, that chocolate-like pod some see as a superfood and is certainly a symbol for Crete. Charoupi’s menu reflects the rustic food of the island (bone-in rabbit stew, goat cheeses), but it was a carob-driven dish that astonished – a pie made not with white flour, but with carob flour and topped with black and white sesame seeds and carob honey.
Not that Thessaloniki needs to import food cultures; it is undoubtedly the culinary capital of Greece, but it’s also a joyous destination at odds with its turbulent past. You have to seek hard to unearth the heritage of that Ottoman co-exists with Greek Orthodox past, when it was perhaps the most multicultural city in Europe with the large Jewish population a catalyst for its prosperity.
The great fire of August 18 2017 wiped out that past, destroying 9.500 houses and leaving 70,000 homeless. So the city centre you see today with its elegant French style boulevards is the result of the rebuild. A few significant remnants survive – the old city walls high above in the old town, alongside the tranquil Vladaton Monastery, the atmospheric churches of St Demetrios and Aghia Sofia, the ByzantineThermal Baths – but essentially it is a city to stroll around and relish the essence of modern Greekness.
The Jewish Museum in Agiou MIna Street traces the rich culture of the community, which was wiped out when 60,000 were deported by the Nazis to the camps.
Valaoritou, the district once home to the fabric shops of working class Jews, is the hippest place to be after dark as clubs and bars slowly restore its disused buildings.
But always we were drawn back to the promenade and the hypnotic sea views from the old docks with its Photography Museum and along Leof Nikis to the White Tower and Balloons. If Athos is for the monks, Olympos for the Gods, then this will do nicely for mere mortals.
Neil Sowerby stayed at Eagles Villas, Skala Neon Rodon, Ouranoupolis, Halkidiki 630 75, Greece. +30 2377 440050.
During low season a Junior Pool Villa, ideal for couples (even with a young child), starts from 442€ per night.
Thessaloniki airport-Eagles Palace transfer costs 39€/person in a shared mini bus shuttle. Private BMW transfers can be arranged.
As well as Eagles Palace and the Villas the family-run Tor Hotel Group also run two hotels in Thessaloniki – The Excelsior and City Hotel.
Leading leisure airline Jet2.com offers friendly low fares, great flight times, and a generous 22kg baggage allowance to Thessaloniki from Manchester Airport. Flights start from £88 one way including taxes for Summer 2019. For more information visit www.jet2.com or call 0800 408 5599
Parking – Manchester Airport offers car parking options to suit every budget. For more information and to book, visit www.manchesterairport.co.uk/pa...
An eesential guide to the city’s turbulent history is Salonica City of Ghosts by Mark Mazower (Harper pb £14.99).
Don’t miss Charoupi restaurant, Doxis 4, Thessaloniki 546 25, Greece.