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                On the Road to Ouranoupolis



    Halkidiki is a great palm leaf shaped expanse of 2,886 square kilometres in the Northern Greece close to Thessaloniki. With its three peninsulas Cassandra, Sithonia and Athos projecting into the sea, it forms the longest coastline in mainland Greece, some 500 kilometres of sandy beaches and the clearest blue seas. Picturesque little fishing villages and peaceful fishermen's hamlets by the sea, nesting between the golden sands and lush forests of pine trees which seem to grow on the shore. Some way inland traditional villages with narrow streets and houses built in stone and wood are waiting to be discovered. 

    Map of GreeceAlthough the first two peninsulas, Cassandra and Sithonia are well populated, the most eastern peninsula, that of Mount Athos has remained unspoiled. It consists of a range which stretches south-east for thirty miles. A rugged, sea battered peninsula 56 kilometres long. Two kilometres wide at it's narrowest point, it broadens to eight, with a long back-bone rising into peaks of roughly five hundred, six hundred, six hundred and fifty, eight hundred and fifty and a thousand meters. Finally the imposing marble summit of Athos itself, 2,039 meters high, 6,670 feet of grey-white crystalline limestone. It's snow cupped peak is usually crowned by white clouds, an awesome sight to see.

    This is a land dedicated to monasticism, to austere asketism and deep contemplation. The landscape is stunning and wild. Among the greenery and the impassable gorges, perched in the most unexpected positions are the monumental walls of twenty monasteries and numerous huts where hermits spend theirs days in solitude and contemplation. Mount Athos or Agion Oros, "The Holly Mountain" as it is locally known, is the oldest surviving monastic community in the world. It dates back more than a thousand years, to Byzantine times. It is a unique monastic republic, which, although part of Greece, it is governed by it's own local administration. This land is dedicated to Virgin Mary and women are not permitted to enter. Ouranoupolis is situated just outside the border to Mount Athos, the only civilian habitation on the whole peninsula, the gateway to The Holly Mountain. Thessaloniki, 145 kilometres away is the nearest major city with an international airport.

    Mount Athos Peninsula

    It is a great journey which usually starts at the airport a few miles outside the city of Thessaloniki and ends literally at the end of the road, at the foot of the old Byzantine tower, in the centre of Ouranoupolis. As the outskirts of Thessaloniki are left behind the road snakes through farms, gardens and orchards. Then the scenery becomes increasingly mountainous and the road twists slowly uphill, through small rural villages and hamlets.

    The largest of them, Arnea (right) is approximately half way to our destination, at the foot of Holomon Mountain. It is an old town with traditional stone built houses and wooden balconies hanging precariously over the narrow cobbled streets. The women of Arnea maintain a long tradition of rag weaving and the creations from their looms are offered for sale in the local shops. The road cuts through the centre of the town. An ancient plane tree stands tall over the small town square. From it's foot a clear spring pours continuously crystal cold water for the benefit of the weary travellers. It is certainly worth having a drink.

     Another interesting place on the mountainous road is the town of Stagira, the birth place of Aristotle the philosopher and teacher of Alexander the Great. Look out for the statue of the philosopher by the right side of the road, just before the entrance to the village. It is said that he is gazing towards Athens.




    The road leads to Ierissos, a small town by the sea at the very spot where the ancient town of Acanthos has been discovered. The citadel of ancient Acanthos can be seen up on the steep hill on the right side of the road exiting the town (sign posted). Ierissos is well known for it's traditional boat building industry. It is interesting to see how these wooden boats are taking shape by the shore on the main road close to the ancient citadel.

    A very steep hill follows at the top of which is the tiny whitewashed chapel of St. Paul. Local tradition has it that St. Paul passed this very spot on his way to Corinth and Southern Greece.Then the road crosses over to the south side of the peninsula and the bay of Mount Athos unfolds in front of your eyes. To the left lies the village of Nea Roda, the very place where Xerxes, the Persian King, cut a canal across the peninsula for his ships to pass in 481 B.C.

    To the right by the shore lies the hamlet of Tripity, and further across the limpid sea the long island of Ammouliani like a dark green lizard sunning itself. At the foot of Ammouliani are the Drenia Islands, a group of uninhabited islets, some no more than tiny rocky outcrops, charcoals scattered by some giant hand in ancient times. Follow the yellow line of sandy coastline, and far in the distance a tower rises from the unruffled blue sea, bathing in the early morning sunlight. And far in the distance the grey snow capped summit of Mount Athos appears in the early morning mist.

    The old tower stands sentry by the sea front with the little port at it's feet and a multitude of small fishing boats and pleasure craft dotted all over the sea. The village houses, none higher that two storeys, white-washed, with red tile roofs and wooden balconies are sprawling away from the old tower and up the surrounding hills.

    This is the end of the road, at the foot of a Byzantine tower. Just six kilometres of dirt track away is the border to Mount Athos a womanless land of monks and pilgrims.

    View of Ouranoupolis

    1999 J Adamopoulos. All Rights Reserved.