Halkidiki: Holidays off the beaten track
The pleasures of Greece's Halkidiki peninsula are manifold. Take the family to a resort on Kassandra, hide away with a lover on secluded Sithonia or for solitary pursuits head to holy Mount Athos.
The charms of Halkidiki, the three-fingered peninsula below Thessaloniki in northern Greece, are at first glance easy to bypass. Its critics will tell you the public sites are nothing, there are no fresh discoveries to be made, it looks just like the Algarve; that Halkidiki, in short, has been sifted by archaeologists, brutalised by developers and is overrun by tourists from the Balkans, Britain and Germany who converge here in the summer months to enjoy what the place does best: sea, sand, sex and sun.
But Halkidiki, with no traffic, and easy to get to and drive around, does possess authentic attractions, even if the locals have not found a way to market these: to seize you by the shoulders and say this is Aristotle's birthplace; that you must, whatever you do, visit his statue in Stagira or sit in the old village of Nikiti and taste a fresh coffee overlooking the pine forests of Mount Itamos, which conceal the world's 'oldest living tree', or take a walk along Tristinika beach behind Porto Carras, or see the ruins of old Lerissos or Xerxes's canal. These are pleasures you must seek out for yourself.
I arrived in Halkidiki with a personal and specific mission, the culmination of a journey embarked upon two decades ago when I started writing Bruce Chatwin's biography. After following his footsteps through 27 countries, there remained one place I had yet to visit. In May 1985, Chatwin had arrived on Mount Athos, the third of Halkidiki's fingers, which he assumed would be just 'another atavistic wonder'. Up until that moment he had not struck friends as religious. His religious faith had become subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it. But over the next few days something unexpected happened to convince him of the existence of God.
In the autumn of 1988, during a brief period of remission from a mysterious illness that was later confirmed as AIDS related, Chatwin planned to return to Mount Athos where Bishop Kallistos Ware had arranged for him to be received formally into the Greek Orthodox Church. But Chatwin's illness prevented him, and he died in January 1989 before he was able to make the pilgrimage. After completing with his widow Elizabeth the project of editing of his letters, I wanted to see the monasteries which had affected him - and, if possible, find the simple metal cross which had persuaded him that Orthodoxy was the true faith.
I begin my journey on Kassandra, the most developed of Halkidiki's three fingers and compared, with its bars and night-life, to a continental Mykonos. The luxury Sani Resort is a 45-minute drive from Thessaloniki airport, through a flat, dry landscape with clean-shaven peaks rising from fields scattered with unfinished buildings, enormous petrol stations and billboards trumpeting nightclubs such as 'Pasha'. I cross the canal into Potidia where the Peloponnese War broke out; these days, it's a village of motorboats and jetties, of shops selling real-estate and 'hygiene philosophy'.
A little further on, the road branches right, culminating after seven kilometres in a series of security barriers that for some reason remind me of the Niger-Benin border. (The barriers are to keep out interlopers from the adjacent, still-to-be-completed conurbation of Sun-Ville). Sani lies on the far side.
Originally owned by Athonite monks from Stravronikita monastery (my final destination on this trip), Sani is today the property of the Andreades and Zisiadis families. They have preserved the monks' Byzantine watchtower as a feature, while appearing to have modelled the rest of their 1,000-acre resort on a holiday village like Port Grimaud, complete with spa, four hotels and, according to the literature, a 'vivid bar and roaring café society'. My ground-floor suite is in the seven-year old Asterias complex in a building of mud-coloured stucco. Designed by the wife of one of the owners, it has a brown marble bathroom and billowing curtains that get caught in the sliding door. Outside, a private garden leads through a low gate to a communal pool and the falsettos of splashing children. Bobbing beyond are the toothpick masts of a marina where the Thessaloniki rich berth their yachts, one vessel sporting (so I'm told by someone who has trodden on it) a white shag-pile carpet in the engine room.
The Sani Resort is the sort of place where Chris de Burgh stays. (He once gave an impromptu concert here.) It is a fine and private place to bring your family: comfortable, with long beaches and good food (the Water Restaurant has a Michelin star). At dinner in the excellent Japanese restaurant, I invite the Asterias' Canadian-Greek manager Kevin Kainz to answer my question over an incomparable meal of sushi, sea bass, duck and melon: 'Why Halkidiki? It's a short flight from anywhere in Europe; there's great food; it's safe; it's not over-congested - and it's overlooked. A lot of people don't want others to know about it. They say to me, 'I'm not going to tell my friends because I don't want to see them here.'"
An hour's drive from Sani through sudden green pines and wooded slopes brings you into the isthmus of Sithonia. Pine and olive trees yield to vines beyond the little fishing port of Marmoras, and then to close-growing thorn bushes and rock. The second finger of Halkidiki is more protected and secretive than Kassandra. It is a place to bring your lover rather than your family. More Greeks come here. The sea is a different shade, grainy blue. Hunting is forbidden and at night foxes sneak into villages such as Vourvourou.
On the beach at Vourvourou, the boutique hotel of Ekies (Greek for 'many mansions') is composed of three grey buildings, each designed by a different architect. My room (one of 64) has white-painted floorboards and a bathroom provided with Apivita oils (Harmony body milk, gel, and camomile and honey shampoo), as well as a shower fitted with a gigantic Brevetto head. Laid on the bed are complimentary white flip-flops. I slip them on and walk to the beach.
There is no road to cross between hotel and sea. The tides here are minimal, a matter of inches, making the water safe and shallow. Standing up to their knees a hundred yards out, a nose-pink English couple gaze back across the rain-dampened bay like a pair of bewildered flamingos.
This family-owned hotel is the creation of Alexandra Efstathiadou, a young woman whose improbable and irrational dream is to end her days in Africa - which part of Africa, she doesn't yet know. Meanwhile, having studied interior design in London, she spent nine years transforming the Ekies, a hotel she used to visit with her parents as a child, into a showpiece for her own culture. 'I want to present Greece through design and fabric. I want a history behind it, but in a modern way.' She conveys the impression that she has become an adult trying to realise her childhood vision; also, that she would like me to stay a week and never venture outside. And indeed you could happily idle away the time at Ekies All Senses Resort, reading the latest Sebastian Faulks beneath the bullrush umbrellas; submitting to a massage in the spa cabana; sampling the local fish - grilled in the à la carte Spoon restaurant - and drinking Two Olives red wine, from a small and exquisite vineyard whose owner lives on one of the wind-nibbled islands opposite. But impatience is scratching me. Over the top of some white plastic chairs, I have caught my first glimpse - as a pale outline in the haze - of the patriarchal shape of Mount Athos, Halkidiki's third finger.
Mount Athos is actually a range running 30 miles from Xerxes' canal to a 6,670ft peak of grey-white crystalline limestone. From its summit, in 1926, Bruce Chatwin's favourite writer Robert Byron claimed to have observed the Trojan plain. Tradition narrates that the Virgin Mary was blown off course to Athos on her way to visit Lazarus in Cyprus. She blessed the mountain - then sacred to Zeus - and declared the peninsula her garden, jealously forbidding it to other women. In 1406, the ban was extended to include all female animals. Under Greek law, a woman caught on Athos faces an automatic prison sentence of up to 12 months. If to Sani Resort you go with your family, to Ekies with your lover, then, as a man, to Athos you go by yourself.
The peninsula is frequently mistaken for a Greek island because the only way to reach it is by ferry. Assembled on deck for the two-hour journey from Ouranoupolis, the majority of passengers are monks. They wear black because they are supposed to be dead to the world, but this doesn't stop them from keeping a grip on it. One young monk, with a beard as dark as the iPhone he produces from the folds of his gown, talks in a low burry voice to his invisible listener. Dressed in tall hats that have the shape of Welsh Patagonian tea-cakes, two older fathers walk to the prow and shield their eyes with hairy hands; with feathery white beards and beaky noses, they have the profiles of the seagulls that they begin to feed with serrated biscuits.
The passage is calm, the bay smoother than a shell. Pine-clad hills plunge steeply to a narrow beach. Our first stop is the Russian monastery of St Panteleimon. Three monks disembark and stand in the back of a pick-up with the air of people on their way to the scaffold, or presidential palace. Rasputin stayed here in 1913, 'a man of very ordinary appearance' according to Robert Byron.
There are never more than 500 visitors on the Holy Mountain at one time. I am one of 10 non-Orthodox permitted to land each day. My yellow permit, supplied in Ouranoupolis and arranged by Ekies, allows me 'to visit the holy relics and venerate the holy places of our faith' and to be received as a pilgrim wherever I go - for up to four nights.
It is an afternoon's walk to my billet at Vatopedi. A cobbled track leads past a ruined stone fountain through woods of maple and Spanish chestnut. The knobbly grey path is like an elephant's knee covered in moss; the only sound, the rustle of lizards in the dead leaves. Unchanged since the first monks arrived in the ninth century, the vegetation is the closest you will find to a natural landscape anywhere in southern Europe. At night, jackals are sometimes seen.
Vatopedi, founded in 972, is the second oldest of Athos's 20 monasteries and has been compared to a medieval walled village. Father Theano at the gate comes from Brisbane. Does he miss Australia? 'The grace of God sustains you. You forget the past and keep an eye on the future.' His Gold Coast accent filtered through his beard, he suggests I keep my passport and money on me.
My room - two low beds, bare wood floor, fudge-coloured plastic slippers - is directly below the grander quarters where Prince Charles likes to stay. The window looks out on a sloping stone courtyard in which are planted lemon and almond trees, the inner balconies of the monastery buildings, painted blue and ox-blood (after the martyrs), and over enclosed windows in which monks are busy mending shoes or door latches. On my second night I share with an elderly Greek who doesn't speak English and snores.
Roused by a monk striking a wooden paddle, I go downstairs and into the main church for vespers. Robert Byron considered the finest frescoes in the world were on Athos and that the finest frescoes on Athos were those in the Katholikon at Vatopedi. I sit and marvel at the luxuriant interior - the Annunciation painted in 1312 by a master of the Macedonian school; the original 10th-century marble floor, laid out in the colours of spinach and tongue; the enormous brass and gilt corona from which dangle 10 shiny ostrich eggs.
Reflected in the eggshells are the sharp gold points of candles. 'An extraordinary beauty pervades the whole,' wrote Byron, 'a kind of cold misty light, shadowless and unbegotten, such as floats about London railway termini on Sunday mornings and constitutes the glory of St Sophia [London's Greek Orthodox cathedral].' In the subdued light, a bookmark falls scarlet and intense across the open Gospel like a fresh-cut wound.
The monks begin to chant, the same words unaltered for a millennium; eerie puffs of sound at once smoky and solid, like incense made material. Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom Chatwin stayed before his 1985 visit to Vatopedi, captured well the cumulative, mysterious enchantment of the scaffolding created by plainsong. 'The troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away.'
If, like its vegetation, the words chanted on Athos haven't changed, the food has. The meals are no longer, as Byron relates, of a nastiness without precedent: 'Even the Virgin, we suspect, during her mortal visit, started her meals with hors d'oeuvres of chopped onion and garlic.' Dinner in the refectory comprises fresh yoghurt, fish, and vegetables husbanded by Vatopedi's 107 monks who eat at thick grey marble slabs while listening to a disembodied, monotonous voice reading from a religious text. The monks have come from 12 different countries. Among them are two pairs of fathers and sons.
Afterwards, Father Matthew from Wisconsin guides me back inside the church to inspect its holy relics. Like postprandial truffles, the contents of seven silver caskets are presented for the pilgrim's spiritual delectation. Laid inside the first is a yellow bone of St Evdokimos, one of Vatopedi's 44 recognised saints. This unknown figure was discovered by workers clearing the basement in 1842 who smelled a beautiful fragrance and found a skeleton exuding it. 'Obviously he was a saint, for him to be exuding that fragrance and for his bones to be the colour of beeswax.' Another casket contains a reed from the implement on which Christ was offered a vinegared sponge; another, a four-inch fragment of the Cross, bumpy with precious stones. (Together, the Athonite monasteries own 54 cubic inches of the True Cross). Last, the most venerated of all Athonite sacred treasures. Father Matthew tells me not to hold my hands behind my back as I bend down to look at the Virgin Mary's girdle.
This reddish brown snippet of camel's hair, said to have been dropped by her at the cross, is the only surviving relic of the Virgin's life on earth. The girdle, which looks more like a watch-strap, has a track record in preventing cholera epidemics, but its chief miracle-working power is on barren women. A piece of cloth or ribbon is rubbed against the glass and then worn like a belt under clothing, the woman fasting from marital relations until she falls pregnant. 'Does it work?' 'All the time.'
A repeated entry in Bruce Chatwin's notebooks reads: 'The search for nomads is a quest for God.' Staying on Mount Athos with the artist Derek Hill, Chatwin woke up at 5.30 every morning and attended services. One afternoon, he walked to the monastery of Stavronikita, once painted by Edward Lear. 'The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea.' Whether moved by the rich liturgical worship or the tradition of mystical prayer or the unbroken continuity with the past, Chatwin then wrote: 'There must be a God.' The significance of his experience was later recorded by James Lees-Milne in his diary: 'Derek Hill… talked of his visit to Mount Athos with Bruce Chatwin, who was so moved by the experience that he could not write about it.' Elizabeth says, 'When he came back, he said to me: "I had no idea it could be like that." It wasn't like his other voyages of discovery. It was completely internal.'
Early next morning, following the liturgy in the Chapel of the Holy Girdle, I take the boat to Stavronikita, half an hour along the coast from Vatopedi. I am climbing the steep path to the monastery, the last to be built on Athos (in 1546) and closely resembling a fortress, when I cast my eyes down to the sea.
It is simple, modest, almost invisible, and yet it draws the eye: a small black cross on a ledge of white rock facing the empty bay. For a long moment I stand there and indulge the haze with images and faces accumulated over 21 years. Then I turn and walk towards the monastery, feeling lighter with each step.
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