Did you know that no less than twenty monasteries can be found on the third finger of Chalkidiki? And that it is only allowed for men with a pilgrim visa to visit them? This beautiful and special part of Chalkidiki is named Mount Athos but is also called Agio Oros, which means ‘holy mountain’. With a height of 2033 meters, it is clearly visible from many different points on Chalkidiki.
The garden of the Holy Virgin Mary
According to legend, the Holy Mary was on her way to Cyprus to visit Lazarus. When the ship was blown towards Athos during a storm, she was forced to anchor on this peninsula. She did this close to where the monastery of Iviron now can be found. Maria walked ashore and was overwhelmed by the beautiful and wild nature of the mountain. She heard a voice say: “Let this place be your inheritance and your garden, a paradise and a refuge for those who want to be saved”. From that moment on the mountain was consecrated as the Garden of the Virgin Mary. In the eleventh century the place was officially banned for all other women by the rule ‘abaton’ established by a Byzantine emperor. Even pets of the female sex are not allowed from early history.
Nowadays there are still twenty monasteries on Athos that house about 1,500 monks in total. Seventeen monasteries are Greek, the three other monasteries are Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian. Although the Athos peninsula is part of Greece, it has a certain autonomy. The region is governed by the ‘Holy community’ and even at the time of Ottoman rule this autonomy was respected. The nature on the peninsula is breathtaking and within the monasteries you will find an abundance of Byzantine art. Agio Oros is considered the spiritual capital of the Christian-orthodox world. In order to prevent mass tourism and not to disturb the daily life of the monks, a maximum of one hundred Greeks and ten visitors from abroad are allowed per day.
Ouranoupoli – the gateway to Mount Athos
But there is still a place on Athos where everyone can go. Ouranoupoli, located on the east coast, means ‘City of heaven’. The city is also called the ‘gateway to Mount Athos’ because of the many ferries that leave from here to Agio Oros. For everyone is allowed to admire the monasteries from the sea, at a distance of five hundred meters. Various day excursions depart from the port of Ouranoupoli.
Ouronoupoli itself is also known for its beautiful beaches and the Ammouliani island that lies off the coast, which can be reached by boat within half an hour! When you enter the village, you are welcomed by the Andronikos Tower that was built in the past as protection against the pirates. In Ouranoupoli you can have your lunch in one of the many fish taverns and you will find a lot of shops that sell religious icons. The village is 120 kilometers from Thessaloniki and is perfect for a day trip. Of course you can also choose to stay overnight in one of the many hotels.