Athos is the third and most easterly of the three 'legs' of the Halkidiki. peninsula The furthest from the airport at Thessaloniki, Athos is also the least developed for tourism, although many consider this to be one of its most attractive features.
The major portion of Athos cannot be visited without a special permit. This is the 'Agion Oros' or 'Holy Mountain' which has been run as a self-governing monastic state for more than 1,000 years and is dominated by the majestic 2,000m conical peak of Mount Athos.
The Athos peninsula extends for about 60km to the south and its surrounding seas are notorious for strong currents. Although linked to the land, Mt Athos is accessible only by boat and all non-religious support workers must live in the central village of Karyes
The Athos tourist resorts are all centred in the far north of the peninsula, around Ouranoupolis, and on the offshore islet of Ammouliani. Both these and other resorts are popular with day trippers. Those staying longer can explore the inland attractions which include many areas designated as of outstanding beauty.
Tourism in the eastern-most 'prong' of the Halkidiki peninsula is confined to the north. The southern area of Athos is a self governing monastic state that allows only a few male visitors a year to stay in the various monasteries. Its distance from Thessaloniki airport also means that it is mostly the more independent travellers that get to this part of the world as tour companies don't favour resorts that include long bus rides for customers. Athos is arguably the most attractive of the three 'legs' of Halkidiki, relatively wild, mountainous and with areas of outstanding natural beauty particularly in the south but also in the northern area. Most visitors, though, are day trippers visiting beaches at Ouranoupolis and only a few venture further afield to enjoy the rest of the treasures that Athos has to offer.
There are plenty of islets off the Halkidiki coastline but only one is permanently inhabited. Ammouliani lies about 2km off the Athos coast, below the port at Tripiti and opposite the main tourist resort at Ouranoupolis.
About 600 people live in permanently on Ammouliani island which is only about 4.5 sq km in size and it lies about 130km from Thessaloniki.
Thousands arrive there each year to enjoy the beautiful Ammouliani island landscape and relax in the very sandy bays that are a feature of Ammouliani (the name translates as 'fine sand'), where the main occupation, apart from tourism, is fishing.
Ferry boats cross frequently from Tripiti to the main port at Ammouliani and the journey only takes about 10 minutes. In Ammouliani village there are several taverns and fish restaurants, plenty of accommodation including a couple of campsites and the usual bars, minimarkets and shops - even a nightclub.
The islet's isolated bays are ideal for those looking for peace and relaxation, though you are unlikely to find any of them empty in the high season. The main beaches are at Alikes, Agios Georgios, Megali Ammos and Karagatsia.
Most of the beaches are very sandy with some stone and there are many other small coves, all of them easily reached by the network of paths and tracks through the olive groves and scrubland.
Daily caiques visit the nearby uninhabited string of islets called the Drenia Islands where there are isolated beach coves with the odd makeshift beach cantina that will open in the summer months to serve up the basics.
Ouranoupolis is the premier resort on Athos that sits at the edge of the Holy Mountain (Agios Oros) at about 130km from Thessaloniki.
The name translates 'City of the Heavens' and some may indeed find it heavenly. It is certainly a very attractive resort with a backdrop of rolling hills in a beautiful corner of Greece.
Relatively isolated until recent years, Ouranoupolis has been little affected by mass tourism. It was part of Mount Athos until 1922, when 50 Greek refugees families were housed here. There wasn't even a road out of the village until 1947 when the locals hacked one out.
The most striking building is the Byzantine Tower of Prosforio, found next to the Ouranoupolis harbour. The tower is the largest and best preserved in the whole of Halkidiki. It was built by the Vatopediou Monastery in the 14th century.
The tower is a tall stone structure with narrow window slits. On the upper floors are wooden balconies. The tower has now been restored and is now a museum of Christian antiquities.
There are a couple of good beaches in Ouranoupolis. The main town beach is a pleasant long strip of sand that extends from the harbour. Beyond the small jetty and surrounding rocks is another small, but sandy, cove and a clear sea.
The promenade on the west side of the village, by the port, has a string of restaurants and cafes. The port serves as a dropping off point for monks and pilgrims to Mount Athos as well as a fishing harbour and, of course, the daily boatloads of day trippers.
Ouranoupolis resort is quite large and there are banks and urban buses to Salonica, as well as buses to Sithonia and Kassandra. The resort also has pharmacies and tourist shops, cafes and tavernas, as well as the usual mimimarkets and bakeries.
There are daily boat tours around Athos as well as trips to the Drenia islets offshore. The largest is known as 'Donkey Island' and there is a good sand beach and a summer taverna.
Nea Roda is found at the narrowest point of the Athos peninsula on the northeastern shore about 125km east of Thessaloniki and 87km from Poligiros.
The picturesque village is paved with narrow alleys and traditional stone houses with flower filled courtyards, although there has been considerable new building in recent years.
The modern village Nea Roda was in 1922 by refugees from Turkey's Roda near the Marmara Sea. The centre of the village is dominated by the church of the Virgin Mary.
A long straight beach of sand and stone curves at the eastern end to a small and very sheltered harbour that has been built on the headland. There are seafood tavernas, bars and cafes along the shore. The very sheltered bay is also popular with windsurfers and water skiers.
Inland there are all the facilities you expect in a small seaside town, including an outdoor cinema. There are several hotels and apartments as well as rooms for rent and camping nearby. Daily cruises head out for the Athos peninsula.
Ierissos is a large seaside resort, north-east of the Athos peninsula, about 118 km from Thessaloniki and 80 km from Poligiros. It is one of the bigger towns in the region with more than 3,000 people living there, many in the fishing industry as this is a major fishing area.
The big attraction is a long clean Blue Flag beach of golden sand gently shelving into the sea. There are cafes and tavernas along the back of the beach, a promenade and grassed areas with seating and shade.
Several beach bars line the shore and trees provide natural shade. The usual watersports are on offer. The beach seems to go on forever and you can walk for several kilometres before running out of sand.
At the less populated parts of the beach there are ramshackle sheds, scruffy boatyards and the odd abandoned boat hulk that does little to add to the scenery. But this is, after all, a working Greek seaside town before it is a tourist resort.
There are plenty of cultural activities as you would expect in a town of this size. During the summer the cultural society of Ierissos called 'Kligenis' organizes many events.
Major festivals are held at the churches of Prophitis Ilias on June 20 and Agios Pavlos on June 29. The area is noted for keeping traditional Greek songs alive and music plays a big part in the local scene.
The port is very busy with fishing boats but there are also daily tourist cruises around Agion Oros and to other beaches along the coast.
The coastal village of Stratoni lies in the Gulf of Ierissos, about 102km from Thessaloniki, and dates back to the mid 19th century although, in 1932 the village was extensively damaged by the earthquake and much of the village has been entirely rebuilt.
Stratoni, which numbers about 1,000 homes, has a long mining history. Alexander the Great is thought to have used gold and silver from the local mines to fund his campaigns.
The mines are found about 4km west of the port and are still mined today. They contain considerable quantities of lead, zinc and silver.
There is a long, south-east facing sand and stone beach is steeply shelved into the sea and backed by scrub and trees. It curves at the southern end into a small headland harbour.
A couple of smaller beaches lie behind the harbour but have little shade and no facilities. The northern end of the beach peters out into a car park and some ugly factories.
The village is set back from the beach and there are a couple of tavernas and cafes but not much else to attract the visitor. The area is noted for its archaeological finds which include some Roman ruins. Most important are a burial monument dating to the 1st century BC with two statues now kept in the Museum of Poligiros.
The village of Olympiada is found on the Strimonikos Gulf, on the north-east side of Halkidiki, and about 95 km from Thessaloniki. It is located in a natural harbour and surrounded by mountains and forests of pine and beech.
Olympiada is a place of great historical interest, being named after the mother of Alexander the Great as the birthplace of Greek philosopher Aristotle and for its proximity to the significant ancient site of Stigira. Excavations at Stigira started in 1990 and many artifacts have been unearthed and are on display in the museum at Olympiada.
It is in a very beautiful setting and is now protected as an area of outstanding natural beauty on a coastal plain with forested mountains rising behind.
The new town of Olympiada dates from 1924 and has a long crescent beach of gently sloping sand. The southern end is overlooked by a chapel and in the middle are beach tavernas with sunbeds.
At the northern end is a long jetty and more beach tavernas before the sands run out to the pine covered headland.
The southern leg of the Athos peninsula must be one of the wildest, natural landscapes in Greece. As a monastic state for more than a thousand years there has been virtually no development apart from large monasteries built mostly around the coast, a few churches and hermitages. The untamed beauty of the 350sq km peninsula is extraordinary. The Mount Athos that dominates the whole region at 2,000 metres and visible from almost everywhere. It's peak is often snowcapped and laced with cloud while its slopes are fully carpeted in ancient evergreens.
Mount Athos or Agion Oros(Holy Mountain) is the oldest surviving monastic region in the world, dating back more than 1,000 years. It is an autonomous, self governing region that occupies the major portion of the Athos peninsula.
Mount Athos has about 20 major monasteries, 12 hermitages and about 700 cells and retreats and, because of its isolation, is considered one of the most unspoiled landscapes in Greece.
The rugged peninsula is only 2km wide at its narrowest and 56kn long, with a backbone of mountain peaks topped my Mount Athos at just over 2,000m high.
Hidden among the forest gorges and perched in what look like impossible positions are imposing monasteries. The ecclesiastical artwork in the monasteries is both ancient and exquisite, turning them into living museums. Most have extensive collections of manuscripts, icons, and gold and silver objects.
Religious rules are strictly enforced and women are not allowed to set foot on the Holy Mountain. Men are only allowed by hard to obtain permits and overnight visits can only be arranged in advance with one of the monasteries. The great majority of tourists are restricted to boat trips around Athos and viewing monasteries through cameras or binoculars.
Some of the most popular monasteries and churches are:
Church of the Protato in Karies:
Built in the 10th century and renovated in the 13th, Protato is a triforium basilica with impressive icons and frescos.
Monastery Megistis Lavras:
Founded in the 10th century on the south-western tip of the peninsula Megistis Lavras is the largest monastic block in Mt. Athos.
Built in the 10th century on the east coast Vatopedi is triangular and surrounded by high walls. Its main attractions are mosaics and frescos.
Founded in the 10th century on the east coast Ivron has splendid icons and a superb library.
Said to have been built in the 11th century Xenofon is famous for its wooden screens and mosaic icons.
Monastery Simon Petras:
A multi-level monastery built in the 14th century.
Monastery Agios Panteleimon:
Founded in the 11th century, it was destroyed in the 13th century and reconstructed in the late 18th.
Other monasteries that are often visited are Agios Dionysios, Agios Pavlos, Chelandarios, Docharios, Esfigmenos, Grigorios, Karakallos, Kastamonitios, Koutloumousios, Pantokratoros, Philotheos, Stavronikitas, Xiropotamos and Zografos.
The Athos region is very heavily wooded with steep hills of virgin forest in the south where there are no populated areas other than the village of Karyes and several substantial monasteries dotted along the shores both east and west.
The Holy Mountain area is about 60km long and 7km to 12km wide and it covers an area of about 335 sq km.
Mount Athos itself is cone like and has steep, forested slopes with a barren crest at 2,033m. The seas around Athos are notorious for swift currents, especially at the southern end of the peninsula.
Athos has been declared a World Heritage Site and is home to 20 Orthodox monasteries that form a semi-autonomous monastic republic within the Republic of Greece. The borders of the monasterial state are defined by a line from Frangokastro on the west coast to cape Arapis on the east.
There are plenty of sites to visit in north Athos but they are spread pretty thinly and a car or bike is needed for visits as bus services are not great.
Olympiada is the place of most historical interest, named after the mother of Alexander the Great and the birthplace of Greek philosopher Aristotle. The ancient site of Stagira is only 3km away. Excavations began in 1990 and many artifacts have been unearthed there since. Most of these are currently on display in the museum at Olympiada.
Stratoni is also noted for its archaeological finds just west of the town which include Roman ruins. The most important finds are a burial monument dating to the 1st century BC and two winged statues now on display in the Museum of Poligiros.
At Ouranoupolis is the striking Byzantine Tower of Prosforio on the shore next to the harbour. The tower is the largest and best preserved in the whole of Halkidiki and was built as a defensive tower by the Vatopediou Monastery in the 14th century.
The town of Ierissos is noted for its cultural activities. Major festivals are held throughout the year and the area is noted for its singers and choirs performing traditional Greek songs and music.
The town of Arnea at the foot of Mount Holomontas has the ruins of an ancient civilization but is most noted for its traditional houses and for its hand-woven textiles. Special exhibitions are held and visitors can see the weavers at work. There is also a cultural museum there.
Getting to visit Mount Athos is not easy and needs advance preparation and a battle with Greek bureaucracy. Only 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox visitors are allowed per day.
First you need to contact the Pilgrims' Bureau. Give plenty of notice - at least six months - if you plan to a summer visit as the monasteries can be full of pilgrims, but as little as a few days outside the peak season.
The Holy Executive of the Holy Mount Athos Pilgrims' Bureau
109 Egnatia Street.
546 22, Thessaloniki
Greece +30 2310 252578 - Fax +30 2310 222424
If permission is granted you must get a pilgrim's permit diamonetirion for individuals or groups, issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or by the Ministry of Northern Greece. The permit is issued by the offices of Mount Athos, at Ouranoupolis (on the right side of the port). You need an identity card and must pay €18 (Orthodox visitors) or €35 (non-Orthodox). Foreign visitors also need a passport. If you are Orthodox but not Greek at covering letter from a priest or a baptism certificate will help.
Women are not admitted into the monastic territory and you must be over 18 for an overnight stay. The normal permit usually granted to visitors allows for a maximum three-day stay, visiting monasteries at will. The more rare special permit allows an unlimited stay at only one monastery.
Once you have gained permission from The Pilgrims' Bureau you must contact each monastery where you plan to stay. It is no good turning up unannounced. Without prior notice of your arrival, or if you arrive after 4pm you will probably be turned away.
Visitors are housed in spartan dormitories within guest houses archontariki. Simple meals are served. Most monasteries offer no bathing facilities and, if they do, it will be no more than a cold shower. You are not expected to pay but a contribution is welcomed, especially if you stay more than one night.
Mount Athos is for monks to escape the modern world and as a guest visitor you should respect the strict rules. Conventions vary between monasteries, so ask the master of the guest house if you have any doubts. In general photography of monasteries is allowed, but pictures of monks and the interiors of churches is prohibited without explicit permission, as is the use of video camera anywhere.
Visitors are expected to dress soberly - no t-shirts and shorts. While visitors can attend services, there may not always be room and non-Orthodox Christians may not be allowed in some services, such as Communion.