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The many layers of Greece on Athos

Hoping off his bicycle, Thomas Aslanidis bounded into the cool lobby of the Alexandros Palace Hotel and Spa on a hot July day in Ouranoupolis. He apologized that his daily ride kept me waiting. We didn’t have an appointment; I was just checking in. Would I like to see the excavations of the Monastery of Zygou? Thus began a whirlwind two days of exploring the western Halkidiki coast and northern Athos with the energetic heirs of this village by the sea.

Mount Athos, Halkidiki, Greece
Mount Athos, Halkidiki, Greece
Marc d'Entremont
Alexandros Palace Hotel overlooking Ammouliani Island, Athos, Greece
Marc d'Entremont

Thomas and his brother John are both into music and people. They’re hands-on managers of the 250-room Alexandros Palace Hotel resort complex started by their parents in the 1990s. They grew up in the hotel as it expanded from modest seaside accommodations into a veritable village on the 90-acre hillside location just outside the center of Ouranoupolis, gateway to sacred Mount Athos. Both brothers attended the prestigious and rigorous Swiss hotel school, the Glion Institute.

Thomas and John greeted repeat guests by first name. Casually dressed, they can be found at the hotel’s private beach facilities, cycling the extensive grounds paying attention to gardening details, consulting with the chefs, inspecting the impressive Panalee Spa and the new specialty shop ­– Athos wines, skin care products and local foods – discussing concerns on their cell phones but rarely are they ensconced in an office. The details are numerous since Alexandros Palace Hotel was designed to be a self-contained resort complete with a small market catering to guests staying in rooms with kitchens. But first Thomas wanted me to visit an ancient ruin.

The evidence of Greece’s long and turbulent civilization lay scattered throughout the country. It was as easy to stumble across remnants of an ancient site in the middle of a farm field as it was to visit the impressive ruins of the 10th century Monastery of Zygos, a short 10-minute drive from the hotel. Though in ruins for centuries, well preserved sections of the on-going excavation reveal intricate Byzantine floor mosaics, elaborate remains of wall frescoes and the more mundane sunken pottery jars that held food supplies for the monks. The past exists next to the present often in Greece. The Monastery site borders the historic guardhouse and entrance to the autonomous Monastic State of Agion Oros – Mt. Athos.

At the tip of Athos, the western most peninsula of the Halkidiki region of Macedonia, 6,700-foot Mt. Athos towers above all. Legendary Greek Orthodox monasteries have maintained its fame for a millennium despite repeated attempts at conquest and social change. The residents of Athos are 18(+)-year-old monks or male workers. No women can enter the autonomous Monastic State. Male visitors over the age of 18 with special permits are restricted to a few hundred at any one time. Applications should be made weeks in advance. Tourists can circle the peninsula by boat and catch glimpses of the massive monastery complexes, many incongruously clinging to cliffs, but not land without an entry certificate.

Ouranoupolis is one of many towns built in the 1920s as a result of the traumatic exchange of Greek Orthodox and Islamic populations that took place after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the merger of Macadonia into Greece. Once the site of an ancient town, today it attracts tourists seeking Greek sun, sea and pleasant evening dinners poolside at its resorts. Dinner at the Alexandros Palace Hotel’s taverna restaurant highlighted the superb fish and seafood caught fresh daily off these shores.

Chef George Kosmidis started dinner with light zucchini croquettes, tzatziki sauce and a classic Greek salad of ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, onions and feta. Tender grilled, lightly charred octopus followed. A simple sauce of lemon, olive oil and parsley napped the crisp skin of grilled sea bream that covered moist white fish. Shrimp were bathed in a sauce of cream, garlic, white wine and stock. The shrimp had steamed in the sauce, infusing it with their deep flavor.

A wine from Mt. Athos complimented the fish and seafood – ΙΕΡΑ ΜΟΝΗ ΑΓΙΟΥ ΠΑΥΛΟΥ (Holy Monastery of St. Paul), MONOXILITIKO, a white wine blend of 90% sauvignon blanc with local varieties. It had a nose of honey and sage followed by summer floral notes with a surprisingly dry finish. Thomas explained that the bottle must be allowed to breathe to soften the wine.

Dinner was followed by music at the Theatre Bar – terrific views of the bay and Ammouliani Island. In the evening, the spacious Theater Bar with its lower level dance floor and stage was the town square of this village resort of Alexandros Palace. As the hours passed, many friends of Thomas and John as well as guests joined the eclectic conversation.

After a breakfast from the extensive buffet, including many salad selections, it was off for more exploration. Wandering, and sometimes stumbling across obscure excavations were as inspiring for a first time visitor as observing the excitement and pride it generated in Thomas, a younger generation.

At ancient Stagira on Halkidiki’s western shore several hours were spent walking in the footsteps of Aristotle. Stagira was his birthplace and today overlooks the fishing port of Olympiada. The ancient city was built across two hills on the peninsula of Liotopi. King Philip II of Macadon destroyed Stagira during a war in 348 B.C.E. while Aristotle was teaching in Athens. According to the most accepted theories, within a year Aristotle was tutor to the future Alexander the Great and the King was rebuilding Stagira.

Stagira seems to have declined during the early Roman era and was abandoned by the start of the 1st century A.D. The extensive excavations that cover both hills are impressive and a good hike. With panoramic views of the Gulf of Lerissos and backed by lush green tree covered hills, Stagira must have been a beautiful and vibrant city. It was possible to wander unimpeded over most of the ruins.

History’s millenniums created the layers of Greece that lure millions of tourist each year. Discovering Greece through personal adventures and conversation with Thomas and John Aslanidis added the perspective of youth – awe for the past, eyes on the moment, dreams for the future. Living in the moment within the comfort of the Alexandros Palace Hotel, a sacred mountain in view and with Aristotle’s spirit nearby created serenity.

Ouranoupolis is an easy 2 – 3 hour drive (busier on weekends) on modern roads from Thessaloniki International Airport.

Alexandros Palace Hotel, Ouranoupolis, 63075, Halkidiki, Greece. (Athos) Tel + 30 23770 31402 / 31424 Fax: +30 23770 31100

Email: the season runs April through mid-October.

Disclosure: the author was a guest of the Alexandros Palace Hotel and the Halkidiki Tourism Organization.

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