The Gods' Own Country; Travel: Sam Stokes Follows Her Heart to Thessaloniki and an Area Steeped in Greek Mythology

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 9, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Gods' Own Country; Travel: Sam Stokes Follows Her Heart to Thessaloniki and an Area Steeped in Greek Mythology


Byline: SAM STOKES

SINCE I fell in love with a Greek Adonis last year and jacked in London life and my freelance journalist job to join him in Thessaloniki, I seem to have become very popular with friends wanting to visit - which is fine as long as they are invited. And as long as they know where the city is on a map. And all the better if they bone up on the history of the Balkans beforehand.

Thessaloniki is not an island, as one friend thought, neither is it near Athens, nor is it in the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia - a serious faux pas, as Greeks believe the republic has no right to use the name of the ancient Greek kingdom.

Thessaloniki is in the northern chunk of mainland Greece called Macedonia, which borders the above-mentioned country and Bulgaria. However, most holidaymakers are whisked straight from the little airport to the beach resorts of Halkidiki and know nothing of a city called Thessaloniki.

Another thing I'd like to get straight is that it gets cold here in winter - a recent visitor thought it hilarious that our home had radiators. It might be 104F in summer but we had snow in early spring. On winter weekends, my surgeon partner Stelios and I (we met two years ago at a New Year's Eve party in London) either stay indoors roasting chestnuts and sipping local red wine or go skiing in one of the wonderfully quiet and pleasantly cheap ski resorts.

The city is on the cusp of the Thermaikos gulf and is backed by Mount Hortiatis, which is taller than Ben Nevis.

Snow-capped Mount Olympus (9,570ft) is a stunning sight across the gulf, and when there's a storm the thunder is more deafening and the lightning far brighter than in London as the mountain is home to the ancient gods (or does the noise just reverberate off the sea?).

Trekking on Olympus is hard work but worth it for the view, the wild flowers and, of course, the chance of bumping into a toga-clad god or two.

To the east are the three finger-like peninsulas called Halkidiki, and on the farthest lies the breathtaking Mount Athos (6,670ft), another holy mountain but this time of the Orthodox Church.

Athos's foothills have to be among the most beautiful places to live in Europe, covered in pine and olive trees and surrounded by the Aegean in all shades of turquoise. In the summer heat a white haze forms around its base and gives the impression it is floating in the sea.

UNFORTUNATELY, I will never be able to savour the area's legendary tranquillity because, being female, I am banned. For more than 1,000 years this finger of land has been home to fanatic monks who live in 20 monasteries and hermitages dotted around the foot of the mountain, and no woman is allowed near - not even female goats, so I've heard.

Like the Vatican, it has its own administrative centre and is a true oddity of Europe. It recognises the Julian calendar-13 days behind ours) and has its own time, differing from one side of the peninsula to the other. Apparently, Prince Charles visits every year.

However, tourists with mammary glands are allowed on to the very tip of the holy finger, to the secular town of Ouranoupolis, from where they can take a boat around the holy mountain at a 500-yard distance.

The neighbouring peninsulas are open to females. Sithonia is the least spoilt of the two and boasts wild, island-style beauty, while Kassandra is covered in hotels, tavernas, nightclubs and tourists - mainly German, Scandinavian and British. Both have delicious sea, as clear as gin, gorgeous white granitic sand and frolicking dolphins.

Most beaches in Macedonia have the EU blue flag for hygiene and clean own country water, even in the Gulf of Thermaikos with Thessaloniki's busy commercial port. The suburban towns of Perea, Neoi Epivates and Agia Triada make a pleasant holiday base half an hour's drive outside the city and there are sand dunes in nearby Epanomi that resemble Namibia. …

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The Gods' Own Country; Travel: Sam Stokes Follows Her Heart to Thessaloniki and an Area Steeped in Greek Mythology
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