Ouranoupolis is by no means ubiquitous on the Aegean Sea island-hopping trail. This fishing village in Athos, the third peninsula of Halkidiki in northeastern Greece, is too low-key for that. Its streets are not inundated with selfie stick-wielding tourists and on its white beaches, you can go for hours without seeing anyone.
In Greek, Ouranoupolis means the city in the heaven or sky. The island functions as the gateway to the ‘male-only’ sacred mountain of Athos, the heart of Orthodox Christian Monasticism. Its relative obscurity among travellers gives the place an air of mystery. But there’s plenty to discover and indulge here, from adrenaline-rushing water sports to stunning medieval architecture.
Efrossini Hatziliadou, a spirited local who works in the hospitality industry, has a tip for any visitor to Ouranoupolis: Get to know its people first. “Warmth, tradition and spirituality are at the heart of our culture. Our community is small, just over a thousand people—we have one pharmacy, one church and one school. What everyone loves about this place is that there is a good combination of different seasons, mysticism is everywhere, the seafood is the best you will ever taste, and you can swim all year round.” Top on her list of must-do activities is a visit to the tower of Andronikos, a trip to Mount Athos and its monasteries, learning the traditional dance in the village square, and tasting different varieties of local honey, wine and olive oil.
Down the main street from the village square is the 14th-century tower of the Byzantine emperor Andronikos that has safeguarded the village from attacks for centuries. Built by the Vatopedi Monastery and restored after years of damage, the tower is en route to the port to Mount Athos and various islands nearby. It houses the Pyrgos Prosforeiou museum, a showcase for Byzantine artefacts. Socrates Hadalis, who owns Byzandino Gallery in the neighbourhood, recommends walking around Ouranoupolis to see its ancient treasures. He also suggests that travellers look for local souvenirs. “The monks from the hermitages and monasteries paint icons, make honey, wine, incense, holy oil, and create some of the most beautiful religious artefacts. They can cost anywhere between €10–5,000/Rs765-3,82,505,” he says.
My search for traditional cuisine leads me to Lemoniadis, a restaurant owned by Michael Lemoniadis, which sits at the edge of Siggitikos bay. As I sit with young Ilias Lemoniadis, who manages his father’s restaurant, he tells me about the time-honoured recipes of the monks. “They reflect the lifestyle of the monks and the produce from here. Fish in lemon sauce is hugely popular, as is octopus in wine sauce.” I try both with a plate of gialantzi (wine leaves stuffed with rice and herbs) and then end the meal with Greek halva (semolina pudding) and kadaifi (a Greek pastry).
Ouranoupolis is the last land frontier before the male-only, autonomous region of Mount Athos, a cloistered orthodox monastic community and a UNESCO heritage centre. Women and children are not allowed here. Only men aged 18 and above can visit with a written authorisation and residence permit known as Diamonitirio, and a ticket for the ferry boat. The Holy Mountain is considered the Garden of the Virgin Mary. “So, there is no room for any other woman. You as a lady can only see Mount Athos and the monasteries from the boat,” a monk tells me.
As suggested by Hatziliadou earlier, I sign up for a honey tasting session at Eagles Villas, owned by the Tornivoukas family. At the villas, Yannis Tsananas and Mara Papantoni offer a glimpse into their brand Horae. “Our honey is traditional,” says Mara. “We have a variety of flavours like pine, wildflower and chestnut.” Yannis, who has visited Mount Athos often, tells me that the honey from the monastery has more flavours of chestnut and oak as that is what grows there. “Honey season is from March to November,” he adds.
The islands close to Ouranoupolis, like Drenia, Ammouliani or Diaporos, are perfect for swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving. “You can stay overnight at Ammouliani or Diaporos. They have nice restaurants and tavernas,” Roussos Konstantinos, a local youngster, shares with me. From Ouranoupolis, there are several ferries which can take you to the islands nearby for as little as €3/Rs229. You can also take a private cruise on a luxury yacht for anywhere between €500-4,000/Rs38,240-3,05,921.
Ouranoupolis is a 120km/2hr scenic drive from Thessaloniki airport and approx. 655km/7hr from Athens airport. There are regular flights from major Indian cities to Thessaloniki with one or more stops at a European or Middle Eastern gateway such as Athens, London, Munich, Istanbul or Doha. There are buses available from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupolis.
Vinita A. Shetty is a journalist, urban griot, and documentary producer from Bengaluru. Her travels have taken her deep sea diving in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, on a discovery of the Rockies in Calgary, and on a Catalan food trail in the tiny pastoral village of La Pobla De Segur in Spain.