Spirituality and Hospitality Meet on Greece’s Mount Athos Peninsula
It’s really unfortunate more people don’t know about the Mount Athos peninsula in Northeast Greece. Even most of the locals I spoke with in Athens didn’t know where Mount Athos was and hadn’t heard of Ouranoupoli, Greece. But when you consider how overcrowded, busy, and noisy the other popular Greek destinations are, maybe it’s better to keep this place sacred, beautiful, and tranquil.
It’s certainly not like the popular Greek islands, as you won’t find the overwhelming nightlife that’s probably better suited for fresh college grads anyway. The region is home to some of the world’s oldest Greek Orthodox monasteries, and the spiritual energy is so prominent here it’s nearly palpable. In fact, the monasteries of Mount Athos drive a significant amount of religious tourism to the region during the warm summer months. And when you throw in the amazing food, views, and nearby villages, you have plenty of reasons to visit this relatively unknown destination.
Without a doubt the defining characteristic of the region is monasticism, which dates back to at least 800 CE in the region. Though there are monasteries up and down the peninsula, they cannot be accessed by the general public. Men must apply for and receive a special visa (and can even spend the night there), while women simply are not permitted due to historic religious traditions (not a fan, but obviously I can’t change it). Regardless, the beauty of the mountains and monasteries can still be seen on a cruise ship that leaves several times per day from a nearby port. Even from 500 meters away, each of the monasteries’ presence can be felt.
The everyday life of monks is very simple: They devote eight hours to work, eight hours to prayer, and eight hours to sleep. Their work usually consists of tending the land but more often of making some sort of product that is sold in nearby village shops, such as these from Chrisostomakis Gift Shop:
The usual products consist of wines, spirits, and products for worship. But it’s Mount Athos wine that has created international demand, namely for the quality and taste of the amazing products.
I was lucky enough to tour through the vineyards of Tsantali Winery, and I must say if I worked there I’d probably never leave. The view from the top of the vineyard was one I will never forget. Even the picture falls well short of capturing the awe-inspiring beauty.
The Tsantali family has been making wine here since 1890, and much of the original infrastructure still exists today. While just a family business, Tsantali has created global demand for its products and is considered at the forefront of wine innovation. Because it is located in the heart of the Mount Athos, the winery owners proudly care for their land and place a significant emphasis on sustainable development.
If you visit the Mount Athos peninsula, be sure to make an afternoon stop in Arnea, a tiny village that takes local to the next level. Nearly every product is sourced and produced locally, and you can certainly taste the difference. I did a little walking tour of the shops and sampled quite a few amazing treats, including several kinds of local honey.
Obviously my sweet tooth wasn’t satisfied—at least that’s what the neighboring baker told me. While there I ate a tulumba, a donut-like pastry, which tasted as if it had been bathing in a tub full of syrup because, well, it had.
All the ingredients were natural—at least that’s the mantra I told myself as the syrup gushed out of the pastry on the first bite and onto my shirt and flip flops. The sticky cleanup was worth it. It was absolutely delicious.
After taking a tour through the Karragianni Cheese Factory and walking away with entire blocks of goat and feta cheese, we took our fresh ingredients to the restaurant of local a Greek chef, Dimitrios Bakatsianos.
In a matter of minutes, he was chopping away and giving us a lesson on the simplicity of combining fresh herbs, tomatoes, and cheese to create the perfect light meal for a warm Greek evening. What happens when you combine fresh cheese from the local dairy, fresh cherry tomatoes, and freshly picked oregano?
Best. Salad. Ever.
While in Mount Athos, I stayed at the Alexandros Palace Hotel.
Don’t let the five stars scare you; this hotel is affordable and has plenty of room options. Just make sure to get a room with a view of the Aegean Sea (and don’t worry, there are plenty); it’s a view you’ll want to wake up to every morning.
I’ve always been a fan of Mediterranean cuisine because it is equally as delicious as it is healthy. I ate entirely too much tzatziki, feta cheese, and goat cheese, yet my stomach was surprisingly not bothered by the amount of dairy. This must be a credit to the freshness of the ingredients used by Alexandros.
My personal favorites at the hotel were the watermelon and feta salad and the grilled octopus.
When I wasn’t eating delicious food I was reading a book poolside or seaside, whatever landscape the mood called for. With a friendly and helpful international staff that seems to intuitively know when you want your next drink or snack, prepare for hours of much-needed relaxation and lounging.
Alexandros Palace is the perfect place to disconnect, recharge, and find peace. Maybe it’s the spirituality of the region or the staff going the extra mile to find opportunities to help that make your stay here comfortable and memorable. It’s probably a combination of the two.
Alexandros Palace is perfect for yoga and meditation retreats, family trips, and even work sabbaticals for creatives looking for a tranquil place to find inspiration.