Three days in Mount Athos

The peak of Mt. Athos from the complex of Moni Agios Pavlos

Today I’ll take you to a place from another world; it’s a remote peninsula in northern Greece which for millions of orthodox is the most sacred spot on earth. It’s called Mount Athos and has probably changed less over the centuries than any other inhabited place on the planet. 

Moni Iviron

Mount Athos is an autonomous self-administered region within the territory of Greece. Access to the peninsula is granted to male visitors only following a request to the Pilgrim Office in Thessaloniki at least six months in advance.

The “diamonitirion”

Only ten nonorthodox and 100 orthodox pilgrims men are admitted daily once you’ve taken your prized and printed permit in the office of Ouranopoli. This permit called  “diamonitirion”  allows you to stay for three nights in the monastic Athos and you can expect free accommodation and food for only one night at the time in one of the 20 monasteries which dot the peninsula. You must also phone to the monasteries and reserve specific nights well in advance.

Bucolic farmland outside Moni Iviron
The citadel inside the fortified Moni Iviron
The Thracian sea with the island of Thasos in the background; Moni Iviron
The sawmill generating income for the monks; Moni Iviron

Of those 20 monasteries, there’s a Russian one, a Serbian and a Bulgarian, the other 17 are all Greeks. Women and female animals (except birds) are still refused access to Athos; bar the Virgin Mary here no other woman is permitted to even set foot on, it’s been like that for more than a thousand years!!!

The port of Dafni

Land entry is prohibited between secular and monastic Athos. Boats to the peninsula depart from the ports of Ouranopoli with connections to the monasteries further south in the small port of Dafni. 

It wasn’t long before the first monasteries come into view and I thought I’m sailing to Byzantium to a fantasy land of castles, palaces, fortresses with dazzling religious architecture as well to a pristine forested interior dominated in the south by the bulk of Mt. Athos (2033m). There’s nothing on this 130 square miles peninsula other than monasteries and monks….nothing. 

Moni Simonos Petra fits like a crown on top of the rock, eight-hundred feet above the Aegean

The first day I visited the Georgian-founded, west coast  monastery of Moni Iviron, which has the feel of a medieval city and it’s one whose architecture is most remarkable. The refectory where I have had the “pleasure” to dine is truly gorgeous with 10th-century frescos and 10 meters long marble table where monks and pilgrims alike share the food offered, the religious silence broken only by the liturgy of a monk. Both lunch and dinner last less than 10 minutes with very simple food offered; no meat only bread, olives, eggs and some wine. The monks try and manage to be self-sufficient, they grow their fruits and vegetables.

Top and bottom: The Russian monastery of Agios Panteleimon

The second day I was in Moni Agiou Pavlou on the west coast, under the looming Mt. Athos, with some patches of snow even in the first decade of May. The monastery seems a fortress made to repel pirates more than a place of worship but the setting and the architecture is magnificent. The last day I visited the Bulgarian Moni Zografou where nonorthodox were not properly welcome, following a massacre by Christian crusaders of some monks during the 12th centuries, I tried to convince the abbott that I was not involved but it did little to deter his skepticism. The monks on Mount Athos conduct a spartan way of life, no television, newspaper or Internet; here the life of Christ is experienced in a genuine way and this doesn’t happen in many other places in the world; the depth of their devotion defies description. They come here from the world over and do everything they can to keep what they call the world far away. All of the pilgrims in the peninsula come from the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, the Caucasian republic of Armenia and Georgia, as well as Greece of course; so you end up being the only westerner around. 

The Bulgarian monastery of Zografou through olive groves
The courtyard of Moni Zografou

The rules concerning photography around and inside the monastery are a somewhat of a mixed bag: some allow you to take photos of the courtyards and not inside  the churches or the places of worship others were more strict whereas photos of the inner courtyards were also prohibited; of course video and photos of the monks were totally banned.

A look of the peninsula from the ferry

I admit that after spending three days in the peninsula I was more than glad to come back to “normal” life and what’s best than spending an afternoon in one of the stunning beaches of the Halkidiki peninsula – the small island of Ammouliani – which is 5 minutes ferry from a small jetty north of Ouranopoli? After this very “cold” dip in the beach of Alykes, the return to Thessaloniki and their succulent tavernas was even more welcoming.

The beach of Alykes in the small island of Ammouliani
A taverna in Ano Poli; Thessaloniki

Western Crete episode 1: Rethymno

“The rain has stopped, the clouds have broken; the vault of blue spreads out like a fan, the blue decomposing into that ultimate violet light which makes everything Greek seem holy, natural and familiar. in Greece one has the desire to bathe in the sky. You want to rid yourself of your clothes, take a running leap and vault into the blue. You want to float in the air like an angel or lie in the grass rigid and enjoy the cataleptic trance. Stone and sky they marry here…”

Henry Miller

The monastery of Moni Arkhadi with Mt. Psiloritis in the background

To the Greeks, Crete seems the most authentically Greek of all the islands: it has all you could want, with cosmopolitan cities as well as unspoiled hidden villages, dramatic gorges and mountains high enough to be snow-tipped even into early summer as well as the obvious beaches and crystalline seas which are among top notch not only for the Mediterranean standard. The island is divided into four prefectures: west to east are Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Agios Nikolaos with their relative groups of mountains.

A tiny chapel above Kanevos

Rethymno is one of Crete’s most delightful town; its Venetian and ottoman quarter is centered around its beautiful Old harbour. The town itself is a pleasant mix of architecture with fortress and minarets, adding an exotic flourish. The pedestrianized area around the venetian (Old) harbour is where you can wander for busy tavernas, chic boutique hotels, but there’s also plenty to look out as you stroll.

The mosque inside the Venetian fortress

The Venetian fortress, built on a rocky spur above the historic center, between 1573 and 1580, is the landmark of the city; inside the battlements, there’s a mosque converted by the Turks, from a Venetian cathedral, with lovely architecture as well as nice views of the city and the sea. 

The old Harbour
A really weird “irish pub” in the old town
A tavern in the old harbour

The coast south of Rethymno is centered on the twin resorts of Agia Galini and Plakias with dozens of pleasant beaches in between, such as Triopetra, Preveli and, our favorite, Shinaria, just few km east of Plakias.  Approaching Plakias from the main Rethymno-Agia Galini road, you can choose among a couple of spectacular gorges, the very narrow Kotsifou and the even more impressive Kourtaliotiko, albeit on a lesser scale then the grander Samaria (which I’ll cover on the next episode). Plakias itself is a small resort with a pleasant feeling and a really nice and broad beach as well as some secluded coves to the east such as Damnoni and really delightful Shinaria.

A church in Kourtaliotiko gorge
The beach of Skinaria

The village of Myrthios, hanging high above Plakias, has wonderful views over the bay and makes for a quieter and more bucolic alternative than staying beachside. The Amari valley, at the foot of the Psiloritis range, is an area of unspoilt villages, Byzantine churches, olive groves and orchards. The isolated hamlets subsist on the olive and agricolture, its way of life barely altered by the progress of the last twenty years or more.  The namesake villages of Amari is one of the prettiest with some venetian buildings, Byzantine churches and a 19th-century bell tower. On the foothills, north of Psiloritis, lies the awesome monastery of Moni Arkadi, a shrine to Cretan independence in the struggle towards freedom from Turkish occupation. The highly scenic location is one of the hallmark of Arkadi as well as its Venetian church with its striking Renaissance facade dating from 1587.

The bay of Plakias from Myrthios
The looming Mt. Psiloritis from the village of Amari
A small church in the Kotsifou gorge

From the village of Kanevos, down to the Kotsifou gorge, there’s a road which veers west, running roughly above the south coast, with spectacular views, before finally reaching the idyllic beach and Venetian fortress, with a backdrop of dramatic mountains, at Frangokastello. 

The beach and the Venetian fortress at Frangokastello

If you like wild beauty with stark mountains, gorges and bewitching beaches the south coast will, for sure, entice you.

Sunset over the south coast of Crete

Ithaca: a Mediterranean getaway

Ithaki or Ithaca, as it’s known for most of us in Italy, is Odysseus’ mythical homeland, an island rooted in history which, so far, has not succumbed to the worst of mass tourism. There’s a special kind of presence in this land, in this light; it seems that the ancient world is still there, at your elbow, but just out of sight. The entry into Vathy harbour will set the atmosphere for your visit, it is most remarkable as well as beautiful, backdropped by mountains, it boasts one of the most idyllic seafront settings of all the Ionian islands.

The bay of Vathy at sunset

Like in Kefallonia, most of the buildings have been heavily damaged by 1953 earthquake but some fine examples of pre-quake architecture remain both in Vathy and in Kioni. According to Homer, Ithaca was the capital island of a group comprising most, if not all, of its close neighbours, and it’s well situated to enact this role. Nowhere this status can be claimed so strongly than from the old ruins in Paleohora, just above Vathy, where all these islands and the coast of continental Greece dot the horizon in multi-hued colors, ranging from the clearness of the azure sky, the blue of the sea and the verdant cypresses.

A view of Vathy from the ruins of Paleochora
A bar in Vathy

A wonderful scenic mountain road links Vathy with the northern half of the island reaching the mountain village of Anogi and the monastery of Katareon where there are fabulous views of the bay of Vathy, provided that you can withstand 50-knot wind blowing from the north. Further north along a narrow and hair-rising road you can reach the top of Exogi for panoramic views of the north coast, the bay of Afales as well as the island of Lefkhada. Not far from Exogi, a rough track leads to the supposed School of Homer where there are remains of extensive foundations as well as views of Afales Bay. 

All-in-one: taverna, bar and market in the mountain village of Anogi
The monastery of Katareon
Stained glass inside Katareon
Low clouds in Exogi

At the end of the road there are the lovely hamlets of Frikes and Kioni. The former is the departure port for Lefkhada; when the ferries have departed, Frikes falls quiet; this is the real charm of the place. There are no beaches to speak of in the village but plenty of superb coves on the road which hugs the coastline to Kioni. This latter it’s an extremely pretty village which retains some fine examples of Venetian architecture tumbling down in the bijou harbour where you can enjoy a cold Mythos while waiting for the sunset. 

Sailboats in picturesque Kioni

Even if Ithaca lacks the scenically beautiful beaches of neighbouring Kefallonia it has at least a couple of beaches, Skinos and Gidaki which are, in my opinion, among the most beautiful of all the Ionian islands. You can reach them by boat or via a scenically footpath (it was our choice) which connects the two strands. There are no facilities at both save for a small and crumbling taverna at Gidaki managed by some friendly Australian-Greeks guys whose fathers hailed from Ithaca.

The white pebbles beach of Gidaki
Laid-back Skinos

Yes, Ithaca, the home of Odysseus and therefore of hospitality, has become the ultimate Mediterranean getaway; it’s the perfect choice for a tranquil holiday, with scenic mountain roads, windswept cliffs and crystal-clear waters, the small Ionian island will retain a charm of its own which will last long in your memories.

Kefalonia: is it a hidden treasure of the whole Greece?

In my mind the Ionian Islands have been, so far, a somewhat neglected part of Greece lying in the shadow of the more aesthetically beautiful archipelagoes of the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, the Sporades and the Argo-Saronic. I have to admit that my first foray in the Ionian, the island of Lefkhada, strengthened my conviction about the whole archipelago; with that belief in mind I started my trip to the island of Kefalonia.

Lithostroto, the main pedestrianized street of Argostoli
A colorful green grocer in Argostoli
Melon and watermelon, Argostoli

At first glance the port of Argostoli set in a  marvelous position, in a bay within a bay, seems a rather ugly greek town whose buildings of reinforced concrete must withstand some of the most powerful earthquake on earth and not be pleasant architecturally. In fact if you take a look at old photos of Argostoli, pre dating the quake of 1953, the port was lined with some of the most beautiful Venetian neoclassical houses of the Ionian which, sadly, have been flattened like almost every building in the island.

Towering bougainvillea in Lassi
A superb cove in Lassi
Another cove on the peninsula of Argostoli

Today strolling along the port and the pedestrianized De Bosset bridge you can easily spot giant hawksbill turtles (Caretta caretta)  languidly and gently spinning so close to the shore that you can almost touch them and the whole town at sunset start to has, suddenly,  a certain charm of its own. 

A friendly local, port of Argostoli

The island is large and mountainous, the landscape is wonderful with spacious bays and really amazing beaches, inlets and coves whose colors range from the aquamarine to the deepest of cobalt blue.

Old buildings in Porto Atheras
Serene Porto Atheras

True there are no ancient sites to visit but the scenery is so magnificent, the hills are covered with verdant cypresses and pines; the peak of Mount Enos at 1632 metres  is  home of the Abies cephalonica firs which covers the slopes where you can spot, also, herds of wild horses. The weather around this mountain can deteriorate very rapidly even in the deep of summer. In winter the area is shrouded in mist and snow.

The amazing beach of Myrtos from the high cliffs around
Paragliding in Myrtos
The beautiful village of Assos
A view of Assos from the kastro above

The road from Argostoli to the northern peninsula is truly gorgeous, climaxing at the beach of Myrtos and the nice villages of Assos and Fiskardho. What about the seascape? Well Kefalonia has probably more than one hundred beaches and coves to choose from, ranging from the Seychelles-like cove of Pessada, through beautiful and serene Porto Atheras to the white pebbles beaches of Myrtos, Petani and red sand beach of Xi just to name a few.

The cove of Pessada
The red sand beach of Xi
The famous west coast beach of Petanì
Aghios Thomas with the bulk of Mount Enos as a backdrop
The white cliff and pristine waters at Spartia

If you tired of sun and sand you could visit one of the few wineries in the center of the island which produce Robola, a dry white wine, whose grapes thrive only in the island of Kefalonia.

Robola wine

And last but not least, there is the little blue lakelet in the cave of Melissani, now a big tourist attraction; what is curious, however, is that this lakelet, which is brackish, communicates with the sea near Sami and, also by an underground channel with the gulf of Argostoli, eight miles away, on the other side of the island.

Performers from Lithuania in Lixouri
Ferry leaving at dusk to Argostoli, Lixouri

In the end Kefalonia delivered far more that I was expecting, and I hope that you can also enjoy one of the more rewarding and pristine island of Greece.

Krakatau ………history recurs.

Sunrise over Anak Krakatau

I’ve heard with sadness news on the radio telling that a powerful tsunami in the Sunda Strait struck both Java and Sumatra in Indonesia killing at least 281 people. I suddenly knew who was the culprit even though at first there was no evidence of where it was centered: the volcano of Anak Krakatau. Having been there some years ago I still have some vivid memories of what was one of the best experience of travel of my life and I seize now the opportunity to share my story with you.

The island of Krakatau is a protected national park
Soft and hot sand with torched trees on the slope of Krakatau. The island of Rakata is in the background
Boiling hot fumaroles on the flank of Anak Krakatau

Krakatau lies more or less halfway between Java and Sumatra and was tragically known for  triggering one of the most powerful tsunami ever. In 1883, Krakatau was an islands whose volcanic cone was 800 meters high and with one of the most energetic explosion of the last three thousand years the island collapsed on the bottom floor of the ocean, the ensuing tsunami wreaked havoc in all the major islands of Indonesia and of the Indian Ocean, killing at least 36000 people and whose waves of few centimeters or so reached as far as New York City.

The saddle before the dangerous top of Anak Krakatau

The ashes and materials spewed up in the atmosphere (in the billions of tons) were responsible of a mini glacier age; the temperatures dropped in the whole world by 1,2° C. The loud bang of the explosion was clearly heard 6000 km away. In 1927, a new island volcano rose just few cm above the water in the same place were Krakatau was, hence the name Anak (The child); from the 1950’s onward the island has grown at an average of 13 cm per week rising now to 400m. The few tourists which venture on the island leave from the west coast port of Carita, in Java, one of areas most affected by the tsunami few days ago. We sailed to Krakatau with a small motorboat in what is one of the most turbulent seas of Indonesia and thanks to the skills of our old seaman we reached the island unscathed.

Our camp on the beach of Krakatau
Our crew

Our guide Ateng and his colleagues set up a camp in the island, lit the fire and prepared a barbecue with fish and vegetables, they bring beers, refreshing drinks and tea; the island was virtually all for ourself. The Milky Way was so bright and the only sound was the roaming of giant monitor lizards (which kept me alert) around our tents. Climbing up the flank of Krakatau is a really demanding task, the sand is soft and the surface is riddled with hissing hot fumaroles.

Sea eagle over Anak Krakatau

At dawn, I ventured alone on the slope of Krakatau and I experienced one cathartic moment: in total silence, I heard the aerodynamic whizz of a sea eagle passing over me, just few meters above. Next morning, we visited the small satellite islet of Rakata, where we had a swim in pleasantly warm waters (we had a really big “boiler” below) I hadn’t find in other part of Indonesia.

A skilled seaman
A 2 metres long monitor lizard (Varanus) in the island of Rakata

My thoughts and prayers, now, are for the victims and the families affected by the recent disaster: Indonesians and, especially Javanese are some of the friendliest people I have ever met, I wish them all the best, they deserve it.

Forgotten Cyclades: Sikinos

“The Cyclades is one corner of the map where the word “seduction” applies with more appositeness than anywhere else on earth” Lawrence Durrell

A view of both Kastro and Hora from Moni Zoodohou Pigis

Everyone who has ever rented a car, a scooter or a motorbike has, at least once, experienced the hassles involved in this process; waiting time, signing paperwork, choosing the right insurance, finding the right size for an helmet, showing and copying driving license and so forth.

Top and bottom: from right to left Kastro and Hora

The introduction to one of the most remote of all the Cyclades islands has been totally different; just after disembarking from the ferry and after a couple of inquiries about renting a scooter we were told that the bus driver (there is only one) has some cars and scooters for rent.

Stark cubist architecture

He shows up shortly thereafter and after giving him a 50 Euro note (for three days) he says “You see this row of scooters, just choose one, the keys are in the ignition and when you have to return just leave it there keys in…and you are done”….end of the story.

The monastery of Zoodohou Pigis

Welcome to Sikinos, one of the most greek and unspoilt of all the Greek islands, with only 240 inhabitants, no big hotels, no fancy restaurants no rowdy discos, is a perfect escape from neighbouring islands such as Ios and Santorini which seems an entire world away.

The inner courtyard of Moni Zoodohou Pigis 

Until the late ‘80s Sikinos was the only greek island where passengers from the ferries were taken ashore in launches in the port of Alopronia. The beautiful clifftop Hora consists of two settlements, Kastro e Horio whereas the former is a tangle of alleyways with handsome eighteenth-century white washed mansions and the latter is mainly residential. Kastro is the kind of place where you came for an afternoon ouzo and you’ll end up staying for weeks watching sunsets over Folegandros and chatting with the friendly residents.

A view of Kastro as well as the hilltop Moni Zoodohou Pigis

The monastery of Zoodhohou Piyis on the hill above Kastro was built in 1690 as a nunnery and was used as an hideaway from attacking pirates during the last centuries. Today the whole complex is managed by a lone, young and cute nun which greet the very few tourists that venture that far offering them refreshing drinks and candies.

An old Cycladic house

Although the island lacks the scenic beaches of Ios and Mykonos it has a couple of beaches and coves worth mentioning: the beach at the port of Alopronia is as good as any in Greece, with crystal clear and shallow waters ideally suited for children, the other is Agios Georgios with a pebble beach and some rocky coves lapped with turquoise waters and a more than decent taverna nearby.

The beach at Alopronia
The cove of Agios Georgios

The other spot which you should not miss while in Sikinos is Manalis Winery where wine is produced with traditional self-sustained method and while the food is average, the view at sunset, with a glass of white in hand, is nothing less than memorable.

The entrance to the hamlet of Kastro

Patmos: a glimpse of the Dodecanese


The mighty ramparts of St. John’s monastery

Greece is an outstanding array of more than three thousands islands, there are six major archipelagos: the Ionian Islands, the Argo-Saronic Islands, the Sporades, the North-East Aegean Islands, the Cyclades and the Dodecanese. Having travelled throughout most of them I consider the latter two as the most appealing thanks to the harmony between landscape and architecture and to the translucence of light.

Six in a row: Platys Yialos; Lipsi

Platyis Yialos, Lipsi


Patmos is the northernmost island in the Dodecanese and I consider it the most beautiful island of the whole Greece; that’s not to say that other visually striking islands like Folegandros, Milos, Symi, Kythira, Sifnos etc, are less interesting. Patmos probably has all or most of the features that one expects to find in a Greek island: a terrific hora, with the crowning glory of St.John the Theologian’s monastery on top and some really outstanding 17th century houses surrounding it. Continuos attacks from pirates necessitated powerful fortified ramparts, so the monastery looks from the outside like a mighty castle.


The fantastic architecture of the beautiful alleys in Hora

You could visit the monastery not only for the superb 360 degrees view of the Aegean (on clear days you can view Ikaria and the Fourni, Samos and the Turkish coast as well as Leros, Amorgos and Astypalea) but also for some superb paintings, notably masterpieces by one of the Renaissance masters, El Greco. On the road to hora you’ll find the Holy Monastery of the  Apocalypse, built around the grotto where St.John heard the voice of God, it is a place of pilgrimage for both Orthodox and Catholic Christians.

The festival of religious music

A view of the island from the monastery of Apocalypse

The spiritual tone is confirmed by the annual Festival of religious Music held during the first week of September in an hillside amphitheatre and featuring performers from the entire Balkans, Turkey and Russia. For people who have no spiritual inclinations, there are amazing and indented bays with crystal clear waters,  plus some major satellite islands like Lipsi, Arki, Marathi and Agathonissi, provided only with basic or primitive facilities, but displaying superb beaches and lagoons.

The beach of Psili Ammos

The weird volcanic outcrop called Kalikatsou

As it is not easy to get there, this island lacks the crowd of its sister islands Mikonos, Ios or Santorini. No drunken rowdies, no beach bar open till the small hours. Actually, to reach the island you’ve to rely on the slow ferries coming from Piraeus, but it will take 8 to 9 hours to set foot on it finally. A shorter but unreliable alternative is to take a 42-seater ATR from Athens to neighbouring Leros, but sometimes the plane is diverted to other airports due to strong winds and so you must take the ferry  from Leros to Patmos anyway and it will take more or less the same time.

The fortified interior of St. John’s monastery

A view of Skala from the windmill in Hora

Notwithstanding the island has attracted a rich crowd of artists and posh clientele, among them the late Britons: painter Millington-Drake and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, the Aga Khan family as well as some European royal families, lending Patmos a genuinely cosmopolitan feel which is probably unique in the Dodecanese.Patmos: a glimpse of the Dodecanese