Chalkidiki And Its ‘Three Fingers’


long the coast of Greece’s Chalkidiki Peninsula, the road wove along mountain slopes, revealing vertiginous drops to the turquoise Aegean.

Hours passed; the sky turned dark and began to rumble. White bolts of summer lightning pierced the craggy mountaintops ahead. As tiny drops of rain collected on the windshield, I took in the flower-dotted hills and realized how unusually green they looked for late July.

Oggi, Zelda and I had veered east from Thessaloniki to spend a few days with friends at a campground tucked between virgin forest and hidden coves. Huddled in bungalows, everyone was talking about Europe’s strange summer weather — how London and Berlin were broiling, while vacationers in Greece put on sweaters and dodged thunderstorms.

The weather wasn’t the only change I noticed as we drove around Southeastern Europe this year. En route to check out several restored historic synagogues in the Serbian region of Vojvodina, I was surrounded by evidence of a new, more visible religiosity.

I saw it in the brilliant white churches sprouting in the remotest of Balkan villages; in a crop of Christian TV channels that, in Bulgaria at least, now outnumber the once-ubiquitous pornography; in the Islamist rhetoric thundering from Turkey’s president, as the lira tumbled.

And on hillside after hillside, towering over cities and harbors, we saw illuminated crosses that had never been there before. Even more than churches, the proliferation of this Christian symbol struck many I spoke with as an assertion of majority identity on a Continent that is becoming inexorably, if not always comfortably, more diverse.

But that diversity is undeniable — and it was among the most striking features of a sojourn on the Chalkidiki region of Northern Greece. In the parking lots of tiny resort towns, license plates revealed a mobility once unthinkable in Eastern Europe: Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Ukraine, Turkey, Poland, Romania, Germany.

When I tweeted about this scene without mentioning location, a perceptive Twitter contact — a journalist and translator originally from Macedonia — asked, “Are you in Chalkidiki?”

This cosmopolitanism is all the more remarkable considering how little outside contact many countries had during the Communist era. For my Bulgarian, Romanian and Soviet friends who grew up in the 1980s — and their parents and grandparents — Greece might as well have been Pluto. It was rare to leave one’s country at all; driving to Mediterranean beaches for the weekend was, in a word, inconceivable.

Today, Northern Greece has become a kind of Florida for Eastern Europeans, and Chalkidiki is something they can all agree on. Its spectacular beaches are relatively cheap and largely unspoiled by the kind of Socialist-era development that has blighted Black Sea resorts.

I’ve read that petite Greece, a country of islands, has nearly as much coastline as the continental United States. This can feel hard to believe until you actually drive the periphery of Chalkidiki, which sprawls into the Aegean between Mt. Olympus and Thessaloniki to the west, and Turkey to the east.

What appeared on Google Maps to be a four-hour drive from Sofia to our Chalkidiki hotel turned out to be twice that. The “mainland” of Chalkidiki is a vast, largely unpopulated expanse of olive groves and a few tiny, scattered villages, where donkeys and sheep might wander alongside your car.

Most visitors head to the Chalkidiki “fingers” — three mini-peninsulas that extend into the sea like the digits of a hand. The first of these, Kassandra, and the second, Sithonia, boast a handful of resort towns between stretches of mountain coastline and thick pine forest.

The third, Athos, has a peculiar twist: As an autonomous polity of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is sovereign religious territory and does not permit females of any kind — human, cow or songbird — to enter its borders (a 14th-century emperor fleeing the Black Plague reportedly carried his wife during their stay on Athos, so she never technically touched ground). Male clergy come from around the world to Athos’ fabled monasteries, which date to Byzantine times and are considered the spiritual center of the Eastern Orthodox world. Britain’s Prince Charles has frequently gone on spiritual retreats at the monastery there.

After hours of driving without so much as a supermarket or café in sight, I was silently thankful for an excuse not to explore yet another isolated paradise. But the view of Mt. Athos took my breath away — and made clear why, in the land of Zeus and Hera, this was chosen as a holy site.

More than 6,000 feet tall, Mt. Athos rises out of the hazy sea like a mirage, its peak towering into the clouds. As monks chant within its cloisters and beachgoers frolic in its long shadow, the ancient mountain looms, timeless, above a changing Greece below.