It has been 41 years since my last summer holiday in Greece. The 1980 vacation was a disaster (see Greek Vacation Nightmare).
What a difference four decades make! Because our 2021 vacation in Ormos Panagios in Halkidiki was wonderful. Of course, there were some glitches, too. It would not be worth writing a travelogue without them.
We made a decision to go on a 10-day Greek holiday on a Friday. On Monday morning, we were already driving there. Nine hours later, we arrived at our hotel in Ormos Panagias, a quaint little town on the middle finger of Halkidiki peninsula.
What followed was perfect beach weather (31C-88F), warm sea temperatures (27.2C-81F) with light ocean breezes and lots of good food.
But first, as we were approaching the border between Serbia and Macedonia, I began to notice minarets and mosques in the villages and towns like Bujanovac and Presevo. I made a remark to that effect to my wife.
“No wonder,” she replied. “These are probably all Albanian Muslims. We are very close to Kosovo.”
Indeed, take a look at the above maps. Kosovo is the former Serbian province over which NATO bombed Serbia in 1999. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence. As of 2020, only 50% of the UN member nations recognized its sovereignty because it was gained by force with NATO’s military backing. Serbia, of course, did not. And neither did 96 other countries, including the largest or the most populous nations, such as China, Russia, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Iran, Iraq, Spain, Greece, Bosnia… etc. But Northern Macedonia did as the country is vying for the NATO membership.
This geopolitical diversion was necessary as a setup for the scene we encountered at the Macedonian border. The border policeman checked out all our documents and then asked for a “green card.” We had no idea what that meant. So we spent a few minutes debating this with him.
At first, I thought he was asking for the American “green card” (which is given to permanent residents who have not yet become citizens). But that made no sense.
It turns out it was a card for international car insurance. I did have such coverage in my car policy which I showed the policeman.
“Green card,” he just repeated stone-faced shaking his head disapprovingly.
Meanwhile, the line of cars behind us was getting longer.
“So what is your proposed solution,” I asked, “since we obviously do not have such a “green card.”
The policeman fell silent as if pondering an important international treaty. Finally, he muttered, “go to that booth over there. You can buy a green card there for 50 Euros.” The booth was less than 50m away, inside the Macedonian territory.
“But I will keep your passports here till you come back and show me the proof that you’ve bought it,” he added.
Relieved that finally this ordeal was over, I drove on toward the booth. Suddenly I saw a commotion behind me in my rear view mirror. A man was frantically waiving at me.
I backed up the car to see what that was about.
“You’ve just committed a major infraction,” a young man in a green uniform and a face that looked like an Albanian said.
“I did what?”
“You should have stopped for a customs inspection.”
“And how was I to know that. You were chatting with some people there. I did not know who you were. There was no stop sign or anything.”
The customs officer continued to lecture me and threaten with a heavy fine. And then after he tired of hearing himself spout threats, he relented. “Because you are an older man, I will let you go this time,” he said, obviously intending this as an insult. As if age had anything to do with an infraction if indeed there was one committed.
Anyway, I just waived him off and drove to that “green card” booth.
“He was probably an Albanian with a gripe against the Serbs who saw out Belgrade license plate,” I told my wife. She agreed.
It took about 15 minutes for a nice and kind Macedonian man to fill out the required forms and give me a green card. Which was actually blue, for what it’s worth.
That reminded me of another incident over 30 years ago when I was crossing by car from Italy to Yugoslavia (see The Green Card (1990). What happened back then was quite funny. It will put a smile on your face.
When I returned to the border station to claim our passports, the border guard who kept them was no where to be seen. A woman was sitting where he used to be. Guess they must have had a shift change. Anyway, i got our passports and we continued our drive toward Greece and a wonderful 10-day holiday.
The rest of our vacation was relatively uneventful. Sun, surf and swim. Well, maybe not the surf. The sea was mostly calm. But that did not deter some would-be surfers from trying to paddle surf.
MT ATHOS – HOLY MOUNTAIN
Directly across the big bay, which lies between the middle and the eastern finger of the Halkidiki peninsula, on a clear day one could see a 2,000m (6,600 ft) Mount Athos. On July 5, it looked as if it had snowed on this “Holy Mountain” (“Sveta Gora” in Serbian) even though the temperatures were in the 30sC (90s+F) – see the above photos.
The Holy Mountain contains monasteries from all important Orthodox Christian nations, including Russia, Serbia, Greece, Jerusalem etc. The Serbian monastery is called Hilandar.
The owner of our hotel gave us an impromptu personal picture presentation from his own trip to the Holy Mountain. He said he and a friend had climbed to the top of Mt Athos to witness a sunrise from there. The picture he took projected a large shadow of the mountain across the bay. At the tip of this triangular shadow was our hotel, he said.
Guess that’s supposed to mean that we had vacationed atop a Holy Mountain – figuratively, or at least atop its shadow – physically.
BTW – the Holy Mountain (or Sveta Gora) is off limit to tourists. “You have to get a visa,” our hose explained.
“A visa even though this is Greek soil?” I asked.
“It is and it isn’t,” our host explained. “Its status is like the Vatican.”
So we’ve learned something new on this trip which we did not expect.
RETURNING TO SERBIA IN 49C TEMPERATURE
Our return trip took an hour longer than the drive from Belgrade to Ormos Panagias. Partly that was because of a long (one-hour) wait at the Macedonian-Serbian border. As we inched our way forward in a long line of cars in the heat of the day, we watched the outside temperature slowly rise from about 39C to 49C (see the photo of our car dashboard).
“This is worse than being in Arizona at this time of the year,” I commented.
Luckily, the actual border formalities were a breeze. And the temperature quickly dropped to 37C once we started driving again.
And that’s all she wrote from this trip to Greece.