Journey to Mount Athos Pt. 1

When my father offered to take me along to on this trip, I couldn’t refuse. I knew from his previous visits this was quite a special place, so it makes for a very different trip than my previous ventures so far.

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Mount Athos is a Orthodox Christian pilgrim destination on a peninsula in Greece. It’s not a very typical tourist destination and being allowed in and getting there is not always obvious or easy. We flew from Brussels to Thessaloniki, Macedonia and then took a 2 hour taxi to Ouranopolis, the closest you can get to Athos on land, to spend the night there.

The next morning we had to get started with paperwork and permissions straight away. Since visitors to Athos are limited, you have to request your permission, or Diamonitirion (a visa, since Athos is almost a separate state, like the Vatican) months in advance. Picking it up requires queuing and dealing with grumpy Greek bureaucracy.
Straight away it became clear things don’t always make sense here: my father’s Diamonitirion was valid for just one day, mine for three, despite them being requested for the exact same dates. We’d have to sort that out later once we were on Athos.

DSC01012Athos is only accessible by a twice daily ferry boat service from Ouranopolis. There’s one slow ferry that carries cargo and one fast “speedboat” that only takes foot passengers.

The boat trip takes 2 hours to the main harbor of Dafni on Athos. That gave me plenty of time to do some people-watching on the boat. Only men are allowed to visit Athos, and most Orthodox pilgrims are Greek, Russian or Eastern European (Bulgaria, Serbia) which makes for some interesting faces.

On the boat we sailed past the wall that divides Athos from the main land. No roads, except for a small restricted footpath, lead to Athos. The ferry stops at a few monasteries to drop off and take on cars and people before it gets to Dafni.

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Athos has 20 big monasteries as well as numerous settlements, some small harbors and the “capital” town of Karyes. This is the monastery of Panteleimonos, a mostly Russian monastery that has been undergoing a lot of restoration and expansion the last years.

DSC01067DSC01076Arrival in Dafni is chaotic but streamlined: all pilgrims get into some old, run down coaches to be taken to Karyes, from where smaller minibusses shuttle pilgrims to their monasteries of choice. This whole process is not explained anywhere, at least not in a language other than Greek. My father had run through this 5 times already, but a first time traveler would get lost or confused very easily. You might miss the storming towards the buses in a rush to get a seat for example.

DSC01070Karyes is the only place on Athos that still has some regular amenities such as shops or cafes. I was warned we would not be able to get any more food outside of Karyes, except during breakfast and dinner, so we’d better stock up a bit.
We then tried to find out what minibus we’d have to take to get to the Mehiste Lavra monastery; as is common here we were pointed to the wrong bus a few times while being assured “they’d fix it for us”. Not speaking Greek is a bit of a handicap here at times.

The ride to Lavra, one of the monasteries furthest away from Karyes, took under an hour. These monasteries are like micro-towns, being mostly dependent on their own for basic amenities. Like a fortress in the frontier they have their own power supply, water pumps, fire services, police station, grow their own food and some even have a helipad for emergencies. All of that to keep something that is over one thousand years old functioning in this day and age.

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The way visiting these monasteries works is that as a pilgrim, you can stay one night for free, where you are provided accommodation, breakfast and dinner. You’re supposed to book in advance (only possible through fax or telephone), though plenty of pilgrims just show up without notice. There’s just a small risk of being turned down in that case. We had booked everything in advance.

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When you show up, you present yourself for registration to the monk in charge of guest, the Archontaris. While you are waiting, you’re always treated to a glass of water, a shot of (very strong) anise liquor and a small coffee. Something with body, soul and mind I assume?

I was left with plenty of time to explore the monastery before dinner. The schedule mostly follows the same structure. The service is announced by a monk beating a hammer on a carved wooden plank and starts around 4 or 5. It continues for an hour to one and a half hour, after which everybody immediately heads for dinner. If you miss out on that moment, there’s a chance you get no dinner at all. I mainly came to Athos for the atmosphere and the history, but I did sit in parts of the service just for the sake of it. Also I really did not want to miss dinner.

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I was never allowed to take pictures during the service or during dinner (this one was taken through a window beforehand). These happen in the church and the ancient dining hall, which every monastery has. There’s a very strict procedure to it with a bunch of unspoken rules that are all quite intimidating if you’ve never experienced it before. No talking or as little as possible during dinner, stand up until you are signaled to sit, and most critically: there’s a time-limit on how long you can eat. You should aim to be finished eating once the bell rings and everybody rises again. Or try to slip a piece of bread or some grapes in your pocket for later…

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Pilgrims sleep in shared accommodation. We aimed to go to bed early, since the minibus back to Karyes would be at 6.45am the next morning. Your roommates in Athos often (well, always) tend to be heavier Greek, Eastern European or Russian men and among these men there’s always one that snores. That night in Lavra even my best earplugs couldn’t keep the snoring out. When I attempted to listen to music with earplugs I couldn’t hear the music but the snoring came through anyway.

DSC01122 DSC01129We caught the minibus back to Karyes before sunrise, and as we drove along the coast the sun came up, slowly revealing century-old structures.

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Once back in Karyes we intended to get breakfast and stock up a bit more for the coming days where we would be hiking instead of getting shuttled around. Driving to Lavra was more an exception as it was too far to hike to and back in the time we had.

After only being in Karyes very shortly I now had a few hours in which I really started to notice the whole “frontier” vibe the place had. I heard and then saw a horse pass through the main street. I expected someone to be guiding it, or come chasing after it, yet nobody bothered. An old monk fed the horse an apple, after which it continued its trundle through town.
A little later, when attempting to extend my fathers Diamonitrion permission I noticed a monk passing us had an actual, genuine wooden leg. I thought that was something just from pirate movies…

We set off on foot for the Vatopediou monastery around noon, following some excellent descriptions from the ‘Friends of Mount Athos” organisation. These ancient footpaths have been here for centuries, only  50 years ago they were pretty much the only way to travel the penisula. Parts are paved with ancient stones that don’t make them particularly easy to walk and often along the way you come past a ruined fountain. My father told me how in his previous visits he once came across a human skull in one of these fountains, left there as an untouched relic.

It took us some 3 hours to cover the 11km to Vatopediou. The late Greek summer heat definitely made that feel sufficiently challenging.

Vatopediou, the richest monastery on the peninsula had a different atmosphere to it than Lavra, the largest and oldest. It came across more as a religious conference center or hostel, with its newer facilities and cleaned up buildings. We were also invited for a guided tour of the church by an older French-speaking monk, enabling us to see some parts of a church that are normally off-limits to us.

DSC01207Vatopediou’s harbor, something every monastery has, was quite a sight. Despite there being a lot of renovations and modernizations, the whole peninsula has so much history behind it and everything just feels and looks very honest and genuine. On one hand the monks are using modern technology and vehicles, on the other hand most structures here are at least one hundred years old.

Since this is getting quite long, I’ll continue it in part 2.

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