We awoke in Vatopediou after being plagued by mosquitos; the room right under the roof was very hot so the windows had to be left open. Breakfast follows the same idea as dinner: a service is conducted and breakfast is served straight afterwards, miss it and you miss out. The morning service starts at 4am however, so I definitely opted to stay in bed!
After breakfast we left on foot, past Vatopediou’s harbor again. Monks came in by boat, possibly back from fishing. Even though almost all food on Athos is vegetarian they sometimes consume fish.
We had some 10km ahead of us, but the weather was warmer than yesterday. The landscape was very typical Mediterranean, dusty roads, cypresses and olive trees; since I’d never been to Greece it was interesting to see my expectations confirmed.
Despite our hiking instructions being very good, we still wanted to make sure we were following the correct roads. Signs are only in Greek and can be hard to read if you’re not used to it. My father took a wrong turn due to misreading a few times in the previous years. This sign says I.M. Esphigmenou, where I.M. is short for Holy Monastery.
We walked by the sea for about a third of the distance. It’s amazing to see just how blue the sea is here. We left those sights behind for a pretty steep climb inland that then descended down to our goal of Esphigmenou.
Now, Epshigmenou is a bit of a controversial monastery on Athos. They are the hardline zealots of the island due to their disapproval of the Orthodox Patriarch’s approach towards the Pope and the Catholic church. They strongly believe Orthodoxy is the one true religion (Orthodoxia roughly translates as “correct belief”) and that any reconciliation with the Catholic church is wrong.
This has lead to some pretty extreme situations where the Patriarch has tried to excommunicate them and remove them from their monastery. Their resistance even led to Athos police forces trying to forcibly remove them, but they’re still there after a few decades. They refuse any EU money, unlike other monasteries, but rumor has it they are being supported covertly by other monasteries. Their stance is made clear by a wooden sign facing the sea, stating ‘Orthodoxy or Death’
Esphigmenou definitely felt older and less modern than Lavra or Vatopediou, but I felt all the green on the courtyards and the lcation right by the sea made it one of the most beautiful monasteries I’d seen so far.
Our room was right below the famed banner, facing towards the sea. We could hear the waves crashing into the shore below us. I was hoping that would mask out potential snoring sounds. When we asked one of the monks about bathroom facilities, he made it clear there were no showers or baths, nor was there any electricity here! Light at night came from a single petroleum lamp in the middle of the room.
Some of our roommates turned out to be Serbian soldiers of whom one felt it necessary to point out that Belgium, NATO had attacked and bombed Serbia. I chose to ignore his remarks as I didn’t feel this was the place to discuss such matters. Besides, that night I had to use earplugs to defend myself against a Serbian snoring bombardment.
Right from the start it was made clear to us, as “heretic catholics” that we would not be allowed into the church, and that we could not have dinner or breakfast together with the others. Unlike in previous monasteries it didn’t feel unfriendly; we expected it and they just made clear that this is the way it is.
I think Esphigmenou really was my favorite monastery of the trip. The atmosphere there was just a bit different, it felt even more remote and we didn’t see nearly as many pilgrims as in the previous monasteries. That might be due to us not being allowed together with them, but at times it felt a bit busy with all those Greek and Russian men being shuttled around from monastery to monastery, queuing up in droves for dinner and breakfast.
Oh and I shouldn’t forget to mention the breakfast; whereas you’d mostly get some dry bread and vegetables with fruit, Esphigmenou served us a feast with fresh bread, Potato stew, peaches and apple and raisin pie. For this we did have to sit alone, in a dark basement guarded by a monk to make sure us catholics would stay in line!
Some small touches made it that bit more interesting; the old firetruck that they apparently even moved in the evening, the old Jeep without license plates and the stovepipes jutting out from every window in the crumbling walls.
The next day we set out on foot again for a smaller walk at first, only 3 km. We came across some other hikers here for the first time here. We’d noticed already other pilgrims are not so into walking when we talked with one of them in the previous days. Upon hearing we’d be heading to the same monastery he excitedly told us where and when the bus would leave. When he heard we would not be taking the bus with him and would walk instead, he could only utter a confused “But… why?”.
The first monastery of the day was Chilandar, a monastery with a mainly Serbian population of monks. My father had slept here before and knew that they put every pilgrim together in one big dormitory (apparently the only place that does this). The concentration of snorers meant he hadn’t slept much at all that night, so we were foregoing staying here.
I was also told there had been a huge fire here some 10 years ago, destroying about half of the monastery. That immediately points out the necessity for a monastery of owning a firetruck. By now a lot had been repaired already, but efforts were still underway.
The walk from Chilandar to the next monastery, Zographou, had some pretty tough climbs again. The old paths went through some very dense forest, but at least is was not so hot.
At Zographou we took quite a long break, as we’d already walked our average daily distance of the last few days. One of the monks there even recognized my father from his previous visits. We mentioned that we’d like to catch a lift down to Arsanas Zographou, the sea port of the monastery. The road down was an unpaved road for cars and not that interesting to walk. They told us we’d get a ride in an hour, so we spent the time receiving the typical welcome drinks despite not staying there.
A beat up Nissan pickup turned up, we threw our bags in the back while a monk got in the front seat. The back seats were apparently not intended for us, as we were told to get in the tray with the bags and hold on tight. The drive down was pretty exciting and I could tell we’d made a good call not walking it.
Arsanas was just a few buildings with some old cars and junk lying around, though they were busy restoring some of the buildings. The old mill we walked past was still partly ruined.
When we started walking by the beach it was cloudy and much cooler, making for some impressive sights together with the crashing waves and old ruins.
The clouds dissipated and things heated up, but we only had an hour worth of walking to Dochiariou monastery. We came past some pigs that were being kept by the monks; surprising since I’m not sure what you can do with those as vegetarians!
Dochiariou was very impressive and seemed meticulously maintained. We also came across our Bulgarian friend, who as an art restorer was excitedly chatting with some Greek colleagues working on the walls in Dochiariou. He told us they had turned him down and that he could not stay here.
We were a bit surprised, but my father had faxed them, tried to call them and eventually physically mailed them our booking request so we thought we’d be OK. After lots of waiting the Archontaris informed us that we could not stay as they were closed to guests for the season due to preparations for some festivities. When we told him we’d even mailed him we were told it should be obvious if we received no reply, and that the (Greek and Serbian) signs stating nobody can stay should be clear enough, right? They suggested we walk 40 minutes further to Xenophontos, for which we had no booking.
While waiting for all these things to resolve, I noticed some dogs running around, the first I’d seen on all of Athos. Turned out all six of them belonged to a very old monk who had trouble walking. They’d circle around him and chase off after a stray cat now and then, to which he would laugh heartily and perform a cross sign. I asked him if I could take his picture, I’m not sure he really agreed since he only spoke Greek, but he averted his eyes when I pulled out my camera.
One thing that was clear in Dochiariou, is that the monks were a lot busier than in other monasteries. Apparently the abbot here is much stricter and wants everybody to perform their duty. There were monks scraping the floors of the chapel, painting doors, even mixing cement and doing construction work outside. They never paused much for chatting like you’d see in other monasteries.
Eventually we made it to Xenophontos after what seemed like a very long day (4 monasteries!). After sitting around waiting for the Archontaris to turn up, we were granted a room.
It turned out to be the best room so far. Only 3 beds with just me my father and our Bulgarian companion (who we knew did not snore) in a tiny room on the corner of the monastery overlooking the sea. Very welcome since I was pretty tired from walking some 17km that day.
Since it was a Sunday the next day, mass seemed to take extraordinarily long. It’s strange how even the monks didn’t seem to know how long it would go on for; they never could give us an exact time when it would end. Sometimes it was an hour, sometimes one and a half and that day it took 2 hours. I’d joined a little bit the evening before so I didn’t feel too inclined to go for the full 2hours. That resulted in me sitting around with an empty stomach, waiting for breakfast.
Breakfast in Xenophontos was definitely the most interesting experience. As usual, a monk would be reading holy texts during breakfast, but this time he was in an elevated position, overlooking everybody. Quite an experience eating while a bearded holy man in a black gown towers above you, muttering sacred words. The time limit was also extra short that morning, with the bell ringing when I was still finishing my grapes!
After breakfast we packed up and would wait for the boat to take us back. On the way in we’d seen the confusion at Xenophontos, which has 2 jetty’s, on which jetty is the right one. A man was waiting at the wrong one and had to run over to the other jetty, trying to catch the boat. We thought we were right, but since there are no signs anywhere and people started waiting at the wrong one again, we had to triple check. Eventually we turned out correct and the other people had to run over again.
As we boarded the boat, we headed for Dafni first where we had booked a speedboat that would get back to secular Greece at twice the speed, allowing us time to get lunch. In Dafni we almost missed the speedboat due to huge queues, but a policeman rushed us through in typical, impromptu Greek style.
It took a few more hours to get back to Thessaloniki even, but seeing women again took some getting used to after 5 days of mostly overweight, sweaty Greeks and Russians. Athos was definitely an interesting experience that I greatly enjoyed and despite having a lot of respect for the ascetic lifestyle the monks lead there, I don’t think I’ll ever be truly convinced by their religious convictions. I wouldn’t mind coming back some day however!