The Byzantine tower of Prosforio has dominated the entrance to the port of Ouranoupoli, on the southeastern fringe of Halkidiki, since the 14th century. During the early 1920s, the tower – the property of the Monastery of Vatopedi for centuries – became a home for refugees newly arrived from Asia Minor; from 1928 until the 1980s it was the residence of the humanitarian couple Sydney and Joice Loch. Today, it marks the gateway to Mt Athos, also known as the Monastic State of the Holy Mountain.
This isn’t my first trip to Mt Athos; in fact, I’ve visited more times than I can remember. Nonetheless, I still lift my gaze upwards (as I always do) to stare at the tower, which stands there so solid a presence. In my hand, I clutch the requisite diamonitirio (the visitor’s permit, obtained in advance from the authorities), my boat ticket (as access is only by sea) and my ID card.
I find myself surrounded by men only, as females are prohibited from entering the area, in accordance with an age-old regulation based on the mountain’s status as an avaton (a religious site with restricted access).
This restriction notwithstanding, Mt Athos is a much-loved destination for many men seeking to give priority to spirituality and to get in touch with their religious feelings, as experienced, in this case, under the auspices of the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, it is essential that the visitor delete the term “tourist” from his vocabulary. The people who come to this monastic state do so more as pilgrims, rather than as visitors, although all men, regardless of their religion, are welcome.
Mt Athos occupies the whole of the easternmost of the three peninsulas that comprise the region of Halkidiki. The Holy Mountain is about 50km long by 10km wide, and is home to some 20 independent monasteries – most of which are located on or near the seashore – as are their many dozen smaller dependent parts, including sketes, monastic cells, kathismata (stand-alone structures for one person) and hermitages.
Those arriving won’t encounter cities, towns or villages, save for two; one is a small town called Karyes, which is situated almost in the dead center of the peninsula. This town is the seat of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, and of the 20 monasteries’ official delegations which constitute the administrative body for the area. It also includes a small commercial district designed to meet the needs of the entire monastic community.
The second settlement is that of Dafni, the main port, which is my destination today. I’m on the first boat of the day, which has been departing at 09:45 daily for decades now, and it stops for what seems to be only seconds at each of the seaside monasteries and little ports along the west coast: at Yiovanitsa for the Serbian Hilandar Monastery; at the port of Pyrgos for the Bulgarian Zograf Monastery; at a narrow little port for Konstamonitou Monastery; at a pier for the Monastery of Dochiariou, the first seaside monastery; at another wharf for Xenophontos Monastery; and, finally, at a jetty for the Russian Aghios Panteleimon Monastery. All of these monastic buildings are spectacular, with awe-inspiring architecture.
I disembark at Dafni and head from there for Karyes aboard a large bus traveling along the only linking road (minibuses and taxis are also available). Moving through this landscape is perhaps as close as you can come to time travel: your gaze might first fall on something dating to the 16th century before moving onto a structure from the 18th century or, depending on where you look, a far older landmark.
The custom of pilgrimage here is directly linked to the Church of Protaton, which first opened its doors in the 11th century and is considered unique in terms of its sanctity, beauty and history. Its murals date to the 13th century and are in the manner of the renowned Macedonian School of painting. The church also has the great privilege of safeguarding and honoring what is regarded as a most sacred icon of the Panaghia (the Virgin Mary), known as the Axion Esti, which is from the 11th century as well. It is worth noting that the whole of Mt Athos is, in fact, dedicated to the Panaghia, and is often referred to as the “Garden of the Panaghia.”
Mt Athos’ monasteries and their constituent parts are home to some 2,000 monks, all of whom are devoted to study and renowned for their spirituality and for strictly upholding the traditions and the piousness of the area. I meet some of them at the first monastery I visit, where they receive me with courtesy (just as they greet everyone), with their classic, traditional welcome that includes a loukoumi (Turkish delight), a coffee and some local tsipouro (a pomace brandy). An announcement follows setting out the daily schedule, including times for religious services and meals, visiting hours for museum areas, and bedtime. There are beds on hand, complete with spotless sheets and blankets, inside two-person or three-person rooms.
It goes without saying that everyone adheres to the timetable. The religious services – from the orthros (matins) to the divine liturgy – begin at 04:00. Each person participates in his own way, experiencing a Byzantine ceremony graced with the mellifluous sounds of a chorus of monk cantors. The atmosphere is one of reverence, augmented by the darkness of night outside the church and the dim lighting within, accomplished with candles and vigil oil lamps (no external electrical network supplies Mt Athos; each monastery produces its own power).
The morning religious services draw to a close at about 08:00, but the surprises continue for the first-time visitor. A meal follows, and it’s a full one, as though it were lunchtime; this is because 09:00 seems like midday to the monks, who have been up since 02:00 for their personal observances and prayers.
The menu includes everything, and it’s all locally produced: soup, pulses, salads, fruit and, depending on the day, cheese and fish – but never meat. About 185 of the 365 days of the year are fasting days, and, in fact, most of these also include the foregoing of olive oil. But every choice item of food, regardless of the day, is a wonderful creation of exceptional quality and flavor. Genuine Mt Athos wine is offered, especially on festive days and Sundays.
The abundance found on the refectory table is in direct contrast to the simplicity, or even austerity, of how the meal is conducted. It opens with a prayer, followed by a silence that permits no conversation at all, disturbed only by the clinking of cutlery and the loud voice of the monk reading excerpts from the life and teachings of the saint of the day.
The evening program goes something like this: Vespers at 16:00 or 17:00, followed by the second and final meal of the day, which is quite similar to the earlier repast, both as far as quality and ritual are concerned.
Having experienced this monastic life as described above dozens of times, I feel that I’m allowed to deviate from what could be dubbed the “Classic Program.” Fully acquainted as I am with the many historic cobbled lanes of Mt Athos – which for centuries served as the area’s main arteries – I make my way from one monastery or cell to another, hiking and meeting monks along the way who, by this stage, have become good friends and who joyfully welcome me and insist I stay with them.
One of these is Father Epiphanios at the Mylopotamos cell, which has an unrivaled and world-famous culinary reputation and produces an exceptional wine that bears the cell’s name. Another destination I enjoy is the Skete of Prophitis Ilias, not to mention all the large, historic monasteries as well.
Stays on Mt Athos are officially limited to four days, so as to provide the opportunity to as many people as possible to visit the peninsula. Approximately 300,000 people arrive each year. All are received with the same openhearted hospitality, absolutely free of charge, within an unwritten framework of mutual respect and the upholding of the age-old traditions of a sacred area dedicated to contemplation, spirituality and worship, an area of incomparable and untainted natural beauty and unique monastic complexes with stunning murals and wondrous icons.