The Way of the Pilgrim at Mount Athos, Greece
By Cato Rolea
This summer I decided to re-connect with my Christian cultural and religious roots. As a result, I decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, the second most important Christian Orthodox Religious site after Jerusalem.
Mount Athos – the holiest mountain in Greece
Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition says that the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist stopped on the Mount Athos peninsula to take shelter from a sea storm, hence it is also known by the name ‘Garden of the Virgin Mary’.
Mount Athos became a destination for Christian monks as early as the 5th century, but due to Ottoman raids, the population slowly started leaving and seeking refuge somewhere else.
The Ottoman raids culminated in the in 1822 the Ottomans killed most of the mountain’s population including children and women, burned, and pillaged most of the manuscripts.
Since 1922, the peninsula was inhabited again by monks and declared a holy land and an autonomous theocratic region, similar to the Vatican. At the moment, the monasteries on Mount Athos hold the most important Christian Orthodox artifacts, including parts of the Holy Cross, the crown of thorns and Saints tombs.
Celebrity Visits to the Mountain
Numerous celebrities and state leaders amongst which Prince Charles, Actor Jon Jackson and Russian President Vladimir Putin visit the mountain regularly.
Women are forbidden from entering the mountain, and Greek urban legends say that any woman that enters will die within 5 years. There is still a lot of controversy on the women ban. In 2003, the European Parliament tried unsuccessfully to lift the ban.
Planning a trip to Mount Athos was a lot easier than I initially envisioned, provided the autonomous region only allows 100 Christian Orthodox males per day and 10 non-Christian Orthodox, and a special entry permit/visa – Diamonitrion, or permit, is required. The first step was securing accommodation on the mountain. Read Pilgrim’s guide here
As it is a holy region, there are no hotels and the only place to stay are the monasteries. So, I had to contact a few to ask for accommodation.
Contacting them was very straightforward as phone numbers or even e-mail addresses are easily accessible online.
I got a few rejections but, in the end, three monasteries accepted me: two Romanian ones and one Greek one.
Hermitage and Skete
Technically, the first two were not monasteries but a Hermitage and a Skete. Monasteries are administrative units, followed by Sketes and Hermitages, which are sub-units of monasteries.
While Monasteries and Sketes are large monastic settlements, able to accommodate several tens to hundreds of visitors, Hermitages are smaller, and only able to accommodate a few pilgrims if any at all. The smaller the units, the more personal the experience becomes as well.
Entering Mount Athos
As entry by land is forbidden, I had to take a ferryboat from the peninsula’s nearest port, Ouranopolis.
Ouranaopolis is easily reached by coach from Thessaloniki and it only costs 13 EUR. It is also the place where I picked up my visa from, for which I had to pay 25 EUR and allowed me to stay for 3 nights.
Ouranopolis is a very small and cozy port town with a nice beach. The only inconvenience was that the pilgrim’s office is only open from 5:30 AM to 1:00 PM so I had to spend a night there.
It was nevertheless quite a pleasant and peaceful experience as I got to prepare for the trekking days to come.
Ferry to Port Daphni
The ferryboat I took from Ouranopolis took about two hours and dropped me off at Port Daphni. The Ferry Boat journey was very interesting as I got to meet the various pilgrims on their way there.
Ages ranged between 5-65 and nationalities also, from Italian to Romanian, Greeks or Russian. Some were priests, some soldiers, some grandfathers with their grandsons.
The ferryboat stopped at various monasteries on the coast on its way to the main port and if offered picturesque views. The Ferryboat only cost six Euro one way.
There was also a speedboat alternative at a 10 EUR cost, that only took an hour, but that meant I would have missed some of the views I enjoyed so much.
When I arrived at port Daphni, there were several mini-buses going to Kareya, the administrative capital of the peninsula. From there, there would have been the possibility to catch another mini-bus to some of the other main monasteries. However, as I wanted to have a genuine pilgrim’s experience, and not a tourist one, I decided to trek to the monasteries.
The distance from port Daphni to the first Hermitage (Lady Day) of Skete Lacu was about 25 KM. It took me approximately 6 hours to trek to the Hermitage. The roads and paths were easier to follow than initially envisioned and Google Maps worked great when a signal was available. The trek offered breath-taking landscapes but was tiresome. I carried a wooden staff at all times to fend off potential snakes, jackals or wild boars that might have come my way.
Stepping back in time
The further I got in the inner side of the peninsula the less mobile signal I had. When I got to the Hermitage, at around 4 pm, one of the monks greeted me and offered me a small glass of alcohol, some wafers, and some Turkish delight.
All monastic settlements have this hospitality custom as well as a free meal per day. After finishing the snack and drink, I was led to my quarters, which was a simple room with a few bunk beds.
As the Hermitage was quite small, I was the only visitor at the time. There were about 10 monks living there, alongside a few priests who conducted the religious services.
Stepping into Mount Athos felt like taking a trip back to the Byzantine times, as the Byzantine customs, ways of greeting and even the Byzantine time (00:00 hour begins at Sunset) and Calendar have been preserved.
As I was the only visitor at the Hermitage, the experience felt very intimate. I asked if I could help around, and I was taken to kitchen; there I helped apprentice Brother John peel the vegetables for dinner whilst praying. There was not much time for small talk since most monks were either busy with gardening or prayers. The evening meal was also a very interesting experience. No one talked at the table, as at the same time one of the monks was reading out loud one of the Holy Scriptures.
The food was completely vegan but enough to satisfy the hungriest pilgrim. After about 10 minutes, a bell would ring that announced the end of the meal. Religious services are not compulsory to attend but are highly encouraged as a sign of both faith and respect. The first one was scheduled from 5-6 PM, the second one from 11 PM – 1 AM and the third one from 6 – 8:30 AM. These were set to correspond to the Byzantine Time prayer times.
Adjusting to the rituals – Great Lavra Monastery and the Prodromu Skete
Since I am not religious myself, at the beginning it was a bit hard to keep with the rituals but eventually, I learned to follow the monks, who were unforgiving any time I made a mistake.
The first religious service I attended, I was told off by one of the priests for not kissing the holy icons, and only bowing before them and slightly touching them with my nose.
I wanted to make a joke, telling him that my nose was quite big hence the struggle of properly kissing the icons, but I managed to abstain myself quite well.
I think that by the end of my stay, the monks took a liking to my humility as they also allowed me to have breakfast before I left for the second monastery, which is very uncommon. My second destination was the Holy Skete of John the Forerunner, part of the Great Lavra Monastery, the first one to have ever been constructed on the peninsula.
As the Great Lavra was on the way to the Skete, I stopped by for a water break. The trek was another 25 KM and took
about 7 hours. The path was a bit easier to follow since it followed the coastline and access to the mobile data was easy.
Once I got to the Holy Skete of John the Forerunner, I got the same welcoming as in the previous Cell with the small glass of alcohol and the Turkish delight but got a private room overlooking the sea.
The Skete was about 20 times larger than the Cell, with an impressive similar size of the Great Lavra Monastery and had a Church in the middle of the settlement.
The experience here was a bit different since there were other pilgrims as well. Photographs or videos were not allowed inside the Skete’s walls. The religious services were a bit different, with one from 5-6 pm and another from 3 – 7 am. While I did not get to talk to any of the monks, I talked to a gardener, who was not a monk himself but just a volunteer.
He told me that full-time monastic life did not appeal to him but that for the past 15 years he had been volunteering in the Skete’s garden every summer for a few months. In exchange, he received free accommodation on the Skete’s grounds as well as two meals a day.
Monks Make Mistakes too
Before I went to Mount Athos, my initial expectation was that I would meet enlightened, pure, sinless hermits. However, during the 3 am Divine Liturgy I got a good glimpse into the humanity of these monks.
Whilst one apprentice was reading the Lord’s Prayer, I noticed he kept on cutting short one phrase, and instead of saying Give us our daily bread he would say Give us bread. Although I noticed it is slightly different, I thought it might have been a different version but then I heard the priest scolding the young monk for not saying the complete sentence, similarly to how I had been scolded the previous day for not kissing the icons properly. Why are you not reading the prayer properly? the priest’s voice echoed in the church.
I am, father, just like it is written, he quietly replied. I might be blind but I’m not deaf. Next time read it properly! And stop laughing, I am not laughing at you. the priest had his final say.
This very act of scolding during the Liturgy said a lot about the Orthodox beliefs that everybody is a sinner, regardless of their status, and hence is equal in front of God and should admit when they are wrong.
In the early hours of the morning, straight after the service. Brother John asked me what my next destination was. I told him it was supposed to be St Gregorious Monastery, which was about 40 km away, a 10-hour trek but that I felt too tired after two days. Not a problem, he calmly responded. This is just the beginning; next time you come, you will be more prepared.
Brother John helped me get a minibus back to port Daphni, where I caught a ferryboat back to Ouranopolis. This rest day was exactly what I needed before my next destination, the Meteora Monasteries.
Meteora Monasteries – Protectors of Hellenic Culture
The Meteora Monasteries attract millions of tourists every year and with good reason. However, it is not widely known that the first hermits that started monastic settlements on the Meteora rocks were in fact refugees from Mount Athos.
By the end of the 18th century, monks from the Athos peninsula left because of Turkish raiders and settled in Kalambaka valley, on the high rocks of Meteora, where they eventually built monasteries and attracted others fleeing the Turks.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Meteora became a refuge for not only religious Greeks but also poets, philosophers and thinkers as the valley protected Hellenic culture from the Turkish conquest. In the beginning, such settlements built on the huge rocks required scaffolds, nets, and 40-Meter-Long ladders.
Some say that had it not been for Meteora, the Hellenic culture would have been long dissolved by the Ottoman empire.
Movies Filmed Here
In popular culture, the valley has been used as a filming location for the James Bond Movie, For Your Eyes Only, Tintin and the Golden Fleece, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Sky Riders.
The location was also used as an inspiration for Pokemon: Arecus and the Jewel of Life and Game of Thrones, where it was used as an inspiration for Eyre.
Women are Allowed
Unlike Mount Athos, women are allowed on the six remaining active monasteries, and two of them are nunneries (Roussanou and St. Stephen). In 1921, Romania’s sovereign Queen Mary became the first woman to visit the Meteora Monasteries and the first woman to ever enter the Great Meteoron Monastery.
At the bottom of the Meteora rocks, there are two villages: Kalambaka and Kastraki, which are about 2 kilometers distance apart. Both of them are right at the bottom of the rocks so either place you choose to stay at the views you will get are breath-taking. I chose to stay in Kalambaka due to its proximity to the train station. The Meteora monasteries are a completely different experience than the one I had on Mount Athos.
Firstly, during visiting hours (usually between 9 AM to 4 PM) the monasteries are flocked with tourists so queuing to get in is quite common, especially during the summer season. I found the best times to explore both the active and the abandoned monasteries is either before or after opening times.
Getting up early can offer you an amazing sunrise view with few adventurers around. Views during sunsets can be even more spectacular but there will be a few more sunset lovers around. However, nowhere close to the numbers during the day.
There are hourly buses that stop at every one of the 6 monasteries, but you can easily trek up the rocks. Compared to Mount Athos, hiking up the Meteora felt like a walk in the park.
It only takes about 2 hours to trek up to the Great Meteoron from Kalambaka and once you’re up there, trekking to the other monasteries is quite easy, as the region is quite flat and easily accessible. The monasteries are spread across a distance of only 4 KM so you could easily see all six of them in one hour.
I chose to hike through Kastraki to the Great Meteoron and then make my way back to Kalambaka through the forest from the Holy Trinity Church. If you are planning to go on foot and stay beyond the sunset, bringing a flashlight is highly recommended as the paths through the forest are not illuminated.
Second, the monks or nuns at the monasteries speak limited English so unless you speak Greek it is very unlikely you will be able to have a meaningful conversation with any of them. Bringing a Greek-speaking friend on your trip could constitute a great advantage.
Third, unless you have good connections in the Greek Orthodox Church, you are unable to spend any nights at the monasteries. Hence wise, it is a lot harder to get a true experience of how these monks and nuns actually live. Visiting during the day can give you a glimpse of their lifestyle but not such an intimate experience as on Mount Athos.
For an optimal pilgrim’s experience, I would advise trekking to these monasteries very early in the morning or just before sunset, when the number of tourists is low and the views most breathtaking.
Fourth, there is so much more to see than the 6 active monasteries. There are about 30 more abandoned such hermitages throughout the valley, offering a true explorer’s experience. Off the beaten path, these places can be easily accessible from either Kalambaka or Kastraki.
All you need is a bit of an adventurous spirit and plenty of water and you will find beautiful waterfalls, hidden hermitages carved inside the rocks where mystics still live and abandoned monasteries.
Cato Rolea is a passionate traveler, a freelance writer, and photographer based in Nottingham, UK. He enjoys learning about the places he visits by engaging with the people and cultures that he encounters. Having traveled for over 10 years across over 20 countries, he has a lot of stories and lessons to share, which he does through his blog at https://mrworldling.com