East of Thessaloniki lies the peninsula of Halkidiki with its three distinctive "fingers". It is a popular spot for Thessalonians to retreat to in Summer to enjoy the many fine beaches and clear waters of the first two "fingers". The easternmost one, known as Mount Athos after the towering peak at the southernmost tip, is devoid of such heavy tourist development. It could be because the coast there is more rugged and there are fewer beaches, but is more likely because the place is owned by a score of Orthodox monasteries access to lay people is strictly controlled.
According to Orthodox legends the Virgin Mary stopped off at the peninsula and liked the place so much that she asked Jesus to give it to her as a present, giving rise to its name as the Garden of the Virgin, or Agios Oros, the Holy Mountain. Back in early Byzantine times it became a refuge for hermits and ascetics due to its inaccessibility and the first monasteries sprouted up a little over 1000 years ago. Since then it has developed into the centre for Orthodox spirituality and theology with every branch of the Orthodox church (Greek, Russian, Romanian, Georgian, Bulgarian and Serbian) setting up a monastery on the holy grounds. Ask any Orthodox Christian and they will inevitably have heard of Mount Athos. Not only that, but it is a singular anomaly within Greece and the EU, as it is a self-ruled territory, exempt from taxes and subject to its own laws, although nominally under Greek dominion.
Athos might be very well known, but getting there is not straightforward. There is a daily quota on the number of pilgrims (anyone visiting is considered a pilgrim) allowed onto the peninsula: 100 Orthodox Christians, and 10 non-Orthodox. I fall very decidedly into the latter category. Since demand is far greater than supply you need to organise a visit to Athos well in advance to secure your diamonētērion (entry permit) - several months ahead if you are planning to visit during the more popular summer season. You also need to ring the monasteries and reserve your (free) accommodation for the specific days you want to visit. And finally you need to be male. Athos is strictly off limits to women to preserve the sanctity of the place and its status as the Garden of the Virgin. The ban extends even to domestic animals, such as the donkeys which are used as a means of transport in the more remote parts of the mountain, which also have to be male. The ban raises the ire of most Greek women I have spoken to who think it sexist, anachronistic and just downright unfair. But I wasn't going to let that get in my way, even though second-guessing where you'll be in a month's time and arranging accommodation whilst on the road is not easy.
I managed to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops and was finally on the ferry to Daphni, the only port and access point on the peninsula. Upon arrival I shouldered my rucksack and headed for my first monastery, Osiou Grigoriou (most other pilgrims seemed more organised and got into waiting taxis and minibuses to cart them off to their monasteries of choice). Although it wasn't far it still took me a while as the path was steep and difficult, but eventually the monastery loomed into view as I turned a rocky corner. If there's one thing that has to be said about the Greeks it's that they are the consummate masters of building on totally improbable terrain, amd these monasteries are the pinnacle of their art - each one a veritable castle in the sky.
The stunning monastery of Simonas Petras perched precariously above the sea.
In the end I only just managed to reach the monastery before 4pm when the doors are closed and you risk being locked out. The monks follow a strange daily routine, getting up around 3-4am and partake in their first liturgy of the day, which lasts until about 8 or 9am, with all the requisite chanting, icon-kissing, incense, self-crossing and genuflecting that one expects, after which they have breakfast. Meals are a strange phenomenon in the monasteries as they are seen as a source of pleasure and therefore a necessary evil to be tolerated but not encouraged. The monks and lay-pilgrims file into the refectory to their seats where a bowl of some lukewarm food is waiting, as the service has invariably overrun its allotted time and the food has been standing there a good half hour. An elder monk then recites verses from a holy book whilst everyone else scoffs as much as they can in silence because they only have 10mins before a bell is rung indicating the end of the meal, and everyone files back into the church for a quick service to expunge any enjoyment they might have had from the food. I would always pocket some food, either bread or fruit, to keep me going until dinner, which was usually between 3 and 5pm, and by 6pm the monks were already tucked away in their cells for the night. At Osiou Grigoriou I was greeted by brother Neophyte, a name which no longer suited the 50 year-old monk, who launched into an explanation as to why the Holy Orthodox Church was superior to both the Catholic and Protestant ones. It was clear to me that the ecumenical spirit was glaringly absent from the Holy Mountain (he claimed that Catholics worship the Pope rather than Jesus, and that although the Protestants had done well to get rid of their need of the Pope, each one of them now considers that they are equal to him) and thought it best to remain diplomatically silent with regards to my views on religion.
The next day took me to the remote southern edge of Athos where there are no roads and the monks live in loose hermit communities called sketes, although any images of hair-shirted ascetics were dispelled when I saw the neat houses clinging to the hillside that would not have looked out of place in a well-to-do riviera town. The lack of roads did mean that the skete was less visited by pilgrims. In fact I was the only one there and after a bit of searching managed to find the monk on duty who gave me a plate of Turkish delight and shot of ouzo as a welcome snack (a new combination for me) and got me to sign the guestbook. The guestbook was interesting in that it asked for the visitor's religion. The vast majority were Orthodox with a smattering of Lutherans and Catholics. I was the second atheist and there had also been a Taoist, but to my disappointment, no Muslims.
Turkish delight and a shot of ouzo - the perfect welcome snack.
My final stop on Athos was Megisti Lavra (Great Lavra), the oldest and most important of the Athonite monasteries. The monks there didn't seem to have much time for an ordinary tourist like myself and seemed very much caught up in their own affairs, striding purposefully around and ignoring us mere mortals. I was, however, lucky to meet a young Namibian guy who was Searching for the Truth. It sounds rather ludicrous in this day and age, but he was a sensible kid and I was able to to have quite a long, rambling discussion with him about philosophy, religion, history and other assorted subjects (although I'm quite irreligious I'm fascinated by the concept - sort of like people being mesmerised by car crashes when they drive past them - and can argue about them for hours) that made my stay worthwhile.
In the end I was a little disappointed by Athos. There is no doubting that it is a special and unique place, and well worth the hassle of visiting, but I was expecting more, which I suppose goes counter to one of my main tenets when travelling: "always expect the least/worst, that way you'll never be disappointed and anything more than that will be a bonus". However I had been thinking about Athos for some time and so had perhaps hyped it in my mind. The lack of what I would call "real" spirituality and its replacement by ceremony, as well as the all-too-easy accessibility of the monasteries, which can now all be reached by car, dispelled the idea of remote hermit communities. I suppose I was hoping to find something more special and pure, but at least my cynical side is happy to have been proved right. To my mind there is great hypocrisy in calling a place the Garden of the Virgin and then wantonly dumping your rubbish, which is what I observed in several places. And adding to that, some of the monks are not concentrating solely on the spiritual but have an eye on the material as well. The monasteries are among the biggest landowners in Greece and a couple of years back one of them was embroiled in a scandal whereby it acquired a large chunk of prime real estate from the government under very dubious circumstances. And the monasteries aren't bashful with their money either: every single skete and monastery I visited was undergoing some major, costly, renovations or repairs with a couple of JCBs parked out front and half the walls clad in scaffolding. Athos may be sublimely beautiful, but it was another nail in the coffin for my regard for organised religion and monasticism.
And if that post was a little too serious then here's some silliness: