I decided to visit the World Heritage Site for myself. Cut off from the outside world, Mount Athos proper is accessible only by boat. From Ouranoupolis, it’s a three-hour ferry service to Daphne, the peninsula’s main port.
Making the trip with me is a mixed group of men; fathers with sons, returning monks and the occasional solo pilgrim. Nearing port, the impressive 2033-metre marble summit of Mount Athos floats into view, crowned by a lone white cloud and sporting several snow patches. The stark white limestone pyramid rises sharply from the sea-battered southern tip of the peninsula, attracting not only men of God but climbers, too.
At first glance Daphne appears as a regular Greek fishing town: a post office, a police station, a tacky souvenir shop, a card phone, a taverna and a customs station where departing pilgrims are subjected to a customs inspection. Behind Daphne, stretching along the coast to the unseen are stone pathways that track through thickly wooded slopes. Centuries-old buildings make the mountain a living museum of Byzantine art, both in its monastic architecture and the masterpieces protectively guarded within.
After lunch in Daphne, I board the Aghia Anna ferry service to the first of the southern monasteries, Simonos Petra (Rock of Simon). Built in the beginning of the 14th century it is one of the oldest high-rise buildings on the peninsula.
From the ‘arsanas’ or seaport I make the sweaty climb to the monastery, which sprouts from a precipitous rock like a fortified castle. Standing on creaky wooden balconies that surround the top floors of the seven-storey structure, monks can be seen toiling in the terraced gardens below. Work, prayer and contemplation consume the entirety of each monk’s day.
Footpaths rather than roads link the monasteries. Another hour of walking leads me to the door of Gregoriou, the only monastery to be built virtually at sea level. From here, it is an hour and a half to Dionysiou and a bed for the night.
Dionysiou perches defensively atop a coastal cliff. Entry to the monastery is through two heavy wooden gates lined on the inside with long iron rods and on the outside with big metal plates. The Gatekeeper - whose job is to lock the gates at sunset and open them at sunrise - is nowhere to be seen. He is also supposed to check visitor permits and accompany them to the guesthouse, so I wait anxiously on a wooden bench in the main courtyard.
Finally, the guest master shows up and leads me off to the guesthouse. At present, he explains, everyone is at Vespers, an important choral service usually sung towards the end of the afternoon in the main church.
The church bells ring immediately after Vespers, marking time to eat. Monks gather in the main courtyard outside the richly adorned refectory. The first to enter is the Abbot followed by monks and lastly pilgrims. I stand with other pilgrims behind a long table separate to the monks. A small bell sounds and we sit in silence to eat a plain and frugal meal of lentil soup and bread.
After dusk, the Abbot leads his charges to the main church for the Compline, another worship service. Dimly lit by candles and oil lamps the church is alive with the shadows of monks shuffling to their seats and then their chanting. Incense sweetens the air, adding a tangible blanket of ancient mysticism.
Early the following morning pilgrims file silently to a room where a modest breakfast offering of bread, olives and tea is served on the guesthouse balcony. A fellow pilgrim solemnly informs me that I missed the 4am morning service.
An hour’s hike from Dionysiou, the Monastery of Saint Paul provides a port for a ferry to the sketae (smaller community) of Kavsokalyvia, often referred to as the “Athos Desert”. This region features some of the peninsula’s wildest landscape. Besides walking, mules are the only means of transport here. Not even the ferry continues past Kavsokalyvia.
Unlike enclosed monasteries, sketae resemble small Greek villages with a group of ‘huts’ clustered around the large common church. Of the thirteen sketae’s on Mt Athos, Kavsokalyvia is most renowned for producing exquisite hagiography, woodcarving, miniature art and incense.
Walking into the village, a man in plain clothes offers a Loukoumi (Turkish delight) and a shot of raki (home made ouzo). “To help control sweating,” he assures me as I wash the raki down with a cup of Greek coffee.
An ex-criminal with a dark past, my host Vasilis has lived at the sketae for three months in an attempt to detox his body and mind. He believes the solitude and quiet make it the perfect place for prayer and contemplation, free from external influences. Even so, Vasilis complains about the peninsula’s commercialisation and the encroachment of the outside world.
“There never used to be telephones or electricity here,” he explains. Vasilis’s face hardens and his gaze intensifies as he leans forward, “The Devil is in the refrigerator.” Another shot of raki is in order.
While continuing the conversation, we wait for Father Simeon, the sketae’s senior monk, to arrive. He eventually enters carrying freshly picked salad, the reward of a long afternoon farming. Sitting around a rustic wooden table the talk is of Father Simeon’s path to monk-hood.
“When I was 17, I was into girls, drinking and smoking,” says Simeon who grew up as an ordinary teenage boy in Athens. He was fit and active, diving for sponges to finance his habits. Then a sudden and unexplained illness struck. “After years of being confined to a bed, I decided I had to either start living again or put a gun to my head.” That night, he prayed to God in a last ditch attempt to save himself.
The following morning, Simeon shocked his family by rising from his bed. During the night, he says he experienced an apocalypse of Jesus Christ; the first of many for Father Simeon. Increasingly frequent visions eventually brought him to Mount Athos, where he has been a monk for over 30 years. “It is here I have learnt the true meaning of happiness.”
I travel on to the Monastery of Gregoriou, regarded as one of the friendliest, most gracious monasteries and an excellent place to gain a better understanding of Orthodoxy culture. Monks here are happy to discuss liturgical rhythm – the foundation of the religious life – until the hour of darkness marking time for silence and prayer.
At 4am the next morning, another bout of prayer is called for by a wandering monk rhythmically striking a wooden plank with a mallet. No excuses this time! At morning service I meet Gert, a young German training to be a monk who confides that his parents think he is studying at university. For the next four hours, we sit and listen to monotone chanting, standing only when a priest sweeps pass to give us his blessing. Monks enter and depart at random, most pausing to kiss the religious icons or the frescoes.
Leaving the monastery I spy two clocks hanging in the entrance. Gregoriou, like most monasteries on Mt Athos, runs according to Byzantine time, which starts the clock for each new day at sunset. In the current season, Byzantine time is four hours ahead of Greek local time.
To further complicate things, the entire mountain still follows the Julian calendar and is therefore thirteen days behind the rest of the world. It’s yet another reminder that a journey to Mount Athos is truly a journey back in time.