Traveling To & Around Mt. Athos
Mt. Athos, Greece
Traveling To & Around Mt. Athos Reviews
Oct 25, 2006
Mt. Athos (Ayion Oros, or 'holy mountain' in Greek) is a semi-autonomous 'monk's republic'on the easternmost of thethree Chalkidikhi peninsulas in NE Greece.Since 1060 it has been strictly the domain of Orthodox monks, and no women or even female farm animals are allowed to set foot inside its borders. Today there are 20 monasteries and numerous other skiti (small clusters of monks who live in a sort of mini-monastic complex and who are affiliated with one of the monasteries) or kelli ('cells' for hardcore ascetic monks). Men can visit, but only for a set period of time (normally 4 days/3 nights) and this must be arranged in advance, as only alimited number of 'pilgrims' are allowed onto Athos every day. It's a fascinating and unique experience, but also extremely personal, in the sense that it's heavily dependent not only on your religious beliefs, but also on the monks and other pilgrims you will encounter during your stay. All of the information below is based on my 3 nights on Athos in late October 2006, and may behelpful to potential first-time visitors. But first, an importantcaveat:
Unless the source has been to Athos both many times and very recently, any information you hear or read about visiting is likely to beheavily subjective (i.e. based solely onan individualexperience) and may alsobe partially outdated (because - rather surprisingly - things seem to change quickly, especially with regards to procedures for visitors). So definitely do some research or talk to someone who's been there before, but just don't expect everything to be exactly as you were told, be prepared to be a little flexible, and keep an open mind.
-There are 2 main reasons to visit Athos: to experience the 'religious' aspects of life in the monasteries, or to hike around what is often regarded as one of the most beautiful areas in Greece. Regardless of your primary motivation, there are some things you should be aware of before you go. There are 2 main church services every day: the longer one beginning very early in the morning (usually from 3 or 4 AM until 7 or 8 AM) followed by breakfast, and the afternoon service (usually from 3 or 4 PM for approximately 60-90 minutes) followed by dinner. If you aren't Orthodox, your ability to participate in these services may be limited (more on this below). In the past,apart from the boats shuttling along the north and south coasts,theonly wayaround Athos was a network ofbeautiful rough cobbled paths; however, many of these have now been bulldozed and widened to accomodate the vans, trucks & buses which now buzz along the major routes between Karyes (the centrally located 'capital'), Dafni (the main port, located on the south coast) and the monasteries. This means that much of the hiking is now far less scenic (in some casesverging onugly) and that the many of the old paths- where they still exist - are often not verywell maintained. In addition, hikers should be aware that the maps of Athos and signs around the peninsula leave much to be desired (I had the ROAD Editions map, seemingly the best available, and still had some trouble finding my way around).
-Athos is often described as a place where time has stopped, and in many ways this is true (especially when you're sitting in a candlelit church at 4:30 in the morning), but if you expect to hop in a time machine and be transported back to the 12th century, you're going to be somewhat disappointed. The recent rejuvenation of the monasteries during the past 20 or so years has led to extensive renovation and modernization, especially of the guest quarters (some of which now resemble well-maintained budget hotels or hostels). Construction is commonplace, meaning the profiles of many of the monasteries aredominated by building cranes, and what would be quiet solitude is often interrupted by the sounds of hammers, machinery, and heavy trucks.It's far from unusual for the monks to carry flashlights and wristwatches, and they are seemingly as comfortable using 'normal' time as they are the traditional'byzantine' time (where 12:00 is not fixed, but rather based on the time of sunrise or sunset).
- The first step to visiting Athos is to arrange for your dhiamonitirion, the official permit that allows you to enter Athos and to stay overnight in themonasteries (although not all of them will necessarily ask to see it). This can be done by calling thepilgrims' office in Thessaloniki(# for non-Greek speakers: +30 2310 252 578). If you have a specific entry date in mind, they will tell you whether the quota for that day is full; otherwise they'lltell you the first available day. For visits in summer andon certain holy days (peaktimes for tourists/pilgrims), you should plan on calling a few months in advance; for the rest of the year, you can probably get away with a few weeks. You'll have to fax or mail a copy of your passport to the pilgrims' office, and then youshould follow up with aphone call a few days before your entry date just to make sure everything is in order. Despite what you may read elsewhere, you nolongerneed to pick anything up in Thessaloniki; instead, you'll receiveyour dhiamonitirion(and pay your€30) before you board the boat to Athos.
-At some point, you'll also have to decide which monasteries you intend to visit and stay in. Unless you're going to visit a monk in a particular monastery (in which case you are allowed to stay only in that monastery), thestated ruleis that you are not allowed to stay more than one night in any given monastery; however, this may not be strictly enforced, especially if the monastery in which you want to stay longer is not fully booked.When you call the pilgrim's office toarrange for the dhiamonitirion, you will also be told that you need to call the individual monasteries to book accomodation, and that without calling in advance you may not be given a place to stay. This seems to be much more the case in summer, but during the rest of the year, it doesn't seem to be much of a problem if you just turn up. Each of the monasteries has a phone number and set calling hours - again, these seem to change surprisingly often, so the pilgrim's office is probably the best source for an up-to-date list of numbers and times when you stand a better chance of having someone pick up the phone. If you do call in advance, don't leave it until the last minute, as it can be difficult to get through (and sometimes even more difficult to get hold of an English-speaking monk), even during the designated time. If you opt not to call in advance, it might be worth it to double check with the pilgrim's office to make sure that you can actually stay atthe monasteries you're planning on visiting; for example, when I was there, both Pantokratos and Simonapetra were not offering overnight accomodation for pilgrims due to renovations.Below are some things you may want to keep in mind when trying to decide which monasteries to visit.
- Many of your interactions with monks and pilgrims will be heavily defined by 2 things: whether or not you areGreek Orthodox, and whether or not you can speak Greek (I'm not, and can't). If you aren't Orthodox, you will often be treated differently from other Orthodox pilgrims with respect to your ability to attend church services and meals. Policies vary depending on the monastery, but be prepared to have to sit in the rear section of the church (i.e. outside the main sanctuary) or even to be prohibited from attending the service altogether. Likewise, at mealtime you may have to sit at a separate table from the other Orthodox pilgrims, or even eat separately after the monks and Orthodox pilgrims have eaten. My experience in individual monasteries was as follows:
Vatopedhiou - non-Orthodox pilgrims must remain in the narthex during services, but may eat together at a table with Orthodox pilgrims
Xeropotamou - non-Orthodox pilgrimsare forbidden fromattending services but may view the church at other times in the company of a monk, and can eat only after the monks and Orthodox pilgrims have finished dining
Simonopetra - non-Orthodox pilgrims may sit in the main sanctuary during services
Esfigmenou - non-Orthodox pilgrims are forbidden from entering the church, and dine at the same time as monks and Orthodox pilgrims but at a separate table
Hilandariou - non-Orthodox pilgrims must remain in the narthex during services, but may eat together at a table with Orthodox pilgrims
If you don't speak Greek, you will be heavily dependent on the presence of English-speaking monks or pilgrims; because of the influx of foreign visitors, almost all monasteries now seem have at least one or two monks who can speak some English. However, the larger and more international monasteries (Vatopedhiou, Simonopetra, Iviron) will likely have more monks who speak better English (including some native speakers) as well as a greater number of international visitors.
- If you're mainly interested in hiking and don't care too much forlong religious services, you may want to consider spending a night or two in one of the monasteries where you aren't expected or even allowed to attend church, which will allow you to get a proper night's rest and set off early in the morning.
-Another thing to consider when planning your visit is how you will get from monastery to monastery. There are 3 main ways of moving between the monasteries: (1) via theboats that shuttle daily along the north and south coasts,(2) with minibuses or service vehicles that go from Dafni and each of the main monasteries to Karyes and back at least once daily, and (3) on foot.(1) and (2) operate on relatively fixed schedules, meaning that if you don't time it right, you may be forced into (3) whether you like it or not. The boat serving the north shore leaves Ierissos at 8:30, arrives at Vatopedhiou around 9:30, continues on to Megisti Lavra, and the circles back the way it came, arriving back at Vatopedhiou around 11:30 and Ierissos around 12:30. It may not stop at a minor monastery if there is no one to be dropped off, so if you want to be picked up it's probably best to toarrange this beforehand. Fares for this boat vary depending on exactly where you get on and off, but figure on between €5 and €10 per person per ride. I didn't use the boats serving the south coast, but there is one that shuttles between Ouranopoli and Dafni (again stopping at points in between as necessary), and another one timed to coincide with its arrival whichleaves from Dafniheading further along the southern coast.The minibuses leave the monasteries in the morning (generally around 9 or 10) for Karyes, where there are connections available to Dafniand other monasteries. There may be a brief layover, which you can use to check out the beautifully frescoed (although currently under scaffolding) church in Karyes. The fare from Vatopedhiou to Karyes was €8, from Karyes to Dafni €2.50. A handful of taxis are also available, but seem to be used mainly by larger groups of pilgrims traveling together in order to bring down the cost per person. If you're walking and stick to the main roads, you can flag down a passing minibus, and it's also not uncommon for monksto stop to offer you a lift for free. Keep in mind that if you're traversing the middle of the peninsula (i.e. going from the northto south coast or vice versa)on foot, you should reckon with at least a 500m elevation change.
-Finally, a few points about etiquette within the monasteries and around the monks. Any sort of guide you read about Athos will likely include a laundry list of things not to do within the monasteries or in the presence of the monks, including: talking loudly, singing, whistling, wearing shorts or short-sleeved shirts, standing with your hands in your pockets or clasped behind your back, and crossing your legs when seated. At some point, you're probably going to break one of these 'unwritten rules' (either unintentionally orotherwise, for example after deciding thatwhile trekking from one monastery to another,losing thelong sleeves would be really nice); however, as long as youshow a generalrespectfulness for the monks' way of life and the places they consider sacred, it almost certainly won't be a big deal. The worst you'll get is a gentle reprimand (I was politely asked to take my hand out of my pocket while standing at the back of a church), and Icame acrossa fair numberof other (mostly Greek) pilgrims who flouted many of the items listed above without a second thought. Again, the larger and more international monasteries seem less rigid when it comes to 'etiquette',because they're more accustomed todealing with larger numbers of pilgrims. Also, punctuality for church services is not terribly important - you'll notice both monks and pilgrims trickling into serviceslong after they begin, and sometimes leaving before they end.
Part of the around the world (at least in theory) travel blog
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!