Mt Athos is the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire and an independent polity within Greece. The 20 monasteries are under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the clocks at the monasteries show both Greek time and Byzantine time.
You need a visa – a diamonitirion – to enter, and the daily quota is 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox pilgrims. Everybody visiting is, by definition, a pilgrim, whether they intend to attend the different services at the monasteries (starting from 3.30AM and often lasting 3-4 hours) or focus on the stunning architecture and the numerous opportunities for trekking along the winding roads cross-crossing the peninsula.
Mt Athos is also a UNESCO heritage site with many monasteries tracing their history back to around 1000AD, and a history of some monasteries being established many centuries before that.
Since the entire territory is considered one single monastery by the monks, no women are allowed in Mt Athos, in keeping with Orthodox monastic tradition (similarly, men can’t visit women’s monasteries as a general rule). This policy obviously raises a few eyebrows in 2014.
When I applied for my diamonitirion, I simply rang the Pilgrims’ Bureau and a gentleman speaking impeccable English took down my details and asked me to send him a scan of my passport. I had to confirm my visit two weeks before arrival as well. I picked up my diamonitirion at the Pilgrims’ Bureau office in Ouranoupolis – the point of departure for the Mt Athos ferry – on the morning of my visit. The procedure went very smoothly and only took a couple of minutes.
The atmosphere on the Mt Athos ferry was abuzz with excitement and I heard at least as much Russian as I heard Greek. As the coast of Mt Athos unfolds, the scenery is stunning and the stops on the way to Daphne – the main port – reveal a number of different monasteries with different architectural styles. There was also this monk making prayer ropes on the ferry while listening to Orthodox chants on his mini cassette recorder.
There is a network of buses and minivans connecting the different monasteries, with the Mt Ahthos “capital” Karyes being the main hub. However, for many monasteries – like Megistis Lavras, which was my first stop – there is only one bus a day.
Most of these winding mountain roads are gravel roads, and the views of the sea are truly breathtaking.
Arriving at Megestis Lavras, we were offered Turkish delight, coffee, ouzo and water.
The sleeping quarters were more than adequate and the monastery grounds were stunningly beautiful.
The evening prayers started at 6.00 PM and lasted a little more than two hours, after which we joined the monks for dinner in a dining hall that looked like a church – the murals were incredibly beautiful (photography is allowed outdoors and in walkways but not indoors). Here are the murals from the walkway in front of the church at the Megistis Lavras monastery.
We all ate in complete silence while a monk was reading aloud from a book.
Going to bed early was a good idea since the morning prayers started 4.00AM and the monastery bells were rung very loud and clear at 3.20AM.
The morning prayers are probably one of my strongest memories from Mt Athos as the church was almost completely dark, and the monks in their black habits filed in silently one by one. A few more candles were lit as prayers were chanted or read.
Only two meals a day are served, and since the only bus connecting Megistis Lavras with Karyes left at 6.45AM, I had to choose between breakfast and the bus. However, I found this small bakery in Karyes selling these very tasty custard pies early in the morning so that was not a big problem.
Arriving back in modern civilization is quite a contrast to the ancient ways and spectacular natural beauty of Mt Athos, and memories from this last outpost of Byzantium will certainly stay with me for a very long