Mount Athos might just be the hardest place in Europe to reach, but it offers pristine landscapes, religious succor for pilgrims and free accommodations if guests attend services beginning in the early morning hours.
Last week I returned from ticking off one of my longest desires in travel—to visit the autonomously run Eastern Orthodox Monastic State of the Holy Mountain Athos, which occupies the majority of the Athos peninsula in the northeastern Greek region of Halkidiki.
Accommodation is basic but utterly memorable. F&B can be described as gratefully received but so-so in terms of taste. Average daily rate is fantastic if you are a guest. Zero Euros.
Bookings needed to be made exactly six months in advance, and minutes after if you are fortunate enough to be awarded a “diamonitorion,” the special passport needed to enter Athos.
I had tried for several years. Last November I succeeded, for only a four-day, three-night stay starting on 7 May. Canceling probably puts one back down the line on the list for years, especially as I was only one of 10 non-Orthodox permitted entry on that particular day.
To pick up the diamonitorion, you must go at 5:30 a.m. to the office in the village of Ouranoupoli, which is on the border of Athos but in what monks call “The Real World.” Then purchase ferry tickets just around the corner a few minutes later.
An overnight on Athos might not be for those not used to getting up early.
Supposedly, 100 Orthodox can enter per day via the ferry, which is practically the only way to get to one of the 20 monasteries that comprise the religious framework of the Athos.
Since the year 885, no woman ever has been permitted entry.
The ferry stops at a dozen or so piers, and I got off at a monastery called Osiou Grigoriou, and the three monasteries I stayed in were I.M. Simonos Petra, I.M. Iviron and I.M. Xenofondos.
I.M. stands for Iera Moni, Holy Monastery.
What an incredible experience, though.
Simonos Petra only has 20 beds, and everyone said how lucky I was to be staying there, in a room perched high on the mountainside. Rooms are spotlessly clean but basic, a recreation of an icon on the wall.
Father Averkios, who is in charge of footpath maintenance and who I helped carry 100-meter lengths of water pipe up the mountainside, asked what my job was. I said “writer,” to which he replied “poems?”
“I wish,” I replied. When I told him I write about hotels, he said, “Well, we believe we provide far more than any luxury hotel ever could.”
For the many pilgrims that come here, that must be true.
It did seem on my experience—although my physicist wife would tell me not to make a conclusion from only two pieces of evidence—that pre-bookings for one person gave you a room all to yourself, even if there were other beds. At Iviron I was even given a key.
At Xenofondos, where I had not pre-booked, I asked the guest master if I could stay and was taken to a room with four beds and three other people.
One was a very educated engineer from Moscow called Sergei who explained to me at length the power and energy of quite a number of the thousands of Orthodox saints.
Another “guest” grunted a lot and snored as though he was practicing for some type of contest.
Originally I intended to stay at a monastery called Konstamonitou, but I was told by a pilgrim in halting English that it has a problem with some type of insect.
He then described what I concluded were bed bugs. Indeed, I was also told that another monastery, Hilandar, recently succeeded in eliminating these hideous critters and now only allows pilgrims to stay if it is their very first night on Athos.
Meals follow religious services, the first of which begins at 4:30 a.m., and are taken in silence, with one black-robed monk reciting scripture. Food is tepid but palatable, and it might come with a beaker of Athos-made wine, the best being considered to come from Mylopotamos.
Another wonderful oddity is that the time and calendar here are Athonite. The date is always 13 days behind the actual date, while the days—and Athos is the only place still to adhere to this—start at sunset, and of course that changes across the year.
One time everyone agrees on is that when the abbot finishes dining and rises, pilgrims have to, as well, so eat quickly.
Length of stay at each monastery also will confuse hoteliers. Bookings are allowed for a maximum of one night, and then it is time to move.
I hiked to reach Iviron and Xenofondos, although rudimentary bus service does exist.
There is a small administrative village, Karyes, which has the only espresso machine in the 130 square miles of monastic territory.
This trip was difficult to get to and unfortunately impossible for 50% of us, but it was memorable, so memorable.
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