MOUNT ATHOS, HALKIDIKI
The largest and most important monastic state in the Orthodox East is also named ‘the garden of the Virgin Mary’. The monastic state of Athos, which occupies the easternmost, wildest ‘leg’ of the three-pronged Halkidiki peninsula, Mount Athos is the second-most important religious place of pilgrimage, after Jerusalem, for the more than 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.
Now hosting 20 monasteries, Mount Athos forms an autonomous region within the Greek state, while spiritually it falls under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Although it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, all females are forbidden entry. But any adult may visit the Holy Mountain, regardless of faith or nationality, simply by obtaining a Diamonitirion or residence permit.
What to do in Mount Athos
On the threshold of heaven
Ouranopolis, the ‘heavenly city’ by the sea, is also the gateway to Mount Athos. More than a thousand people live here on the doorstep of the Holy Mountain and in the shadow of the massive, austere Prosfori tower in its midst. An important holiday resort in Northern Greece, Ouranoplis is the last worldly destination before the would-be visitor boards the boat to the monastic realm. And this is where their women wait for them and look longingly at the forbidden territory.
Historic monasteries, cells and religious retreats
On the Athos peninsula, 20 monasteries of varying ages function as religious communities. There are also lesser establishments – hermitages, cells and retreats where individuals live as anchorites or hermits or in small brotherhoods. You will find no asphalted roads here, but there is an extended network of forest roads and paths connecting the monasteries.
Whether you knock on a monastery door as an explorer or pilgrim, you’ll find a warm welcome, simple lodgings and surprisingly good food. But meals occur at odd hours, dependent on the times of prayers and religious duties. Nourishment here, both spiritual and material, is offered not sold, but you will have to fast with the monks, who never eat meat or allow olive oil, dairy products, cheese and fish to pass their lips on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends, and become vegans during the four major fasting periods.
Communing with the monks and with divine nature
This will be your only chance, regardless of religion or personal philosophy and beliefs, to hear genuine Byzantine hymns, sung by admirable voices that honour the Christian musical tradition. During the times where you won’t be following the prayers, you can be worshipping nature instead, by discovering the unique beauty of this corner of Greece. Walk to the next monastery along paths that pass through places of unbelievable natural beauty and rare flora and fauna. Or you may choose to assist the monks in their daily tasks, with stunning Macedonian nature as a backdrop.
The first and greatest monastery
The monastery of Great Lavra is the oldest and largest on Athos. It was founded by the Blessed Athanasios the Athonite in the year 962 at the tip of the peninsula. Its architecture is a typical example of late-Byzantine fortress design and its library contains the third largest collection of Byzantine manuscripts in the world.
Hidden Gems of Mount Athos
The restored Zygos Monastery
If you want to see what an Athonite monastery of the 10th century is like, you should spare a few hours of your holiday – even if you’re a woman – to visit the ruins of Zygos very close to Ouranoupolis. It’s one of the oldest monasteries in the area and it has been restored with care and devotion.
A venerable vineyard
Just a 20 minutes walk from Iviron monastery will take you to one of the most important attractions in the area: the Mylopotamos winery. In the past two decades, the monks of the Holy Seat of Agios Efstathios have revived one of Europe’s oldest vineyards, creating in the process, a collection of internationally recognised fine wines.
Climbing to the top of the Holy Mountain
The best way to reach the peak of Mt Athos (2,033 m) is via the Great Lavra monastery and Kerasia. You can choose from routes that vary between slight to moderate in difficulty and you will walk through forests of oak, chestnut and fir, up beyond the timberline to the bare alpine zone and massive rocks of the Transfiguration of the Saviour (Metamorphosis tou Sotiros). From the chapel at the summit the view over the North Aegean and Macedonia is mind blowing.