The announcement that you are intending to visit Athos may normally raise some eyebrows. You see, Athos is a peninsula in the Greek north that is in no way compared to any other part of Greek, European or even global soil and as such it is not a regular travel destination.
For starters, women are banned from visiting that region. (I have just discouraged more than 50% of potential readers of this post with this comment who might stop reading, but I sincerely hope that at least some women would still be willing to read about a place even if they are never allowed to visit.)
Secondly, Athos is mainly composed by monasteries (20 main official monasteries) and numerous other smaller “housing estates” usually named “Skites” that due to size, historic or other practical reasons do not qualify as big monasteries, the “Mones”. Athos effectively has independent governance and is some kind of an autonomous region within the Greek territory! What is widely – if not solely – diffused all over the area is one thing.
Athos’ story goes back to the early days of Christianity and even for outsiders it is quite intriguing to read about its history and mainly the fact that that region has remained somewhat outside the normal progress of civilization for hundreds of years!
Ιt was the summer of 2012 when three of us decided to spend three days in Athos. What started as a “pulling the leg” discussion about trekking and living for three days outside civilisation, materialised as a great three day trekking – and spiritual – trip that was, is, and I mean it, one of the best I have ever taken. Because Athos is not just about religion after all. It can be many other things! It is what anybody wants and can see even from a short three-day visit.
Our boat from Ierissos took us through the rough seas of the East Aegean to Moni Vatopediou. There, and after a Spartan, but very Athos-style small brunch, we initiated our trek.
We walked through a dry yet picturesque path which from time to time was crossing the main road that is connecting monasteries. After a tiring yet enjoyable walk which was giving us small joys of the seas to the East, we ended up at Moni Pantokratoros. There we put out our thirst with some water so icy as if it was streaming from the earth’s inner guts, we had a quick bite and continued our walk until we reached Moni Stavronikita through another of dense flora path.
We wandered in the monastery, enjoyed a great and tasty dinner and some unmatchable views of the east at dusk and slept for the night. The next day we set off to Moni Iviron through a sometimes coastal path leaving in our left at some point a remarkably old and desolated tower. We had a greek coffee, filled our flasks with water and through a hilly path – sometimes quite steep – but very moist and cool as it was covered with tree branches we found ourselves through a dense forest to the “capital” of Athos – if a small village can be called like that – Karyes. We ate a great cheese pie and boarded a small mini bus that took us to Moni Megistis Lavra, in the foot of Mt Athos. That was our second stop for the night. The third day proved to be the most tiring yet the best of all three. We set off at 6.00am and after taking a South, East and then North path we walked all the south part of Athos and after two short stops one at Skiti Agias Annas – with probably the best views to the west of all three days – and one at Moni Agiou Pavlou for tones of water and a super extra tiring final 2-hour almost vertical trek at 15:00 under the burning sun using feet and hands we ended up in Moni Dionisou.
We had concluded our 10-hour trek through magnificent paths that were giving us exquisite vistas to the seas in the south or to the menacing Mt Athos on our right. We had accumulated 40 km of really splendid trek and it was time to relax. We took it easy, drank tons of coffee, took photos or lied lazily gazing at the setting sun in the west. We slept overnight and the next day we took the boat that took us back to civilisation. (It was a rather strange feeling staying for three days in Athos with the absolute minimum in terms of daily amenities and then “Wham” getting out of the boat and listening to the rumble and seeing the bubbly tourists drinking coffee by the beach.)
It was at that exact moment we realised we had spent three remarkable days in a different world.
Athos is truly a place forgotten by time. The buildings, the absence of daily amenities like TV, radio, cars, (even electricity in some monasteries), the monks, the way of life … everything is fused in a weird, strange yet unique way that sends vibes and signals to one’s body and mind that nowhere else in the world you can find – possibly only in Asian cultures. But out of all it is the monasteries and their architecture and their artwork that add the main brushstroke to this unique set of people, buildings, landscape and way of life. Everything seems to have been taken from a fantasy novel or story occurring in the Middle Ages. If it had not been for the clothes of the visitors, the mobile phones and some other 20th-century amenities, then you could not tell what period of time you are.
A trip to Athos triggers feeling and emotions and revives new ways of seeing thing!
Just by looking to the stones of the monasteries that rise menacingly in the most inaccessible parts of mountains and rocks you feel like you travel in time and see the first monks building those monasteries.
Just by looking to these monasteries you realise how much physical power, strain and sweat those first settlers and builders had to pour to build such … bird nests!
Just by digesting the absence of daily amenities you realise how much our modern world has made us dependent too much on certain things.
Just by looking to the humble and peaceful monks, you realise how much power humans possess to “leave” the modern world and choose to live in this small corner of the world.
Just by looking at these places you are intrigued to follow one or more typical days of monks and see what essence is this that they find in their daily habits and prayers.
Just by looking at the beauty of these places you realise how much beauty exists around us yet most of the times we fail to take notice and appreciate as we are being sucked by our daily lives.
Just by looking at some specific monasteries with their commanding and imposing views – one that caught my intention for the next time to visit was Simonos Petra – virtual stories unfold before your eyes – monks in the days of Christianity, Byzantium days or pirates trying to conquer those unconquered walls.
Just by tasting some of the simplest food on earth you realise how much you have missed the taste of a fresh tomato, fish or a piece of watery cucumber.
Just by going at church at 4.00am or waking up early morning to appreciate the monasteries when the sun rises you realise how much ample time exists on a single day to do things rather than σleep.
Just by staying there you realise how many spiritual things exist that should make us better people.
The list is countless….
And only when you spend some time, on a small rock by the monastery looking in awe to the endless Aegean Sea do you come to utterly realise that Athos is primarily about Christianity, but at the same time is about everything else – our lives. It is about showing us the true roots of our lives and how much we have diverted from the initial direction – the true pursuit of happiness, not essentially related to religion.
Of course I do have my reservations about Athos which I have shared with friends. Of course i do believe that – and this is my humble opinion – a believer should be out in the daily jungle and fight both for the salvation – not necessarily to a God – of himself and of the others by setting examples, being a good person and prove his faith even with all these temptations around him. There might also be many people that will disregard or even despise certain practices.
The truth is, though, that Athos is definitely a different place from the normal travel destinations one can select.