The monastic state of Athos, which occupies the easternmost and wildest ‘leg’ of the three-pronged Halkidiki peninsula, 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, with spiritually falling 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 male (or under-18-year-olds accompanied by their father) may visit the Holy Mountain, regardless of faith or nationality, by obtaining a permit.
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. An important holiday resort in northern Greece, Ouranoplis is the last worldly destination before the visitors board the boat to the monastic realm.
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’ll find no asphalt roads here, but there is an extended network of forest trails 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.
This may be your only chance to hear genuine Byzantine hymns, sung by voices that honour the Christian musical tradition. And when you aren’t following the prayers, you have the choice of worshipping nature instead. Paths pass through places of unbelievable natural beauty and rare flora and fauna. Or you can choose to assist the monks in their daily tasks.
The monastery of Great Lavra is the oldest and largest on Athos. It was founded by the Blessed Athanasios the Athonite in 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.
If you want to see what an Athonite monastery of the 10th century is like, you should spare a few hours of your holiday to visit the ruins of Zygos very close to Ouranoupolis. It’s one of the oldest monasteries in the area and has been restored with care and devotion.
Just a 20-minute 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 a collection of internationally recognised fine wines.
The best way to reach the peak of Mt Athos (2,033m) is via the Great Lavra monastery and Kerasia. You can choose from routes that vary between slight to moderate in difficulty, walking through forests of oak, chestnut and fir, 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 astonishing.
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