Mystical Mount Athos
Updated: Oct 23, 2018
I've heard about Mount Athos a couple of times in my life. Recently I've felt closer to God and what He's all about and so since I planned to visit the northern part of Greece this year, I made it a goal to visit this heavenly place.
For those who don't know, Agion Oros a.k.a Holy Mountain, is a place self governed within Greece, inhabited by monks with about 20 monasteries scattered all around. There is no woman allowed to enter, sorry female readers! It's been said that the Virgin Mary once tried to sail towards Cyprus but landed on Mount Athos instead. She instantly fell in love with the place and prayed to her son (Jesus) that He gives it to her, which he agreed and did. Since then, monks believed this land should never allow another woman other than the Holy Mother of God. Also, the monastic life practices celibacy, so it wouldn't be a good idea for the possibility of being tempted by the opposite sex. Agion Oros is known to be the oldest grounds of Christian presence in the world since ancient times.
It isn't a simple thing to travel here btw. You must undergo some steps before entering the territory, which makes sense since the monks like to keep it as clean and peaceful as possible. I started by contacting the bureau which gives visas to visitors. I had to give a date that I want to come, state my religion (Orthodox Christians were prioritized, 100 allowed to enter the grounds per day and 10 of other religions.) Once accepted, I had to contact different monasteries which would allow me to stay there overnight which is free of cost. A lot had full capacity, so it was a little difficult in the beginning but I ended up finding one named The Holy Monastery of Pantokrator. Check, now what's next? A couple of days prior, you must call to reconfirm, then the day of, you have to head to the city nearest to the mountain called Ouranoupolis and get your visa (25 euros) and purchase a ticket for the ferry (~8 euros) to then arrive at the port of the mountain, called Dafni.
Upon arrival, you either take a bus to a monastery or you walk there. I decided to walk because I previously read the experience is way better. My first destination was the Monastery of Simono Petra because when I googled Athos that was the main monastery in many pictures. It is so picturesque that I HAD to go there first. I made my way along the coast, jumping big boulders of marble, making my way as far as I can thinking it will be a shortcut. Then comes a point where it was difficult for me to cross because of the sea and my heavy bag and water... no choice, I had to make my way up the mountain...
Quite a bit of a climb to be honest, I felt very thirsty so I decided to stop thinking I should be almost at the top...
Ya OK! The higher I was climbing, the more trees started appearing. They weren't flimsy little bushes you can get through, they had thorns and strong branches. Seriously? This always happens to me, I feel extra adventurous and always decide the harder way LOL. I found a nearby branch, started whipping my way through like Indiana Jones, squeezed through a bunch of tight spaces and started seeing a tube. Thank God, I knew a road was near and I finally got on it like a normal person. It was 2 and a half hours into my journey, I was starved, water was running low, I had missed the deadline for the other monastery which was on the other side of the mountain... There's no way I could've seen Simono Petra and then gone to Pantokrator unless I had wings. Cars passed by, I didn't signal them because I thought I was near but once I started seeing the roads going up down left right when all you want to do is go forward, that's when I'm like OK, enough... I'm feeling delusional, next car passing, I'm waving.
Thankfully a couple of minutes in a 4X4 drives by and I ask the man if he can take me to the monastery. He was actually going that way so it was perfect...
When I got there, my jaw dropped, he was nice enough to pull over and let my photograph it.
Better than a movie, it was so surreal. Such a beautiful castle with the best sunset in Greece, you heard right... even better than Santorini.
I started exploring the area and found the main dormitory where people who visit stay at. This monk welcomed me right away, told me to sit down and brought me a shot of ouzo, water and some traditional honey delicacies: loukoumia.
I explained to the extremely kind monk: Pater Seraphim, that I had no paper to stay at this monastery, I just came to see it and that I will leave and make my way to the other monastery. He then told me he will find me a room to stay in and then explained everything around this place, and the schedules of church and that there will be food in about an hour.
I was so excited because I was starving! I went to my room which was very clean, everything you needed including slippers. I made my way to the church as liturgy was already going on and I was already getting lost as it felt like a true labyrinth.
This part of the monastery I did not photograph as it was forbidden. But just to tell you it had 3 rooms all with an arch, beautiful marble floors, wooden chairs on the walls all around and every single inch of the walls were holy depictions of the bible. Then the main room was the most beautiful part of a church I've ever seen. Such immense detail and everything was fully gold. Chalices, chandeliers, you name it, pure gold, everything was glistening.
The monks of the monastery each had a different job if you will. Some were farmers, some were priests, other were cooks, Pater Seraphim was the head of the guesthouse and paper work I would assume. So in church you didn't see every monk but you saw all sorts of sizes from tall to short to young to old.
When we entered the dining room, one table is for the monks and the other was for the visitors which we were about 20. The rule is, you have 15 min to eat and be in silence. That day that I was there was a Wednesday so they fasted pretty much everything including dairy and fish. So I had this rice and spinach stew, some fruit, bread with tomato paste, dried olives and water. They have plenty of food which is great but since I didn't know the 15 min rule, I didn't get to finish my fruits. The reason of the timing is for us to get humbled and say thanks to God for not being in the position of the poor people of this world who don't indulge like we do. I truly did get humbled because I obviously was still starving but it kept me balanced enough to not feel the need for more food, what I had was enough to sustain my needs, everything else is just gluttony. Something most of us struggle with, especially North America.
The following hours I spent exploring some more and finding hidden treasures. After that, time to sleep early, which I was fine with considering waking up early and being exhausted.
The floor is very old as you can see, many renovations were being done around this castle so there were corridors with stairs as well.
Sunset was kicking in but there was a little storm that occurred during those hours and so I didn't get to experience the beautiful sky at its finest but I did manage to capture part of the sun which makes this picture so beautiful:
When morning came,I woke up at 5 am, because church started at 4 am. Monasteries here don't go with the time we go by, the use the Byzantine clock. It was pitch black outside, making my way to church, I got lost again so I just followed the beautiful chanting to find my way. Before that, I was extremely in awe of the sky, I had never seen so many bright stars in my life. Check this out:
This image still doesn't do the sky justice but just to have an idea.
I had never been awake that early to go to church and I was really hungry again but toughed it out until the sun came out and it ended. The arch bishop then brought out beautiful gold & silvers chests with relics in them. I was so amazed because I got to see and pay respect to several relics from saints including the left hand of Mary Magdalene which miraculously still exudes body warmth, and another relic I was honored to see was a piece of Jesus' cross. After this was done, he closed up everything and put them away. We then followed with a communion in which both monks and guests took and that was the end of church. I went back to the main room where Pater Seraphim dealt with our questions and where we had some cookies and Greek coffee.
That was the end of my experience, I only stayed for one night because I had other plans with my travels but I would definitely go back.
Everything is so beautiful and serene that I understand why monks decided to isolate themselves from the world and live a monastic life amongst nature and God's presence!