Updated: Jan 21
I've heard about Mount Athos a couple of times in my life. Recently, I've had the urge to get closer to God 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, but here’s why:
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 to step foot other than the Holy Mother of God, for respect and honor towards her.
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 of arrival, 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 (they’re all free of cost.)
A lot had reached full capacity, so it was a little difficult in the beginning but I ended up finding one named The Holy Monastery of Pantokrator.
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 I saw. It’s 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 came a point where it was difficult for me to cross because of the sea and my heavy backpack... But no turning back now, I had to make my way up the mountain, the hard way...
Quite a bit of a climb to be honest, I felt very thirsty so I decided to stop and relax for a bit. I was almost at the top anyway...
Yeah right! 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.
This always happens to me, I feel extra adventurous and always decide to take the harder path lol. I did find a nearby broken branch, started whipping my way through like Indiana Jones, squeezed through a bunch of tight spaces and then a tube appeared. 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 okay, enough... I'm feeling extremely light headed, next car passing, I'm waving like a hitchhiker.
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 direction so it was perfect...
When I got there, my jaw dropped, he was nice enough to pull over and let me photograph the view from my window.
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, Father 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 at 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, it had every basic thing you needed including slippers. I made my way to the church as liturgy was already going on and I was already getting lost...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 with arched entries, beautiful marble floors, tall wooden chairs attached to the walls all around and every single inch of the walls were colorful 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 task. Some were farmers, some were priests, other were cooks, Father Seraphim was the head of the guesthouse and paper work I would assume. So during liturgy, you didn't see every monk. You also would see different ethnicities, tall to short monks, 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, a Wednesday, was a fasting day and so everything excluding dairy and fish was the only thing to eat. 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 strict timing is for us to get humbled and say our 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 in North America where we love everything in abundance.
The following hours, I went exploring some more and found hidden treasures.
The floor is very old as you can see, many renovations were being done around this castle so there were corridors with actual 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 arrived, I woke up really early because church starts at 4 am. Monasteries here don't function with the time we go by, they use the Byzantine clock. It was pitch black outside and I got lost again so I just followed the beautiful chanting to find my way to church. I was extremely in awe of the sky, I had never seen so many bright stars in my life.
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 sunrise and liturgy would end. The archbishop then brought out beautiful gold & silvers chests with holy relics in them.
For those of you who don’t know, holy relics are the remains of Saints and holy figures treasured for centuries and centuries. They bring many miracles to the one who venerates them with true faith.
I was so amazed because I got to see and venerate several relics from saints including the left hand of Mary Magdalene which miraculously still exudes warmth, and another relic I was honored to see was a piece of Jesus' cross. We then concluded church service with communion, in which monks and us visitors took. I went back to the main room where Father Seraphim dealt with our questions and where we had some cookies and Greek coffee for breakfast.
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.
There’s an undeniable serenity that you feel. The worries of the materialistic world don’t matter here.
Experiencing this lifestyle was very moving and so one would understand why someone would choose to surrender his worldly life for a life of simplicity and devotion to our Creator!