- 10 December 2020
Have a mystical experience in Halkidiki on Mount Athos
In the north Greece you will find the Halkidiki peninsula, one of the most popular summer retreats because of the quality of its beaches and waters. A particularity of the peninsula is that not all of it is accessible to anyone. In fact, the Mount Athos area is sacred and is considered a small state.
In order to visit you must have issued a visa and women are not allowed. You have read well, the area is open only to men. If you are a woman, the only chance to see the impressive monasteries is to take a boat cruise around the peninsula and at a good distance from the shore.
How to reach Mount Athos and how to obtain a permit prior to your visit
Your departure point is the city of Ouranopoli. This city is the last one before the borders with Mount Athos. You can not go beyond it since there are no roads: the region of Athos is not accessible by car or public means of transportation, just hiking trails.
Generally, once per day (the frequency may vary depending on the expected visitors) a special boat arrives at the small port of Ouranoupoli managed by the orthodox monks that docks at various monasteries.
In order to board it, two essential requirements must be met: be a man and have the required entry visa. You can get the visa through a bureaucratic style procedure and I suggest that you do it at least two/three months ahead of your desired entry date. Once issued, you can pick up your visa at a designated office in Ouranoupoli.
Why do you need an entry visa? Because the guest’s beds in various monasteries are limited and they have to make sure that all are accommodated. In any given time within the year there is a maximum guest limit to be respected. During some important religious holidays, you must book in advance in order to be accepted at your time of choice.
The entry visa is valid through a four day period, but can be extended on site. The permit gives you the right to “room and board” for free in one of the monasteries, if chosen in advance.
You are literally a guest of the orthodox monks, in exchange for your compliance to their lifestyle, the environment and its rules.
Types of monasteries: Saint Dionysios is a good compromise
There are many types of monasteries: those with the modern comforts (electricity, running water and beds) and those “primitives” with no electricity or amenities that we are accustomed to. If you are going for the first time at Mount Athos, I suggest that you begin “softly” and choose a monastery with at least electricity. Eventually, you can combine a couple of other monasteries if you have decided on enjoying at least a two nights stay.
My experience was at Saint Dionysios monastery which I remember fondly not only because of the welcoming stay, but for its style also.
Here are a couple of details from my stay that you might find useful:
- beds, referring to the monastery I have stayed: there are bedrooms with many beds and you must share with other people. The bathroom is to be shared too with other bedrooms and it is outside the room. Therefore, it is better that you go prepared with the essentials. Bed sheets and towels were offered. Before you enter Mount Athos make a pit stop for some food and water just to be on the safe side, in case you miss the offered meals;
- obligation to wear long trousers, in the whole territory: this is a detail I remember well since I visited in mid August, when the heat is high and the sun burns. It was challenging having to walk in those under the sun. I therefore suggest avoiding the hottest months of the year.
How to spend the days in the monasteries
Life in the monasteries is very simple and you are free to manage your time as you please. In the morning you can take a walk around the monasteries and go climbing to the peak of Mount Athos. Just make sure that you are back before sunset, because all the monasteries close the doors and open again the next morning. There are people that had to stay the night outside in the open air at the garden!
The monks invite you to participate in the religious functions: they may knock on your door in the middle of the night to let you know that one is about to begin. You are not obliged to participate, but you are expected that you do.
The meals are offered at the end of the orthodox mass at a designated room. It is a very particular time, since you are not allowed to speak during meals. While you eat, there is a monk that reads orthodox prayers. You must eat as fast as possible because once he is finished reading, you are required to leave the cutlery and exit immediately.
Besides the religious functions, there is free time to practice your gardening skills, go hiking, read or whatever you prefer. The use of cell phones is allowed but you are supposed to want to cut free from the world to find peace of mind. I remember that I was asked to help some monks transport glass windows to help with the construction of an underground museum full of invaluable pieces of art.
Why visit Mount Athos?
Before else, to enjoy a mystical and religious experience in a very suggestive place. It gives you the impression to have been catapulted into a parallel world, made of simplicity and where time is used to reflect. Besides having the chance to discuss with the very well educated monks in English or other languages (!), the environment itself inspires you to reflect.
But it is not only a religious experience. Even if you are not a believer, the whole place compels you to be in awe. The fact that you take a boat to a secluded monastery completely immersed in nature, with the mount behind and the turquoise waters in front, is very emotional and difficult to explain unless you have experienced that once in your lifetime.
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