• A place at the table for Macedonia | September, 2010
• Morten Harket Sings a New Song | November, 2007
• Bryan Ferry in a New Town | October, 2007
• In Search of a Midnight Sun | June, 2006
• Decade | June, 2006
• The Leadership of Ronald Reagan | June, 2004
• Where the Monks Drive Range Rovers | December, 2000


Where the Monks Drive Range Rovers
December, 2000


I am hiking along a graded dirt road that winds and curves hugging the mountainside along with three friends. I am the lone Protestant in the group, my three companions representing the Church in Rome. We are idly wending our way, backpacks lightly loaded with water, bedding, cameras and clothing, making our way to the nearest, by our reckoning, monastery. The sky is a muted gray, the sun hidden behind high, thin clouds, the air temperature a pleasant enough low-70s, despite this late November day. We are a happy lot, with our banter limited to what we except to find on this three day, two-night adventure, when the low rumble of a vehicle approaching us from behind breaks the otherwise silence of our early afternoon. It turns out to be a late-model Range Rover driven by monks clad head to toe in black.

Their English is limited but their smiles and openness make up for any deficiencies on our part in lacking proper knowledge of the Greek language. They make known to us that they are offering us a ride to Simon Petras, our first destination. This is our first encounter with monks from the Holy Mountain of Athos in what will turn out to be an absolutely fascinating and rewarding albeit too brief time on this peninsula in Northern Greece. We will learn much in 72 hours.

The peninsula of Athos is the third finger of what is known as Halkidiki, an area of Greece comprising three “fingers” of land jutting out from the mainland and about an hour’s drive from Thessaloniki to the Southeast. The peninsula of Athos is comprised of monasteries and monks of the Orthodox kind.

Life on the peninsula is old. The first monastery, Megisti Lavra or the Great Lavra, was established in 963. An additional 19 monasteries were established over the next five hundred and some odd years, the last, Stavronikita, in 1541 and the peninsula includes 17 Greek, one Russian, one Serbian and one Bulgarian monastery. Together, the 20 monasteries are home to some 2,000 plus monks. An additional couple of hundred workers (non-monks) live on the peninsula though not in the monasteries.
Visitors to Mount Athos such as our happy crew are welcome and are classified as pilgrims. In order to protect its seclusion and way of life, pilgrims are regulated. For starters, only men are allowed on the peninsula. As far as anyone can tell, no women have been there for over 1,000 years and the story is told that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was making a voyage from Israel along with John the Evangelist to visit Lazarus in Cyprus. Her ship encountered a massive storm which forced them to seek temporary refuge on the peninsula at a place now known as the Holy Monastery of Ivira. According to legend, Mary was entranced with the beauty of the place and asked God to give it to her. The voice of God was then heard to say “Let this place be your lot, your garden and your paradise, as well as a salvation, a haven for those who seek salvation.”

A visit to the Holy Mountain is considered to be an encounter with God. But in order to encounter God, you must go through some bureaucracy first. For starters, only 120 pilgrims are allowed on any given day. Of those, 110 can be Orthodox with the other ten belonging to non-Orthodox faiths are allowed. Not quite Taliban restrictions, but imposing nonetheless.

Once you have decided to visit as a pilgrim, you must first declare your intention, at least two weeks in advance (the better the season, the quicker it books up), and you must send via post or fax, a copy of your passport, your confession and your profession to the Pilgrims’ Bureau in Thessaloniki along with the requested dates of travel (you can stay for up to three nights and four days). If you are Orthodox, but non-Greek Orthodox, you must show a letter from a priest or bishop or a baptismal certificate. It is also strongly recommended that you make reservations at one of the monasteries or skites (religious communities) who take in pilgrims. Again, the earlier one makes reservations, the better.

Once you have received proper clearance, you must travel to the Pilgrim’s Bureau in Thessaloniki and pick up a little piece of paper, properly stamped, that will allow you entrance to the peninsula. From there, you make your way to the town of Ouranoupoli at the northernmost point of the peninsula where you will spend the night at one of several hotels, along with the other 119 pilgrims, waiting for the morning boat to Dafni, a mid-way point on the peninsula where you will begin your journey.

And it is at Dafni that my companions from the Church of Rome and me have just disembarked and now find ourselves hiking along the aforementioned road when we are offered the said pickup in the Range Rover. Instead, we politely decline and continue on our journey, drinking it all in, heading for our first destination, the Holy Monastery of Simon Petras, built in the thirteenth century and dedicated to the birth of Jesus.

When I made this visit, in November of 2000, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings had not yet debuted. But some of the scenes from those three movies, especially the ones showing the great, big fortresses seemingly hewn into rock, are the best ways to envision the scenes which unfolded before us. And in between monasteries, we were treated to arresting views of breathtaking gorges, impossible ravines, verdant valleys, and deciduous plants of all types, including olive groves, not to mention the endless Aegean unfolding before us.

As already mentioned, all of these monasteries are old. Over 1,000 years in the making, they have weathered the tests of time, not to mention the weather. All of those we encountered were large, imposing, grand leviathans made of combined rock and timber, some making use of the natural landscape as an augment to their base, jutting out on cliffs over the Aegean blue water below, almost hanging, it seems, on for dear life. Others, which we did not visit but noticed on our boat jaunt to Dafni, were spread out over rocky beaches. And then there were the skites. More on that in a moment.

Mt. Athos itself, pierces the sky at about 6,670 feet rising dramatically out of the sea, its treeless top a beacon for all to see from the other two peninsulas of Halkidiki. It is often hidden in clouds and in winter, it is snow-capped. And there are two competing stories as to why this bare rock at the very southern end of the peninsula on a hilly terrain averaging about 1,500 feet above sea level, is there.  According to myth, the name Athos was that of a Thracian giant. During one battle between the gods and the giants, Athos threw a huge stone at Poseidon, but the stone slipped from his hands and fell into the sea, creating Athos. In the competing version, it was Poseidon who threw the stone at Athos, and Poseidon, being a bit more adroit and an apparently better aim, who hit Athos; the stone crushed him, burying him beneath Athos.

Regardless of the stories, the monks obviously do not indulge in pagan fantasies, no matter how delightful.  Instead, their lives are committed to the service of God, and now, apparently, yours for the balance of your time there.

Despite the seemingly inhospitable landscape and narrow paths leading to the monasteries, all are radically protected, making them indeed, fortresses. With high walls, towers and many built in and around impregnable rock outcroppings, the monks have had to defend themselves, their faith and their way of life for these many centuries from a host of potential invaders including pirates. Which explains the heavy wooden and steel reinforced gate to each monastery with one smaller opening for individuals, open at sunup and locked at sundown. Beware of arriving after sundown, for you will surely sleep outside the gates.

But once inside, you are made to feel welcome in the Spartan surroundings. One monk is designated as a type of greeter for pilgrims, though one should never assume that they are there to entertain you. They are there to meet your small needs and see to it that you have an opportunity to grow closer to God. After greeting you at the gate and checking your papers, the designated greeter of the day, at our first monastery a Greek monk of British birth, took us to a small welcome room in the monastery, equipped with built-in couches around the walls, and offered us water or coffee before showing us to our comfortable but more Spartan room.

Rooms, for pilgrims, can sleep anywhere between four and forty people, the latter containing bunk beds and decidedly reminding one of university dorms, only much bigger. You can find yourself bunking with a variety of individuals from all walks of life and all sorts of countries and smells. But since you are all there to reflect, there’s not too much banter. Which is a good thing because it’s time for dinner.

And time itself is a strange thing on the peninsula. While the Hellenic Republic is +3 Greenwich Meridian Time, Mt. Athos is seven hours ahead of that, making for a bit of confusion. So, if one arrives at say, 4:00 Greek time, while indeed the sun is shining, the monks consider this to be 11:00 pm. And time for dinner.

At this first of two meals (owing to their simple life, the monks only eat two meals a day and never meat), you will join your brothers for a meal consisting of vegetables, breads, salads, perhaps beans, olives, cheeses and maybe, just maybe, fish, on special days. And oh, the wine, excellent home-made wine with every meal, breakfast included. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is social hour for in the first place, it lasts only about 20-25 minutes and in the second, one designated monk reads from Scripture while you and the rest of the brothers scarf your meal down.

From the end of this first meal until sunset (read, bedtime), you are free to engage the monks in the heavy subjects of life, death, Heaven and Hell, God and Satan and how to fix a Range Rover in these surroundings without a mechanic to turn to (turns out these monks are skilled at a variety of things besides praying and gardening).

But from sunset forward there is precious little to do, and anyway, they wake up at around 2:00 am (Greek time), to start their day and you are expected to as well. So it’s off to bed after a quick, cold shower. And oh, please do not make the mistake of wearing shorts or short-sleeve shirts. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants are required at all times and there is strictly no swimming in the gorgeous seas below.

At approximately 2:00 am, or thereabouts, you will be awoken by some combination of chimes and bells or a monk knocking on a small wooden plank (the same call is used for mealtime). Time to wake up sleepy head!
At this point on our first night, my fellow pilgrims and I decided that yes, indeed, we would experience this most holy of nights (to us at least), by joining the monks for vespers and early morning worship. So we dutifully shook the sleep out of our heads, combed our hair to look presentable (we didn’t have those great little black caps the monks had), and trundled off through the courtyard and into the main church.

Inside the innermost sanctum, the monks went about their business, lighting candles, praying, chanting and doing other monk things. Their chanting sounded a bit like something from Vangelis, though slightly more off-key. Doubtless I’m offending scores of Orthodox monks here -- sorry, it’s just that my untrained ear is not quite attuned to your higher ecclesiastical intonations.

But wait!  It’s not even 2:30 am and as we were observing and slowly sinking into a trance-like state of our own, one monk noticed us in this inner sanctum and glided over to us in the semi-dark, inquiring if we were Orthodox. Horrified at finding out we were not (but not showing a hint of this on his face or perhaps it was owing to the inky dark), we were politely banished to the outermost sanctum of the church where we could barely hear the aforementioned notes from Vangelis. Looking at ourselves like guilty schoolboys who had just been caught smoking in the boy’s room, we decided we had had enough worship at this ungodly hour and slunk off back to our wooden beds.

To be awoken again at 8:00 am for breakfast time. (The monks, just to set their schedules right for you, apparently sleep between sundown and about 1:00 or 2:00 am, spending the rest of their days/nights in work and worship and fixing those Range Rovers). At least we had more delicious white wine with our breakfast (I normally don’t drink before noon but made an ecclesiastical exception -- it was either that or choke down bread without liquid).

From breakfast it was off to another monastery to discover more of this enchanted and holy peninsula.

We hiked along small and sometimes difficult dirt paths, the sun having scattered away the clouds and now beating down mercilessly on us and our long sleeve shirts and pants (in case we came across more monks hiking along) all the while looking longingly down at the soothing turquoise blue waters of the Aegean beckoning us to flaunt the rules, shed our clothing and jump in. But we resisted temptation.

Instead we caught one of the seemingly ubiquitous ferries down another quarter of the way down the peninsula which dropped us, other pilgrims, and many needed supplies, at the bottom of Nea Skite, one of those skites I mentioned above. Skites are religious communities, not monasteries but not secular villages either, usually dependent on a nearby monastery. They are a collection of buildings, and in the case of Nea Skite, high up the mountainside and approached only by what seemed to be a line of never-ending stairs ascending higher and higher. And it was here that we were introduced to the donkeys.

Besides Range Rovers and the ferries, donkeys are the best mode of transport for moving supplies. And the peninsula was loaded with donkeys but not guided by monks. Instead, these donkeys are the sole domain of hired help, believers, so they said, but of the non-ecclesiastical kind. And they guide the donkeys from one point to the next, or on this particular day, from the small port at which we landed up the endless flight of stairs to the skite.

At our chosen skite, we had not made reservations (normally suggested for skites and monasteries), so we found ourselves without a room at the inn so to speak. Looking at our map of Athos, which one in our group had had the smarts to bring along, we decided we would take our chances at the next monastery, basically making a backtrack in the direction from which we came.

So we started out on another winding dirt trail but this time high up above the open Aegean spreading before us with nary a cloud in sight, a bright sun high above us, and a slight wind to our backs. Hiking in this manner, for an hour or two, we felt we could be completely at peace and one with God, without the need of the dark enclosure of a monastery. But a bed, shower and meal (with the monks’ wine), spurred us on.

It wasn’t before too long that we stumbled upon one of the aforementioned donkey guides, a young fellow of about the early 30s, very dark complexion from either his ethnic Greek background or his long days in the sun, preparing to cook up some fish and boiled potatoes for his afternoon meal. And it was here, that we experienced that Balkan hospitality that will kill you.

He must have been the type that didn’t get too many visitors and we hoped he could occasionally get off of the peninsula for some female companionship. In a word, he was overjoyed to meet us and said so in broken English, fluent Greek and a smattering of German. Whereupon he insisted we sit with him while he brought out homemade feta, homemade rakija (the local firewater), homemade wine and then the fish and potatoes. Before long, we were the best of friends.

But the hours were growing long, the sun’s shadow was wearing tall and we were mindful of the admonition to get into any monastery before sundown when the gates would be closed until the next light of day. So we bid him a fond adieu, and this time started stumbling toward our next destination, the imposing and grand Holy Monastery of Saint Pavlos, built in the tenth century and dedicated to the candle mass of Jesus.

Making it just before sundown, but after meal time, the monks were gracious enough to provide our weary and somewhat tired bodies with proper sustenance and of course, more homemade wine after which we watched the sun’s fading light whilst talking with a Greek-American from Tennessee who was an initiate, not having yet made the cut as a monk. The night was much the same as before though this time we learned from our mistake of the night before and simply slept through the intonations of the monks. Tired as we were, I doubt their chanting and incense would have done much for our spirits anyway. The next morning, it was a cold shower, a meal and a short hike down to the coast to catch the ferry back to Dafni and then to Ouranoupoli.

Whereupon we ran back into the donkey guide of the day before: he did, indeed, get off the peninsula.

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