Mount Athos

Greece

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

In May 2009, after interminable preparations, four middle-aged Englishmen made the pilgrimage-journey to Mount Athos, the sacred eastern finger of the Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece.

 

It was an arduous process even getting there: they laughed the year before, when I tried to obtain diamonitiria, entry visas, in February for a May visit. Only 10 non-orthodox visitors (and 100 Orthodox) are allowed in each day, and you now have to apply 6 months in advance. Other than these outsiders, the population is [almost] entirely monastic.

 

Athos is truly unique, a self-governing monastic peninsula some 56km long and 8km across; nestling in its gorges and forests, or looming on seaside crags, are 20 monasteries and a plethora of sketes – villages of operationally independent monks who live idiorrhythmic (self-regulating) lives, gathering perhaps for Sunday worship – and hermitages. At its height, there were tens of thousands of monks here; there are now approaching 2,000, a significant recovery from mid-20th century decline that saw numbers fall to 1,145 and the monasteries falling apart. The mountain is pan-Orthodox: there are establishments for Russians, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians. The mountain is dedicated to the Theotokos, the mother of God, and no women (or beardless youths or female animals – this is Greece) are allowed on the peninsula. When you land here, you are entering a very different world, and not just spiritually: normal existence is soon remote, and its concerns irrelevant.

 

Athos is only accessible by sea, and we are at last working down the western coast in a speedy little ferry out of Ouranopoli, the departure-port in the far north of the peninsula.  Our route had been carefully planned, and we are heading toward the quay below Kavsokalivia on the wild, precipitous south coast. You are only allowed on the mountain for four days, but may not stay more than one night in any one place, so you have to move to a new monastery or skete each day. Much of the peninsula is now scarred with vehicle tracks, and you can potter about by bus. We want to travel the traditional way – on foot along the ancient paths and mule tracks that used to be the only way around – to Athos’ remotest places. This means heading for the rugged south, which is still only accessible on foot or by boat. Here, the marble peak of the sacred mountain looms in lonely pomp, at 2,030m the highest point for miles around.

 

With growing excitement, we pass names we have read about: the gloomy, empty Russian barracks of Panteleimonos, Simopetra on its vast crag, delightful Grigoriou and Dionysiou perched above the sea, dreary Pavlou, then the scattered sketes and hermitages of the desert, clinging to the cliffs below the great mountain. And then…..

 

Day 1

 

…..we are finally here: the gang plank rests on the tiny sloping quay, and I am ashore on sacred soil – well, concrete. This is an important moment, which I have been struggling to organize for a year. For a scintilla, I have an urge to kiss the ground, but it is covered in mule droppings and I know that my friends will not be able to resist sending me sprawling in it.

 

With a growl, the ferry has backed off, and we are alone by the glassy sea. We lace up our boots, shoulder our alarmingly heavy packs and start up the steep track behind the cove. Light and space are replaced by a riot of vegetation, with glimpses across to the scattered chapels and dwellings of the Kavsokalivia skete. We wind past somnolent cottages and patches of vegetables, skirting the hillside above the dome of the church.

 

Beyond the skete, we contour the precipitous hillside on an ancient track, now high above the sea. This is the peninsula's southern flank, the “Athonite desert”, so called for the many hermits of earlier times, suffering here alone in the manner pioneered by the early fathers of the Levantine badlands. We are winding through varied, vibrant scrub – called maquis by some, although I had understood that this vegetation is unique to Corsica.

 

We round a corner into a tremendous gorge, across which is a formidable grey cliff – 800ft or 1,000ft high? The scale is deceptive here. The hermitage of the mediaeval saint Nilos perches in a cleft in its upper reaches. 

 

We labour up to Agios Nilos on the ridgetop behind the cliffs. It is 2.30pm, and sweltering, though only mid May. Patrick nearly treads on a basking adder, which sulkily slithers away, hissing loudly. We are glad to reach a “fountain” (pipe and tap) and drop our packs for lunch, each eating idiorrhythmically from our own food stashes.

 

After a trudge across a broiling slope of scree which drops, inexorably, for well over 1,000ft to the sea, and a heavy clamber up a long scrubby hillside, we reach a cross which proclaims the high ridge of the peninsula’s south-west corner. Far below, the Grand Lavra, the oldest monastery on the mountain, glows like a drop of honey in the late afternoon sun. It is larger than many Oxbridge colleges and is reminiscent of Carcasonne, with its walls, towers and battlements.

 

The Lavra is being extensively restored – over-restored, purist, romantics and I would all argue: a pair of cranes hover over it, many roofs have been swankily retiled with expensive stone and most of the walls have been scrubbed and repointed. EU money, it transpires (they aren’t modest about their largesse).

 

Inside the magnificent double gateway, we pass a small chapel and clamber up a steep staircase to the guesthouse on the second floor of an imposing block to the left. Tables and seats are set about an airy loggia: we drop our packs and sink gratefully onto benches by the balustrade.

 

The surprisingly young guestmaster, who is wearing camouflage trousers and a black t-shirt, is friendly and helpful. He is probably an assistant, given the scale of the operation here – it turns out that there are 70 guests tonight. We sign in and are shown to a room for four. Result! Back on the terrace, our new friend gives us water, raki and Turkish Delight, while he explains the agenda: straight into vespers, which has been running for some time, then supper across the courtyard in the great refectory, then back to the katholikon to continue worship.

 

There is no time to change (other than our boots), so off we trot. After a brief hover in a long, light-filled exo-narthex (vestibule), we enter the narthex, the outer church, in which maybe 40 people, monks and laymen, are listening to the service that emanates through the doors from the inner realms. The narthex is lined with high-armed seats, on whose misericords we park our posteriors for much of the time. It is dark, with wall paintings dimly suggested and the moulding of icon frames gleaming in the candlelight. What we see of our companions depends on the vagaries of the fall of light. Numerous heavily-bearded monks, of course, and Balkan-looking pilgrims in varying degrees of over-weight shown to fine advantage by tight polo shirts.

 

People come and go and move around the room, kissing icons and peering through to the inner church. An important monk is seated by a pillar in front of me: all I can see of him is a dangling hand illuminated by a shaft of light, which passing pilgrims bend to kiss. It is very grand, and very formal.

 

The service is incomprehensible to me, being in Byzantine Greek. It feels as remote from me as Tibetan Buddhism (by which I am nevertheless much moved) – but then I recognize, with a pang of joy, the chanting flowing on to Kyrie Eleison.

 

There is a break at 6.30 for supper. We line the way from the main church as the monks process, behind the Abbot, holder of a thousand year old office and commensurately dignified, out through the narthex and the glowing exo-narthex and past the vast, classical stone basin outside. Across the yard with its ancient cypresses is the refectory, fronted by an arcade of oddly-assorted classical columns, one once fluted but now so worn that it is nearly round – a few centuries in the sea, perhaps? We follow meekly.

 

I am stopped by an grey-bearded old monk with humorous eyes, who tells us he was once a sailor and stayed with relatives in Barry in South Wales in 1963: "A very nice country, England. I liked it very much."

 

The refectory is one of Athos' great buildings, a long, cruciform space covered in mediaeval paintings. On either side of the central aisle are perhaps 16 huge, monolothic marble tables in the shape of elongated “D”s. They are wide-rimmed for our plates; jugs of water and (outstandingly indifferent) rosé wine and plates of bread and olives stand in the lower centre, which has blocked holes which perhaps once discharged slops onto the floor. They are hundreds of years old. We later see a wall painting in Thessaloniki depicting the Last Supper being eaten off just such a table.

 

We sit with some ten other visitors and eat in silence while a holy text is read aloud, watching each other covertly. Our fellow eaters look, as is appropriate, like simple, true believers – and also, with their cropped hair and beer bellies, like veterans of some nameless Balkan massacre.

 

We have been warned that meals are eaten at speed, and you have to stand and leave when the Abbot does, so we gobble down our cold spaghetti, then find we have leisure to contemplate our incipient indigestion and survey the marvels of the chamber while the reading drones on. Black walls sport ranks of severe, stylized saints, a high ceiling is supported by ancient beams and windows admit a hazy, Turneresque light, a surprising effulgence for such an ancient chamber. Then a bell rings, the Bible stand is promptly folded away, almost in mid sentence, and the Abbot rises and processes out between lines of monks and bowing pilgrims.

 

Then it is back to the katholikon for the continued service. After some time digesting contemplatively in the narthex, the pilgrims seem to be called through to the heart of the church, and we follow. A protocol-enforcing monk instructs me, with a clicked tongue and gesture, to put my hands over my genitals rather than behind my back.

 

The heart of the katholikon is darkly numinous. At the centre is a fine iconostasis, with the monastery’s relics – assorted caskets and silver forearms – on a table below it. To each side are apses lined with seats; the walls above are covered in paintings, icons hung haphazardly over them. A couple of magnificent icons have particular prominence in elaborate free-standing structures – mini gothic spires in a Hellenic world. Monks and pilgrims shuffle round, kissing icons and relics.

 

The courtyard outside is bathed in mellow evening light. I sit a while on the retaining wall around a contorted cypress, my heels scraping old capitals and carved fragments that must already have seen much when they were conscripted into their current positions.

 

Up by the main gate, another service is in progress in a little chapel. We perch in the light-filled narthex. But it is coming to an end, and, feeling slightly short-changed, we are soon following the monks back outside.

 

Athos’ monasteries close at sundown, so we head out through the gates to savour the fading day. The walls, the olive groves and the sea a few hundred feet below are bathed in golden light. We circumambulate the walls, which have been heavily restored, although some very decrepit sections speak of the centuries of decline before the recent renaissance and inflow of funds. Wooden balconies protrude from the upper stories, some of them ready to collapse if a mouse were to venture onto them, let alone a well-fed monk.

 

Back inside, we repair to our room to discuss the day, inspect our room more thoroughly and, I am sorry to say, establish dialogue with our whisky. In the centre of the outside wall is a wood-burning stove which feeds an elaborate system of heat-radiating brick columns. Windows on each side frame views of hillside and sea. A couple of posts support the ceiling by the door. The floor is linoleum, the walls painted white.

 

We are a bit euphoric and become – we think – funny. Much is discussed. The bathrooms are on the floor below, which means walking the length of the loggia, where there is now quite a gathering of pilgrims round an old monk expounding on some point of theology. Charlie speeds off to wash wearing only his boxers. Patrick stops him when he has the door open, averting an international incident. Charlie says that, on reaching the loggia and realizing his error, his instinct would have been to leg it for the bathroom, thus necessitating a return run of the gauntlet.

 

A poor night's sleep with varied but by no means sonorous snoring and night noises.

 

Day 2

 

Four strange automata emerge into the cool half light at 6.30 the next morning, some time after the Matins service started. Not impressive, given our plans to participate in the monastic routine.

 

We join the service at 6.45. I reflect fuzzily on god, the world and meaning, as the incomprehensible but inspiring chanting proceeds, beautiful in its structure if not its detailed delivery.

 

The monks lead us back into the vivid morning light of the courtyard and across to the refectory, where we tuck into hunks of delicious stewed fish, olive oil mashed potatoes and wine: a "first" at breakfast (well, since university, anyway) - and in a monastery, too. We again eat unnecessarily quickly under the steady gaze of the serried saints.

 

We return to the service, making a hurried exit to pack and get out of our room, which we have promised to leave by 8.

 

We will be heading westward, high above the southern coast, toward the Kerasia skete, and set off in the morning calm, climbing steadily back up the hillside to the high ridge. It is beautiful walking, the vegetation vivid in the ascending sun. We stop at a “fountain” (a pipe trickling fresh, cold water into a long trough), where we chat with some sweet-natured pilgrims from Athens. They are not walkers: although they have all the kit, they are turning back to the Lavra to get a bus up the coast.

 

At the cross, we snack and Charlie and I snooze briefly, prone on a large, knobbly, sun-warmed rock.

 

We hoist on our packs and branch away from yesterday's trail, climbing steadily around the southern slopes of the holy mountain, through thick maquis, now well above yesterday's scree slope.

 

We enter a fine forest of oak and chestnut and then labour up a steep, slithery path to the gentle forested slopes beneath the vast, smooth lower cliffs of Athos proper. This is ravishing walking, though perhaps not as extravagantly furnished as yesterday's trail high above the sea.

 

We lunch, by a vigorous and freezing spring, on bread, salami and cheese procured by the thoughtful Reggie.

 

A steady walk through lovely woodland, changing subtly as, presumably, we pass through different microclimates, gets us somewhere above Kerasia. We take a path downhill and reach the main church and monastery buildings at 4pm, after wandering through the dispersed houses and terraces of the skete's upper reaches and beginning what would have been a disastrous descent down a gorge toward the skete’s quay nearly 2,000ft below, fortunately brought to a halt by Reggie, may eternal blessings be upon him, before we have gone too far.

 

There is something delightful and deeply moving about Kerasia. The contrast with the thousand-year grandeur of the Lavra could not be greater. A simple grey stone church is sheltered from the profane world by a jumble of very unprepossessing buildings, with a scruffy but charming terrace by the entrance. There are no classical columns or ancient wall paintings here.

 

There is little sign of life, so Charlie and I poke cautious noses round the front door. Through a window to the left are two ancient, grey-headed monks preparing vegetables. We tap, timidly at first, but then increasingly hard: they are very deaf. At last one sees us and raises a hand. We retreat to our rightful place, outside this private space.

 

Father Ephthemios, the guestmaster, emerges shortly afterwards. A wealth of grey hair and beard and a deeply weathered face frame a pair of remarkable pale blue-grey eyes. He has a direct, honest but shrewd manner and radiates goodness. He is utterly charming in the plainest of ways. It is love at first sight. His English is excellent – he did a course through the British Council. He lived in Colorado at some point, and one suspects he lived pretty fully before withdrawing to the Holy Mountain.

 

They live very simply here and take us in kindly, although Ephthemios deflects us when we ask to join a service. We feel guilty, in a way, being here, given the disturbance to the monks’ rhythms that we cause – yet hospitality to pilgrims has been an essential part of Athonite life from the beginning, and they treat it as normal and right. Here, as elsewhere, they express surprise at our being British; they have few visitors from our godless, or at least heretical, land.

 

Ephthemios shows us to the guesthouse, a large room of the utmost simplicity: hard beds with blankets but no sheets; bare, splintery floorboards, thin curtains and, no doubt, a freezing draught in winter. An ascetic room, fitting for this ascetic community.

 

We sit in the sun on the terrace and absorb the peace, beauty and emanations of the place. If there is a God, he is here. Kerasia perches among tiny fields that tumble to a cleft that drops, close to sheer at times, some 600m to the often turbulent waters of the south coast, where Darius’ great Persian invasion fleet was lost in 492BC, the first of Greece’s great escapes from their powerful “barbarian” neighbours. On each side are huge limestone cliffs. The terraces are dotted with small monastic households; this is an idiorrhythmic skete, so these groups live by their independent systems, gathering for ocasional services and functions.

 

At 5pm, Ephthemios brings a tray laden with supper: spaghetti with a tomato sauce; a fresh, delicious salad; and cheese, presumably not home-grown.

 

A brisk, moustached man and his young son arrive and ensconce themselves in a corner of the guestroom. The father is well known here and is greeted warmly. He disappears into the monastery, leaving the boy tucked up in bed. He is soon bored, bored, bored and flickers a little red spotlight around the room. Given the famous prohibition on women and beardless youths,  his presence is a surprise, but maybe he doesn't count as a "youth".

 

Meanwhile, outside, we wait for the evening sun to dip below the ridge, musing on our experiences and this extraordinary place. It is almost Chinese in its lack of prettification and the haphazard clutter lying about, yet has integrity and beauty – not just in the views and surroundings. Some whisky is drunk, ingloriously concealed in water bottles, as the light fades.

 

Then we strike lucky: we get talking to a ruddy-cheeked young monk, who leads us to his workshop up the hill, where he produces the most exquisite marquetry: we inspect icon frames, bookstands and various boxes at all stages of production. It is truly a labour of love. Their work is all over the mountain: we saw one of their plinths at the Lavra yesterday, and will encounter a stand at Agia Anna tomorrow.  

 

It is almost dark when we squeak through the guestroom to our suitably hard beds.

 

Day 3

 

We are up at 6, after a night of snorings and creaky comings and goings. We breakfast on bread, two cheeses and the skete's own spring onions, in the cool calm of the terrace. Dear Fr. Epthemios comes to see us off – probably to ensure we are off.

 

We toil back up to the high path, where we turn west toward Agia Anna. After a few minutes, we reach the Athos turn-off at the junction with the ridge high over Kerasia. Here we repack, so we have food and clothes for the climb in one bag (carried by the noble Skinner), and hang the remaining packs on trees out of sight of the path and out of reach of wild dogs and the like.

 

We climb through bright and varied maquis, enjoying huge views across the sharp peak above Kerasia and the quiet sea to Sithonia, the middle finger of the Halkidiki Peninsula.

 

We enter a magnificent oak forest, then a belt of small Aleppo pines and fresh-leaved deciduous trees, traversing the side of a beautiful ravine. Ahead, the vegetation thins and we gaze up to broken rock and struggling little pines far above.

 

After two hours, we reach the chapel of Panaghias, which commmands from its ridge the drama of the south coast: forest, scrub and cliffs tumbling to the sea where  Darius’ fleet was wrecked. Inside are a well, a simple little chapel and a dormitory room, currently used by workers on the peak. We munch sugary things while gorging on the view: a very satisfying double feast.

 

From here to the summit is a 1.5 hr slog up an interminable but at least well built switchback, then round the hillside to clamber up to the peak ridge. The views are never less than magnificent, although it is now very hot and a tedious trudge. The full glory to the north and east is not, however, apparent until almost the last moment, when we crest the ridge just below the peak. It extracts an involuntary gasp. To the north, more than 1,000m below us, the peninsula snakes toward the hazy isthmus where Xerxes, Darius’ son, built a canal for his invasion fleet: whether as a demonstration of power or to avoid the fate of his father's fleet is unclear. The centre is thickly wooded, although now sullied by a network of vehicle tracks. Facing us on a hillside some 11km away is Karyes, the capital of the monastic polity, where its governing council sits. The east coast is dotted with buildings, from grand monasteries to lonely little hermitages.

 

On the other side of the east-west ridges is the wild south coast, 2,000 sheer-seeming metres below. And all around, a still, pale, hazy sea and a still, pale, hazy sky recede to their invisible junction.

 

Robert Byron claimed to be able to see Olympus and Troy from here. I think not.

 

The trudge back down to the chapel, the tree-line and finally our packs is beautiful, but increasingly painful for our knees and ankles. Re-entering the world of tree and shrub and descending at some speed though changing eco-zones is magical, as are the views throughout.

 

We are nearly mown down by an out-of-control mule train as we rearrange our packs. After some food and drink, we set off along the hillside toward the Agia Anna skete, our destination for tonight. This is excellent walking through alternating shrub and forest with occasional views across the midday sea, although I am beyond enjoying it to its full, and a fairly unrelenting pace is maintained.

 

We drop into the limestone chasm which descends to Agia Anna, zig-zagging painfully down a steep, slippery path through woodland and then wild rockfall. Cliffs and pinnacles soar above us. Just when it has stopped being any fun at all, we are suddenly among the precarious houses and terraces of St Anna, and then through the gate of the main complex, the mountain’s oldest skete but in structure a mini-monastery of high walls surrounding a katholikon, guest lodgings and monks' cells around a courtyard with the sort of view, on the fourth side, that could cost hundreds a night on the Amalfi coast: terraces, dotted with monastic housing, dropping to the shimmering, metallic sea some 300m below.

 

Then comes a moment of stress: I have been unable to contact the guestmaster to arrange to stay, and he looks distinctly unfriendly. We are told to wait on the terrace, and sit, gloomily surveying the magnificent view.

 

Our fellow pilgrims watch us curiously but not particularly benignly. They are Serbs, we decide. They are summoned to supper at 5, and we are left on our own, decidedly depressed at the prospect of a long walk on to the next monastery, with no guarantee of a bed there. Then our world changes on the guestmaster's wave. We trot meekly down to the refectory – smart and new, with wooden ceilings and bright wall paintings. It has echoes of a cheap and cheerful ski restaurant. We wolf down a delicious minestrone-and-rice soup, olives, bread and the inevitable rough wine.

 

Back upstairs, the guestmaster, stern, unsmiling and very black-bearded, checks our diamonitiria and logs us in. I am first up. After various questions  of the “father's name” variety, he asks me my religion.

 

"Christian".

 

This is not enough and I realize may seem facetious. I am about to enlarge, when he asks if I am a Catholic. I know that the Athonites really hate Catholics, so I quickly clarify:

 

"No, English Protestant".

 

"Ah, Anglicano".

 

"Yes".

 

"A heretic."

.

What does an Englishman do when faced with an exchange like this? Emit a nervous giggle. Wrong reaction. His eyebrows gather and darken.

 

"No, you are a heretic. That is very bad. You should be Orthodox."

 

(Weakly, almost falsetto) "I have come to learn."

 

This exchange encapsulates an essence of the Holy Mountain: that some things really have changed little since the Middle Ages, and beliefs are often held with a fierce narrowness. There can be a Life of Brian aspect to dealings with some of the incumbents.

 

We are shown to our clean if Spartan room for three (noble Charlie has volunteered to sleep in a garret above the katholikon).   We watch the evening comings and goings from a wooden balcony in the external wall. After washing away the day’s toils, we sit on the terrace and admire the sun descending through layers of cloud. It is a heavy, vaporous evening, and the setting sun throws a dull trail on a pregnant, metallic sea. We return to our room to consider our "water" supply.

 

We are about to turn in when a long-threatened electrical storm erupts; we rush to the terrace to revel in the whole panoply of Jovian effects rolling up the channel between us and Sithonia.

 

There is a curious late night incident: Reggie gets the impression that I have polished off his box of delicious toffee. Very strange.

 

Day 4

 

I am woken twice in the night by Reggie, who thinks I am snoring (it was Patrick) – or is he getting his toffee revenge? Up grumpily at 6.15, having meant to be up at 5.45, but not being woken as promised. Time is short, with a planned 7am departure. I scurry into the katholikon for the morning service. The little narthex is very dark indeed, lit only by a sand box stuck with candles. All 15 or so seats are occupied, so I hover by the door to the inner church with my hands carefully in the right place, shuffling out of the way as a newcomer lights a candle or heads my way to kiss the icon on the far wall. As I get used to the light, I can see pilgrims and monks sitting on the usual misericords, their elbows on the high armrests, occasionally standing and crossing themselves. Someone leaves and I take his seat. The ancient monk next to me does not move, and his eyes remain closed. Is he meditating deeply, or asleep? The chanted service is very powerful, hypnotic even, though – perhaps because – I do not understand a word. A deeply affecting few minutes.

 

I scamper out to pack for a late and slightly irritable departure at 7.20. The walk immediately cheers us up, though: we wind round the hillside, through olive groves, into a gulley and then back out to an over-restored-to-newness chapel on the next ridge.

 

Then we are out on the glorious mountainside,  meandering through the vivid scrub high above the sea. We were planning to skirt above Theotokou, called the "New Skete” although dating from the eighteenth century, and then contour round the coast to Pavlou Monastery. We find, however, that a vehicle track has been cut which appears to take a higher, more direct, route toward Pavlou. This we take, as we need to make good time if we are to make the last ferry at the port of Dafni, but this is probably a mistake as it is an ugly, dreary scar from which we see little. This road building has been a disaster for the integrity and beauty of the Athonite landscape: these tracks wind all over the hills to the north of the Mountain, and are causing the disuse and disappearance of the ancient paths which linked the monasteries and which are so inspiring to follow. Our track is so new it is not on the map. No doubt the communities have good reason for wanting them, but they are reducing the area’s mystique[,to which inaccessibility and timelessness were integral].

 

It starts to rain lightly.

 

We get a fine view of Pavlou across its valley. It is not the most beautiful of the monasteries: with high terracing below, a huge wall behind it and rather barrack-like accommodation by its entrance, it has an austere, even grim, appearance. Inside it is gloomy, getting on for claustrophobic. It has been heavily done up, an EU notice proclaiming the source of the funds.

 

We descend the wide new wound of a road to the shore, and turn north again. We pass a ruined tower in a hillside of bright yellow broom, then tackle one of the day's two strenuous climbs, at times a scramble, up to another glorious path which winds through the limestone spires of the cliffside. We round a bend and meet a gasp-inducing sight: beautiful Dionysiou on its spine a couple of hundred feet above the sea. A perfect spot for a late breakfast, which we attack with gusto. Dionysiou turns out to be a touching and attractive muddle of buildings, crammed into its narrow site – no symmetrical enlightenment quadrangles on Athos, here in particular. Better still, we happen on a service, slipping into the katholikon’s thin exo-narthex to perch on high seats and hear a profoundly moving sung liturgy. The longer we are on the mountain, the easier it is to immerse ourselves in an experience that we only sketchily understand. It is 9.30, and the service has presumably been going on, with a break for food, since the early hours.

 

We creep out, blinking, to explore the monastery. It has also been much restored, to our ignorant eyes comparatively well and sympathetically.

 

We drop down to the shore, then tackle the day's toughest climb, 160m (500ft) up onto the cliffs for 1.5 hours of magnificent walking in vivid maquis. The sun is back out, and the colours sing.

 

What turns out to be our final monastery, Grigoriou, appears round a corner: yet another delightful organic jumble on a rock above the sea. It is an agreeable place: it is remarkable what different personalities the monasteries seems to have – although much is no doubt an accident of history and building space. You approach Grigoriou through a voluptuous garden (all right, but it feels that way after the at times dour asceticism of the rest of the mountain). The fine gatehouse leads into a vine-shaded courtyard; a tunnel through an ancient block takes you on to the charmingly misshapen inner courtyard (good thing it isn’t a vegetable trying to pass EU muster), with the church and what looks like the refectory at odd angles and heights, and pots of geraniums beneath a wall painting of the Theotokos on the seaward side.

 

A chat with a pair of Austrians causes us to change plans and catch a boat here, rather than trudge on to Dafni. A very good decision: we luxuriate on the terrace outside the monastery with its sea view and midday shade, then potter down to the harbour, where monks are discoursing (and one washing his socks in the sea) as they wait for the ferry. This turns out to be a more traditional Greek island-hopper, which chugs on round the southern corner to Kavsokalivia, our starting point, then turns back, past Pavlou, Dionyisiou, Grigoriou and the amazingly sited Simopetra on its impregnable looking rock, to Dafni and then on northward to re-enter the quotidian world back at Ouranopoli. The journey takes several magical hours, punctuated by exclamations as we spot some feature we now know, old hands as we are. 

 

Emerging from Athonite seclusion is discombobulating, even after only four days there. Your sense of time and priorities will already have started to atrophy, and the world and its worries will seem flimsy. But it is refreshing to exchange a land of beards and body odour (and we didn't get that close to them, unlike some of our predecessors, if their stories are to be believed) for one with a feminine dimension other than the Theotokos.

 

 

 

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