A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 3 – the monastery of Xenofontos

“So, is there anything I should or shouldn’t do when I’m on Athos?”, I ask Nikolaos, our group leader (o kyrios Nikolaos – Mr Nikolaos – as my fellow pilgrims and I call him) at my pre-pilgrimage briefing. We (Nikolaos, Sofia, my Greek tutor and Nikolaos’s daughter, my wife and I) are sitting in the park near the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki on a beautiful warm summer evening enjoying soft drinks. I’m concerned that, not being Orthodox, I might embarrass my fellow pilgrims.

“Well, there are some things. Don’t run, sing or whistle. No loud laughter. And don’t put your hands in your pockets .”  OK, that doesn’t seem to be too bad. I think I can just about hold myself back from the urge to run around, laughing my head off, whistling and singing with my hands in my pockets.

“One other thing”, I ask him. ‘How do you address a monk?”, thinking that the Greeks use the similar word, Patir, that they use for talking to a priest.

” We say ‘eulogeite’ [bless]. To which the monk replies ‘o Kyrios’ [the Lord, ie ‘may the Lord bless you, often with the right index finger raised, pointing to heaven].” I wasn’t expecting that.

O kyrios Nikolaos also gives me a bit of a potted history of the Holy Mountain and shows me our intended route on a map. There have been isolated groups of monks on Mt Athos since at least the ninth century, but it was St Athanasius the Athonite who started to bring them together into monasteries, founding the very first, the Great Lavra in 963. This was followed by Vatopaidi in 974 and Iviron in 982.

So here I am now, at the monastery of Xenofontos, setting foot on the Holy Mountain for the first time, excited and just a bit anxious about how it’s going to go. Disembarking from our little ferry, we leave our bags on the jetty beneath a wooden verandah and head on up the slope that leads to the monastery gate. I’m a bit dubious about leaving my things there but am re-assured that they will be looked after.

In the main courtyard, there’s a stunning Byzantine katholikon (main church) in white and pink brick glowing in the sun. It looks old, but in fact it was only built a couple of hundred years ago.

The monastery itself as an institution dates back to the 10th-11th century, but generally from the outside the buildings look well maintained and not as old as I was expecting. This is something I notice throughout our pilgrimage. Although the foundations may date back over 1000 years, many have suffered fires and attack by pirates which means that they have been re-built, often several times. Fortunately, Athos has been successful in attracting money (including from the EU) to renovate its monastic buildings because, although many of the monasteries are asset rich, they are also cash poor.

Here are some of the other building surrounding the central courtyard.

As we arrive the celebration of the liturgy is nearing its end in a much smaller church which we can’t get into because it’s already crowded with pilgrims. So we have to stay outside in the narthex listening to the end of the service.

The walls of the narthex are covered with remarkable frescoes of the Revelation of St John – a theme which I come across in the other two monasteries we visit at Iviron and Dionysiou. The picture below shows (from left to right) St John the Theologian being inspired by Christ to write the Revelation, Lucifer’s fall and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Here the multi-headed Antichrist is confronted by the Lamb:

Not sure how the next one fits in as it seems to show the donors who provided the money for the katholikon:

At the end of the liturgy we are taken into a side dining room for breakfast so we don’t get a chance to eat with the monks and see the main refectory. The meal consists of two dishes, a bowl of peas and boiled potatoes in a tasty sauce with bread, followed by a creamy custard pudding with a sprinkle of cinnamon on the top with plain water to drink. It’s much nicer than it sounds. In the monasteries on Athos monks eat two meals a day, lunch after the liturgy and then dinner after Vespers. I am struck by how much of an overhead it is for the monasteries to feed and accommodate a constant stream of pilgrims and how disruptive it must be, in some ways, to their way of life.

After breakfast our group is invited into the katholikon to venerate the icons and for an inspiring talk by one of the monks. The church was built in the early nineteenth century and the frescoes are not particularly interesting though the gold decorations are very impressive:  

Argyrios points out the ostrich eggs hanging from the rich chandelier. There are two explanations for them: they are either there to keep the spiders away or they are exotic decorations.

While my fellow pilgrims lean in for their pep talk, I wonder round looking at the frescoes and in particular a fine Pantokrator in the dome:

On the way out, in the narthex is a fine fresco of Saints Demetrios and George:

There’s a bit of a pause now as we wait in the guest house for our mini-buses to take us on to the monastery where we will be staying the night. From here we are splitting into three groups each visiting different monasteries. The monks bring in very cold water for us to drink and likhoum to eat. I have a chat to an elderly man (not in our group) who’s been coming to Athos 3-4 times a year since 1958 and he tells me every time it’s different. I start to wonder what it is that brings him and so many others (including o kyrios Nikolaos and Arguris) back so often. But before long, the lack of sleep catches up with me and I start to doze off. While we’re all still together in the main courtyard, I take a shot of the whole group for the Association’s newsletter:

I think it’s the only large group shot I have ever taken where everyone is looking at the camera. Probably because to get their attention I say: “As we say in England, say -“, but before I can finish the sentence they all chime in with ‘Cheese!’ (in English). Our leader, o kyrios Nikolaos is at the extreme right of the front row, and my ‘minder’, Argyris, is in the middle of the back row.

Exploring Meteora

Meteora 2Driving across the vast, flat plain of Thessalia, from Volos we are struck by the fertility of the soil and the variety of crops being grown. It feels strange after the landscape of barren soil and olive trees that we are used to in other parts of the country.

Feeling the effects of the scorching sun, we seek some relief by stopping off at Trikala, an unremarkable town famed as the birthplace of Asklipios, Greek god of healing. But the heat from the plain seem to be intensified in the streets of the town and even under the shade of the trees in the central square, it’s hard to cool down. We head off as soon as we can to Kalambaka where we have booked a room for the night.

The reason for this journey across northern Greece is to visit the famous monasteries in the air of Meteora. As we approach, Kalambaka massive grey rock pinnacles like elephants’ legs loom up out of the flatness and uniformity of the plain.  Relaxing on the balcony of our hotel room and recovering from the heat, we start to get a sense of the strangeness of these rock formations.

Meteora 1

The rock face is smooth and pitted, a bit like pumice, but these rocks aren’t volcanic in origin. They are the sedimentary remnants of a sea that covered Thessalia millions of years ago.

Meteora 2

Hermits started to inhabit the caves in the rocks in the late 10th century and in the 14 century two monks, Athanasios and Grigorios from Mount Athos came to live in the area. It was Athanasios who built the first monastery, the Megalou Meteorou in 1344.

Meteora 16

A winding 10km circuit roads with sharp bends takes you round the main monasteries. The first one you encounter on the clockwise circuit is the 14th century Agiou Nikolaou Anapausa, the smallest of the extant monasteries perched on one of the lower peaks.

Meteora 15

As the road climbs up out of the plain more of the monasteries come into sight and the next one on the route is Roussanou, a convent built in the 16th century and dedicated to the Transfiguration and to St Varvara.

Meteora 4

Continuing up the road we come to Varlaam, named after a hermit who scaled the peak and took refuge here in the 14th century, while the monastery started to be built about two hundred years later. It is the most Byzantine in style of all the monasteries in Meteora.Meteora 5

Every view here is a potential photograph and above Varlaam there’s a wonderful natural viewing platform.

Meteora 6

The light is also constantly changing, now spotlighting certain monasteries, now casting others in dramatic light, as in the shot below of the Megalou Meteorou. I could spend days, months even, photographing this ever changing scenery in its many moods. This monastery was founded by St Athanasios, the monk from Mount Athos in the late 14th century.

Meteora 18

It became the richest of the Meteora monasteries when the Serbian Emperor, Symeon Urfos, retired here to become a monk and donated all of his wealth to it.

Meteora 13

Access to Agias Triadas (first build in the 14th century), dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is via a cable car which looks quite old and rickety. Certainly not something you would like to use in a wind.

Meteora 7

The final building on the route round Meteora is the nunnery of Stefanou, first built in the 14th century.

Meteora 9

Despite c.1m visitors Meteora attracts every year  (we were there at the end of the tourist season), it has a wonderfully peaceful, silent atmosphere. I wonder how disruptive visitors are to the life of the monks and how much contact the monks have with them. Can visitors stay in the monasteries, as they can at Mount Athos? Do they have to follow the monastic regime? What is the monastic regime? How do they survive in such solitude? Do they grow their own food? I suppose they make their money from visitors (entrance fee is 2€).

It makes me think again that I would like to do a pilgrimage to the monasteries of Mount Athos. Time to start planning this trip – even if it takes a few years before I get round to it.

It is easy to see what is was that attracted hermits and monks to seek refuge here for contemplation and prayer. When Byzantium fell in 1453, icon painters sought refuge here (as well as at Mount Athos and in Crete) to be able to continue their work.

There are a couple of icon workshops at the bottom of the circuit that cater to tourist buses. Most of the pieces are mass produced, but there are a few icon painters work here. They paint on canvas, having sketched in the outlines first, applying the paint from the darkest to the lightest colours. The painted icon is then glued to an old piece of wood and gold leaf painstakingly applied. The whole process for an A5 size icon takes 2-3 days and they sell for 300€ apiece.

At the second icon workshop we fall into conversation with a Romanian girl who has been working in Greece for 8 years, and a Polish lad who works in Greece during the tourist season (May-October) and then returns home. Both love living in Greece because there’s no stress compared with their homelands. “I feel younger here”, says the Polish lad. They tell me about a senior executive from Siemens in Germany who has retired to this area with his wife to live in peace and quiet away from the stresses of corporate life. Apparently he has his own well and generates electricity from solar panels.

It seems as though Meteora is still attracting people who are seeking refuge from the pressures of daily life.