A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 10- return to Ouranoupoli

Dafni is a small port with a cafe, one shop and a Customs House, and it’s full of people waiting for the ferry to take them on to other monasteries or make the return journey to Ouranoupoli. At mid-morning It’s already hot and although there is some sort of queue in operation we make our way straight into the Customs House for some shade.

Nikolaos has disappeared, re-appearing suddenly near the head of the queue and asking us to pass our bags through a window. Not surprisingly this leads to an argument with two people at the head of the queue who seem to have bought up several monasteries’ worth of honey and red wine. A few people justifiably point out that we should remember we’re on the Holy Mountain. However, Nikolaos has presence and commands respect. For some reason he seems intent on getting us to the head of the queue and he shuts down the most vociferous complainer by telling him “We don’t fight with words in Greece’. As quickly as it flared up, things cool down and I distract myself from the slightly uneasy atmosphere we have created by taking pictures of the pilgrims, mainly monks, disembarking from the ferry.

I am intrigued by the difference between priests’ and monks’ hats (called in Greek kalymaukhi). Argyrios explained that a priest’s hat has an overhanging edge, while a monk’s is round with no edge. While we were on the Holy Mountain, monks from a completely different monastery sent him greetings because they had heard that he was there. He called it Radio Kalymaukhi – Holy Mountain jungle drums.

On board the Axion Estin we head up to the top deck to get good seats under shade. The ferry calls in at all the main monasteries on the way back to Ouranoupoli, including the Russian monastery of Panteleimontos that I only saw from a distance on the outward journey. The monastery was originally founded in the 11th century by monks from Kievan Rus, but the modern monastery in its current location dates to the late 19th century. A lot of building is still going on and the monastery looks shiny and new.

One character we bump into again on the ferry is an elderly man in a very tatty, dirty robe, bleached almost white by the sun.

He moves around the ferry selling religious trinkets, mainly komposkini (prayer ropes). Aygyrios tells me he is an unlicensed monk and I wonder if he is affiliated to any particular monastery.

The sea is beautifully calm and a deep blue colour. Apparently the clear water is so deep in places that submarines come in and shelter under the shadow of Athos. Some of the pilgrims try and attract seagull to take bread out of their hands as head into Ouranoupoli.

Approaching the jetty I notice the Tower for the first time and wonder how I managed to miss it when we left a couple of day ago. I am going to do a separate blog post about Ouranoupoli because it is interesting in its own right.

It’s 2.15 and we are all quite hungry after our very frugal breakfast. We celebrate the end of our pilgrimage in a fish taverna by the beach, drinking water and ice cold ouzo and eating tzatziki, calamari, whitebait, a tender, grilled, smokey octopus (some of the finest I have ever tasted), melitsana salata and lightly fried aubergine strips. Our coach leaves at 4.15 and we are back in Thessaloniki by 6.30.

In addition to a post about Ouranoupoli, I will also do one on my overall impressions of the pilgrimage, an expanded version of the one I wrote in Greek for the Association’s newsletter.




A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 9 – leaving Dionysiou

Awoke early this morning at about 5.00. Nikolaos said he would wake me up but didn”t say at what time. He knocks on the door about 6.00 and comes in fully dressed, ready to attend the Liturgy. After washing, dressing and packing I set off to join my fellow pilgrims at the Liturgy and, passing the kitchen, I hear a murmurring of voices and pop in to find out what’s going on.

A group of pilgrims are sitting around listening to one of the Elders speaking and answering questions. Nikolaos invites me to join them and have some Khalkidiki olives, brown bread and a very subtle mountain tea., our simple breakfast today. As I dip in and out of the conversation, it seems a bit random. At one point the Elder is asking about hydration and health to which the answer is to drink more water and judge it by the colour of the urine. Someone asks him whether it’s possible for someone who is dying to come and die on the Holy Mountain. I can’t make out the answer, but the Elder then into a story about someone who after a meal dropped down dead after walking about 10 steps from the Refectory.

At some point the conversation turns to Archbishop Kallistos and the Elder asks me if I know him. I say that I knew him slightly at university when he was a parish priest, Father Kallistos. He asks me the correct English translation of the Jesus prayer. He finishes many of  his sentences with the phrase: ‘Glory to God’.

After a while I slip out on to the balcony overlooking the sea and watch the sky lighten, feeling very calm and peaceful, and enjoying the fresh morning air

After more tea, bread and olives I go and sit in the courtyard whose stillness and peace is wonderful to experience. Of course, I am still carrying my camera and am conscious that it must look as if I have no intention of keeping the rule of not taking pictures in the monastery.  The truth is I have nowhere else to keep it and have strict instructions from Nikolaos to keep it on me rather than in my bag.

While waiting for the Abbot to appear so that I can say a personal thank you to him for the gift of the icon, I take another look at the the frescoes depicting the Revelation. To the right of the entrance to the katholikon is a fresco with the Virgin and Child with St John and St Pakhomios (one of the founders of monasticism). According to Argyrios, this is one of the finest sequences of frescoes on Mt Athos. The detail is extraordinary: plagues of locust; the 7 trumpets; a wonderful four horsemen of the apocalypse; the angel who fell from heaven out of pride; the final battle of Armageddon; a scene with stars falling out of the sky looking like a battlefield of the First World War; Christ in judgement; and the Beast of Babylon, with multiple heads like roaring lions on long necks.

Argyrios points out that some of the eyes have been gouged out of the frescoes: the Crusaders and the Turks, thinking that the eyes in frescoes had magic properties, cut them out to make a potion to treat eye problems.

To the right of the entrance to the Refectory sits a superb porphyry throne. The Refectory itself is decorated with frescoes of the saints and has a beautifully wooden pulpit decorated in gold and red stripes. I could easily spend half a day just looking at the frescoes – though doing it without being able to take any pictures would be quite a trial. The pronaos to the church has many depictions of martyrdom, including the decapitation of St George.

Suddenly I am alerted to the imminent arrival of the Abbot, a tallish, thin man with a wispy beard, carrying a leather briefcase. He’s in a hurry to catch the fast water taxi to Karyes. I manage to express my thanks to him and then he’s off down to the arsenas in a pick up truck and offers to take all our bags down with him and leave them on the jetty.

The final visit of our pilgrimage at Dionysiou is to what the monks call the ‘School of Philosophy’, the monastic cemetery which dates back to 1375.

The quote is from the Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 3, verse 1: ‘But the souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment of death will touch them.’

The entrance and the pathways round the cemetery have been made by the monks using black and white pebbles stood on end, in simple but patterns. Inside, to the left of the cemetery porch, is a small extension with gold painted doors. This contains the tomb of St Niphon, Patriarch of Constantinople, who retired to the monastery in the mid 15th century to live as a simple monk.The tomb is covered in glass enclosing a full length icon of the saint.

To the right of this extension is a most incredible sight: a grill about 3ft x 21/2ft behind which you can see the skulls of all the monks who have died at the monastery, each with their name written on them. The piled up skulls stretch back into the depths of the building. The rest of the bones are contained in an open stone building half way along the cemetery on the left hand side, looking as if they have just been tossed in there at random. The bones are a reminder to the monks of death – hence the reference to the cemetery as the school of philosophy. At the far end of the cemetery are the graves of four monks who died within the past 3 years or so, all of good ages (the oldest was 94 and the youngest 76). The 94 year old was a celebrated writer on spiritual matters.

On the way back down to the arsenas, Argyrios points out a medieval loo and its shoot on the side of the cliff face. The old pathway up to the monastery with its lethal deep steps is still visible.This is the path that Argyrios and Nikos used to take when they started coming to Athos: it must have been very tough and dangerous to climb up it even without hand luggage or backpacks.

After a 15 minute wait our ferry arrives to take us to the port of Dafni where we will catch another ferry to take us back to Ouranoupoli.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 8 – Dionysiou

Leaving Karyes we pick up the rough road to the port of Dafni and after a brief wait climb aboard the boat to travel on to the monastery of Dionysiou. On the way we pass the monastery of Kheiropotamou; Simonopetra perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea; and several cells scattered along the cliffs.


Dionysiou is close to the Holy Mountain

and has a very dramatic setting, hanging off the cliff  high above the sea.

Once on land again I realise just high up it is as the road zigzags steeply up to the main gate. It’s a tough climb in this heat, but inside it’s a Byzantine jewel. The outer walls and the main gates are very solid: I don’t think I have ever seen such thick ones.

We are welcomed with a shot of 44% pure ouzo, lokhoumi and ice cold water – a perfect combination. Then we are shown into the very modern guest house that has a fine wooden interior.

This time I am allocated to a room of my own that I later find out is normally used by senior visiting clergy.

I collapse on the bed and, after a refershing cold shower, fall into a deep sleep for a couple of hours before venturing out to explore, camera and voice recorder in hand.

Signs forbid the taking of photographs inside the monastery and the inner area is actually quite small. So here is my problem. Nikolaos and Argyrios have warned me to keep my camera on me at all times in case it gets stolen. I don’t have a small backpack to put it in, so the only way to keep it with me is to carry it around with me. It is not however a small camera. Far from it. It’s a great chunk of Nikon DSLR and there’s no way to disguise the fact that I have a camera in my hand. The main courtyard is very beautiful . I sit in its calm atmosphere on the low wall of a portico taking it all in. In front of me is the mid 16th century katholikon. To my left under the portico hangs a large metal semantron. To my left at the end of the courtyard is a beautifully decorated three storey building. At ground level it has 2 Byzantine arches. Levels 2 and 3 have balconies with semantra and talanta hanging on them. At the top of the building is a bell and a clock surrounded by a colourful fresco which strangely doesn’t seem to be of a religious nature..

The temptation is too strong and I take a few shots.

About 5 minutes later a monk approaches me and asks if I speak Greek. He then tells me not to take photographs. A few minutes later I hear a monk striking a wooden talanton somewhere in the depths of the monastery, so I grab my recorder and press record.

Nikolaos shows me the series of frescoes depicting the Revelation of St John under the portico leading from the refectory to the katholikon. He points out how modern-looking some of the frescoes are: one shows what appears to be a bombardment, another a mushroom cloud, and yet another flying machines. As we admire them, one of our fellow pilgrims approaches and tell Nikolaos that a monk has informed him that we must not take photographs or make recordings. I was hoping to be able to record the Liturgy and, sensing my disappointment, Nikolaos promises to have a word with the Igoumenos (Abbot) before tomorrow.

Vespers seemed shorter this evening, either that or I am getting more used to Orthodox services. I notice that the clock in the church seems to be 4 hours ahead, so perhaps here is tangible evidence that we are on Byzantine time.

Dinner at Dionysiou is not as formal as at Iviron and is good: gigantes, rice, bread, red wine and water. After dinner the monastery sets out its main relics in the katholikon for us pilgrims to venerate. I tag along at the end, bowing out of respect at each relic as I pass along the line of them.

Out on a balcony overlooking the sea, an Elder is giving a teaching to any pilgrims who wish to listen. He’s talking about St Stephen, the first saint and martyr. Argyrios points out to me that as the Elder is speaking he continues to pray, moving the prayer rope (komposkoini) in his left hand. The continual telling of the prayer rope wears the nail on the thumb down. Unceasing prayer whatever you’re doing, specifically the constant repetition of petition ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ is the Heychast practice of Athos.

Time for a walk, so I leave the monastery to follow a cliff path and watch the sun go down over the Aegean (or is it the Thracian Sea?) this beautiful evening. It is so peaceful, calm and still.

On my way back into the monastery I meet Nikolaos who tells me that he has spoken to the Igoumenos who confirms that he doesn’t want me to take photographs or make recordings in the monastery. By way of an apology, the Igoumenos has given me a personal gift of an icon of the Mother of God. Feeling lost for words, as I should be the one to apologise for breaking the monastery’s rules.

In my room it’s still very warm as I look out through the mosquito screen on my window, listening to the waves lapping at the beach below.

Later I find it hard to sleep as my head buzzes with everything I have seen and heard over the past couple of days.




A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 2 – journey to Xenofontos

After leaving Ouranoupoli harbour the boat follows the coast down the western side of the Athos peninsula. Soon we pass the border between Greece and the autonomous region of Athos marked, symbolically rather than practically, by the wall shown in the middle of the picture above and by the Custom’s House on the shore. There is no direct road linking Athos to the rest of Greece, though in the event of an emergency (a fire or natural disaster) I was told that a road of some sort could be put in place.

The first monastery we encounter is called Monoxilites, though my companions call it ‘gourounomoni’ (pig monastery) because it used to be dilapidated and pigs were kept there.

Now it’s being renovated by Russian monks and there seems to be a lot of building work going on. The first main monastery that we come to is Zografou with its own little church and mill and its imposing ‘arsenas’ (jetty) for the ferry to pull in, .

As we make our way down the coast, I am struck by the wild beauty of Athos. It’s much greener and more forested than I had expected and totally unspoilt: except for the area immediately round the monasteries, nature has just been left to itself. There’s no pollution: the air is clear, the waters deep and crystal clear. Strangely shaped rocks rise up out of the sea and on the cliffs. Apparently there are still the remains of Ancient Greek temples on the peninsula, though unfortunately we don’t have time to go off searching for them.

Every kilometre or so along the shore there’s a yellow sign (in the right foreground in the shot below) that indicates to boats that this is the territory of Mt Athos).

Fishing boats and other craft are not supposed to come within 500m of the shore, but we pass several fishing boats that are well within that limit.

Our next stop is the monastery of Dokheiariou which has a very impressive entrance with statues of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel set on columns on either side.

A lot of building work is still going on here too. My companions tell me that the Abbot was a civil engineer before he became a monk and personally supervises all the building work. As the picture below shows, the monasteries need supplies just like any other community.

Our first real stop is the monastery of Xenofontos, the first of three that we will visit on this trip.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 1 – setting out

It’s 3.45 on a Saturday morning in September as the bus pulls away from outside Thessaloniki’s Archaeological Museum and I sink down into my seat to get some more sleep. I only managed about three hours last night before getting up at 2.30 to take a taxi to the museum to rendezvous with the group that’s going to Mt Athos. My wife, lucky thing, is probably fast asleep back at our hotel. Around me are the voices of my fellow Greek pilgrims, members of the ‘St Athanasios the Athonite Association of the friends of the Holy Mountain, Thessaloniki’. 

We pass through the quiet city streets, pausing at traffic lights or stopping occasionally to pick up fellow pilgrims, I briefly open my eyes. At one halt still close to the city centre I see a street full of young people standing outside a club, talking animatedly and laughing. The stops become fewer as we pick up the remaining pilgrims on our way out of the city. As we leave the city, the co-leader of the trip starts chanting a hymn with the other pilgrims joining in. Then we’re heading east on a fast road and conversation subsides as we nod off.

Soon we’re travelling on narrower, more twisty roads. At some point about 4.30 as we pause briefly in a little village I see a solitary drinker at a table by the side of the road backlit by the light from a small bar. No closing times out here then.

How did I come to be doing this pilgrimage? Well, I blame my wife. When I fully retired at the end of March this year, after working part-time for the past 4 years (and full time for the best part of the previous 40), she suggested I should do something to mark my retirement. I proposed a trip together somewhere: Canada or the Silk Road. But she was adamant that I should do something for myself.

”What would you really like to do?”, she asked.
“Go to Mt Athos!”, I said, without even thinking about it.

I still don’t really know where that came from, other than it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. Though I am now a Buddhist, I’ve also been interested in Orthodoxy for many years. At university, I studied Russian and I sang with a Russian Orthodox choir that happened to share a church with the Greek Orthodox – not something that is likely to happen these days, alas.

After university, Russia and its language disappeared from my life for many years until we got involved in a charity helping children from Belarus and made about a dozen trips to the country over nearly as many years. But my first visit to Russia didn’t come until 2002 – also a surprise Christmas and birthday present from my darling wife. I managed to go on a day’s visit to Optina Pustyn with a group of Russian pilgrims while I was staying with a family in Tula.

Optina Pustyn is a great Russian monastery on the banks of the River Zhizdra in Kaluga Province. It has strong links to the Athonite tradition and particularly hesychasm  (coming close to God through continual repetition of the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) that from the late eighteenth century played a major part in the revival of Russian Orthodox spirituality. Also, as a spiritual centre visited by Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (though at different times) it had a powerful influence on the lives of some of the greatest nineteenth century Russian writers. I’ve blogged about my Optina Pustyn experience previously and you can read them here:
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia I: Shamordino Convent
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia II: visions and springs
 On pilgrimage in holy Russia III: Optina Pustyn monastery
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia IV: Vespers at Optina Pustyn
– On pilgrimage in holy Russia V: Optyna Pustyn and its influence

Then about 9 years ago my wife and I started going to Greece after a chance invitation to stay with friends in Athens and the Peloponnese. This ignited a passion for the country that led me to start learning Greek and take an interest in Greek culture and history, including Byzantine history and art. It made me curious to understand the links between Greece and Russia, the languages and the cultures, forged by their shared Orthodox faith and historical links. For a while, I had been trying to find away of having a totally immersive experience in the language to improve my Greek. So I suppose visiting Athos was a way of bringing together these different strands of my life, but I still had no idea how to make it happen.

Visiting the Holy Mountain is not a straightforward undertaking for an independent traveller. You have to seek a permit from the Iera Epistasia (Holy Administration) in Thessaloniki and you have to be aged 18 or over and male (no females are allowed on Athos). So far so good. But there are a limited number of permits issued for any one day, 100 for Greeks and other Orthodox and 10 for non Orthodox / foreigners. Also the permits are only valid for 4 days and you can only apply for one within a maximum of 6 months of your visit. Transport on the Holy Mountain is also an issue: access is by ferry from the town of Ouranoupoli but to get between monasteries you have to walk, take a bus or hire a minibus (if you’re part of a group).

And that’s where a curious coincidence came into play. My Greek tutor, Sofia, lives in Thessaloniki so we have lessons by Skype. When I mentioned my mad idea to her, she told me that her father is involved in an Association of Friends of the Holy Mountain and she could arrange for me to go on one of his trips. It turned out to be so much easier to arrange through an Orthodox group than trying to do it myself. So that’s how I come to be on a bus with a group of Greek pilgrims.

I’ve deliberately not read too much background material about Athos before my trip to keep it a fresh experience. Robert Byron’s book The Station is about the only thing I did read. I managed to get through the first 2 or 3 highly mannered chapters with its world-weary narrator and his arch attitudes, but in spite of a few insights and patches of decent descriptive writing, the rest of the book really was a real struggle. It’s written in a peculiar style and he seems to have a really odd attitude to ancient Greek art.

I really must give up on books that I find tedious: life is too short to read stuff that bores me. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I came across an astonishing fact somewhere:  in a reading life of 60 years, if you read a book a fortnight you’d only read 1,560 books in your lifetime. That’s a depressingly small number considering the millions of books out there, and a useful reminder not to waste time on books that aren’t worth the effort.

The other piece of preparation I did was to read the text of the liturgy in Greek and a parallel English translation that I bought from Fr Ian Graham, parish priest of the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Annunciation in Oxford. I thought that it might help me understand where I was in the monastic services. It was a bit of a tough read as it’s written in Koine Greek, but it was worth the effort.

As we approach Ouranoupoli our point of embarkation for the Holy Mountain, we start to stir from our slumbers.. Our leader, and my tutor’s father, Nikolaos, has work to do: collecting the money for our trip and our identity cards (passport in my case) and telling us which group we are going to be in. As there are about 40 of us, we are going to split up into 3 separate groups travelling to different monasteries, so as not to put too much strain on any one monastery.

At Ouranoupoli as I get off the bus, Nikolaos’s friend Argyris, introduces himself. He’s been deputed to look after me and says “I’m on your tail!’, as we’re waiting to get off. While Nikolaos goes off to sort out our tickets and passes to get on to the Holy Mountain, Argyris takes me off to get a coffee from a small cafe with a harassed lady trying to serve small queue of pilgrims.

Back at the harbour, our boat has arrived and there’s a group of about 100 men waiting to board it: it’s seems to be a real mix of classes (though I find it hard to tell this in Greece to be honest), mostly over 50 year olds. With tickets and splendid formal passes (diamonitiria) in hand / mouth we climb aboard and head inside, settling down around tightly packed tables.

Looking at my diamonitirion (pass) I’m surprised to see myself described as a Catholic, as for ease I had described myself a Protestant when asked, thinking it would save the much longer conversation if I had described myself as Buddhist. By now it’s getting light and quite warm inside as, dead on 7.00 a,m we pull away from the little jetty and set off on the first leg of our pilgrimage.