Mount Athos is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited. I had the privilege of visiting here in 2016 with Yakpacker Sr, and it was such a unique experience– with so many logistics involved– that I felt it warranted its own post. People always say “going to destination X is like going back in time,” but in this case, you’re actually visiting a place that has maintained the same daily life and rituals for the past 1,000 years. The inhabitant monks maintain minimal contact with the outside world — and they like it that way.
Just past Ouranoupoli on the easternmost finger of Halkidiki, Mount Athos is fenced off and prohibited to visit by car or foot. It is an autonomous monastic entity within Greece that is dedicated to Orthodox Christianity and governed by a special jurisdiction covering its own movement of goods and people into the territory. A vestige of the Byzantine Empire, Mount Athos consists of 20 Orthodox Monasteries — and many more churches– and is home to monks who have chosen to cut ties with the outside world and devote their lives to prayer. The earliest monasteries date back to around the year 900, and today over 2,000 monks live an ascetic life on Mount Athos, praying and tending to their monastery work. The monasteries house untold quantities of treasures and religious artifacts that ended up there over the centuries, including several pieces of the True Cross.
Interestingly, Mount Athos uses Byzantine time — a different standard of time than in Greece (or anywhere else). The day begins each day at sunset (rather than at midnight), and due to seasonal variances in daylight, the “zero hour” varies throughout the year. They also follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one, so the dates are different, as well.
Another unique thing about Mount Athos — only males are allowed to visit. While this is definitely a disappointment to female travelers, it’s still possible to take a boat trip around the coast of Mount Athos to see the legendary monasteries.
Yakpacker Sr. and I got our permits and took an early morning ferry from Ouranoupoli to Dafni. (Mom Yakpacker stayed at a guesthouse in Ouranoupoli). The boat trip provided great views of small churches along the way, many were abandoned shells from bygone centuries, but some were operational and well-maintained. We passed by the very scenic Xenophontos Monastery, with two guardian angel statues upon arrival at the port, as well as the massive, upscale Russian Orthodox monastery of Panteleimonos, with lines of stone rooms somewhat resembling military barracks.
Upon arrival at the port of Dafni, there were a couple small vans transporting people to the capital of Karyes, which was about a 20-minute drive. (Note– some people hike but I highly recommend taking the van, as it’s a long, windy, uphill hike to Karyes!)
Karyes is the only true town in Mt. Athos. There are a couple basic cafeteria-style restaurants, a café, a store selling a small selection of food and camping supplies, a simple bread bakery, and a couple shops selling religious souvenirs and products made at the various monasteries.
After visiting “downtown” Karyes, we made a short hike to the nearby Koutloumousiou Monastery, which is believed to date back to 1169, featuring a pleasant interior courtyard and beautiful icons inside the interior church. Afterwards, we headed just north of Karyes to the Skete of St. Andrew, a more modern complex with a broad, imposing cathedral. Shortly after entering the cathedral, a old monk walked by and shouted “OUT!” (We were being reverent and respectful, so who knows the reason– perhaps we looked too much like tourists…)
Philotheou dates back to the late 10th Century and contains relics including the right hand of St. John Chrysostom and a piece of the True Cross.
Upon arrival, we entered through the large, imposing main gate and wandered around the empty courtyard looking for where to… register? Check in? I entered a building and walked upstairs, eventually encountering a monk. I asked him about check in, but he only gave me an intense stare and pointed at his mouth before rushing off into a room and closing the door. (Perhaps he had taken a vow of silence.) Anyhow, we eventually found a room with other pilgrims who had recently arrived and were signing in the guestbook. A monk brought us a shot of raki (like ouzo) and some lokum-style sweets while we waited, and then took us to a small dormitory room with several beds for visitors.
We met two other Greek visitors and took a short hike to the Karakalou Monastery, a picturesque castle-like structure on the oceanside. It dates back to the 11th Century and was subjected to pirate raids over the centuries. We toured around there a bit before hiking through the woods back to Philotheou (before they closed the gates!) There was an evening liturgy (prayer service) that lasted a few hours — we had to stay in the outer ring of the church because it was quickly discovered that we weren’t Orthodox.
Afterwards, we proceeded to dinner in a large hall. Dinner was a very simple vegetarian fare — cold potato soup, bread and jam — but after a day of hiking it tasted great! There are only two meals per day at the monasteries — and it’s a no-nonsense affairs: you eat your food in a large cafeteria style setting (for maybe 15 minutes) and the proceed to more prayer or tending to monastery duties. Bedtime came at sundown, where we joined fellow visitors in the dorm and tried to sleep through the chainsaw-like snoring coming from the nearby beds : )
At approximately 3:30 in the morning, a monk entered our room, turned on the lights and pounded on a large board of wood– indicating that it was time for morning prayers. We went down to the morning prayer, which lasted about two hours — and I really enjoyed being in the dimly-lit chapel with monks chanting and the soft glow of beeswax candles lighting up the painted fresco icons along the walls. After about 20 minutes; however, an elderly monk sitting near us must’ve had his radar go off– and he outed us as being non-Orthodox– (once again) ejecting us from the inner portion. So we proceeded to the outer ring of the church for the remainder of the service. After the morning prayers, we packed and got on our way.
We made our way back to the Port of Dafni, as we had intended to visit the Monastery of Gregoriu, further south along the coast, for another night. But we couldn’t get clear information about if / when a boat was heading that way — or when it would return to Dafni. Since we had to catch a flight to Mykonos in a couple days, we decided to play it safe and return to Ouranoupoli — leaving Gregouri for another day.
In sum, my brief visit to Mt. Athos was one of my most unique memorable travel experiences– as it was so different and far removed the rest of the world. That said, travelling there is no joke! They don’t want tourists to visit — only religious pilgrims. Furthermore, the monks have moved there because they want to focus solely on prayer. Anything else — like dealing with random visitors — is clearly an unwelcome distraction. Finally, if you’re not Orthodox, you can still be permitted to visit, but be prepared for a bit of awkwardness — ie, not being permitted in certain areas, not being allowed to see relics at the monasteries, etc. As long as you keep this in mind and stay flexible, visiting Mount Athos is one of the most fascinating trips you’ll ever take.
Nuts and Bolts
This website has a great overview of logistics for interested visitors, as well as a description of what to expect upon arrival. Meanwhile, this website has a good overview of the history of each monastery, along with photos.
Visiting Mt. Athos requires a special permit that you must arrange in advance, called a Diamonitirion. This website has information about who to contact and how to secure the permit. They only allow 100 Orthodox visitors and 15 non-Orthodox visitors per day, so it’s important to plan in advance, allow plenty of scheduling flexibility, and stay persistent!
As mentioned before, the only way to enter it is by boat from Ouranoupoli — no land crossings are possible. The main ferry goes to the port of Dafni, where it’s possible to arrange onward transportation via another boat or minivan up to the capital of Karyes. In the center of town, minivans congregate to take visitors (pilgrims) to the various monasteries. They depart when they’re full (more or less), and even if they’re not going to your monestary, you can arrange to have them drop you off nearby and the hike the rest of the way.
Many people choose to hike among the monasteries — and there are trails to do so, but its important to come prepared, plan your routes carefully, and allow plenty of time, as the distances are far and winding and there is virtually no support structure in place.
There are no hotels at Mount Athos, so visitors have to make arrangements to sleep at a monastery. The monasteries don’t charge anything, but most of them don’t use e-mail or answer the phone very often. So the best option is to send a fax requesting which night(s) you intend to stay there, and hope to receive a reply.
Once you arrive at Mount Athos, it’s important to make sure you get to your monastery quickly, as they close the gates around sunset (they are basically massive fortresses) and if you don’t get there in time, you’ll be stuck sleeping outside. (For this reason, it’s worth brining camping gear, just to be safe).