I have to admit that at times I had been furious with Kyriakos, but while joining douzens of other men ladden with back packs and heavy suitcases entering the speed boat at Ouranoupoli in Northern Greece, with the precious visiting permit for Mount Athos in my pocket, I was once again very grateful for the help and for the support I had received from one of my colleagues at the other end of Europe.
So what was going on?……
Mount Athos is monasterial republic based on a peninsula in Macedonia, with a population of about 2000 monks, housed in 20 monasteries and a number of adjacent “skities” (smaller adjacent communities). Only men are allowed to enter the region and – with the exception of cats – not even female domestic animals are allowed to visit or to stay there. To orthodox christians this place is sacred, as it is believed that Maria, the mother of Christ, landed here after leaving Palestine following the crucifixion. In some respect this place has a similar status as the Vatican has for catholic christians.
But what was I doing here?…… I am neither a catholic nor orthodox and I am not even a regular church goer and as someone who has learned to rely first and foremost on good science and facts (otherwise I shouldn’t do the work I am doing….), this at first sight would have been the last place for me to go. However, I had first heard about this place in a history lesson when I was a school boy, from my teacher who had travelled there as a hippie in the 1970th and I always wanted to see this place with my own eyes.
Despite my personal misgivings, I have to admit my deep admiration for some simply magical monastic places like Mount St.Michael in France, Montserrat in Spain or the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Our forefathers chose their locations and applied their architecture for a good reason and in these fast moving times one – or better I – is sometimes drawn to places where time appears to stand still. This is probably also one of the reasons why I love the mountains and the mountain huts – many have been in their locations for decades, if not for over hundred years with often very little change to the simple hospitality and shelter they provide.
I had discussed this with my friend Kyriakos, who runs a busy veterinary clinic in Thessaloniki, a while ago over some drinks in Zagreb and to my great surprise (and delight) he offered to speak to some of his clients to arrange for me to stay on Athos for a few days. This was no small task as unlike the Vatican, the peninsula is closed to the outside world and access does require a special permit. 500 of these are granted every week (as far as I know) to orthodox and to catholic christians, but only 10 to anyone else. Since then I had been in touch with Kyriakos from time to time, reminding him of his promise. Occasionally there was a brief reply on the subject and a re-assurance that I should not worry. Two weeks before the planned trip there was still no confirmation and while traveling through Armenia in the week before going to Greece, I was still not sure if the visit would be possible.
Then finally – three days before landing in Thessaloniki – an e-mail arrived from Kyriakos with detailed instructions:
At the airport I had to get a rental car (this I had organized already) and I had to drive to Ouranoupoli, a small ferry port just outside of the republic, already on Sunday night, and I had to leave the car there. Early the next morning I had to attend the Pilgrim’s Office to get my permit, then collect a pre-booked ticket for the ferry at a different office at the habour, gather my things and I had to make sure not to miss the boat as it was the last one on the day. In Daphni, the main habour of Athos, I would be met by Father Polykarpos, with whom I was to stay for a couple of days and I would have to leave again with the morning boat on Wednesday….Perfect !
Saying good bye to my friends in Yerevan I was heading with the old Lada at 4 am to the airport to catch my flight back to Moscow. This was somewhat crazy, but it was the only way to get to Thessaloniki – rather than a 2000 km trip across Turkey, I had to make a 3000 km detour North to Moscow, change planes there and was then heading South again for the same distance to get to Northern Greece…..
Unfortunately the transition time in Moscow was very short, so that when I arrived in Thessaloniki, it turned out that most of my luggage had remained there and was not likely to arrive later that day. Thankfully I always wear my hiking boots when I am flying (just in case the luggage is lost or delayed) and what else do you really need when staying at a monastery ?….In any case nothing that couldn’t be borrowed or bought somewhere on the way.
With my beautiful small French rental car – what a change to the Lada….. – I hit the road in a Easterly direction passing both the peninsulas of Kassandra and Sitonia with their beautiful beaches and arrived – slightly delayed by a small traffic jam –
in Ouranoupoli, just as the sun was setting.
The next morning I presented myself with my passport at the pilgrim’s office
and was a few moments later the proud owner of a visitor permit, stating my faith as “Protestantis”.
In the office – I was not allowed to take photos there – was a firm reminder of the dress code that had to be observed while staying on Athos . I was allowed to take a photo of that though…..
So there was no harm that my running shoes and my shorts had remained in Russia, as I couldn’t have used them anyway. In expectation of these rules, I had already supplied myself the previous night with a couple of light and long sleeved outfits, which might also come handy for any forthcoming tropical journeys…. I also had bought some additional food – to improve the expected bland diet at the monastery – and some coffee and biscuits as a present for my host.
Once I had elbowed my way past the crowd to obtain my ferry ticket as well, it was time for a breakfast next to the pier where the first priests and pilgrims started to gather.
The assembly of all these men with all their gear, waiting to board the boat, reminded me a bit of images of the expeditionary forces before the Normandy landing – just with the difference that most of these men were probably 20-30 years old, less fit and that the occasion was a far happier one…..
A few moments later I had joined them and with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “The Broken Road” as my only companion, we were cruising through the calm Aegian Sea towards Daphni and a monk who was hopefully waiting for me…..