Patrick Leigh Fermor was 23 when he arrive in Daphni at the end of his walk from Hook of Holland to Constantinople . It had taken him 5 years and his trip had resulted in one of the most famous travel journals of the 20th century. The year was 1935……
In the same way as 84 years earlier, our small boat was gliding through the pristine waters between Sitonia and Athos and we were accompanied by a school of dolphins. For a while all buildings had disappeared from the Western coastline of Athos and all we could see were trees, low growing shrubs and rocks, when finally with Dochiarion, the first monastery came into view. Most of the monasteries on Athios are situated not far from the shore, so that they could receive their supplies without the need for a long transport of goods by land. However, due to this they also used to be more exposed to pirate attacks. Because of this most monasteries are in an elevated position and some are surrounded by a high wall. Only over the last 200 years external living quarters had been added.
At each stop a small number of men left the boat and were greeted by some of the resident monks on the pier. These small stops were repeated a few times, before we – like Leigh Fermor – arrived in Daphni, Athos’ main port. When leaving the boat myself, I was confronted with probably 50 similar looking monks and I felt a bit like a seabird returning home to its colony wondering how to find my “partner”. So rather than guessing, I decided to rely on my more Northern European appearance making me standing out and sure enough, a couple of minutes later I was welcomed by a friendly looking monk, a bit small than me, who introduced himself as Father Polykarpos. As he was struggling a bit with my first Christian name, we agreed to settle on my – for him – more familiar second one and for the following three days I had to learn to respond to “Andrea(s)”.
Father Polykarpos is one of the very few monks with a car on the peninsula and shortly after our introduction, we were cruising along the dirt tracks that are connecting Daphni with Karyos, the main settlement on Athos and with the individual monasteries.
The Father’s domestic arrangements were also somewhat different from other monks, as he lived in his own small building (“skete”), which was connected to a small chapel and he was allowed to host his own visitors. Due to this, I was surprised about the luxury of having my own – actually very nice – room and even a very modern bathroom (with a cold shower though).
Time to clear up with a few myth then (and to confirm some….): before leaving for Athos, I informed everyone that I might be “off the radar” for a few days in expectation that I would have left the 21st century’s digital society behind me, just to find that not only at Polykarpos skete, but all over the peninsula, I had excellent 4G coverage . Also preparing myself for a very sparse diet, I found that Karyos, featured not only a bakery and a shop for bespoke monastic clothing, but had also three supermarkets, selling all sorts of food, house hold equipment and even a solid collection of Under Armour base layers (admittedly only in black and in dark blue) plus a good selection of wine and Raki. Furthermore there was also a traditional Kafenion and the town square even enjoyed the sinful pleasures of a decent coffeeshop with a well maintained Italian coffee machine (I didn’t spot the existence of any loyalty cards though….).
Something that was very different then from the outside world, was the daily routine: By adhering to the Julian calendar, the day on Athos finished at sunset and most monasteries were starting their daily activities with a – usually four hour lasting – service between 3.30 and 4 am.
Thankfully during my stay on Athos my host went easy on me, with our services usually starting at a more moderate 6 am….
While not understanding more than a few ancient Greek terms over the still remaining 2 hours, staying awake admittedly was a challenge and although the whole atmosphere during a – for me alien – orthodox service is truly magical, I found that there is a good reason why one’s place offered both a stand, a half sitting and a fully sitting (=slumbering) option…..
Believe me – you do need all three of them.
However, one morning we went for the service to the beautifully restored Agios Oros church near Karyos and with the service being conducted facing the windows on the Eastern side of the building, the slowly increasing light of the rising sun, together with the icons, the beautifully carved old timber, the smoke and the smell of the incense and the deep rolling sound of the prayer made the whole experience truly memorable….
So much for the prayer (which in fact is repeated – usually for shorter services – at several more occasions during the remaining day and especially on Christian holidays), but what else was there for me to do as a visitor ?…..
To sum it up – eating, talking and watching (while hiking or been driven….) and enjoying.
Things that were not possible or allowed (and this one was difficult for me….) were running, swimming (oh, what a shame with some of the beaches, especially on the Northern coastline …..) and both television and computer screens didn’t feature greatly either.
As to the eating – despite the above-mentioned supermarkets, most monasteries are very self-sufficient with large gardens and their communities restrict themselves to a predominantly vegetarian diet.
But this at least leaves you with Greek coffee (ok, imported….) and some – at times – very decent red wine.
Meat – due to the restrictions on female domestic animals – was only occasionally added. Considering in addition to this the very limited use on vehicles on the peninsular, it struck me that despite the antiquated life style, the monastic communities were in fact very much cutting etch with their “ultra low carbon” foot prints…..
Staying with food – one evening I had a lucky escape:
As a “special treat” for me and for the other visitors at the skete, the ever resourceful Father had organised some pork, which we were supposed to barbecue. One of the other guests was a priest from Thrace, who considered himself as a bit of a BBQ specialist. So we let him get on with his magic, with the result that after the best part of an hour, the meat was well and truly charcoaled on the outside and still raw on the inside.
When the others and I made an attempt to ignore it and to salvage the somewhat eatable bits, Father Polykarpos became a bit uneasy and expressed his concerns, as this was in fact not pork in front of us, but locally sourced (and probably not inspected….) wild boar!…….
Whao……that certainly could have been a very unpleasant and as a vet also a very stupid way to go – dying of Trichinellosis…….
Back to the three things to do:
Talking – this was possibly the most inspiring aspect of my stay on Athos:
Due to the nearly complete absence of television, radio (I can’t recall having heard any music during my stay, with the exception of the musical delivery of prayers at the morning services) and computers (I only occasionally checked on my e-mails and on social media….honest!….), the spoken word face to face once again became the main form of entertainment and it is hard to describe how refreshing this was, especially when talking at length to complete strangers.
During my stay we were frequently joint by Iannis, the father’s 19 year old novize and by Angelo, a former Lithuanian long jumping champion and later a property developer, who was on the – at times not easy – journey of becoming a monk. Both were kind enough to translate between the Father and myself and I was privileged enough to learn about their life stories, which were so different from my own.
Hiking – while not engaged with one of the three activities mentioned previously, I took the opportunity to once again follow in the foot steps of the visitor 84 years ago and walked along the path of the very picturesque Northern Coast, visiting the monasteries of Stavronikita and Pantokratonos. Unlike the young Leigh Fermor though , I didn’t got drunk with the jolly monks at Stavronikita and I was spared from nearly dying in a snow storm, probably due to the wrong (or better right ?!…..) season…..
On my last day Father Polykarpos treated Angelo and myself to a road trip to the most Southern tip of the peninsula and to a visit of all the monasteries and even to a couple of hermitage sites on the way.
When visiting the monasteries we were treated to the customary Greek delight, water, coffee and at times to small glasses of Raki.
The highlight of this trip was a visit to a solitary monk who lived in a small house perched precariously on a steep cliff above the sea and who turned out to be famous all over Greece for welcoming low flying planes and helicopters by waving a huge Greek or a Byzantine flag. His fame even reached the crew of the Space Station – as a token of their appreciation they sent him a satellite image of his dwelling next to Mount Athos, together with a personal note and signatures of the whole crew!…..
Talking of friends in “higher places”…….
Oh yes,…..and there was one further thing I had to do, before returning after three days to the more secular world:
One of the Father’s kittens (the only female domestic animals allowed on the peninsula….) had been in a fight with one of the other residential cats and featured a massive facial abscess. This was too great an opportunity to miss, to be able to claim not only to have visited Athos, but also to have been one of the few (the only ?!) practicing small animal veterinarians there! With the father acting as my veterinary nurse and with the help of a bit of vodka (to disinfect the area) and a reasonably sharp Stanley knife, the abscess was duly lanced and although the kitten was not entirely impressed by the procedure, I could leave Athos in the knowledge that my skills even in this somewhat “unusual” place had been of some use……