Greece's Mt. Athos way off the beaten path

A Greek Orthodox monk walks on a foot bridge leading to Saint Nicolas Orthodox church in order to...

A Greek Orthodox monk walks on a foot bridge leading to Saint Nicolas Orthodox church in order to contuct the first mass of the year in Vistonida lake at Porto Lagos in northern Greece, Jan. 1, 2011. The church is part of the "Vatopedi" monastery based in Mount Athos. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

DOUG ENGLISH, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:56 AM ET

Imagine a place where women are forbidden.

A place where black-robed inhabitants follow a day that begins at sunset and end at sunrise, and even the calendar they follow is different than the outside world's.

This is the monastic republic of Mt. Athos, in northern Greece. "Holy Mountain" to the Greek Orthodox faithful.

It's been nearly 50 years since I was there, but it remains the most unusual place I've ever visited.

Athos is a remote, 60-km-long peninsula poking finger-like into the Aegean Sea. The nearest big city, Thessalonika, is more than 100 km away.

Memories of backpacking there were rekindled by a reference in a travel story to frequent visits by Prince Charles.

I had trouble imagining someone accustomed to every comfort dossing down in a spartan monastery dormitory. But media reports indicate the only concession to Charles is a small, whitewashed room with a foam mattress for the steel-framed bed.

Britain's future king arrives by helicopter, lesser mortals by ferry. I went in a small, open boat with a Lebanese hotel owner interested in Byzantine art and a young Greek whose brother was a monk there. The hotel owner had arranged for a man to lead us to the nearest monastery, Vatopedi, once we'd disembarked.

A steep path led up from the beach past a wooded slope. The guide brought a mule, and the hotel-man let me ride it when he felt like walking.

It was a time of great excitement on Athos. They were preparing to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the establishment of monastic life there.

The heads of all the Eastern Orthodox churches were coming, and Athos was getting its first road, albeit an unpaved one. A bulldozer had been brought in, and I remember its roar frightening the domestic animals, which had apparently never encountered anything mechanized.

The only accommodation was in a monastery. There were 20 of them, huge stone buildings that looked more like ancient fortresses. All were Greek Orthodox except for a couple from countries behind the Iron Curtain.

There was no shortage of rooms. The number of monks had dropped from about 7,000 in the early 1900s to perhaps 1,500. Some monasteries housed as few as 20.

We saw little of our hosts, except those serving meals. Most spent the nights in prayer and contemplation while we slept.

Visitors weren't charged for food and lodging, although donations were accepted.

Athos is on Byzantine time. Since the exact times of sunset and sunrise vary, using them as starting and ending points of the day made for a constant adjusting of the clocks. It didn't help that they followed the original Julian calendar, which is 13 days longer than ours, the Gregorian.

My sense of disorientation was compounded when my trusty Timex inexplicably stopped.

Not that time, out of whack or not, really mattered. There was no radio or TV, but it was mid-spring and it stayed light until late. The weather was consistently sunny and warm, and an almost pristine landscape was waiting to be explored.

The hotel-man spent most of his time admiring the elaborately painted icons that decorated the monastery walls. I bought a tiny wooden one, hand-carved by a monk who greeted me with: "Canadian? Maybe you know my brother. He lives in Toronto."

Athos has changed in some ways. A recent article in the British daily The Independent said some of the monasteries have minibuses and that some monks have mobile phones "purely for the most prosaic, practical purposes."

There are more monks and more visitors -- mainly religious pilgrims -- and transportation to and on Athos appears to have improved.

But arranging a visit still requires patience and planning. A permit is needed. It's good for four days and must be shown on ferries and at monasteries. A maximum of 10 permits a day are issued to non-Orthodox visitors, (100 to Orthodox ones). Most monasteries now require a reservation for accommodation. For detailed information, visit athosfriends.org/PilgrimsGuide/planning/.


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