Originally published on July 15, 2012 on Open Salon.
Part I of my travelogue to Mount Athos concluded with a reference to its complexity. I became aware of the complicated nature of the organization and life on Mount Athos because I had to perpetually recalibrate my expectations. The quotidian services provided at Dafni and Karyes, and that the fifteen minute stroll to the monastery closest to Karyes made it appear to me that everything would be accessible on Mount Athos. I am glad to have made those misconception.
After heading back to Karyes, we hoped to take a cab to our destination, and our first monastic lodging, at Pantokratoros. This turned out to be difficult. We first stumbled through some conversations with waiting cabs, without success, just to ascertain that the cabs were going everywhere except where we wanted to go. The best and only option was to walk to our destination. In my estimation, our first hike was manageable because we could see Xeropotamoufrom the port of Dafni. This walk, however, necessitated us to follow complicated, road-side trail descriptions that should guide us to our destination. Such a guide includes instructions such as “turn left at the bronze cross” or “after the grand view of the monastery, avoid what looks like a path on the right—it’s not a path.”
On Mount Athos, moving from point A to point B is just as enjoyable as spending time at the monasteries. If the traveler does only one or the other, then the experience is far from complete. On the way to Pantokratoros we experienced our first incredible views of the actual Mount Athos in the distance, while also taking in and discussing the pop-up monastic communities that we would see in the distance.
Having the mobility to travel to a desired destination can also be the most trying thing about Mount Athos. On the second day on the peninsula, we attempted to take a speed boat from the port monastery Stavronikita to Esphigmenou, where we would make our way by foot to our second monastic lodging, the Serbian Orthodox monastery Hilandar. However, we realized that the waters on the more unpredictable northern side of the peninsula appeared particularly violent.
Because these monastic ports aren’t manned by anyone, we called the boat service, just to be informed that, due to weather, the boat never left port in the morning, and would not be make any of its stops on the peninsula. We then had to troubleshoot. We ended up having to take a taxi back to Karyes, only for the same cab to then take us to Dafni, where we caught a pleasant ferry on the southern side of the peninsula that moved us in our desired direction.
Mount Athos is relatively easy to access, but once there the pilgrim is left to his own devices in terms of mobility. Foot is the most rewarding method of travel on Mount Athos, but it is not always possible.
There are similarities and differences among the monasteries of Mount Athos. I only visited a few, but this, at the very least, was evident to me. What is universal (as far as I know) is that the church in every monastery holds service before dinner, a short service after dinner, and a long service in the morning before dinner. The first service we attended was, in my opinion, the best one. It was a short service between 45 minutes and an hour, and it mostly involved monks singing scripture in voices that ranged from majestic baritone to beautiful tenor. This was not my first experience at an Orthodox church service, so I wasn’t surprised at the voiceless priest whose job involved canvassing the interior of the church with the smell of incense and the sound of bells, making for an experience that appeals to all of the senses—akin to an opera. Dinner followed, and then there was a presentation of the monastery’s relics, which included bones of saints and a piece of the cross. This seemed to be the primary purpose of the service after dinner. Like the other pilgrims, I crossed myself in front of the relic; perhaps unlike most of the others there, I only pretended to kiss the five hundred year old skull relic surrounded by jewels.
While the evening services were a moving experience, the morning services were long and difficult. They demanded far more energy than the most difficult hike on the peninsula. Bells ring in the morning at four o’clock. This is the call to morning prayer. Srdjan and Les, the veteran pilgrims, assured us that we could sleep until five o’clock and join the service late. Our alarms went off then, and we then each took turns brushing our teeth and put on our three times a day, every day best. This service had more oration than singing, which made it far less enjoyable. This morning service on Mount Athos will—I am willing to wager—be the only time in my life when I can say “we didn’t get to church until five thirty, so we missed the first hour and a half; luckily we caught the last two hours.”
The monks provide the pilgrims with breakfast and dinner on Mount Athos. The nature, quality, and time allotted to the meals differ monastery by monastery. But, there are certain things that are universal. For one, all monks and pilgrims eat in the refractory at the same time and for the same amount of time,. The meal begins, after a quick prayer, with the ringing of a bell. The abbot, or an ersatz head of the monks, performs this ritual. The first bell tells everyone to begin eating, and it tells one monk to start reading scripture. All monastic meals on Mount Athos are accompanied by scripture. It is always difficult to be in a place where you don’t speak the language. On Mount Athos, this was frustrating in the case of personal communication, but when it came to church liturgy and the biblical ambience of dinner, I was blessedly ignorant of anything being said. One can only drink when the abbot rings the second bell. Sometimes it comes right after the first bell, and sometimes after a few minutes. The drinks provided at the meals are water and wine. The self-produced wine is noticeably high in alcohol content, and is best consumed with one part water. Once the abbot determines that everyone has had enough time to eat, he makes his intention known through more bell ringing and wood knocking. The whole thing lasts between fifteen and twenty minutes; the frequent visitors are identifiable because they can finish everything in five to ten.
We only ate at the two monasteries where we were lodging Pantokratoros and Hilandar. The former was the clear winner when it came to cuisine. On our first evening, we were treated to perfectly spiced fish filets, vegetables, and salad. Breakfast was a delicious mixture of peas, potatoes, garlic and rosemary—a dish that I’ve since attempted to re-create at a dinner party. While the addition of garlic complemented the nicely spiced dish in Pantokratoros, loads of garlic was the only redeeming quality in the soups at Hilandar.
Shades of Monk
A monastery is not a monastery is not a monastery, and a monk is not a monk is not a monk. Three instances exemplify this. As we were leaving a seemingly uninhabited skete on our first day on Athos, I looked back behind us and, in characteristic fashion on this island of monks, I noticed a black garbed and bearded man standing about 150 meters behind us. We stopped and turned around, and I could almost sense his disappointment as we made our way to greet him. Of all the monks we met on our travels, this particular one truly embodied the Athonite ethos of quiet. He spoke barely above a whisper, which naturally caused us to mimic his mode of speech, even amongst ourselves. After showing us the chapel, he offered us water, coffee, and Turkish delights. We accepted his friendly offer, and were guided to what I think was their welcome center. After water and coffee, we were energized. This was a good thing, as the monk told us with blunt quiescence: “drink your water and coffee, and then please hit the road.” He left us there, and we heeded his request.
When we arrived at Pantokratoros, we were greeted by an older monk. Short, with a long grey beard, and a voice pitched somewhere in between a helium induced falsetto and the scratchy reveal of a former smoker. He was one of the friendlier monks we encountered. While we showed him our travel visas, he took a few more seconds on mine and said to me: “You’re not Orthodox?” “No, I’m not,” I replied. With joviality that I didn’t think was possible for a Mount Athos monk, he responded “Oh! That’s OK!” I knew it was, but it was sure nice to hear this affirmation, which put me more at ease as I stumbled my way through unfamiliar Orthodox rituals.
The counter to this meeting of acceptance came the next day. After we made our long journey to the Hilandar monastery, walked to the nearby monastery Esphigmenou. Up to this point, we had been at the very least warmly acknowledged at all places we visited. This monastery, however, was somewhat uninviting. As we walked through the front gates, a curmudgeonly old monk swept the passageway and asked us a one word question, which none of us understood because none of us speak Greek. It turned out he was only interested in whether or not we were there to sleep. We were able to communicate that we were not, but only interested in looking around. He then showed off an English phrase he knew: “No photos!”
Oddly enough, or perhaps not given the warmly unenthusiastic welcome we received in other places, we were not only greeted with water and coffee here, but also raki (plum brandy). Our next order of business was to try and get into the church. We found our way to the monastery’s key keeper, and he granted our request to see the church without question. After we entered and once more marveled at the beautiful interior—golden chandeliers, silver inlaid icons, and soaring byzantine frescoes—the monk did ask us a question: “Orthodox? All four?” “Absolutely!” we responded. Clearly, it was time to go. We gave some change to light a candle, thanked the monk, and hit the road, this time of our own volition. Our mistake was that we viewed this particular church too much like the presentation of priceless art, and not enough like holy embodiments. Once again I had to recalibrate. One of the best aspects of travel is the element of surprise. Perhaps the biggest surprise I experienced on Mount Athos occurred when I left: I already wanted to go back.
But just as a tourist pilgrim, not a monk.