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“You’re only a tourist then”, the Bulgarian said to me as we sat in the courtyard of the Zographou Monastery situated in the Orthodox Church sanctuary area of the Mt Athos peninsular in Greece.
It had been a long hot day. I had walked about 35 kilometres and had been frustrated trying to find the right track to the mosastery.
He wasn’t being dismissive of my effort. The Bulgarian was just stating the obvious when I had answered “No” to his question “Are you Orthodox?”.
Yes, I was (just) a tourist. But I had wanted to come to Mt Athos for a long time. And the Bulgarian worker that I was sitting next to in the monastery courtyard wasn’t going to spoil the experience whatever he said.
We were both enjoying the late afternoon sun that peaked over the top of the surrounding buildings and lit our little corner of the cobblestoned courtyard. Our conversation was a little hesitant, but only because of language difficulty – me with only English.
He was keen to learn of my home country, Australia, particularly about immigration regulations, a subject of which my knowledge was extremely limited.
So we chatted as best we could while we were waiting for the church service to start. The Bulgarian was here as a worker for the monastery. He was aged around 26 years and was spending three years performing general maintenance around the monastery.
The area known as Mt Athos or “The Holy Mountain” is situated on the Eastern most finger of land that sticks out from Greece into the Northern Aegean Sea. This peninsular is owned by the Orthodox Church.
There are 20 monasteries in the area plus associated sketes and other smaller communities. You need special permission to visit the area (similar to the granting of a visa for a foreign country) and visitors are given a permit to stay for three nights.
Accommodation is offered to you at the monasteries (most by prior arrangement) but each day you are required to move on to another monastery. There is transport available, and walking trails criss-cross the peninsula between the monasteries.
I had decided to ignore the offer of a bus ride and walk between the monasteries I intended visiting.
My journey to Mt Athos starts with an early rise to catch the 6am bus from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupolis. The bus was quite full, a mixture of monks returning to Mt Athos, passengers for other towns along the way and “pilgrims”.
I sit next to a young Greek boy who was interested in why I was going to The Holy Mountain.
I have had an interest in the area since I visited the monasteries in Meteora back in 1997. Maybe it is a fascination with the monastic way of life, maybe because Mt Athos is a rather unique area. Whatever the reason, I was about to realise a long held ambition.
A couple of days previously I had made my application for entry to the Pilgrim Bureau at Thessaloniki. I had expected perhaps a more thorough process, but all they wanted to know was my passport details, what my religion was and when did I want to go.
There are restrictions on the number of people admitted to Mt Athos – up to 120 Orthodox Christians and 14 people of other religions are admitted each day. Only men are allowed into the area!
We reach Ouranoupolis after a journey of about two and a half hours. Here I line up at the Mt Athos office to pay my euros and receive my official entry certificate. Then it is a wait on the dock for the 9.45am ferry to Daphne, the main port on the peninsula.
I look around at my fellow passengers as the ferry leaves. No women on board of course, but groups of men sharing the pilgrimage together, monks, fathers with their sons, and some solo pilgrims like myself.
I try to focus my thoughts but it is difficult with the hubbub of excited talk, mobile phones ringing and the noise of the boat. A monk approaches me with some trinkets for sale – I decline gracefully and he wanders on.
The boat travels down the coast. Soon the peak of Mt Athos comes into view as we call in to a few of the monasteries. Firstly the port for Zographou Monastery, then the monasteries of Docheiariou, Xenofontos and Panteleimon.
Panteleimon is one of the monasteries that I intend to visit but my plan is to go to the port of Daphne and then walk back up the coast.
We arrive soon enough, and I sit for a while. Daphne is a small place, a few buildings, a restaurant and some souvenir shops. A little way up the road a group of new arrivals are gathered around the bus that will take them onto the administrative centre of Karies, and then by taxi to their monastery of choice.
But my journey is to be a solitary one. The bus leaves, and I shoulder my pack and start off up the road. According to my map, a path to Panteleimon should branch off the road to the left. I find one track but it is not sign posted. I walk along it for a while but it goes no-where, so back to the road and I walk on.
Ah – here it is, sign posted (in Greek) and heading in the right direction. I take it slowly. It is a pleasant walk closely following the coast. Then there is an old stone bridge crossing a dry creek bed and I take a couple of photos.
It is early spring, and the wild flowers are starting to come out, dotting the sides of the path. It is peaceful.
The monastery is now in view ahead as a young monk passes me going the same way. We exchange ‘hello’ and he returns a pen I had dropped on the trail.