Men-only world is no place to linger in

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 -

HAMISH MCRAE

TO VISIT the monas­ter­ies on Mount Athos is to step back a thou­sand years, the clos­est one can get now to the sounds and sen­sa­tions of the Byzan­tine em­pire. But it is also, more pro­saically, like go­ing back to a pub­lic school of the 1950s, and the ex­pe­ri­ence I and a univer­sity friend had last month fell some­where be­tween the two.

Mount Athos is at the end of a penin­sula, the east­ern­most of the three fin­gers that point down from main­land Greece to­wards the top of the Aegean. Boats pro­vide the only avail­able ac­cess, for the penin­sula is cut off from Greece, op­er­at­ing as a semi-in­de­pen­dent state.

There are 1 700 monks in 40 monas­ter­ies, of which the old­est, Great Lavra, was founded in AD 963. There are also 12 sketes ( monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties), which range from newer monas­ter­ies to groups of monks who wor­ship to­gether in a church.

Most men who visit Athos – and only men are al­lowed – are Greek Or­tho­dox or Rus­sian Or­tho­dox. Their num­bers are lim­ited to 100 a day, with a fur­ther 10 per­mits for visi­tors from other Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions. You pick up your per­mits at a lit­tle town just north of the bor­der, Ou­ra­noupoli, where you board a boat for an even smaller port, Dafni. You should book into a monastery, for only a few will take peo­ple with­out prior ar­range­ment. You will be given sup­per, at­tend the evening ser­vice, sleep in a dor­mi­tory or cell, wake up for the dawn ser­vice, have break­fast and then walk to the next monastery.

We started with a night at St An­drews, a skete where we were warmly wel­comed and I felt I could hear Byzan­tium in the chant­ing in the church. On the sec­ond day we walked to the coast, to Stavronikita, perched like a ci­tadel above the sea, and along to Iv­i­ron, brought to Bri­tish at­ten­tion by Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple, who started his jour­ney From the Holy Moun­tain there.

Then it was a long pull up the hill, ac­com­pa­nied by a stray dog, to the Kout­lou­mousiou monastery. There we were greeted more aus­terely. As we were not Or­tho­dox, we ate sep­a­rately and could not at­tend the ser­vices. On the third day, it was back to Dafni and a speed­boat to Ou­ra­noupoli.

What did it all feel like? Well, for some it was clearly a pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence. One Rus­sian said he had lev­i­tated – he and his group felt they were a me­tre off the ground. A Moscow econ­o­mist told us it was as though he had a broad­band link to God. For us – two not par­tic­u­larly de­vout Angli­cans – it was re­fresh- ing to get away from com­mer­cial­ism and re­ward­ing to have time to­gether, walk­ing and talk­ing. But it was too much like board­ing school to be wholly com­fort­able. We knew the drill: find out what time chapel is, when you will be fed, and re­spect the pre­fects. Fit in, don’t stand out, do as you are told. But a world with­out women? For many, that is the whole point of it, but I found it dif­fi­cult. It was too mono­chrome: an ex­tra­or­di­nary world to glimpse and I am deeply grate­ful for that, but not one to linger in. – The In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day

PIC­TURE: SHUTTERSTOCK

RE­MOTE RE­TREAT: The monastery of Si­monos Pe­tra on Mount Athos, Greece.

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