Nestled off the coast of Thessaloniki is an autonomous peninsula under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. It is home to over 20 monasteries, forbids women from setting foot there, and is high on my bucket list of places to visit. It’s called Mount Athos.
We ended our Balkans trip in Thessaloniki, Greece. The ancient city features great culture offerings and is a destination itself, but during my visit I learned of Mount Athos. In fact, the General Manager of the Hyatt Regency in Thessaloniki had just returned from a spiritual retreat there. He raved about it, both in terms of the religious experience and the beauty of it.
Mount Athos is steeped in history and has been home for Christian monks since 1054. Since 1988, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site. It features about 1,200 permanent residents, who take life far more slowly than we do in the West.
Visiting Mount Athos
The nation is opened to male visitors, welcoming pilgrims to explore or contemplate their faith.
From Thessaloniki, the closest major city, you travel to the port of Ouranoupoli then take a boat there. It’s not easily-accessible. Furthermore, you cannot just show up. You need a visa, called diamonitirion. Only 100 visitors are allowed on the island each day and of that 100, only 15 of other beliefs.
Thus, a trip to Mount Athos requires plenty of advance planning. For me, going a few days without internet will require a great deal more planning. But it is somewhere my brother and I wish to go. We made a pact eight years ago to return to Mount Athos and I hope we can do that sooner rather than later. With each of us welcoming newborns this spring, we may have to wait a bit longer though…
Visits to Mount Athos are not about vacation. Pilgrims are expected to participate in prayers and services throughout the day. There is time for somber reflection. Meals are simple. Words, beyond liturgy, are scarce.
And while I don’t view such rituals as magical or even necessarily helpful (though I hope they will be), it is an experience I crave. One reason is because I just cannot find the time in my busy Southern California life to do so here. Even doing COVID-19 lockdowns, I have not spent a day reading and thinking about life’s deeper meanings. And as the cities burn and politics plus division depresses me, I must admit I want to escape it…and Mount Athos seems like the best place to escape to.
Greece is opening again to tourism this month. I fear I am far too late for a visit this summer and don’t want to leave my family anyway. But this winter is a whole different story…I’m going to start working on it now.
Have you been to Mount Athos? How was it?