FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Greece: Ins And Outs

Jul 1, 2011
2011 / July 2011
imagePhoto: Nikos Pavlakis, Dreamstime

Forbidden. Few words are as enticing. We are standing beside a concrete wall topped with a fence. The grass really is greener on the other side. On this side, goats have pruned the vegetation down to sun-withered stalks. Over there, everything is verdant and dappled in tree shade. Stern signs warn us that we can go no further. We have reached the end of the path. Beyond lies the monastic state of Mount Athos.

For me, there is the possibility of one day exploring the Holy Mountain. Fourteen non-Orthodox visitors are permitted to enter Mount Athos each day after completing the necessary paperwork — a process that must be initiated at least six months in advance. But my companion will never be allowed on the other side of this border. She is a woman.

Mount Athos is situated on the easternmost prong of the three-pronged Halkidiki Peninsula in northern Greece. We had been staying on the westernmost prong, Kassandra, where most of Halkidiki’s package resorts are located. Yesterday we drove around the steep coast of the middle prong, Sithonia, before arriving at nightfall at the port village of Ouranoupoli, within walking distance of the Mount Athos border.

This morning, we hiked the stony path from the village until we reached the wall. The justifications for this unyielding barrier are 2,000 years old. According to Greek Orthodox tradition, the Virgin Mary set foot on Mount Athos in the first century, and in her honor all other women (and even female domestic animals) were barred from the 400-square-mile territory when it became a self-administered monastic enclave in the 11th century.

Close to the border, we explore the overgrown ruins of Zygos Monastery, which until the turn of the 13th century was effectively the capital of Mount Athos. By a quirk of history, it lies stranded outside the modern border, enabling outsiders — including women — to gain a sense of the secretive monastic life that continues to be lived on the other side of the wall.

From land, Mount Athos is impregnable. But around its long coastline, its jurisdiction only extends 500 meters offshore, which provides outsiders an opportunity to peer into the forbidden land.

By late morning, we have returned to Ouranoupoli, where we join more than a hundred other sightseers aboard a double-decker boat. We set sail along the coast with a multilingual commentary — in Greek, German and English — echoing from loudspeakers on both decks.

From the sea, the border is as clearly defined as it was on land. To the left, overgrazed scrubland. To the right, dense woodland. For the next 30 minutes, we track along the coast while the commentary provides some historical background.

There are 20 monasteries on Holy Mount Athos, we are told. Most were built and are run by Greek Orthodox monks, though there are also dedicated Serbian, Georgian, Bulgarian and Russian monasteries. Only Orthodox men over the age of 18 are permitted to live here.

We stare at the increasingly precipitous cliffs. “Imagine,” says my companion. “It’s a place that has never known the laughter of children.”

The first monastery comes into view. Dochiariou. Encompassed by formidable medieval walls, it sits close to the shore. Two black-cloaked monks are working in the terraced gardens. Our fellow tourists wave. The monks don’t even look up.

We continue, passing as close as we legally can to a succession of ever more spectacular monasteries. Simonos Petras, perched precariously high above us atop a sheer outcrop. Grigoriou, occupying a location on a promontory that would be the envy of any 5-star resort.

The final monastery on this side of Mount Athos is dedicated to St. Paul. The commentary tells us that the main building was constructed in the 10th century on top of the ruins of a fourth-century monastery. Again we are able to spy some of the monks toiling in the gardens. Surely they can hear the commentary from the boat, and they would see us waving if they looked up. They don’t look up.

Outwardly, the buildings and lifestyle we are observing have changed little in centuries. It feels as though we are looking not just across 500 meters of water, but also back through the centuries. Appearances can be deceiving. In almost all of the monasteries, the monk populations have dwindled to just a handful of men. With no indigenous inhabitants, Mount Athos relies on a steady supply of new recruits. If current trends continue, the border wall that keeps the world at bay might ultimately become redundant. There will be no way of life left to protect.

The boat doubles back along the coast, returning to Ouranoupoli. From there, we drive back to Kassandra. For the first few miles, we are haunted by our glimpse into Mount Athos. We drive through a village and notice the women and children. My companion waves to them. They wave back.

On the busy highway, we are conscious that we are traversing layers of history. By Greek standards, the medieval monasteries of Mount Athos are relatively recent. Throughout our journey, we pass brown road signs pointing to ancient archaeological sites.

The layers of history are illustrated at Potidea, at the narrow entrance to the Kassandra peninsula. The current town was established in 1922 by Greek refugees from Turkey. But the original Corinthian settlement dates back to 700 B.C., and archaeologists have uncovered a human skeleton here that is thought to be around 700,000 years old.

In theory, then, modern Kassandra is the culmination of at least 7,000 centuries of human development. It’s a depressing thought. Gaudy billboards line the sides of the road, advertising hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, strip clubs, go-kart tracks, water sports and a wide range of other attractions and activities. It is doubtful that even the worst nightmares of the ancient Greek philosophers could have conjured a vision of this kind of a future for their beloved land.

We are staying in a villa overlooking the popular resort of Hanioti. The following morning, instead of walking down to the souvenir shops and crowded beaches, we head in the opposite direction, into the hills.

The summer heat is ferocious. Just two weeks before our arrival, almost the entire interior of Kassandra went up in flames. We tread through a landscape of blackened grass and charred trees. This primeval scene predates humans. For millions of years, natural Mediterranean habitats have regularly burned and regenerated. Already, fresh green shoots are beginning to appear.

We follow the winding road up to the summit of the high ridge that runs the length of Kassandra and then begin our descent to the other side. Heat shimmers around us. Cicadas grate. We complete our traverse in two hours and cool ourselves off in the Aegean waters lapping the little village of Nea Skioni.

On subsequent days we take further walks into the hills, and on one morning we take to sea-going kayaks, casting off from a secluded cove. As we glide across the crystal water, the pebbled shallows fall away to deep blueness. We paddle through the shadow of a rocky bluff and then find ourselves voyaging parallel to a beach packed with sunbathing tourists.

Once again we are observing life on land from the sea. Like the monks, the tourists ignore our presence. Many of these holidaymakers return to the same beach year after year. Like the monks, they have submitted themselves to the security of familiar routine.

My companion and I are inveterate travelers, and in that we have greater sympathy with the early Greeks, who set out from these shores to explore the wider world. We are constantly curious about what lies around the next corner or beyond the next headland. For us, the word “forbidden” is not a deterrent. It is an invitation.


Info to Go

Flights arrive at Thessaloniki International Airport (SKG), a 90-minute drive from Kassandra, the nearest and most popular prong of the three-pronged Halkidiki Peninsula. The many hotels along Kassandra’s eastern coast cater to all tastes and budgets. On the west coast, Sani Resort offers laid-back opulence. Yacht trips, sea kayaking and sightseeing voyages off Mount Athos can be booked through tour operators in Kassandra. More information about Mount Athos, including details of how male tourists can apply for a visitation permit, can be found at www.macedonian-heritage.gr/Athos.

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