Mount Athos (aka the Holy Mountain) is a monastic republic that dominates the Athos Peninsula of the Halkidiki region of northern Greece. Although legally considered part of the European Union, The Monastic State of the Holy Mountain and the Athonite Institutions operates independently – much like the Vatican in Italy. Mount Athos contains about 20 monasteries and is strictly a male-only destination; women have not been allowed inside the republic (or within 500 meters of the coast) for more than 1,000 years.
For visitors to the republic, the usual plan is to spend 2-4 days walking between monasteries, spending one night in each. Accommodation and food is free (though donations are accepted), and plans must be secured far in advance. Mount Athos is not a holiday camp and nor should it be considered such. It is a destination for pilgrimage, and visitors will get the most out of the experience if that principle is knowingly adhered to. Time on Mount Athos is generally spent walking in what is one vast, ecclesiastical conservation park; thinking, spiritualizing, and maybe reading; all the while keeping an early schedule in order to dine and engage with the monks.
Visiting Mount Athos
Preparation, Arrival, and Departure
Visiting Mount Athos is a well-oiled operation that is run like a monastic business; men who want to visit Mount Athos should plan well ahead, as only only ten permits are issued per day for non-Orthodox and foreign visitors, and 100 for Greeks and Greek Orthodox visitors.
- Start planning at least six months in advance. Get in touch with the Mount Athos Pilgrims’ Bureau in Thessaloniki (+30 231 025 2578, a[email protected]) to obtain a visitor’s permit. A permit costs 30 Euros. You will need to apply and pay beforehand, and the permit is collected at the Pilgrims’ Office’s Ouranoupolis branch. Then plan your walking itinerary and book your bed at the monasteries of your choice. Permits are issued for four-day (three night) stays, but these can be extended to a further two nights after arrival and registration in Karyes, the capital of Mount Athos. Monastery contact details are on the Mount Athos Center and Friends of Mount Athos websites.
- Getting to Ouranoupoli: There are twice daily buses to Ouranoupoli from Thessaloniki, and tickets can be purchased in advance online.
- Upon arrival at Ouranoupoli: It is best to arrive in Ouranoupoli the day before and spend the night, in order to have a full day ahead for your journey to the monasteries. In the morning, pick up your entry pass (diamonitirion) at the Pilgrims’ Bureau sub-branch in town (+30 237 707 1422), and board a boat for the Holy Mountain. Boats leave at 08:00, 09:45 and 11:45, and tickets can be bought on the waterfront near the jetty. Upon arrival at Mount Athos, all visitors must first register in the office at Karyes, which is reached by bus from the port of Dafni. If you are plan to visit any of the monasteries further south, Dafni is where you will catch the boat that will take you there. The boat heading back to Ouranoupoli from Dafni departs at 12:00.
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Conduct at Mount Athos
Common sense should prevail, but there are some ground rules. Visitor’s permits can be revoked at any time for offensive behavior.
- Dress modestly and practically, in much the same way as you would around your own place of worship.
- Take photos of scenery and buildings, but not of actual services – and take photos of monks only with permission. Video recording is strictly forbidden.
- Be willing to rise for early morning services if suggested, and follow the rhythm of the monastery when it comes to meals and activities.
- When eating with the monks, be aware that you’ll only have about ten minutes to eat your food. The head monk will ring a bell once to signal the beginning of the meal and once again at the end – so eat quickly; after the second bell all eating is over.
- Respect the silence and refrain from talking loudly or playing music via a speaker (it’s okay to use headphones).
Mount Athos Practicalities
Keep additional food supplies with you should you ever be caught out at mealtimes. There is a well-stocked supermarket in Karyes. Take stout walking shoes with you, as you will be walking rough terrain. Use sun screen and wear a hat; the weather at Mount Athos can be hot and humid. Your phone will work just fine (monks use them), but you will need to use your own mobile data if you want to access the Internet. Wine is commonly served with meals, but if you bring alcohol to the monastery you are expected to gift it to the kitchen monk to be shared. Don’t try to do everything or over-stretch your itinerary. Adopting a slow and meditative pace will enhance your experience. You can always come back.
More Information about Mount Athos
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