Orthodox priests in Mount Athos, Greece
Orthodox priests in Mount Athos (c) Richard Gardner

If you are female, you may decide to stop reading now.

Mount Athos, the “Holy Mountain” is the ultimate male only destination. Even the animals and kept birds are male, some may not be in the complete sense but they still remain classed as male. Inevitably there are the odd exceptions which nobody could control, the insects and wild birds.

Apparently a few years back a lady disguised herself as a man and made it ashore. Somehow her ploy was discovered. One monk was so mortified at this breach to the sanctity of this place, he committed suicide.

Mount Athos is a self contained 129 square miles which has been Orthodox spiritual centre since 1054. It is under Greek sovereignty but has been a self-governing monastic state since Byzantine times.

How to get to Mount Athos

Only accessed by sea, the region has been described as a religious sanctuary. Since the 20 monasteries, 12 cloisters and 800 cells provide accommodation for 2,200 monks, the description is apt. Although Byzantine period rules are in place, it is not uncommon to see monks chatting away on their “Blackberries”.

One has to be pretty determined to go through all the legal hoops and processes before a visa is issued. Name? Father’s (not mother’s) name? Date of birth? Identity card or passport number and date of arrival? With the starkly worded paperwork completed and the money handed over, the precious visa is issued. With places very limited it is essential to book a seat on the ship. No reservation, no travelling.

Best time to visit Mount Athos

Orthodox priest (c) Richard Gardner
Orthodox priest (c) Richard Gardner

In some religious calendars, Christmas is the key time, not here. Here it is Easter and as I was to discover, definitely not the best time to visit. The levels of devotion may vary but for all the monks this is a serious time. During this period the level of welcome at the monasteries varies from a gentle warmth, through to near hostility.

Witnessing one elderly robed gentleman hopping from foot to foot in near rage at the sight of ‘intruders’ would in other circumstances be described as comical. This just felt sad.

Who was right, who was wrong? Where was the generosity of spirit espoused by the person they worship? Were outsiders too much of an intrusion into a private world?

Before visiting, check if there are religious holidays when fasting may take place. Twenty-four hours can seem like an eternity with nothing more than some water.

With the few shops firmly shut, it is a case of waiting for the day to slowly trickle away till freshly baked bread and olives are placed on the table. Overall the food is pretty good. Simple meals based on what is grown locally plus any fish from the surrounding waters. Any shortfall is brought in by boat from the mainland. Several of the monasteries produce their own wine with variable success.

Would I revisit? It was worth it once for the experience however the garden shed remains my bolt hole. And the kitchen is always open.

About Mount Athos

Mount Athos is the centre of Eastern Christian Orthodox Monasticism. It is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty and is a UNESCO heritage site. It is also home to artefacts and monuments of religions, national and artistic value.

You need to know

  • Only 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox visitors per day are permitted and the bureaucracy is bewildering.
  • Women are not admitted into the territory.
  • Overnight stay is forbidden to those under 18.
  • A permit (diamonitirion) is required for both individuals and groups. This is issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Directorate of Churches (at No 2, Zalokosta Street, in Athens, tel: 210 3626 894) or by the Ministry of Northern Greece, Directorate of Civil Affairs at Diikitiriou Square in Thessaloniki, tel. 2310 270.092.
  • Diamonitiria (permits to stay as a pilgrim) are issued by the offices of Mount Athos, at Ouranoupolis (on the right side of the port). In order to get their diamonitirion visitors must show their identity cards and pay the sum of €18 (Orthodox visitors), €30 (non-Orthodox) or €10 (non-Orthodox but student). Foreign visitors also need a passport; if you are Orthodox but not Greek, you will need to prove this (a letter from a priest or a baptismal certificate will do).
  • First, contact the Pilgrims’ Bureau (The Holy Executive of the Holy Mount Athos Pilgrims’ Bureau, 109 Egnatia Str., 54622, Thessaloniki, Greece; Tel. +30 2310 252578). They may need plenty of notice of your proposed visit – up to six months if you plan to visit during the summer months of June, July, and August when the monasteries are full to over-flowing with Greek and Orthodox pilgrims, but as little as a few days outside the peak season.

Where to stay

The village of Ouranoupoli is situated at the very beginning of the Athos peninsula, in the North West. 5* Eagles Palace Hotel & Spa in Ouranoupoli is set amidst lush gardens and has a private sandy beach in Skala area. The hotel is about 90 minute drive from Thessaloniki Airport. You can either get one of the daily private bus services, or the state-run KTEL bus. Alternatively, hire a car and drive from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupoli with amazing views of the scenery and historical sites on the way.


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