Walking in Mount Athos

You might get the impression that the monasteries of Mount Athos don’t want you to visit. You cannot drive onto the Athos Peninsula; the only way to enter is by boat. As you creep up to the green shore, the monastery walls, some cut right into the cliff, rise sternly above you.

“In the olden times there were pirates, and the monks had to defend their monasteries from looting. So, they built high walls and towers along the coast,” explains Nikos Todoulos, founder and senior guide at Agion Oros Treks.

Nikos leads our Mount Athos walking holiday onto this thin peninsula, which is found in the Halkidiki region of Northern Greece. Today, the imposing fortifications of Simonopetra Monastery is one of the most famous images of the area.

It might feel like the same fortifications were designed to keep out something worse than marauders – women have been banned from the peninsula for over a thousand years, with a 12-month prison sentence for those who break the rule. Mount Athos is an autonomous community in Greece, with special jurisdiction that allows it to restrict guests based on sex, and places strict limits on the number of visitors.
The monasteries resemble medieval castles, with their high walls and soaring towers.
The message is clear: If you’re a pirate, or a woman, don’t come. Men of a non-piratical persuasion, however, can spend a few days on a small group walking holiday, and have the peninsula practically to themselves.

Whatever you feel about the Holy Mountain’s ban on women, it looks as though it’s here to stay. In summer months, Nikos tells us, it’s habitual for Russian pilgrims to leave their families in the resorts of Halkidiki. From here, women and children can choose to see the monasteries by boat excursion, just so long as they stay at least half a kilometre from shore.

Despite this remarkable ban, the region shows tolerance elsewhere.

“No, you don’t have to be a Christian Orthodox,” Nikos explains. “We have Muslim, Jewish and Protestant visitors.”

They come, not just because they can, but because, alongside religious visits to Mount Athos is another, quieter kind of pilgrimage – that of hikers coming to trek in this special place.

Should women be banned from Mount Athos?

Along with Mount Omine in Japan, which also bans women, Mount Athos is a UNESCO-listed gendered space. This has attracted criticism. Mount Athos finds itself in a Catch-22: its UNESCO status comes in part from its long legacy as an Orthodox spiritual centre, of which its gendered traditions are an intrinsic component. Yet critics argue that access to UNESCO sites should be a universal right – a site only open to half the world cannot demonstrate its outstanding value to the whole of humanity. This was a cause of debate in 1988 when the site was added to the World Heritage List. Since then, the EU commission has been asked whether Mount Athos even receive EU funding if it does not show equality of access to EU citizens. The site’s ban on women is over 1,000 years old, and shows no current sign of being lifted. In the 21st century, interpretations of gender identity have progressed and evolved. In keeping to tradition, the Mount Athos ban seems set to fall further and further out of step with modern thinking.

Can you hike on Mount Athos?

There are daily visitor quotas to Mount Athos for pilgrims, capping entrants at 100. Even fewer can come to hike – or climb – in the area. You need a permit to do so.

The peninsula consists of Mount Athos itself, a lone peak rising two kilometres from sea level, and the monasteries – there are 20 of them peppering the coast. Between the monasteries, the steep hills are cloaked with vast swathes of chestnut forest.

Permits are not so easy to come by. “If the monks don’t know you, they give you nothing,” warns Nikos, who has built a good relationship with those on the peninsula over the last two decades of running special, small group hikes in the area. Contacting them without a facilitator like Nikos is difficult, and the process bureaucratic. “They don’t have phones, they use fax machines,” Nikos explains. “They don’t answer the telephones.”

Tech is coming, and you might see the odd monk with a smartphone, but they’re not exactly early adopters. The best way to visit, then, is by organised tour – and you’ll likely be the only hiking group going in.

Custodians such as these monks are rare in the world, which is why the peninsula is of special interest to conservationists. The peninsula is too steep for agriculture, which is confined to terraces and to the seashore. The rest of the area is woodland – except for the tonsured peak of Mount Athos itself, rising high above the treeline.

The area gained UNESCO Heritage Status in 1998, both for its cultural significance and for the preservation of its ancient Mediterranean forests. The peninsula has virgin wood – old growth trees that have existed untouched for millennia – growing so densely on the steep slopes that there’s little knowledge of what lies within. Don’t expect to see wildlife – the forest is too deep; instead, enjoy the trees themselves and, when they part, the views.

“Spectacular,” says Nikos, describing November when trees are resplendent in autumnal colours. Spectacular also is the Aegean Sea beyond – a superlative blue.

Climbing Mount Athos

Mount Athos, which dominates the peninsula, is “the holy mountain of the Orthodox world”, according to Nikos. “Everyone wants to go up. There’s a church at the top and the scenery is very wild. It looks like the Alps. There’s no forest above the tree line, so you get a great view. There’s nothing in front of you to block the view; there’s no other mountain. On a clear day you can see the Greek islands.”
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Greece walking or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

The Mount Athos monasteries

There are 20 main monasteries on the Athos Peninsula, most of them on the coast. A four-day visit will have you taking in up to 10 of them, including famous Simonopetra Monastery, perched daringly on the cliffs and renowned for its 16th-century paintings, and Xenophontos Monastery and Gregoriou Monastery, down on the sea shore.

“I like Pantokratoros Monastery on the north side of the peninsula,” says Nikos. “It’s a location that is just above the sea, so calm. There are great balconies where you can sit and enjoy your coffee.”

The monasteries each have their own ecclesiastical treasures: books, manuscripts, icons and paintings. Panteleimon Monastery, the Russian monastery, has a bell so big that it takes at least two monks to ring it. Most visitors are impressed by the size of the monasteries, in which only a handful of monks now rattle around, preserving their empty castles, and keeping alive traditional art forms; you may hear strains of atmospheric Byzantine chanting at mass.

Visitors may also hear about sketes. “These are small brotherhoods of 2-3 monks,” Nikos explains. They live in very isolated conditions, found on the southern peninsula in the foothills, in caves that are accessible by a dilapidated series of ropes and ladders, and are difficult to visit on foot. “They are mostly very hardcore pilgrims that have left the outer world completely.”

Monks & modernity

For those who want it, UNESCO recognition has brought a lot more funding to the area – in the 1960s and 1970s, the monasteries were teetering on the brink of disrepair; now there is money to rebuild and preserve.

However, monks still live off-grid, electricity comes from generators, mass is candlelit. Solar panels are a recent introduction. Until recently, donkey or mule was the mode of transport – but 4WD vehicles have now made in-roads. Nikos often brings in batteries when he hikes here to distribute among the monks. They are in high demand for head torches, so that the monks can safely retire to bed after mass.

Any other in-vogue luxuries? “Cotton buds,” Nikos says.
The CEO of Guinness in the 1990s was a Greek guy and now he’s a monk. For about 25 years now he’s been a monk in a monastery here.

What is it like visiting the Mount Athos monasteries?

Visitors are invited to take part in monastic life when they stay. Life here is repetitive and contemplative, and follows the Gregorian calendar rather than the Julian. The Mount Athos diet is very simple – home-grown vegetables and lentils – and it may be eaten in silence in the refectory whilst someone reads out a prayer. Whatever their faith, visitors are invited to observe mass. Between masses, the monks are hard at work, and guests can join in if they want, with gardening, cooking, fetching wood, making candles, undertaking maintenance of their vast domains. The buildings have capacity for thousands of monks but are now supported by just a few dozen so there is always work to do.

The monks are mostly Greek, but some are Georgian, Bulgarian, Russian, Romanian and Serbian, and others come from even further afield: America, China and Japan. Still, you don’t need to share a language to share an experience; lending a hand is a lingua franca when there’s lots of work to do.

“I’ll tell you something you didn’t know,” says Nikos. “The CEO of Guinness in the 1990s was a Greek guy and now he’s a monk. For about 25 years now he’s been a monk in a monastery here.”

Every monastery has a shop selling the items you may have helped the monks make during your visit, including special local Tsipouro, a grape-derived spirit that you can’t get anywhere else. Unsurprisingly, though, the most common souvenir is a rosary.

Practicalities

Are you allowed to visit Mount Athos?

Yes, if you’re a man. Women have been banned from the peninsula for over 1,000 years. The rule, known as ‘AVATON’ is enforceable by law. The edict is so strict it actually encompasses female livestock too, making eggs and milk something of a luxury. Male visitors don’t need to be Greek Orthodox, but they do need a permit, which will be checked at the border. This can be organised by a local guide.

How long should I go to Mount Athos for?

For as long as they’ll have you. Permits to visit Mount Athos are generally issued for a maximum of four days and three nights. This gives you enough time to visit a good number of monasteries and, given how different life is in the Athonian State, you may be craving creature comforts by the end of your stay, anyway.

What is the best time to go to Mount Athos?

There are spectacular colours on the hillsides in spring and autumn, however, consider winter too.

“Not many people visit from November to February as they’re afraid that it will be cold, but they have stoves,” says Nikos. “It’s warm inside the monasteries.”

Plus, Nikos adds: “The weather has changed – here in Greece right now [November] it’s like summer. Well, 25 years ago, in November we had snow and we would go skiing but this November we go swimming. So, I would say it is a year-round destination.”

Climate change will affect this region, just as it will the rest of Greece. In the summer 2022, fire services struggled to extinguish forest fires on the peninsula – a victim of its own sequestration – and had to use helicopters. Walkers will probably avoid summer, anyway, because it’s too hot.

There are few places left that are like Mount Athos, untouched and unchanged despite its old-fashioned ways falling further and further out of step with the rest of the world. The few who visit can safely say they are in a privileged minority – send us a postcard.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Food: Frank Smith] [Places: Joe Bloggs]