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Mount Athos

A Taste of Monastic Life for Some

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The triple peninsula of Chalkidiki in Northern Greece reaches out lie a three-fingered hand. The farthest right "finger" is the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, normally called "Mount Athos". On this isolated strip of land, twenty monasteries reside. Ironically, since women are not allowed on the peninsula, many of the monastic establishments are dedicated to different aspects of the Virgin Mary.

Technically, purely secular visitors to Mount Athos are not permitted. Men who are in good standing with their church, preferably but not exclusively Greek Orthodox, can apply to visit at Mount Athos (see below). If accepted, the individual can then travel on the peninsula and even claim a night's lodging at the monasteries.

The pilgrim may find himself in royal company; Prince Charles of England is a regular visitor.

Women, while not permitted on the sacred peninsula, can comfort themselves with a boat ride around the peninsula, gazing at a few of the forbidden buildings in the distance. Another option is this interesting Walk Around Mount Athos, an almost step-by-step experience of the peninsula created from over 5,000 photographs and accompanied by a soundtrack of natural bells, bird sounds and other noises recorded on the peninsula. The full version is available for sale, but the website gives a few minutes of the presentation which is a nice introduction to the peninsula.

Does this seem unfair? The European Union believes it may be, and they are looking into the legality under EU law of forbidding access to a large area of land on the basis of gender and religion.

In ancient times, the 37 mile long peninsula was home to a handful of major cities, but none of these have been excavated. Even earlier, the high peak of Athos was a seat of Zeus or a similar divinity, and a temple to Zeus was still intact as late as the fifth century.

Mount Athos Pilgrims' Bureau
109 Egnatia St
GR-54635 Thessaloniki, Greece
Telephone: (011-30)2310-252578. Often, faxes work best with communicating with monastic organizations. The fax for the Pilgrims' Bureau is (011 30) 2310 222424. Here is more information on the application process.
There are two visas available - one permits the bearer to stay one night at each monastery, while the other confers the ability to stay at one particular monastery for an extended period, which must be negotiated with the authorities at that monastic house beforehand.

Ferries to the peninsula leave from the town of Ouranopolis; this is also where the tour boats which permit women can be boarded, but be aware that the seas can be rough.

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