From Greece Into Byzantium: A Tour Into One Of the Weirdest Places in Europe

From Greece Into Byzantium: A Tour Into One Of the Weirdest Places in Europe
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This 7-day tour brings you to one of the oddest places in Europe - and the world. Forget the Greek beaches and island-hopping. Mount Athos, the tip of the northernmost leg of the Chalkidiki peninsula, is all about religion, Middle Ages and pristine nature. To the Orthodox Christians, it is the equivalent of what Rome is to the Catholics, except that it is so strict that no females are allowed in. That's right - no women or any female animal of any kind have been allowed into Mount Athos since the 11th Century, the only exception being made for... cats whose job is to control the rat population.

In traditional Orthodox belief, Mount Athos is where the Virgin Mаry was blown ashore on her way to Cyprus. She was overcome with the beauty of the mountain to an extent that she heard a celestial voice commanding her to consecrate the place in her name.

The first Christian settlers came probably in the 4th Century, but the bulk of the 20-odd large (some huge) monasteries still existing in Mount Athos today date to the 10th-11th Century, at the time of Byzantium.

Since the 1920s, the Greek state has granted Mount Athos an independent status as a "monastic republic." While nominally a part of Greece, and therefore the EU, it is controlled by a clerical council represented by the abbots of all the monasteries in hierarchical order. The no-women prohibition is strictly enforced by the Greek police, despite several rulings by the European Court in what is very obviously a restriction of free movement on EU land. To visit, one needs a special visa issued by the monastic republic, often applying months in advance.

A visit to Mount Athos will likely become a highlight of your travel experiences as it will be a jump back in culture and time. If you want to understand what Orthodox Christianity is about - and especially if you are interested in Eastern Europe and Russia - Mount Athos is an absolute must.


Day 1: Thessaloniki
Arrive Thessaloniki. Overnight at a hotel.

Day 2: Thessaloniki - Ouranopouli
After breakfast meet & greet with our guide. A short sightseeing general tour in Thessaloniki including the White Tower, the St Dimitrios Cathedral, the Aristoteles Square and the Rotunda. In the afternoon drive to Ouranopouli (150 km). Overnight at hotel.

Day 3: Ouranopouli - Mt Athos
We make a very early start as our boat from Ouranopouli, the last worldly settlement before the Mount Athos border, leaves at 08.30. We head to the first monastery on our tour.

Days 3-5: Mt Athos

We spend these nights in three different monasteries. Sleeping is usually (but not always) in dormitory-style rooms with 8-20 beds. Toilets are usually on the same floor. Conditions vary with each individual monastery, from the quite luxurious in Vatopedi to the very basic in Zografou. Food is given to both the monks and visitors in accordance with Byzantine time. Lunch, the main meal of the day, is usually around 09.00 am. Wine is usually served at lunch. Dinner is about 4.00-5.00 pm. All monasteries lock their gates at sunset and open them at sunrise. No one will let you in if you are out of the main building after sunset. Wakeup bells ring around 3.00 am., the first prayers usually start at 3.30 and last until 7.00-7.30. Afternoon prayers usually start around 3.00 pm. . Dinner is followed by opening up the monasteries treasures, which often include bones and other body remains of Orthodox saints. The prayers are a major highlight of any visit to Mount Athos and you are strongly encouraged to join them at least once. The whole of Mount Athos is strictly vegetarian, with the only exception of fish on some Sundays and church holidays. You are advised to bring some high nutrition foodstuffs for yourself. These may include nuts, chocolates and the like. There are no shops inside Mount Athos except in Daphne (the main port) and Karyes (the capital).

Day 6: Ouranopouli - Thessaloniki

We take the boat back to Ouranopouli. Expected arrival time in Ouranopouli is about 2.00 pm. Drive back to Thessaloniki. Hotel overnight.

Day 7: Departure

Price includes:
►All transport from day 2 to day 6 ►3 nights at standard hotels room with private facilities incl. breakfast. ►3 nights in dorms in monasteries incl. all meals ►English speaking guide ►boat tickets from/to Ouranopouli ►visa (diamonitirion) fee

Not included:
►flight tickets ►airport transfers on days 1 and 7 ►drinks and meals not mentioned ►insurance ►tips ►personal expenses

Other expenses: ►Single room supplement (hotel overnights): 60 euro

General Advice:
Once inside Mount Athos we will stay in some of the monasteries. All of them accept pilgrims and visitors, but bookings are essential sometimes months in advance. While we will make every effort to let you know the names and locations of the specific monasteries where we will stay, this cannot be guaranteed. Every trip into Mount Athos depends on the availability of beds in the individual monasteries
Smoking and drinking are permitted outside the main monasteries. Some monasteries have special smoking areas, usually a balcony in the main building.
There are no particular dress requirements except that no shorts are allowed. Dress comfortably (long sleeves recommended) and wear sturdy boots as the trip will involve some rough walking.
Observance of the house rules of each individual monastery is essential. These usually concern smoking, drinking, gate-shutting and meal times. Do not expect food if you late for lunch or dinner.
There are no shops, except for a few very basic ones in Daphne and Karyes.
While Mount Athos is quintessentially Greek, through the centuries it has become internationalised as far as the Orthodox world is concerned. At the present time, Zografou is taken care of by Bulgarians, Panteleimonas is taken care of by Russians, and Serbs are in charge of Chilandariou. One smaller monastery, Prodromos, is being looked after by Romanians.


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