The great and the would-be-good in footsteps of Charles

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The Independent Online

No women, spartan food, whitewashed cells and a 3am prayer bell are just some of the ascetic delights drawing increasing numbers of high-profile men, from the Prince of Wales to George Soros, to a remote peninsula in northern Greece.

As the heir to the British throne awoke in the earliest hours of this morning, he took his place as the latest scion of the educated classes to seek solace in the Orthodox monastic republic of Mount Athos.

For Prince Charles, it is an annual pilgrimage to the heart of the Orthodox faith: to a community where no woman has set foot, under pain of death, for more than 500 years. Even female livestock are forbidden. The composer John Taverner was so taken with the seclusion and spirituality that he converted to Orthodoxy. The writer and adventurer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor has enjoyed a lifetime love affair with Athos since he celebrated his 21st birthday party at the Russian monastery.

Perched on the end of the rugged three-fingered peninsula of Halkidiki and accessible only from the sea, the monastic "state" is the only one of its kind in the world. It was granted its unique status nearly 1,000 years ago by Constantinople, then the centre of the Byzantine empire.

Athos' dramatic 11th- and 12th-century fortress monasteries are scattered in the shadow of the Holy Mountain, giving refuge to a multinational community of Orthodox monks. Between them they rule the mountain. The monasteries, which are home to priceless collections of Byzantine art, were originally built to withstand the assault of pirates who marauded along the Greek shores.

Today's visitors may be more peaceable but their privacy is jealously guarded. Dr Graham Speake from the Friends of Mount Athos - a society which counts ambassadors and academics as well as bluebloods such as Prince Charles and Prince Philip among its members - says interest is on the up. "Our membership is growing ... there is a fascination with the monastic life," he said.

The society is wealthy enough to be confident it can afford the£12m needed to repair damage to one monastery in a recent fire. Prince Charles is reported to have contributed £650,000 to the restoration. But money and status count for little on the Holy Mountain. "The monasteries are not hotels. If you stay, you live the life of a monk - from the food that you eat to the hours that you keep," said Dr Speake, who returned to England from Athos two weeks ago. "It's unlike any other place in Western Christianity. It's a wonderful opportunity to get away from the chaos of the modern world."

The first prayer bell is rung around 3.30am and is the cue for more than four hours of prayer before breakfast, with an hour for vespers at around 4pm; and another bout of prayer which completes the liturgical day at 7pm. On feast days, there are up to 10 hours' prayer.

A strict daily entrance quota of 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox pilgrims is imposed.

The monastery gates are locked at sunset and those left outside may shelter among the coastal caves where the hermits seek even greater solitude than the monks. For those inside, there are guest houses where hospitality is free.

All pilgrims are received equally, and, according to one regular, Athens surgeon Dr George Georgopoulos: "You never know who is in the cell next to you. It could be a prince or farm labourer."