For men only: A pilgrimage to Mount Athos in Greece

On a secluded peninsula in north-east Greece lies an enclave that's way off the tourist map, especially for women. William Cook gains access to the monastic republic of Mount Athos.

All the Greeks I met on my way to Mount Athos appeared preoccupied by the euro crisis. But as we approached the Holy Mountain, their financial worries seemed to fade. Here in this corner of their country is a place where money has no meaning, where the angry protests in Athens feel like foreign news. Mount Athos is a state within a state, far removed from the 21st century. And in the midst of economic chaos, it's a place where Greeks (and even Britons) can find respite from the relentless pressures of the rat race.

Not only is it apart in time – the monastic republic of Mount Athos is also geographically remote, on the edge of Greece, the edge of Europe, the edge of the Western world. But for such an apparently obscure location, the transport links are actually pretty good. To get there involved a flight to Thessaloniki in north-east Greece and then a two-hour drive along well-paved roads. The final leg was by boat, from the pretty Greek port of Ouranoupolis. As I boarded the ferry for Mount Athos, one of my fellow pilgrims said that when he first came here, he'd felt the presence of God. However, when I stepped ashore, after a bracing two-hour voyage, what struck me far more forcibly was the complete absence of women. Men were embarking and disembarking – monks, sailors, pilgrims – and not a female face in sight.

Mount Athos is the only state in the world which women are not allowed to enter, and until you arrive here you have no idea quite how weird that feels. I'd always pictured Mount Athos as a lone escarpment, like Gibraltar, but it's actually a long finger of land, ending in a snow-capped peak, surrounded on three sides by the blue Aegean.

It's quasi-autonomous, rather like our Channel Islands, but far larger: 60km long, 10km wide and three times the size of Jersey. Though it's linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, the land border is closed to foreigners and the only permitted access is by boat. It feels more like an island than a peninsula. I must admit I felt a bit homesick as I watched our ferry sail away, leaving me in a religious statelet that's hardly changed since the Middle Ages. Even the calendar has remained the same. They still use the old Julian calendar (rather than our Gregorian version) which means Mount Athos is 13 days adrift from the rest of Greece and Europe. And as the liturgical day begins at sundown, 12 o'clock is a movable feast: dawn or sunset, rather than noon or midnight, which means the clocks here are constantly being adjusted and reset. Still, after all the bad news coming out of Athens, this medieval anachronism was also oddly reassuring. During the last millennium, the Holy Mountain has weathered far bigger crises, and survived.

Orthodox monks have been living on Mount Athos ever since the 7th century, inspired by the Virgin Mary, who supposedly travelled here in her old age. In the ninth century the Byzantine Empire recognised these monks as the Holy Mountain's rightful residents. In the 11th century the emperor banned all women, after an awkward incident with some local shepherdesses. Ever since, this verdant cul-de-sac has been the sole preserve of a few thousand monks, inhabiting 20 monasteries scattered around the peninsula, plus various caves and cells hidden in the wooded hills between. During the 20th century, numbers fell dramatically. A century ago there were more than 7,000. Fifty years later the numbers had fallen to fewer than 2,000. But since the end of the Cold War the roll call has risen. Now there are about 2,500 monks living here, from virtually every region of the Orthodox world. And one of them was a shy, amiable monk called Father Ignatius, who met me on the quayside.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Mount Athos isn't a closed community. Monks are allowed to travel (though many of them choose not to). And every day 100 Greeks and 10 foreigners are granted entry visas. You must apply well in advance, and also ask a monastery for accommodation – there's nowhere else to stay. But so long as you're patient and persistent (and male, of course), you gain access to one of the most remote and inaccessible regions in the EU.

A standard visa is valid for four days, and so many pilgrims choose to walk from Daphni (the peninsula's main port, where I'd just landed), hiking between several monasteries. But the monastery where I was staying was on the other side of the peninsula, so Father Ignatius had come to drive me there, in a modern minibus. He came here as a novice, in 1970, when he was just 14. Twenty years ago, I was told, there was still only one car on Mount Athos, and though you're not allowed to bring your own, some monasteries now own a few shared vehicles. Even the Holy Mountain is not immune to change.

In most other respects, however, Mount Athos remains medieval – a unique enclave, virtually untouched by the events of the past 500 years. Bizarrely, the ban on female inhabitants or visitors applies even to livestock. Cats are the only exception – brought in to keep down the rodent population. I spotted two horses and a donkey (all male presumably, though I didn't stop to check) but no cows, sheep or goats. As a rule, the monks don't eat meat – even fish is a treat, and agriculture is on a modest scale. There are tidy allotments around the monasteries and some award-winning vineyards (thank God they aren't teetotal) but these are tiny pockets in a vast, uncultivated wilderness – an endless forest, thick with brambles and wild flowers. If I'd been all alone, without a monk to guide me, I would have found it very easy to lose my way.

We bumped along a rudimentary road (unpaved for the most part) for more than an hour, until we reached Grand Lavra – the oldest monastery on the peninsula, founded more than 1,000 years ago.

It is a huge fortress surrounded by woods and meadows, on a lush green hill above the sea. These monasteries were plagued by pirates throughout the Middle Ages. Consequently they're built like castles, a cobbled courtyard hemmed in by high stone battlements, but this was nothing like those National Trust sites you used to get dragged around on school trips as a child. Grand Lavra is living, working commune, utterly at odds with the outside world, and arriving here was as thrilling – and disconcerting – as stepping out of a time machine. It was like The Name of the Rose, with just a touch of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The reception you get when you reach your chosen monastery depends on several factors: which monastery you choose; what monks you meet; even the time of year. The monks offer free hospitality to pilgrims, but it's inevitably basic – dormitory accommodation, familiar to anyone who's been youth hostelling or attended a British boarding school. You are offered two simple but wholesome (predominantly vegetarian) meals a day. At sunset they shut the gates and most of the monks turn in for the night. There's not a lot of R&R, but naturally it's perfect for prayer or contemplation, or catching up on your reading. Even if you're not religious, it's a supremely peaceful place to spend a few days.

Grand Lavra, where I stayed, occupies the top rank in the strict hierarchy of monasteries on Mount Athos. Compared with the other monastery I visited subsequently, it seemed beautiful but spartan. The centrepiece, in every sense, is the church in the middle of the courtyard. Dark, ornate and mysterious, it's like entering into another world. The Renaissance and the Reformation seem like abstract concepts here. Although the residents are perfectly polite, most monks prefer to mind their own business. As I soon discovered, it's fairly easy to put your foot in it if you don't know the rules. Anxious to do the right thing, I asked a monk whether, as an Anglican, I'd be allowed to take communion that evening – and received an emphatic lecture in ecclesiastical history in return.

These rules vary, depending on where you're staying, but no shorts or short-sleeved shirts is pretty much a given, even if you're just walking from your dorm to the toilet down the hall. In church, clasp your hands in front of you, never behind your back. Grand Lavra encourages pilgrims to attend the services, but unless you're Orthodox, you won't be offered bread and wine (even Orthodox pilgrims should apply in advance), and you'll have to sit at the back, outside – and largely out of sight of – the main body of the church.

If you think this all sounds a bit austere, you'd be absolutely right. "This is not a touristic place – this is a different side of Greece," said Alex, my Greek guide. Yet it's also strangely liberating. No adverts, no chain stores, only a few perfunctory shops selling basic supplies. You can get a mobile signal here, and some monks have mobile phones (purely for the most prosaic, practical purposes), but I never saw a television or heard a radio during the whole time I was here.

The next morning, Father Ignatius drove me to the north coast to catch the small high-speed boat back to the mainland. Before I left, I had time to visit Vatopedi monastery, a rich hotchpotch of ancient buildings, encircling a vast sloping paved piazza. This is the only monastery that keeps Western time and the atmosphere in the monastery seemed more relaxed and open. The shop sells all sorts of stuff, from books and icons to wine and honey. Whether you'd prefer it to Grand Lavra is a matter of mood and taste, but the variety of these monasteries is part of what makes Mount Athos special. With a bit of preliminary research, you should be able to find the one that suits you best.

Back in Ouranoupolis, I felt torn between relief and disappointment. It was great to have female company again, even a waitress or a shop assistant, and the lunch I wolfed down in a quayside restaurant tasted better than anything I'd ever eaten. The little luxuries in my hotel now seemed like spectacular treats. Yet, to my surprise, I found there were some things about Mount Athos that I really missed – the quiet, the solitude, the absence of advertising. As I turned for home, life suddenly looked a lot more garish. I know I'd make a useless monk, but after my brief visit to the Holy Mountain I can entirely understand why some men decide to turn their backs on the modern world.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The writer flew with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) which flies five times a week from Gatwick to Thessaloniki. Buses run from Thessaloniki bus station to the port of Ouranoupolis (00 30 2310 595411; ktelmacedonia.gr; €10.70 one way).

Staying there

The writer stayed at the Eagles Palace (00 30 23770 310478; eaglespalace.gr) in Ouranoupolis. Doubles from €190, with breakfast.

For a four-day permit (priced €30) for the Holy Mountain, contact the Pilgrims Office in Thessaloniki (00 30 231 0252 575; pilgrimsbureau@c-lab.gr). Then contact the monastery where you want to stay. (athosfriends.org) and book a ferry with Agioreitikes Grammes (00 30 23770 21041; agioreitikes-grammes.com).

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