To visit the monasteries on Mount Athos is to step back a thousand years, the closest one can get now to the sounds and sensations of the Byzantine Empire. But it is also, more prosaically, like going back to a public school of the 1950s, and the experience I and a university friend had last month fell somewhere between the two.
Mount Athos is at the end of a peninsula, the eastern of the three fingers that point down from mainland Greece towards the top of the Aegean. Boats provide the only available access, for the peninsula is cut off from Greece, operating as a semi-independent state.
There are 1,700 monks in 40 monasteries, of which the oldest, Great Lavra, was founded in AD963. There are also 12 sketes (monastic communities), which range from newer monasteries to groups of monks who worship together in a church.
Most men who visit Athos – and only men are allowed – are Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox. Their numbers are limited to 100 permits each day, with a further 10 permits for visitors from other Christian denominations. Visitors are normally allowed to stay for up to three nights.
You pick up your permits at a little town just north of the border, Ouranoupoli, where you board a boat for an even smaller port, Dafni. You should have booked into a monastery, for only a few will take people without prior arrangement, and provided you arrive by four in the afternoon you will be accepted for the night. Gates shut at seven. You will be given supper, attend the evening service, sleep in a dormitory or cell, wake up for the dawn service, have breakfast and then walk to the next monastery.
We started with a night at St Andrews, a skete where we were warmly welcomed and I felt I could hear Byzantium in the chanting in the church.
The second day we walked to the coast, to Stavronikita, perched like a citadel above the sea, and along to Iviron, brought to British attention by William Dalrymple, who started his journey From the Holy Mountain there. Then it was a long pull up the hill, accompanied by a stray dog, to the Koutloumousiou monastery. There we were greeted rather more austerely. As we were not Orthodox, we ate separately and could not attend the services. On the third day, it was back to Dafni and a speedboat to Ouranoupoli.
What did it all feel like? Well, for some it was clearly a profound experience. One Russian said he had levitated – he and his group felt they were three feet off the ground. A Moscow economist told us it was as though he had a broadband link to God. For us – two not particularly devout Anglicans – it was refreshing to get away from commercialism and rewarding to have time together, walking and talking. But it was too much like boarding school to be wholly comfortable. We knew the drill: find out what time is chapel, when you will be fed and respect the prefects. Fit in, don't stand out, do as you are told.
But a world without women? For many, that is the whole point of it, but I found it difficult. It was too monochrome: an extraordinary world to glimpse and I am deeply grateful for that, but not one to linger in.