Travel: An agnostic on the Holy Mountain: Slater Todd smuggled himself into Mount Athos, the Greek Orthodox republic sealed from women and the world

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The police post was just visible through the branches, a hundred yards up the hill. The blue-and-white Greek flag hung limply from the pole. A jeep blocked the rough track. I tightened the belt of my rucksack, took a deep breath and began sprinting down the beach towards the border. My heart pounded as I anticipated the first bark, the first angry shout . . .

I reached a grove of olive trees and slid to a halt in the shadows. I listened, panting. Nothing. Just the gentle lapping of waves on the shore. I threw my bag over the fence, climbed over the single barbed-wire strand, dropped on to the sand and made my way into the forest.

I had smuggled myself into the theocratic republic of Mount Athos, a 40-mile peninsula protruding into the Greek Aegean, and I was now an illegal alien.

I had not planned it this way. Gaining permission to enter Mount Athos is far from simple for foreigners, but I thought I had ensured success a few weeks before my visit by acquiring a letter of recommendation from the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox church in Constantinople, which has ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Mount Athos. That morning I had visited the British Consul in Thessaloniki, where I showed my letter; but my application got no further. Up to 80 Greek men can enter Athos daily, but the Holy Mountain's allocation of 10 foreign visitors a day was full for two months.

If a foreigner is fortunate enough to obtain the permit, he then travels to the village of Ouranopoli, four hours from Thessaloniki, and from there takes the two-and-a-half-hour boat trip to the tiny harbour of Daphne. After a customs search and passport check, he is issued with a diamonitirion, an official document of the holy community allowing him to travel and shelter anywhere in the peninsula for four days, free of charge. Without the permit, I could not obtain a diamonitirion, and could not enter the Holy Mountain. Unless I flouted the law.

And so I stood in the forest. The first hurdle was over. Ahead of me lay a few days of discovery; of contemplation; of walking along the Mediterranean's least developed coastline beneath the towering Mount Athos. If undiscovered by the authorities, I would be a guest of the monks in their Byzantine monasteries, fortresses that stand testament to centuries when pirates ruled the seas and men of royal blood turned to God's solace rather than participate in the slaughter of their time.

One of my reasons for coming to Athos was to test the firmness of my agnosticism. What did the monks have that I lacked? To them the will of God is the source of all happiness. They have turned their backs on income, on possessions, on women. No female animal has been allowed to set foot on Athos since an edict issued by the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantine Monomachos, in 1060.

Somewhere on the forest-clad hill above me was a track that led over a high ridge into the mountainous wilderness of western Athos. It would take me five or six hours to walk to the 10th-century monastery of Esphigmenou, 'the slaughtered one', the first place where I could find bed and food. But the gates of all monasteries close at sunset, and there were only two hours of daylight left.

I climbed higher and higher, and then plunged down a valley towards a desolate stretch of sandy beach. My tourist map was useless and, instead, my guides were a pocket compass and the sea to my left. The sun disappeared and heavy clouds obscured the twilight. Darkness fell, and still I saw no sign of life.

And then I topped a ridge near the sea and an electric light broke the gloom below. I hastened down the hill. Dogs started barking and a door opened. A man came out, stared at me and asked me something in Greek. I shook my head. Four other men appeared, none in the black robes of Orthodox monks. I showed them my letter and held my breath as they discussed its significance.

The door was held open and I was ushered inside. Ah, comfort] My first experience of Athonite hospitality, albeit secular. The five men were lumberjacks, working for an Athens- based company. Everything they had, they shared with me: olives, taramasalata, wild green salad, bread, anchovies, meat balls, chips, beer, cigarettes and, of course, ouzo. We committed the sacrilege of discussing women (in sign language) and when European Cup football (Marseille v Glasgow Rangers) came on the black-and-white television, we sat down together and cheered.

I rose from my bunk at dawn with a hangover. No one spoke as we sipped Greek coffee. And then I left.

The morning was clear and I was greeted by the sight of the summit of Mount Athos, 35 miles away. It gleamed in the sun, its snow-capped peak towering above lesser mountains. I had hoped to watch the sun rise over Turkey from the chapel at its top, but if I was to see the monasteries of my original itinerary, I would have no spare time. I planned to spend two days walking to the mountain and around the cliffs at its foot, stopping at monasteries on the way, and then another day's journey to Daphne where I would catch my boat back to the real world.

I walked steadfastly along the dirt logging track. Green grass shone in the hot spring sun, and purple, yellow and white flowers danced in the breeze. The peace of Athos began to fall upon me.

After a few hours, the monastery of Esphigmenou came into view, its high walls lapped by the blue sea. Around it was a small patchwork of cultivated fields and a few scattered kelli - monastic farmhouses with their own chapels. The monastery itself was like a fairytale castle: a fortress of three or four storeys, with high wooden balconies and castellated towers. It had evolved through a thousand years of Christian endurance. And the monks needed faith. As an old annal in Esphigmenou's library relates:

'In this year (1533) the monastery was sacked in the month of June on the 26th day, a Thursday . . . Again, 10 days later, it was sacked by the descendants of Hagar, the impious anti-Christians. They took everything and set fire to the monastery as well as the ships, and they took away nine monks as hostages.'

I walked on, and around noon I began following a tortuous path through dense thickets and over clear streams. At the next monastery, Vatopediou, the arhonderis or guestmaster, took me to what must be the Christian world's most beautiful place of eating. Vatopediou's refectory has a cruciform shape, and tall, bright windows. Virtually every inch of wall and ceiling is brightly painted with biblical scenes and Byzantine motifs. Candelabra hang above a regular pattern of carved marble 'tables'. I was ushered to one, and served cuttlefish stuffed with leeks, washed down with the monastery's own red wine, and accompanied by bread, olives, taramasalata and pickled chillies. This fine meal was a celebration of the Annunciation. There was no question of any money passing hands. The food was given to me freely, as if it were my right. No one ever asked to see my diamonitirion.

The afternoon wore on. The path clung to the steep hillside a few hundred feet above the sea, rising and falling over rocky ridges and steep valleys. As the sun sank, the air cooled and my tired muscles began to stiffen. I rounded a bend and there, at last, was the monastery of Stavronikita, a 10th-century fortress on a cliff high above the sea.

I sat in the courtyard before the main entrance, waiting for the guestmaster to finish the evening service. In front of me was Mount Athos. I closed my eyes and listened to the chanting of the monks.

The evening service ended. A young Australian monk took me to the refectory in the old tower and showed me frescos dimmed with age and damaged by Turkish soldiers during the Ottoman occupation. I sat down at one of the long oak tables and ate a simple meal of macaroni, tomato, bread and olives. The guestmaster then walked me up a series of wooden stairways to the top of the monastery and showed me into the room I was to share with a sorrowful Greek pilgrim. I attempted to wash the accrued filth of two days off my body, but the water was freezing and the candlelight dim. I climbed into bed as darkness fell and was asleep within seconds.

I woke at half past three to the sound of a monk beating a wooden post with a mallet. This was the monastic alarm call for the four o'clock service. The bells of the monastery's church, or katholicon, began ringing, but my room-mate assured me that we had plenty of time before the service and I fell asleep again. When I awoke the service was over. I cast a pitiful eye on my fellow pilgrim, packed up and left just as the sun was rising.

The day was hard. I had breakfast with an Italian pilgrim at the monastery of Iviron and then found my cobbled track replaced by a great scar of dirt road, built for logging vehicles and the occasional truck full of provisions or construction materials.

I reached the shoulders of the great mountain. It was so close that I could see the outline of the snow-covered firs at the edge of the tree line. And still the empty road wore on. At last I reached the monastery of Megisti Lavra and walked in. The sun burnt down on the cobbles within the great walls. A fountain tinkled in the quiet. I wandered slowly around the vast fortress. Here and there I heard a voice, or saw a shadowy black-robed figure at prayer. I looked into an open door at the frescoed refectory. A cauldron full of clothes simmered over glowing coals. Water trickled out of a vast stone cistern. Frankincense wafted from the church. In the distance, a dog barked. I filled my water bottle, found a sunlit corner and lay back against my rucksack.

I spent an hour in that monastery, spoke to no one and saw no one but a few indistinct worshippers. Even in the largest monastery of Mount Athos, there is indescribable peace.

An hour later, outside the gate of the Romanian skete (monastic dwellings) of St John the Baptist, I met Joachim, a German theology student. We found ourselves on a tiny steep path. As we climbed higher and higher, I was concerned that we had taken the wrong track. But when we turned a corner we saw that a great cliff to our left had forced the path upwards. Ahead, sunlit woods hung precariously hundreds of feet above the sea. To our right Mount Athos stretched 6,500ft into the clouds. And around us were lonely hermitages, some tiny caves beneath giant boulders; there was a stone hut in the throat of a ravine and a simple shelter on an inaccessible cliff. Here lived the true ascetics, Christians who had retreated not only from the world but also from their fellow beings.

We reached the Skete of Kafsokalivia. Scattered whitewashed cottages, each with their own chapel, hugged the mountainside. Wood smoke hung in the evening air and cooking pots were simmering. But I was struck by the silence.

We were greeted at the guesthouse by Father Kirrilus, an ex-schoolteacher from Crete. I collapsed on my dormitory bed until supper. And later that evening, before the light had faded, fell fast asleep.

Two hours before dawn I was in the katholicon for my first and only service on Mount Athos. It was held in the light of flickering candles, with incense wafting around the altar. Gold glimmered. The liturgy was read and psalms chanted. The monks crossed themselves and kissed the icons, and in the darkness at the back of the church I felt superficial. I was not part of their music, I could not join them at their spiritual feast. And how they kissed their beloved icons; to me they were paintings of saints, to them they were holy presences imbued with divine grace.

I joined the monks for a breakfast of coffee, ouzo and batter puffs fried in oil and dusted with sugar. On the balcony of the guesthouse, I listened to Father Kirrilus and Joachim discuss theology, in English, while the sun slowly took away the spring chill.

At noon Joachim and I started the climb around the southern edge of the mountain. The air grew cooler. At 3,000ft, wisps of cloud swaddled us, hiding the Aegean. In a forest at the top of the trail, sweating and panting, we flopped on the damp earth for a rest. Joachim played his travelling piccolo to the mountain gods.

After the Skete of St Anne, with its hot, vine-clad terrace, I pressed on alone towards St Paul's monastery. At Nea Skete I met two English monks, Father Chrysostom and Father Gregorius, building a gate beside the path. They gave me a sweet cake and a glass of mint liquor, and we talked of the skete's Albanian laymen, unbaptised refugees fleeing from poverty and atheism. The monks invited me to stay when I returned to Mount Athos. They seemed to know I would.

I reached St Paul's and found the monks preparing for Palm Sunday. Many Greek men, pilgrims and tourists were arriving from the mainland and the guesthouse was full. In the refectory I met Angelo, a Macedonian from the town of Kavala, who said there was a spare bed in his room. We had a long talk. He spoke of the importance of the Greek Orthodox tradition in his home village, of Greek nationalism and the dangers of the Balkan conflict. It was a good preparation for my return to the real world.

Early next morning Angelo and I walked to the coast and waited for the caique to take us to Daphne, the port from which I was supposed to have entered the Holy Mountain. Angelo and his friend Sakis drove me half-way back to Thessaloniki, and before we parted we shared a feast of seafood in an empty taverna. We had two bottles of ouzo and my tongue was loose enough to tell them of my illegal entry. I wanted to know if they felt insulted. 'I don't mind because your motives were good,' said Angelo. 'And it's a good story.'

CONFLICTS THAT SIMMER BENEATH THE CALM

THE Holy Mountain is a place of peace and beauty. But Greek Orthodoxy's earthly paradise has its fair share of serpents. Greek tabloids salaciously 'document' graphic photographs of homosexual acts, which look remarkably staged. Icon smuggling is not unknown, and deforestation is damaging the fragile ecosystem.

But worst of all is the schism between the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople and the 20 Athonite monasteries. The Patriarch, Archbishop Batholomew, who some view as a tool of the Greek government, wishes to preserve Athos as the spiritual powerhouse of Greek culture. Ultimately this means the removal of Orthodox minorities such as Russians, Bulgarians and Romanians, who have had their own monasteries on Athos for centuries. A letter from the Patriarch dated 5 December 1993 suggests that every non-Greek novice arriving on Athos must be announced in Constantinople for the Patriarch's approval. Rumours abound, undenied by the Patriarch, that an edict will be issued demanding that all non-Greek monasteries should accept a Greek abbot and worship in Greek.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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