On the third day of our trip to Athos we (Herman, Jaap and Bas) walked from Vatopaidiou, via Esfigmenou and Chiliandariou to Sografou, the Bulgarian monastery. That’s a day’s walk. The fact that you need to carry all your luggage makes it quite strenuous. It´s not always flat and the old footpaths are sometimes ill-preserved. It was the 29th of September 2009. The weather was very pleasant. Excellent walking conditions.
On the way from Chilandariou to Sografou, not too far from our destination for the night, there was suddenly a three forked road. It is situated in a dense forest. On the crossroad there is a red wooden cross. Nearby is a signpost nailed to a tree. It reminded me of Oedipus who, when traveling, comes to the place where three roads meet.
At that time we couldn´t understand the meaning of the well shaped arrow. And we still don´t know it. We are not capable of reading Bulgarian. Signposts are rather scarce on Athos. So we concluded it pointed to something special. We were very tired, after walking all day. It was late in the afternoon and probably another 2 km of trails awaited us. Nevertheless, after a short break, Jaap and Bas decided to have a look. Herman would stay on the crossroad and look after our luggage.
In a dense forest the footpath descends at first for a while to a dry riverbed. Then it started to climb quite steeply. After a couple of minutes we suddenly saw a large rock formation. We came out of the shadowy woods into the late afternoon sun. It seemed we had been walking in a gorge. But was not merely a natural phenomenon. There were signs a human activity. There was a large, rather primitive, ladder at least three meters high reaching towards an inlet, in which some tiny religious objects (small wooden icons) lay. The ladder was made of wood and branches and very unstable. I didn’t dare to climb the ladder fully. But Jaap, the braver of the two, managed to have a look. There was a small cove at the end of the ladder with nothing in it. I was relieved I didn’t miss anything.
A bit further along the rock formation was a hermits cave. We proceeded carefully, not to disturb anybody. There is a steep ascent to the cave, not really a proper staircase, but more a collection of rocks. At some point there is a railing. Not certain of any recent human habitation there, we approached step by step. Arriving on the level it seemed that is was more than a cave.
There is some plasterwork, tiles on the floor, and bricklaying. The building is completely open to the elements. There were no signs of windows. The apartment consists of two rooms. One plastered and the other one a rough cave, in with a bed could be projected. The living room still contains some furniture. A small table and chair painted light blue. And another chair (Thonet type), a bench and a dustpan and brush. In two of the walls are cupboards. In one of those there is a large collection of icons and some candles.
It all seemed as if a hermit just left this place. As if he could return to his base in an instant. But most of the furniture was rather dusty. So it might have been quite a while since the monk left. Probably it was a Bulgarian monk. From the living room there is a splendid view in the direction of the monastery of Sografou. Some of the buildings are visible in the distance.
Under the tabletop is a drawer. Out of curiosity we opened the drawer. It contained a diary of some sort with beautiful blue pages. We couldn’t understand the language. But we discovered various handwritings and various dates: 1942, 1964, 4-6- 1997, 13-9-2000. People who had visited the place and left a message, probably after the hermit had left the place. We carefully and respectfully closed the book, put in the drawer again, closed it and left silently and impressed by our discoveries.
Click here for part 2
Text and photos by Bas Kamps