Our taxibus that would take us to Karyes suddenly stopped for a sanitary stop by the side of the road. We took the opportunity to look around. We were close to the arsanas of Karakallou. We saw this impressive mediaeval tower just in front of us.
I tried to find more and older pictures of this tower but I did not succeed, except for this one. This is a still from a film dedicated to the celebration of 1000 years of the Holy Mountain (the French Pathé millennium film is shot in 1963). See here. The still is after 18 seconds. It seems that there is hardly any material about this castle in the English language.
There is a wonderful artist impression of Karakallou arsanas made by Dominique Papety. We showed the art of Papety (1815-1849) before. He went to Athos twice and made many pictures. He died at a young age from cholera.
This is the perspective Google Earth gives of the situation. The interior of the tower and the adjacent walled castle seems to be filled by nature. So nature will take over if the roof is not restored.
After our arrival at the Great Lavra, we sat and rested for a while at the archondiriki. We had walked the kalderimi from Prodromou. We received the hospitality gratefully; fresh water, Greek coffee and loukoumi. Four impressions taken directly from the guesthouse, that is on the first floor (second floor for Americans).
We had some time to spend at the Great Lavra. Our taxi bus would arrive in two hours. So we had time to roam around to explore the monastic complex.
The tower with its battlements, a chapel, the Holy Mountain and the deep blue sky encircled by the fresh, green, leaves of a chestnut tree.
A monk and an layman were preparing the vegetables for lunch or dinner in the open air. It was an impressive heap of food and a mountain of left-overs.
I was happy to see the fountain, Phiale, again. The shape of the iron double headed eagle is somehow very appealing to me.
The pillars are quite peculiar. I wonder about their origins. They might be pre-Christian. There are more pre-Christian artefacts in Lavra. The semantron hangs outside. Except for bells and the human voice, it is the only musical instrument allowed on the Holy Mountain, this wooden percussion instrument, the semantron.
The ancient cypress, the cypress of Saint Athanasius, the founder of the Great Lavra, is said to be over a 1000 years old. The monastery was founded in 963, so this year exactly 1.067 years ago. The cypress is seen through the bright red glass from the exonarthex of the Katholikon. There was no service in the church. All was in perfect rest.
I found some medieval cannons hidden away in a forgotten corner. Herman made a recent weblogpost about the cannons from Lavra.
There are more out of use things to be seen. Here is an old, wooden, stretcher for the ill. Behind it you can see two tilted iron doors that are similar to those used at the gate. And some spare church bells.
The swallows were very busy, flying in and out their nests. It was clearly feeding time. I watched them come and go for a while.
Then it was time to get into our minibus to Karyes. From there with the big bus to Dafni and then the boat to Simonos Petras. This way of travelling over the peninsula was quite new for us. Walking from monastery to monastery is the default situation. But we wanted to grab the opportunity to sleep in the incredible impressive Simonos Petras, which was new for all of us. So we travelled along the coast, to the main town, over the ridge to the other side of the peninsula, and waited for the boat that would take us to the arsanas of Simonos Petras. From there it is only 300 meters up.
Lavra is the oldest and biggest monastery on The Holy Mountain. The monastery has a large courtyard with all kinds of hidden spots where objects from the past are stored as if it were an open air museum.
The pre-Christian marble artefacts are not nicely stored as in an museum but left a corner of the courtyard for the pilgrims to admire.
All the objects have their own story. How much prints did this old printing press has produced over the decades?
But the most fascinating objects are, to me, these rusty old cannons somewhere hidden in a remote corner of the monastery. When they ever used? Did they stick out the walls pointed at the enemy? Or was it merely to frigthen potential attackers?
If you can believe what is shown on this 18th or 19th century engraving of Lavra the cannons were placed in the Byzantine towers situated near the entrance of the monastery.
If we zoom in on the print, you see that the cannons are actually firing, there is smoke coming out of the barrels. Reality or just an artist’s impression?
Fortunately the cannons are now silent and useless in a corner covered with a thick layer of rust.
Update 8 (29/5): Mount Athos will reopen on June 1 following the decision by the Holy Community. However, the entry permits will be issued sparingly in terms of administration. Fifteen entry permits will be issued for each large monastery while there will not be more than five people in the sketes. It is also mentioned that pilgrims will not be able to spend the night in other monasteries, but a short pilgrimage tour may be allowed.
Update 7 (17/5): another extension of the shutdown of Athos: until May 31th.
Update 6 (2/5): the entry of visitors-pilgrims to the Athos peninsula is extended until May 17 (after on the 20th of April being extended to 30 of April).
Update 5 (14/4): On April 8th was announced that the lockdown for all visitors, including religious pilgrims, is extended until April 20th.
Update 4 (31/3): the coronavirus is found in the other three monks who traveled together with 55-year old monk from the Monastery of Xenophontos in Great Britain. Their ages range from 40 to 55 years. They are hospitalized in Thessaloniki (look here, thanks Vasilis). All four had traveled from Scotland to England on March 5 to March 17. They were guests from the Archbishop of Thyatira and Great Britain, Nikita. They carried the sacred remains of St. George. Last Sunday they left the monastery with symptoms of illness, and then went by car via the land border to Ouranoupolis and from there to Thessaloniki. The health of the four monks is not a cause for concern and their symptoms are mild (look here).
Update 3 (30/3): The ban on visitors to Mount Athos monastic community is extended to April 11. The monk who is currently hospitalized in Thessaloniki is a 55-year-old monk of Xenophontos Monastery. The monk had contact with two other monks, who are now quarantined in the monastery. Additionally, 50 pilgrims who were on the same boat as the infected monk on March 19 from Ouranoupolis to Dafni have been tracked down and quarantined, though none have as yet displayed any symptoms (news from Orthodox Christianity).
Update 2 (29/3): News from 28/3 The National Herald: a monk from Mt. Athos has been infected with COVID-19. The monk recently travelled to the UK with a monastery’s delegation. He is being treated at AHEPA hospital in Thessaloniki. The other monks with Corona symptoms remain quarantined in their cells.
Update 1 (17/3): Athos closed for pilgrims from March 20th 2020.
___________________________________________________________________________________________Yesterday (25/3) monk Theodosios from Simonos Petras gave me the latest news about the situation on the Holy Mountain:
“The shops in Karyes are closed or with restricted access. The Abbott of Simonos Petras ordered the monks to stay within the area of the monastery. Ships and ferries are restricted, so no visitors can enter (which is actually quite a blessing … ). Materials are transported to a limited degree. Citizen outside have to move around with a form stating the purpose of circulation or have to send a sms for the same reason, which is to be shown to the police when asked for. For next Friday – tomorrow 27-03 – the Holy Community ordered the monasteries to hold a small vigil on behalf of the situation.”
Not everybody was well informed about the travel restrictions imposed by the Governer, according to this article on this Greek internet site: “workers arrested in Mount Athos for violating the traffic ban.”
“Three foreigners, two from Albania and one from Romania, were brought to the Thessaloniki Autonomous Criminal Court, which, following a check, were found to be traveling on Mount Athos, deprived of the certifications required in the context of emergency traffic control measures. The two Albanians apologized claimed they were unaware of the measure’s prohibition, stressing that they did not watch television….”
In Greece the amount of infected patients is relatively low: 892 people. 26 people died, with an average age of 73 years old (situation on 26th of March).
Not only on Athos but also outside the Holy Mountain there are interesting trails to hike with more or less the same look and feel. Theodosios Simonopetritis, in response of our previous post about the pilgrim’s route to Ierissos, send us text and photographs about the old pilgrim’s route between Megali Panaghia and Gomati, a small town which is located a couple of kilometers from Ierissos.
Theodosios walked this route the other way around. So not in the direction of Mount Athos but starting in Gomati hiking to Megali Panaghia and, in doing so, following the trail back in the direction of Thessaloniki. Which makes me wonder what is left of the rest of the old pilgrim paths to Thessaloniki? On the photo: The small chapel of St George lies 2,5 kilometer outside Gomati alongside a concrete road.
Inside the chapel is the burial site of St. George, a local saint who was a wonderworker and can help healing peoples hearing.
A Byzantine bridge of the type that resembles the ones on Mount Athos.
A beautiful close up of the bridge
To the right, a new stone covered footpath was partly destroyed by heavy rain fall in probably 2010.
The same path
The path leads through a magic forest
In this forest, not known by many people, the cave of St. George is situated
Continuing the walk from the bridge, an old path with stone pebbles (Kalderimi) just like those on Athos leads in the direction of Megali Panaghia. In 2007 it was still largely intact. Unfortunately bulldozers destroyed parts to make the road more suitable for cars. On the photo a refuge for pilgrims.
A small chapel alongside the road, as well as crosses and other pilgrims hide outs.
There are many remains of Byzantine structures along the route. It is said that the prominent Greek theologian and ecclesiastical figure of the late Byzantine period Gregory Palamas (1296 – 1357 or 1359) walked this pilgrim route to Mount Athos
At the end of the trail Theodosios photographed a muddy wild boar with piggies.
Herman Voogd, editing
All photo’s and many parts of the text: Theodosios
This old map from a German book dated 1934 makes it clear that the pilgrim’s route to the Holy Mountain started in Ierissos. There were two possibilities, the eastern route to Vatopedi, Iviron and eventually Lavra and the route that is more or less located in the middle of the peninsula, the so called Way of the Bey. This route was more challenging because of the high Megali Vigla (490 m in 1943, nowadays 20 meters higher) and other climbs.
Both trails starting in Ierissos, This photo of the “new” village is taken from the site of the ancient Akanthos. New, because in 1932 the place was destroyed by a powerfull earthquake, with 121 people killed and approximately 500 injured. From Ierissos it is another 10 km to the Athos border.
The first landmark that pilgrims would encounter was Xerxes Canal, here the beginning of the canal near Nea Roda. In ancient times it was a real canal but soon after it was used it was muted. It is hardly recognizable anymore. The Canal ended at Trypiti where nowadays the ferry is leaving for Ammouliani, https://www.meteocam.gr/ChalkidikiTrypitiPort
After leaving Trypiti pilgrims took the higher route above , what is now Ouranoupolis where they reached point C. This is now called Agia Triadas.
Following this route a high mountain range becomes visible, the Megali Vigla. In front of it is the current border. On the highest point (490m/510m) a telephone antenna is located. The old path went the way up and could be the one visible on the photo..
The pilgrim who took the much easier eastern coastal route would get a perfect view on the smaller peninsula Arapis. Not bothered by the border wall which is now at the end of the beach.
This would be the view of the 1934 pilgrim who walked to Athos. On the far right Ammouliani Island, the smaller Drenia Islets and the Tower of Ouranoupolis. Then the only building in the area, belonging to Vatopedi. Ouranoupolis was not build yet, on this location there was a very small town called Prosphori.
Then the pilgrim reached the Proto Nero area, The First Water source is not far from this crossing where the paths divide to Chilandariou and Sografou. Now there are dirt roads but if you zoom in on Google maps you will find traces of overgrown paths directly to the monasteries.
In the early 1950ties Sydney Loch, when he walked from Chromitsa to Chelandariou came across a farmer in this deserted area of Proto Nero. This is part of the conversation he had:
“ There must be jackals round here” I said
“Swarms of them”
“ What about wild pigs?”
“ They still leaves us enough grapes. There are roebuck and a few deer. I’ve startled stags like horses in those trees in cold weather.”
“ How about wolves?”
“ Not one for 5 or 6 years now. They worked this way during the war of 1914, and left again.”
Nowadays the terrain had changed enormously, many trees and other vegetation are gone because of large forest fires . The animals as mentioned above surely have troubles hiding in the burned parts of Proto Nero.
A large proportion of the old monopati (footpath) and kalderimi (cobbled stone footpath) between Prodromou and Lavra still exists. It is situated a bit more uphill than the road. After the well the path descents to the new, concrete, road that services minibuses and trucks. After a kilometre or so the kalderimi starts again, now on right side and lower than the road. The access is easy to miss, by the way. The total distance of the walk is 4,76 km, according to the excellent and trustworthy Peter Howorth map from 2016.
After two kilometres of mild climbing we arrived at the source where we drank the fresh and clear water out of the cup. Pilgrim Barry is happy he reached this point. From here at nearly 400 metres the path gently slopes down.
Another, more detailed, view on the abundant source. It is a disgrace for the Holy Mountain that pilgrims leave plastic bottles and bags here. We, pilgrims, shouldn’t pollute Maria’s garden. We left Prodromou without breakfast and we ate some canned dolmata near the well. But we always take the cans and plastic waste with us and leave without leaving a trace.
I wouldn’t recommend climbing these stairs.
We walked mostly in our own pace over the ancient stones. We were mostly on our own. Contemplating all the experiences of the night before. Sometimes we waited for each other. Here pilgrim Herman approaches. It was still early in the morning and everything looked fresh and new in the floodlight. Walking there alone with only the birds that sing their spring songs and the sound of your own footsteps below is a wonderful spiritual experience.
The kalderimi is in a reasonable condition, but there are surprises, loose stones and many standing stones to redirect the water. Excellent territory for spraining your ankles. The walking sticks proved their value here as well.
Around a corner I saw a scary, leafless tree with a white cross. It terrified and fascinated me in a strange way. The tree was dotted with white fungus like a psoriasis patient. It was still early in April so this Oaktree will produce its leaves a bit later in the year. It will look friendlier then.
When the sky becomes visible from the wooded monopati/kalderimi the first sight is on the Great Lavra. The first and oldest monastery on Mount Athos. Founded in the year 963 by Athanasius the Athonite.
We look at the road just outside the monastic stronghold, with a row of protective towers. The sea is visible in the far distance. High cranes are swarming around most of the monasteries on Mount Athos. This time I choose not to avoid them in the picture.
The medieval battlements are clearly visible behind the walnut tree.
Just outside the entrance is an old watermill. We were not sure if it would still work. At least it didn’t rotate when we were around. The back drop of the Holy Mountain is impressive from here as well.
Next time we roam around the Great Lavra and take a proper look within its tall walls.