Day 3 : Sun May 7th — Divine Liturgy and walk

Arose at at the crack of dawn, 7am,  and scampered down to the Katholikon together with Peter ‘the forgetful’ to witness my first Diving Liturgy on the Holy Mountain. To my dismay I discovered that all the  places in stalls were already occupied and so, balanced against a wall, I stood peering into the naos of the church. The service caused me a good deal of bewilderment, however.  Most of the Litanies seemed to be chanted by a sole psaltis as did the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer as far as I could ascertain. But the Antiphons from the Psalter together with the Beatitudes were sung with great gusto by the two male voice choirs together with verses of unknown provenance.  And during the service someone (I think a Greek) offered me his stall which I gratefully accepted.  On the occasions that  the choirs sang antiphonically they did so with great feeling and one’s spirit was definitely raised up by the heartfelt nature of their chanting. The process of Communion, however, was chaotic to say the least. I joined a queue of men who seemed to be Eastern European but was then ambushed by a monk who asked me for my nationality and then passed me to another who interrogated me. “Are you Orthodox?” he demanded; ‘yes’, was the response. “Have you taken confession recently?”, was the next question. I paused to consider. Being honest with myself my last confession was not that recent, so I responded with a “no”. At which he told me the name of a monastic confessor to whom I should make a confession before going to communion. So that was that and I wandered away downcast.

After the service I talked with Peter who had sussed out what might happen  in advance and had got a blessing from his spiritual father to take communion on the Holy Mountain. My spirits were also boosted by talking with two English (American english) speaking monks who it emerged were from no less an establishment than the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in West Virginia. Then it transpired that Fr Paisius was from the Hermitage proper, while Fr Nektarios was the superior of a dependency, the skete of St John the Theologian in Hiram, OH. We invited the two Americans to join us for walks either along the coastline (Fr Nektarios took this route) or a stiffer ascent to the skete of St Demitrios (which Fr Paisius joined).

Here we are, on our way to St Demetrios skete :

After we returned, myself with aching feet (Note to self : wear two pairs of socks rather than thick wooly ones) I had time for a quick shower and then it was off to Vespers. We quickly figured out a procedure for table occupation at Trapeza. Immediately after Vespers finished  we were to assemble as a group of eight in front of the Trapeza and then Fr Matthew would lead us to a secret side door of the building where we would gain entry and bag a table before the great unwashed plebs descended en mass through the main door.

Having gobbled dinner as fast as possible between the bell rings for start of feed, distribution & consumption of wine, and immediate end of eating, and having stood precariously while the Abbot and all the fathers processed out, it was our turn to make an egress. Of course, immediately the monks left conversation erupted among us proles.  Interestingly (and unexpectedly) just outside the building steps the Abbot stood on the right with his hands in blessing, and on the left three monks made deep bows to all the people as they left. It was a profound gesture of humility which I greatly appreciated.

So, the second day on the Holy Mountain and already lots has happened!

But more was to come. In the evening Πέτρος (Petros, Peter) and I decided to attend the vigil service at 10pm for an hour or so.  Having found ourselves  available stalls we settled into the service. However, we were discombobulated to observe that at around 10pm everyone started to file out of the Katholikon. Clearly something was going on, so we joined the exodus and discovered that the Abbot Ephraim was giving a talk to everyone — monks and pilgrims alike. We joined the procession up several flights of stairs and along a passageway and were directed by Fr Paisius (who spoke excellent English) to wait in an alcove. Still ignorant but in excited anticipation we waited for his return to learn that he, Fr Paisius, would be translating the talk for us as it took place. Apparently, the main assembly room contained all the Greek speakers and other rooms accommodated Russians (20), Georgians (15), Romanians (12) all of whom had a translator.  We felt very privileged to have a translation for just the two of us English speakers! After the talk & responses to questions which lasted about an hour and a half Petru and I bid our friendly translator adieu and retired to our residence cell since the hour was late.

Day 2 : part II — first steps on the Holy Mountain

I.M.M Vatopedi

Having arrived at the port of Daphne which seemed to consist solely of a cafe, gift shop & customs shed, we disembarked in the same manner as previous, that is, rush down from the top deck to the main deck, retrieve backpack (phew — it’s still there!) and hurry across the lowered platform. Fortunately the considerate folks at Vatopedi had provided us with transport — a large Land Rover — which took our party of the eight first to Karyes & then on to Vatopedi. We overtook  the regular bus packed to the gunwales with pilgrims (standing room only!) on a section of concrete roadway. It looks as though this road is slated to be paved all the way from Karyes to Daphne which I am sure will make a deal of difference to the comfort of that journey. It was also comforting to see that already there were road repairs being made to improve rainwater runoff. I gawped at St Andrews Skete as we descended into Karyes and we stopped there for a short while for the driver to have his cig & a quick leg stretch. After about another half hour of jarring journey we arrived at the entrance to the Vatopedi estate guarded by a gatehouse and portcullis  barrier. Apparently all incoming road traffic has to show an appropriate paper, but travelers using the footpaths are not so examined. Having passed the gatehouse check we proceeded down the track to the monastery proper and stunning views of the bay & buildings.

I.M.M Vatopedi : View North from track approaching from hill.
I.M.M Vatopedi : View North from track approaching from hill.
I.M.M Vatopedi. East view: flight of stairs to the archontariki

At the entrance porch we were escorted up to the guest reception (archontariki) where we were warmly welcomed by the guest master (archontaris) and partook of traditional refreshment of shot glass of raki, glass of water & a piece of loukoumi .

The spacious room displayed large framed photographs of frescoed scenes which I later discovered were from the exo-narthex of the Katholikon and apparently authored by none other than Manuel Panselinos himself ! I spent a happy time declaiming about the iconic subjects to a small audience before being brought to a shuddering halt and summoned to the table for refreshments.

IMM Vatopedi : Prayer on Mount of Olives

Father M, who was to be our personal host, finally appeared on crutches and took us back down the steps and up the steep slope to our guest quarters; two rooms on the first floor with four beds apiece. We shuffled down a long dark corridor of large stone flags past a windowed vestibule  and John, Peter, Vermont Jim & I quickly bagged this first room. Having made up the beds (more of which anon) we unpacked and settled in,  Peter quickly descended into frantic searching for a mislaid item, and then we were greeted by Fr M who took us all down to Vespers in the Katholikon. [More on Vespers later]. After Vespers we were shepherded into the Trapeza by Fr M through a side door ahead of the plebs where we sat at one of the marble tables with horseshoe shaped ends. Then we waited for the Abbot and entourage to signal the commencement of the repast by dealing out the cutlery. The bell having been given we grabbed, stretched and otherwise procured food items while maintaining a strict silence broken only by gobbles, slurps and the monk reading in Greek. A second bell announced that wine could now be consumed and so it was. Finally, having wolfed down as much as I could hold I sat back to study the iconography which was, frankly, unremarkable. The final bell signaled the termination of food shoveling, we arose and the Abbot strode out along the central aisle followed by top table and the rest of the Fathers. (This reminded me quite strongly of my schooldays with the school Headmaster striding out of morning assembly with gown billowing out behind him). The lay workers & pilgrims then streamed out and immediately outside the Trapeza building we encountered on the right hand the Abbot giving a blessing and on the left three monks bowed in semi-proskynesis, ie bowed at the waist. I wondered who these chaps were.

Trapeza at Vatopedi
Trapeza at Vatopedi

Following trapeza we assembled in the quad and were spoken to by Fr E, an English speaking monk of Greek-Australian descent, and Fr C who spoke a little English but was more comfortable chatting in French to the Francophiles. And soon afterwards a couple of monastics, hearing us gabbling in English, approached us. It turned out that Fr Nektarios and Fr Paisius were Americans from the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in West Virginia no less. The very place I had planning to visit over Old Calendar Transfiguration !

Another surprise awaited us when we were invited back into the Katholikon where we were introduced to the sacred relics kept by the monastery :

  • a piece of the wood of the True Cross encased in a bejeweled cross
  • a piece of the reed from the crucifixion of the Saviour
  • the head with incorrupt ear of St John Chrysostom
  • skull of St Gregory the Theologian
  • a bone from the Venerable Evdokimos (“Good Will”) the Newly Revealed
  • the Cincture (or belt) of the Theotokos embroidered with gold thread by Zoe , the wife of Emperor Leo VI the Wise (+912), and placed in a beautiful casket.


Day 2 : onward to the Holy Mountain

Saturday May 6th

Waiting for the bus to Ouranopolis

Up at 6:30am to assemble all my stuff and repack (again!). I must have the heaviest rucksack in the group. [Note to self — don’t bring any books next time]. Breakfast at 7am then shove rucksacks into one van while we pile into another and so down to the seafront at Ouranopolis.

At Ouranopolis waiting for the ferry

Our resident Greek interpreter, Peter, finangled everyone’s Diamonitirion (διαμονητήριο) or pilgrim visa which was handed out together with boat ticket. Rushed down to ferry with John and joined the Greek “queue”, aka scrum, to board said boat. Stashed rucksack in port gunwale and grabbed seat place on upper deck. Took seasick pill but the water was dead calm so I didn’t need it.

On the Ferry

The ferry docking process at each arsenas (harbour) was rather exciting for a land-lubber such as myself who had not witnessed the process before. The captain, exhibiting a great deal of skill, keeps the large boat stationary relative to the jetty by means of judicious application of power rather than spending time berthing with ropes etc.  Pilgrims crowd the lower deck as the boat approaches the quay, down comes the steel ramp and pilgrims quickly flood out onto the jetty. Then those who have been waiting surge forward to get onto the boat while motor traffic tries to drive on board. In no more than a couple of minutes the exchanges have taken place and the ferry reverses away from the jetty while raising the ramp. Here are a few photos of this process :

We passed a number of monasteries and their arsenas on the hour & a half journey to our destination of Daphne. Here they are :

Day 1 : Gatwick to Ouranopolis

Friday May 5th

Up at 3:30 AM !!! Yes, it was a good idea to spend the night at the local hotel. I gathered all my stuff together, trying desperately not to leave anything behind and dashed over to Departures by 4am to meet with the rest of the group at the EasyJet terminal. Everything was (semi) automated and the digital check-in and baggage drop process worked for everyone. Also managed to get through security without a hitch as did John McCormack with his be-ribboned stick! Subsequently had a sort of breakfast with John (looked for the porridge next time) then hurried over the massive bridge (which was not there the last time I arrived at Gatwick) to the gate and boarded at the rear of the EasyJet Airbus 320 (why don’t all Airlines do this?).  A smooth 3 hour flight to Thessaloniki was followed by a 2 hour coach journey to Ouranopolis chatting to Jim Olivier from Vermont who had visited Athos as a student in 1972 (or thereabouts) ! The hotel we arrived at was deserted and apparently was opened up just for our group. Wasn’t that nice! Jim & I shared a room with a veranda that had stunning views over the bay. After chatting with Dominic on next door’s veranda we decided to walk into town to procure a bite to eat.

This was easier said than done since for most of the way there was no footpath and we had to share the road with lunatic motorcyclists and car drivers. After a super lunch of Greek Salad and Mousaka (fortunately Peter who was with us spoke some understandable Greek) we wandered through the town pretending to be marginally interested in the nick-nacks for sale and then merely purchasing food items for the upcoming grueling work week. Realising the time we dashed back to  the hotel for the 6:30 meeting to determine teams & locations for the two weeks. The we got into taxis which took us back down the road to a restaurant on the hill & a slap up meal. In bed by 11.

DAY 0 : Getting to Gatwick

Thursday May 4th

The plan was to drive my rental car (a Citroen Cactus [sic]) to Heathrow, drop it off at Avis, get the Avis bus to the Bus Station and meet there with Ivan Golovin, who was flying over from California. Of course, I had packed far too much stuff (more about that later) and when I looked more closely at the EasyJet Terms and Conditions they were insistent that you could only take a single carry-on with you. (Of course, in the event I noticed many people boarding the plane with more than one bag with them!). Not wanting to stow my camera in the checked luggage I hit on the idea of packing the camera case into the rucksack but putting my camera in it’s sleeve in my ‘day pack’. [Note to self : don’t bother with camera case next time].

So I drove the prickly Cactus (actually a very sprightly vehicle) later on in the morning and dropped it off around 2pm (I later found that this was en retard and I was charged extra for the late return).  The bus dropped me at Terminal 3 and I got rather lost trying to went my way underground to the Central Bus Station. Eventually I found it and a couple of hours later Ivan strolled over and introduced himself. We managed to get onto a bus for Gatwick that was leaving 30 mins earlier than the one I booked (Note to self — no real need to book ahead methinks) which arrived chez Gatwick North terminal at around 5pm. At this point the first cock-up occurred (not my fault, guv). Ivan did not had a room in the Premier Inn. Apparently he had used some online hotel booking agency and had had registered with an adjacent hotel also called “Premier Inn” — who knew there were two ? Having got the situation sorted we booked a table at the restaurant for 7:15pm  (Note to self : do this sooner in order to eat earlier)  and not seeing any others in the vicinity we nipped back to rooms for showers before dinner. Ivan & Jim (Moulton), who was sharing with Ivan, joined me for an adequate meal and subsequently we met with some others in the party who were in the bar. Greg Hammond who was sharing with me had send some panicked texts which were delayed and the din in the bar and all around that floor of the hotel was such that conversation was impossible. Fortunately when I returned to the room there he was!

I slept fitfully because of full stomach and nervousness about tomorrow.

Monasteries involved (2017)

From Andrew Buchanan :

More information about monasteries, team composition and schedule for 2017.

We’ll have people in 11 monasteries:

  1. Vatopedi,
  2. Hilandar,
  3. Konstamonitou,
  4. Dionysiou,
  5. Koutloumousiou,
  6. Iviron,
  7. Stavronikita,
  8. Pantokrator,
  9. Zographou,
  10. Gt Lavra, and, for the first time,
  11. Philotheou.

Vatopedi is the only one we have people in for both weeks; the others are mainly for one week. There’s one 4 man team in the second week which will stay in three monasteries, but this is a tough assignment as you’re working and walking between them with all your gear.

Can’t say definitely which you’ll be in, though Vatopedi is a distinct possibility for one of the weeks. The team is:

  • 30 in total: 20 for 2 weeks, 5 for week 1, 5 for week 2, so 25 working on the Holy Mountain at any one time.
  • 18 Orthodox, 3 Roman Catholic, 1 Byzantine Catholic, 8 Protestant
  • 7 nationalities: British, Greek, Belgian, Australian, Bulgarian, Irish, American,
  • ages from to 33 to 78 [I suspect the 78 year old is one of the fitter ones!]

We normally head out onto the paths between 7am and 9am, depending on each monastery’s daily schedule, have a snack/picnic lunch about 1pm, then aim to get back to the monastery for about 3.30. This gives time to shower and change before the evening service and meal. This is usually around 5pm, but alters from monastery to monastery. In the evening there’s usually an opportunity to talk with one of the monks, or to venerate icons and relics.

We don’t work on the Sundays, but we use the time between services on the first Sunday to go walking and see what the condition the paths are in, and on the second Sunday to swap people between monasteries.

So on weekdays you’ll always be able to attend the evening service, plus of course any of the nighttime offices that you wish to go to. On Sunday and major feasts the schedule normally allows for both morning and evening services.

Tips from Andrew Buchanan

Here are some useful tips for the path clearing crew :

  • We supply tools, gloves and safety glasses. We supply first aid kits, but these contain NO pills, potions or ointments, not even Paracetamol. So as well as any prescribed medication, do bring your own assortment of painkillers, insect bite ointment, sunscreen and so on.
  •  Uneven surfaces, crowded ferries and many flights of monastery stairs mean that a backpack is much better than a suitcase. If you’re checking a backpack onto a flight, a rucksack overbag protects it and stops straps getting stuck in conveyor belts.
  •  May is usually fine, but there can be heavy rainstorms, so be prepared for both hot and wet weather. Long sleeves are essential. Two reasons: to protect your forearms from sun and scratches while working, and because it is respectful to cover as much skin as possible while inside the monastery. Obviously no shorts, not even for midnight trips to the lavatory, and if you bring sandals for use around the monastery, please wear socks with them, even though this is a fashion faux-pas.
  •  Good comfortable walking boots are absolutely essential. They protect your ankles on uneven trails; the only significant injury we’ve had in the last 10 years was because a rock fell on the unprotected ankle of a shoe-wearer.
  •  Some of you may choose to bring walking poles – but there are plenty of bushes which can provide a suitable pilgrim staff.
  • Jeans. A lot of pilgrims do wear jeans, but some monasteries/monks frown on them. As we’re special guests, staying longer than the usual one night, we try to respect Athonite practice as much as possible. A dark-coloured shirt and trousers seems to be appropriate in any monastery, no matter how strict.
  •  Dimitris points out that food can sometimes be problematic and/or repetitive, especially if you’re staying at Gt Lavra. Obviously only 4 or 5 of the team are likely to go there, but it’s worth considering bringing some non-perishable emergency supplies. There’s usually plenty of bread, so he suggests tahini, honey, and instant coffee. I always carry nut and sesame bars, and sometimes a few muesli/granola bars.
  •  On the subject of food, don’t expect much variety, let alone gourmet cuisine. Mon, Wed and Fri are fast days, so no oil, fish, cheese or wine. There’s usually enough food, but quality varies according to who is cooking, what is in the store cupboard, and what the monastery’s fields are producing at the time. One year we were given tinned peaches at every meal for a whole week; another year there was a glut of cucumbers.

Getting there : navigating between London Airports

In my experience of international travel, the smoother (and more boring) the initial journey the easier it is ramp up enjoyment once you have arrived.

For those starting their journey in the UK it’s merely a matter of getting to the London Gatwick Airport from whence the flight departs for Thessaloniki.  For others who will be flying in from places overseas you will invariably arrive at London Heathrow, and will then be faced with the problem of getting to the other airport on the south side of the metropolis. What follows are some travel options & comments.

Travel direct from Heathrow to Gatwick : coach

Here, you’ll probably have arrived the previous day and will want to get directly to the hotel nearby the Gatwick Airport. Here, National Express coach is the way to go;  journeys take from 1 hr 5mins to 1 hour 25 mins  and cost from £20 to £25. You will be asked to book a specific time of departure — coaches run between 3 times an hour to 6 times an hour.  I’d suggest adding about 2 hours onto your arrival time to allow for Customs, Immigration and walking from the Terminal to the nearest Bus Stop. I would also strongly suggest adding in the ‘Flex option’ for an extra £5.00 so that you can change your departure time easily if necessary.

Travel into London & then onwards : train or tube


  • Heathrow Express to Paddington Station — 15mins. Fare varies depending on time of day (ie rush hour), then
  • Gatwick Express from London, Victoria Station non-stop to Gatwick Airport. Journey time 30 minutes, fare from £17.70.

Tube (Underground)

I would strongly suggest booking travel tickets ahead of time especially if this is your first visit to the teeming metrolopis.

Path Clearing on the Holy Mountain : #2

I got this news the other day from Andrew Buchanan :

“I’m pleased to tell you that we can offer you a place on the 2017 Path-clearing Pilgrimage.”

So, starting in early May of next year together with 18 others I’ll be traveling from London via Thessaloniki, and  Ouranopolis to Daphne & thence to a monastery on the Holy Mountain. I am double-plus pumped! It looks like we have participants from Belgium, France, Australia, Greece, together with a host from the UK & myself from the US.

Good job I got some practice sweeping leaves and trimming bushes in the back yard at home yesterday afternoon. I wonder whether we should bring hand tools with us — a joke, honest!

For a really great slideshow of recent views of Mount Athos from footpaths take a look at Mount Athos on Walkopedia.

Path Clearing on Mount Athos

view Simonos Petras

According to a report on the Friends of Mount Athos website entitled The Footpaths of Mount Athos, in 2001 Prince Charles, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales,  became interested in sponsoring a long term project to clear and maintain the footpaths of Mount Athos.  Under the auspices of the Friends of Mount Athos the following year the project began in earnest and every year since then a party of volunteers has visited the Holy Mountain to hack and chop away at vegetation encroaching upon various footpaths. Here he is, hard at work :

[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”1″ gal_title=”Prince Charles”]

The Footpaths of Mount Athos  is the best place to gain background information about this venture but it does not give much information about the details of the project activities, the mechanics of getting to the Holy Mountain (which seems to be filled with potential pitfalls)  and the process of joining the volunteer group. What follows will hopefully address these points.

Joining the Path Clearing Group

With a limited number of 24 places available not everyone who applies will get accepted. It’s important to read the email from Andrew Buchanan which has the precise details for the 2017 expedition; filling in the form is an expression of interest only — the plan is to contact successful applicants by the end of December 2016. So, don’t go booking flights & hotels in anticipation.

Specifically the organisers are looking for :

Note that you do have to be a member of the Friends of Mount Athos to join the group. It’s not expensive — $35 / year — this FoMA membership page gives all the details of joining.


Generally the pilgrimage occupies two weeks in May after Bright Week of Pascha. This year (2017) it spans two weeks from Sat May 6th to Sat May 20th; it’s possible to do a single week as well (see below). Obviously if Pascha is late in the spring the start date will also be later.

Getting to the Holy Mountain

The main party of workers will be coming from London, Gatwick departing in the early morning of Friday.  On arrival in Thessaloniki in the early afternoon a coach will take them from the airport to a pre-booked hotel  in Ouranopolis where they will stay the night prior to boarding  an early boat (9:30am) to the port of Daphne on the Holy Mountain.

Coming from the USA and given the very late arrival of the flight you have to arrive a day earlier (Thursday) and stay overnight in one of the hotels indicated above. Then a taxi to meet the coach.

On the return journey, the group usually stay at the Vergina Hotel (50 – 60 euros).  Hotels others  have used in Thessaloniki include the Tourist (about $50/night) and Europa.

The work schedule

The schedule and team allocations for each year depend on which monasteries can host teams and when, plus which paths need most work. The details below give a broad outline of what happens on a typical Path-clearing Pilgrimage.

There is a maximum of 24 men in the working party which are divided into 5 teams  based in different monasteries :

  • a team of 8 will be based at Vatopedi
  • 4 teams of 4 men each will be given a monastery to work from

Obviously  no power tools can be used (which would shatter the silence & also insurance issues).

On Sunday when there is no work  there will be an opportunity to attend Divine Liturgy. The minimum requirement for reception of communion is to be a member of a canonical Orthodox jurisdiction and probably also it would involve confession (in the language that you speak)  at the Saturday evening Vigil service.  Best to ask at the monastery for a blessing well beforehand. On the first Sunday afternoon the teams may be reconfigured and will be assigned to new monasteries. Single week participants will leave at this point.

The second week’s work is only 5 days from Monday to Friday since we leave the Holy Mountain on the Saturday for Thessaloniki and return home.


The FoMA  Project to clear the Footpaths of Mount Athos  is led by  John Arnell. The annual path-clearing pilgrimages are co-ordinated by  Andrew Buchanan.

More resources