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.

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