mercredi 6 novembre 2013

Greece Part 3 (Mt. Athos)

Bill's Mt Athos Pilgrimmage

Mt Athos is circled

Mt Athos Peninsula

DAY 1 (Ouranoupolis to Iviron) 
Thursday October 24, 2013. After a sleepless night slapping mosquitoes I take my leave of Renee and walk down to Egnatia Street to catch the 45 bus to Chalkidiki Station, apprehensive until I finally see it arrive. I buy a return ticket for Ouranoupolis, noting that the station is full of pilgrims considering myself lucky to have obtained a seat and wait. A few minutes later I fall asleep aboard the bus to Ouranoupolis awakening only briefly when we arrive at Lerissos. When we pull in to Ouranoupolis I awake in a daze and stumble into the street. I ask for directions to the Pilgrims' Bureau and obtain my visa but am so flustered that I leave the visa behind; an official chases after me and calls me back. Then I buy my ferry ticket and settle down for breakfast, relaxed that the next step in the journey is set. I even venture away to take a few photos of the town - a series of tired seaside cafes and souvenir shops and the White Tower on the beach, one of many such strung along the coast to signal mariners in days gone by. I buy a map of the peninsula thinking why hadn't I brought one along?

I board the ferry with what seems to be a huge crowd but probably numbers 150 or so. Shortly after we leave we come upon the first of many ruins and derelict buildings and structures. Above are the burnt remains of the forest after a large fire a dozen years ago. We land, in quick succession, at Mikri Giovantsa and Patitiria, and then the monasteries of Docheiariou, Xenophontos, and Panteleimonos - each grander than the last - finally arriving at Dafni just after noon. Following the crowd I take a seat on the bus to Karyes where my pilgrimage will truly begin.

I ask for directions to Moni Iviron but stop for a quick peek at the Church of the Pantocrator. As I will do so many times later I tag along after another group and enter another era; just a taste of what was to come. I set out on a warm, sunny afternoon and follow a winding trail to Moni Koutloumousiou. Sometimes just a dirt track, at others a broad cobbled path, I come upon Moni Koutloumisiou alone. A
large stone fortress-like edifice from outside, it has the charm of a medieval town inside with cantilevered rooms and balconies that overlook narrow alleys or larger squares. I marvel at the combination of colours, symmetry and collage, stonework and brickwork, and brilliant flashes of colour, like the glazed plates set in the walls. The few murals I am bold enough to photograph are but a pale example of what I see inside the katholicon.

I return to the trail to Iviron and pass by numerous walls, neglected chapels, and over ancient bridges, testimony to times past when there was much more traffic, and which give the impression now of travelling through an abandoned park.

Finally, late in the afternoon, I come upon Moni Iviron, close to the point where the Virgin Mary took refuge in a storm on her way to Cyprus and asked Jesus to declare the peninsula her garden. It is a blocky, imposing structure with gardens surrounding, on a stony beach. There is a tower on the shore (which now houses a sawmill). I note that the roofs are made of layers of inch-thick schist layered like shingles with a very aesthetic effect. I enter through the iron-clad doors and wander through some narrow alleys coming into the square about the katholicon. It seems orderly, green, and peaceful. The guest master serves me water and Turkish delight and assigns me a spare but comfortable room. I ask why, in her icons, Mary is bleeding from her chin and am given a booklet - a gift - which describes how the icon Mary Portaitsa has come to the monastery. I wash and change into my black turtle neck shirt. A pilgrim - an initiate or a friend of the monastery - takes me to see the Portaitsa in its own, separate chapel  and then we join the services. The katholicon is impressive. The floor dates from the middle of the 11th C and is a marvellous mosaic of marble; the ornate brass work chandeliers are from Russia; the whole is painted in frescoes and silver-clad icons are all about. The service - started after dark - is illuminated just by a few candles giving an ethereal atmosphere made even more other-worldly by the monks' chanting and prayers in Greek.

After about an hour a monk, with an Australian accent, asks me aside to chat for a bit. We go to an anteroom and he questions me about my reasons for coming to Mount Athos. I'm not sure of his rank, status, or role so I'm a bit guarded at first; then I gradually realize that he's just genuinely curious and, maybe, happy to speak English, too. We talk of spirituality in modern times and the lack of balance in our lives. He comments that Greeks take advantage of the liberty that's given them (his parents were Greek immigrants to Australia). I mention Carl Jung and his value of the symbolic life and then we are called to dinner.

The summit of Mt Athos visible

White Tower in Ouranoupolis

Ferry passengers




My room in Iviron

Happy pilgrim!

DAY 2 (Iviron to Vatopedi)
I enjoy a wonderful stew of baked vegetables: potatoes, eggplant, and okra in a rich tomato sauce with dark bread, feta cheese, olives, and red wine eaten in silence while listening to readings in Greek. Afterward Father Jeremias calls me to join him in the monks' quarters for tea and we talk again of the symbolic life. He advises me to sleep until 4 and join the morning services then.

I awake at 5, dress, and walk over to the katholicon in the dark. Upon entering I am enveloped in a most magical atmosphere until daybreak. The others (pilgrims) and I exit to a refectory where, joined by Jeremias, we have tea and crusts of dark bread. I must leave before breakfast (after more services, at 10:30) am given some apples for the journey to Stavronikita.

I wander along the path, sometimes aided by signs but more often wandering along one way until it became apparent that it was the wrong choice and then backtracking, from Iviron to the next tower, along the beach and up and over some rocky cliffs until I come upon Stavronikita. The smallest of the established monasteries it seems less imposing and more fairytale-castle than the others, almost cute. Later, I learn that it, alone, has no electricity. I approach the entrance and am greeted by a monk who returns with water and a plate of Turkish delight. We exchange pleasantries in Greek and, shortly afterward, he brings me a shot of raki and asks me if I will take Greek coffee. I ask to wander about and he takes me to the katholicon and shows me inside. I venerate the icon of St. Nicholas. The monk then asks me if I will have lunch with them; I am led upstairs to a small refectory where about 8 or 9 monks and 5 pilgrims stand about the tables. We sit to a delicious meal of thick chickpea stew with bread, olives, and a shredded cabbage salad. We eat in silence to readings.

I take my leave and set out for Moni Pantokrator. It is under construction and a sign declares that no pilgrims will be given lodging. A van pulls up and a group of Russians emerges; I follow them into the katholicon. I am so entranced that a monk has to call me to leave. As I prepare to depart he asks me if I am alone. When I reply in the affirmative he brings me 4 apples for the journey.

I walk uphill and come to Propheton Helio. Begun in the early 1900’s it’s construction was halted by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the interior was never painted with fresco. The interior is robin’s egg blue and light and airy; the gold, rococco iconostasis is enhanced by the light. There are 2 silver trays of saints’ relics, each bone or finger part in a 2 X 3 inch window. I am enchanted by a mosaic of the metamorphosis done in pale, 2 X 2 mm tiles; details such as the sandals falling from the men tumbling down from the mount are engaging and I return to venerate it again.

I leave Propheton Helio around 1:30 and return down the road towards Pantokrator. I begin to wonder where the path to Vatopedi begins; I see a road way up the hill. I turn off and follow a trail into the bush which leads uphill but gradually peters out. However, I keep coming upon old ruins and walls and, bushwhacking, crash my way through dense cypress and entangling, thorned vines, being showered intermittently with handfuls of fine, dried needles, and, clambering over rock walls and crawling under branches emerge upon a cobbled path. I follow this for a long ways before coming upon a sign that confirms that I’m on the path to Vatopedi. After a very long walk I come upon the only other pilgrims on the trail: 4 Russians asking for directions to a skete nearby. I pull out a map and we talk a bit; one, Peter, speaks excellent English. I continue on my way and, tired, sweaty, and very thirsty, arrive at Vatopedi at 4:15.

An English-speaking monk takes my visa and tells me that vespers have started; he’ll assign a room later. Without a wash or changing I wander to the katholicon and enter. It is very ornate and richly adorned.  After a relatively short service we are led to a large refectory with multiple semi-circular marble tables and frescoed walls and ceilings. But there are so many attendees (180 monks and at least as many pilgrims) that I and a dozen others are herded out to the oil-storage room to eat alone, listening to the readings over a loud-speaker. We are given a large bowl of macaroni in a thin tomato sauce, olives, bread, a slab of feta, and shredded cabbage. I particularly enjoy some delicious, ripe pears for dessert. Afterward, I am guided by an English monk who describes in detail the many miraculous properties of the various icons and relics in the monastery. The katholicon is the original from the 10thC; the original marble iconostasis now adorns the front of the katholicon, replaced by an 18thC rococo wooden iconostasis; some Greek marbles are also incorporated into the outer structure. 

As I venerate the belt of the Virgin Mary (a gift from Serbia) a monk drops a plastic bag upon it and then something else (? A rosary); at first puzzled by the apparent irreverence, I realize the monk is ‘loading up energy from the relic; I also venerate the skulls of St. John the Baptist and St. John Chrysostom (whose ear is exposed in a little side window, lit up for me with a flashlight by the monk). There is also a piece of the True Cross but I do not see it. I am taken up to a small chapel and venerate Mary and the Christ Child whose hand is being pulled from Mary’s mouth. Afterward I am taken back to the refectory where I ate and shown the icon within which filled the olive oil jars when there was a cut-off in supply. I also am told to notice that one large oil container is a 1st C marble sarcophagus! Out front I am shown a fresco of Mary with a bullet hole in it; shot by a Turk who then went mad and discouraged his comrades from further pillage thus saving the monastery from ruin. The bell tower dates from the 14thC (the oldest on Athos); behind are some quarters from the 12C donated by a Serbian king (who, along with his son, became a monk). I attend the last part of another service and then go in search of a room.

I am invited to partake of tea with the 4 Russians whom I had met earlier on the trail; there was no lodging at the skete. We roomed together that evening. One of the pilgrims was a priest; when I returned from washing and brushing my teeth I came back to find them in prayer. Then I sat to read and the priest held confession (in Russian, of course)!

Propheton Helio


It's a good thing Bill learned to read Greek!

Not many walking pilgrims

Vatopedi courtyard

Virgin in Vatopedi

DAY 3 (Vatopedi to Megisti Lavra)
My colleagues arose at 3:30 but I slept until about 5 again. I went into the katholicon and, there being so few attendees and it being so dark, I stood inside and, for the first time, looked into the inner sanctum behind the iconostasis, watching as the monks prepared for mass. I particularly enjoyed the ringing of the bells and the marching of the incensure about the church. After service I attempted to get into the refectory for breakfast but was led again into the oil room. We had a salty porridge with feta, bread, and fruit and – curiously, because none was served at evening meal – wine. I drank 2 full glasses.

Mid-morning I caught the van to Karyes and then another to Megisti Lavra, arriving late afternoon with 10 other pilgrims. We exit the van and walk across a large circular helipad painted in faded red with a large H in white in the middle.  The outside of the monastery seems less impressive than the others; I had expected it to be bigger. We enter through large iron-clad doors and are directed up to a balcony where we are served a glass of water, Turkish delight, a shot of raki, and then a demi-tasse of Greek coffee. The agenda for the evening, with an emphasis on the time change overnight, is announced and we are led away by the guestmaster who assigns us our rooms. At first I am delighted to think I have a room all to myself but then realize that 3 others, Russians, one of whom is a rotund, plethoric priest with a bulbous nose whom I have seen before (and always with a beer or two in hand) will share the dormitory room, too. I wash, change my shirt, and then wander about for a bit taking photos before the first service. We gather in the outer anterooms to the katholicon and I am put at unease when I see the other pilgrims – including several visiting priests - snapping photos of the frescoes with cameras, cell phones, and iPads; then I wonder if I’m missing an opportunity but judge that I haven’t the time to go to my room and get my camera. Just as well because an old monk enters and immediately berates everyone – and one visiting priest in particular – for shooting within the confines of the katholicon. Then the doors are opened and we troop inside.

The katholicon is well-appointed; I am unsure if the building is original but the floor, marble, is certainly old although not as ornately inlaid as at Iviron. There are several fine icons in the narthex and I venerate each after close study; the katholicon is dedicated to the Assumption and Gabriel and Mary are to each side of the entrance doors within. I stand back and, sitting down, and questioned by the old monk about my origins. I reply, in Greek, that I am from Canada; he tells me to speak English. He asks me if I am Orthodox and I reply that I am Anglican. He commands me to sit on the right side, sufficiently away from the entrance that I cannot see a thing; this attitude (of which other Protestants also suffered) leaves me feeling distinctly second-class; it is more difficult to engage in the service. We leave the katholicon and enter a large refectory decorated with large tableau frescoes, some with rather grim subjects. We are each served a large bowl of plain cooked spaghetti; a smaller bowl of a thin tomato sauce is passed around and we each take 4 tablespoonfuls. There is bread and the usual slab of feta with some cut-up cabbage and roka; no olives. Grapes serve as desert. No wine. Afterward I wander around some more to take photos and venture outside the walls to explore the olive groves below. I am befriended by a Polish ophthalmologist who tells me that we should ask to venerate the relic of St. Lucas, patron saint of physicians. We re-enter the katholicon and ask the monks if we may do so but they brush us off suggesting that we should do so tomorrow. I am disappointed by an attitude that implies that we are a nuisance. I sit in on yet another service but leave after mass is ready to be served.

I retire to my room where the fat priest is already in bed. I am immediately dismayed to realize that my stereotypical prejudice of this particular man of the cloth is manifest in the extreme, almost cartoonishly. He snores like a horse farting on steroids, smacking his lips occasionally and muttering away, then farting as loud and as long as he snores leading me to wonder at times from which end the noise is emanating. This continues unabated for the entire night. Another of the guests – equally disturbed, I surmise – gets up from his creaking spring bed every 20 minutes or so and walks outside leaving the door open so that mosquitoes enter and intermittently buzz about my ears. Above us there seems to be a square dance of the 2nd Division of the Russian Infantry, drinking perhaps, judging from the laughter and loud conversation and thumping of boots on the floor till late at night. I had hoped that my roommates would arise and leave for morning services at 2:30 but, no, they didn’t seem that devoted. 

Aerial view of Megisti Lavra

Megisti Lavra

Dorm room (where I didn't sleep much)

Tired but happy pilgrim

DAY 4 (Return to Thessaloniki)
I hadn’t slept more than minutes at a time when the other pilgrim in the room turns on the lights – at 4 AM and begins to read a prayerbook – thankfully silently. Disgusted and sickeningly fatigued I finally get up at 5 and leave to sit in the katholicon. I enter and sit at the back on the left but the old monk comes to me and, having asked me where I’m from, calls me ‘Canada’ and tells me – like a schoolmaster addressing a delinquent adolescent - that he had told me where to sit before. I contented myself with the knowledge that in just a few hours this ordeal would be over and I could return to my world. I left early to pack my things and walked out to where the van would pick us up. Everything was shrouded in mist. I chatted with a trio of Germans, one of whom first came to Athos in 1962, and we agree that the attitude to non-Othodox is distinctly un-Christian and uncharitable.

It seems to take forever but the vans finally arrive; there is an hour of further waiting with musical chairs played out so that each van has the same number of passengers with people loading and unloading luggage and coming in to sit and then exiting to sit elsewhere. I see the old monk come out but, thankfully, he does see or, at least, take note of me; but I watch him talk with a young Spaniard (who had sit beside me in the katholicon) and overhear him advise about how to extend his visa if he wishes to stay longer: clearly there is another side to this gruff old priest. We take off and stop briefly at a grotto dedicated to the Virgin where the others fill their water bottles from a spring. We arrive in Karyes about 8; the bus to Dafni would leave at 10. I order an espresso and halva and then wander about the town’s back streets. I speak briefly to an old priest delighted that I came from Canada: he had lived in London for a few years in the 50’s. By the time the bus arrives to take us to Dafni I am so tired that I’ve lost my enthusiasm to visit Xeropotamou: I just want to leave and return to Renee. We finally depart and I am thrilled to see the White Tower of Ouranoupolis come into view as we round the final point. I board the bus to Chalkidiki Station but am so tired that I forget that I’ve bought a return ticket and pay for another. I fall asleep and awake an hour later, watching the countryside slip by and daydream of the home which Renee and I have just bought.

It is just getting dark when I arrive at Chalkidiki Station and I am dismayed to realize that I had just missed the bus to Thessaloniki and would have to wait an hour and a half for the next. Upon alighting at Kolombou I hasten home and am thrilled and relieved to see Renee and learn that she, too, was safe and sound. My pilgrimage was over.

Agio Andreo

Abandoned Church near Karyes 

Pilgrim Bill leaving Mt. Athos

2 commentaires:

cj a dit…

What a grand adventure! I look forward to coming back for future updates. And, sweet congrats on the purchase of your new home.

Mamie a dit…

T'as apprécié ton expérience de moines?