Blog WHS Visits

WHS #804: Mount Athos

So this will be the first review of a visit to Mount Athos by a woman! Although a couple of females have succeeded in entering in the past, I didn’t risk trespassing as I still needed to visit 4 more Greek WHS afterwards. I stayed overnight in the nearest town, Ouranoupoli. It lies about 3km from the guarded border with Oros Athos, where the monastic community enjoys autonomous self-government within Greece. The pleasant town has a few memorabilia stores, the pilgrim’s office and furthermore a lot of shops and restaurants geared to the generic beach tourist.

My day started at ease in my hotel room behind my laptop, answering questions about Obelisks, as my boat tour along the coast of the Athos peninsula was only to leave at 11 a.m. But there was that monastery near Ouranoupoli that I had seen on the map: the Holy Monastery of Zygos. It turned out to be the ruins of one of the original Athos monasteries, within touching distance of the border. It would be a 30-minute walk from Ouranoupoli’s city center, but I only had 25 minutes at best for each way. Could I still make it there? I grabbed my bag and speed-walked towards the spot indicated on the map. It’s a sandy road, uphill, and even at 10 a.m. bloody hot without much shade. In the end, I gave up about 1 km before the finish – I wouldn’t have made it in time and the monastery nor the border was visible yet. But definitely scout it out when you’re in the area, I think it would be a good addition to only seeing Athos from a boat. Google maps even shows a photo of a woman strolling along the border fence! 

For my Athos cruise, I had booked with the Calypso. Its trip takes 3.5 hours and costs 22 EUR. There are several companies to choose from, but I don’t think there are significant differences. They all sail the same route anyway. You can even do it as part of a full-day tour from Thessaloniki (65 EUR), and you’ll end up on one of these boats. They can hold over 100 people each, and 4 of them were leaving between 10.30 and 11 a.m. when I was there (August 31). When I arrived at “my” boat, members of a large group already had put their proverbial bath towels on all outdoor seats. I was lucky to find a spot on the upper deck and on the left side (the one that faces the shore), next to the steering cabin. Standing room only, and my neighbours turned out to be people that kept themselves busy feeding bread to seagulls. There is an audio commentary in Greek, English and Russian about Mt. Athos and what you see on the shore. The English one seemed to be taken directly from Wikipedia, and was hardly understandable anyway. You can easily look up which monastery is which afterwards as well, so it does not really matter.

So, accompanied by the droning voice of the commentary and the bird-feeding idiots, I had to concentrate on what I could see on the peninsula. One ‘enters’ Athos almost directly after leaving the harbour of Ouranoupoli – there is a stone border wall visible (photo 1). For the first 20 minutes or so the scenery shows mostly forest, with some man-made additions such as wooden beehives and olive groves. The undoubted highlights of the tour are the monasteries, which then start to appear one after another. Most face the coast and are quite close to it. The boats need to stay 500m away from the shore (due to the monastic regulations and the WHS buffer zone), but still, the monasteries can be seen well with the naked eye.  I had brought my camera with 83x optical zoom, especially for the purpose of getting close-ups of the monasteries, and it worked out well. Another obstacle is that the boat faces the sun in the morning, so the best bets are when you’ve just sailed past the monastery and can look back towards it.

Although the monasteries differ in appearance, they all are fortified with tower construction similar-looking to the tower houses of Gjirokaster. Also, they are so much more than a church and some outbuildings – you’ll notice gardens, trails, boat sheds, and even solar panels. The most remarkable ones among the monasteries I found:

  • Xenophontos Monastery (photo 2) - with the red walls of its church peeking out on top.
  • St. Panteleimon Monastery - this is the Russian Orthodox monastery, it is a very large complex with a huge hotel-like structure and green as its dominant colour.
  • Simonopetra Monastery  – it looks like a Bhutanese dzong, hanging from a cliff wall.
  • Dionysiou Monastery (photo 3) – with an impressive terraced garden.

Counting this excursion as a ‘visit’ was never a question for me at all. If discriminatory policies keep me out of the core zone, I will resort to a “from the outside looking in”-type of visit. And its OUV, especially the typical layout of the monasteries, is clearly visible from the sea.  I finally rated it 2.5 stars, the end result of this calculation:

  1. (3 stars) my starting point when I find a site WHS-worthy: here no doubts about its cultural values. The natural aspects are much less outstanding and it seems that IUCN did not even write an AB evaluation about it. A cultural landscape would have been a better choice.
  2. (+ 0.5 star) for the quality of its tangible structures. The monasteries are interesting constructs, with some pretty aspects. But none did really Wow! me (which would have been necessary to gain at least 4 stars), there’s a lot of (relatively modern) hotchpotch construction visible. There also still is no Management Plan for the WHS, although already promised in 2012. Lack of funding is stated as the issue, but it could well be that they are dragging their feet as they don't want snoopers.
  3. (- 1 star) for its discrimination against women. What’s the use of having a heritage site for all mankind, but not letting everybody in? It’s a similar story as with the Stoclet House. If you want to have your own private club, that’s fine with me. You can do that outside of the WH convention. It would be easy to allow female day trippers to visit part of the peninsula, as they are already allowing non-orthodox male tourists. They could open up the monasteries that are willing to show them around.

Els - 4 September 2022

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Shandos Cleaver 8 September 2022

I visited Mt Athos the same way, back in 2018. If they're going to have discriminatory access policies, visiting it this way is good enough for a tick!

Jay T 6 September 2022

Congratulations on visiting such a challenging site. I’m glad there are boat tour operators to provide another way of seeing the monasteries and the landscape.