In the Chalkidiki region of Northern Greece, the 6670-foot Mt. Athos looms near the tip of the northern most of three tentacle-like peninsulas. Across an area of about 130 square miles, twenty monasteries adorn the base of the mountain, cradled in the arms of plunging valleys, draped over rocky outcrops, sprawled across tawny beaches, and terraced into the shear mountain face. Hundreds of associated buildings tuck into nooks and crannies – dwellings and workshops for small communities of monks, their community churches, and hermit hovels.
Mt. Athos is a semi-autonomous state within Greece and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A Christian Orthodox place of retreat since the 10th century (possibly long before), it is the world’s oldest monastic community and has played a vital role in the development and preservation of Orthodox Christian tradition.
The monasteries house a vast trove of priceless Orthodox art and manuscripts.
Visitors must apply for admittance and generally only Orthodox applicants are accepted. No women are allowed to set foot on Mt. Athos or even within 500 meters of the coast.
According to legend, the Virgin Mary stopped on the peninsula while traveling between Joppa (Jaffa in present-day Israel) and Cyprus with John the Evangelist. She was so enchanted by the natural beauty of the place she prayed to her son Jesus to make it a garden in her name, which he did. This is somehow related to the ban on women.
For most people, Mt. Athos can only be experienced from the sea, which is the best way to take in the panoramic sweep anyway, provided it’s not too foggy. Boats must keep a distance of 500 meters, but on a clear day, that’s plenty close enough for stirring views. Three-hour cruise tours depart daily, April through October, from Ouranoupolis, a pretty town at the top of the Athos peninsula. The closest major city is Thessaloniki, 100 miles to the northwest.