I have rarely been able to enjoy such a complete experience through the sport of running: sport, landscapes, friendship are normal and very pleasant sensations of this activity; but adding to it the opportunity to discover one of the most unknown and authentic territories in Europe, and to be immersed in a culture, monuments and spiritual and ancestral ways of living, very different from our normal society, have made this trip to the Mount Athos Peninsula a sublime, and almost sacred event.
In the Eastern countries, in Greece, Turkey and a number of countries in the Middle East, where Orthodox religion is very present, Mt.Athos and its sacredness are well known; but they don’t known Lourdes, the Jacob Way, or other crucial symbols of the dominant religion in our lands. And here we have the opposite: whether we are religious or not, we all have very clear the key places of the Catholic religion, but the vast majority of people have no idea that in the European Union, there is a territory of 335Km2 (approximately half as the Menorca Island), where only monks live, women cannot enter, and are governed by autonomous norms not common in the rest of Europe or even in the Schengen treaty (free movement of people)
Our group of Adventure Running, this time composed of 6 friends (Carles Portavella, Quim Tribó, Jordi Vila, Jose Arimany, Albert Gaspa and myself), we understand that running can go much further from doing a little health next to home, or participate in fully organized races; and in combination with these modalities, we can live other dimensions much more enriching and experimental. That is why we are engaged in trips where the sport of running is the way of transport, and not the goal in itself, because the objective is to be able to travel autonomous, lightly, in total contact with nature through the most basic activity of the Man (walking), while we can discover very special places of our geography. Under this formula, with different friends, I have already done quite a lot of uncompetitive running trips, both in nearby environments (Pyrenees, Beceite Ports, Sierra de Cabrera/Tavertet, Prades Mountains, Picos de Europa), as in other countries (Crossing of England, Swedish Lapland, Tour of Mont Blanc).
When we came to know this special place, we immediately set off to organize our next goal.
We made a request to be able to access the Peninsula as "Unorthodox", because you can access there only by boat, and it’s only allowed to enter who has been accepted/invited by the community of monks, with maximum can be for 100 Orthodox pilgrims and 10 non Orthodox per day. Once we were notified of the acceptance and assigned some dates, informing us of the basic requirements to be able to be a maximum of 3 nights/4 days, our small but exciting project starded.
Apart from the typical preparation and material needed for any other autonomous running trip, here we had to take into account some more specific factors:
Dressing rules: we could not run in short trousers because the whole peninsula is considered sacred and requires respect and decorum in dress. In fact, to be in the monasteries, the trousers have to be wide, and this forced us to change the mesh of running once we made life there. Nor could we go with bare feet in case of wearing flip-flops, inside or outside the monastery. And we could not go inside the hallways of the bedrooms without a complete dress and showing some part of the body beyond the arms or face. However, despite being well adapted to Athos’ dressing code, we must recognize that with our "running" equipment we were really shocking for them, and when we went anywhere with monks or pilgrims present, we were the exotic note for them.
No money is needed: living in the monasteries is completely free. You only have to book, and from there, once you enter the Peninsula, money is no longer needed at all. There are no bars, there are no restaurants, there are no shops, and there is nothing to invite consumption beyond some religious memories in some monastery. I think it is very difficult to make a cheaper trip. Leaving aside the Low Cost flight to Thessaloniki, and transport to the port of departure in Oraunopoli, there is no further expense.
Strict timetables: here it is not worth to organize our route as we are interested and then go to the restaurant when we finish. In monasteries they give only two meals a day; one in the morning for breakfast/lunch, and one in the afternoon for lunch/dinner. When we arrived at the venue where we had to spend the night, we were very well received by a monk who normally speaks English, and after filling the guest book and enjoy his welcome offering consisting of a glass of water, some of their artisans goodies, and a glass alcohol also produced by them, we were informed of the specific rules of the monastery, and the schedules of meals and services. The word "service" is very important here, because it is equivalent to "religious service" in its different forms, and it is after all the most important thing to do there, and the sense of everything for the approximately 1,400 monks who inhabit Athos.
The first day we were shocked, because we ran a lot to arrive at 15h "service" time, thinking that it was the food time; but after the reception, we were told that at 15h began the "service" of Mass of about two hours in which they were waiting for us, and then we would all go to eat, to continue with another "service" of approximately another hour, followed by a free time or rest and conversation, which would lead to closing the doors of the monastery at 18:30 . Then everyone went to sleep, and at 4:30 a.m., another "service" started again, which we should also attend, but understood that as "unorthodox", we could go a little later, and they would not be strict. After the morning service, around 9.30 (this is 5 hours of praying, wow!), we would all go to eat again, and then we could continue our journey.
The first thing we had to negotiate was the "service" and food in the morning, because it was impossible for us to leave the monastery so late if we wanted to walk the route we had planned. Fortunately, the monks were always understandable with our request, even though they did not understand that we did not take advantage of the prayers and the routine of a sacred place like that. They would not change anything for us, and we would leave at 6 or 7 in the morning, to start our route, and then we would stop for breakfast in some inspiring place after about two hours. Just in case, we had planned to take a stove and freeze-dried food.
So in the morning we made our plan, and in the afternoon we always followed the life of the monastery. When arrived, we changed and clean ourselves a little bit, we went to the religious "service", which at least for me, as a zero religious person, was always a very special time, full of energy, good vibes, being connected with oneself and with a ritual that has been made in the same place, with the same furniture and the same decoration, from many centuries ago. Luckily there was no wifi or anything, and the disconnection allowed us to enjoy more of the time and spend more hours connected with another dimension than social networks, emails or telephone messages, but with the faith of those religious and pilgrims, the extreme spirituality, the null presence of any type or habitual way of life to our society, and a magical authenticity very difficult to explain. At the end of the ceremony, all the monks went out first, followed by all the pilgrims, and we passed to a large hall that was always in front of the church door, where the tables were already prepared with the food.
For me, diner time was the most amazing moment of the day, because I realized that I was not really a tourist or a spectator of a particular monument, but I was the protagonist of a real experience, living in that place, and using it by doing the same thing as its inhabitants, for what the monastery had originally been thought. A large room with walls filled with polychrome frescoes at the most pure orthodox style, with large tables of stone, wood or marble according to each monastery, where we sat in groups of 8 to 10 people. The monks were more in the background, and the pilgrims at the following tables. All the food, always vegetarian, was already prepared on arrival, and always consisted of a main dish (rice, chickpeas, chard…) and an accompaniment (fried eggplants, potatoes, mashed potatoes …), with a piece of fruit for dessert, accompanied with water and wine to drink. We had to eat in absolute silence, because there was always a monk in the center who spent all the food reading scriptures.
One thing that is very surprising is the total prohibition of women’s access to the Peninsula. For a thousand years, with the first monasteries in Athos, it was considered that the absence of women was the best measure to ensure compliance with the vow of chastity. Only three violations of this rule have been documented (refugees from the civil war and two women disguised as men), and a few decades ago the issue was more strictly regulated with a possible penalty of up to 12 months imprisonment in case of infraction. It is even forbidden to have women in the sea, less than 500 meters from the coast. But the thing does not stop here, because there can be no females of any other animal species, to avoid temptations for those gentlemen with the mating scenes. At first it would be strange to be surrounded only by men, but then you adapt to their normal way of doing things, provided you do not try to enter into ethical debates about whether or not it is normal that in the XXIst century and in the European Union, half of the population has vetoed access to a territory. What is clear is that this is part of the personality and authenticity of this place.
In Athos they work as a true "Monastic Autonomous Region", and it is a merit that these monks were able to negotiate and enforce their status with the Byzantine and Ottoman empire, the Russian tsars, the Serbian princes, the Nazis, the Greek state, the European Union and even the Schengen area treaty. The spiritual jurisdiction belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, but they live quite freely, and more than once have faced or been very tense among them. They are governed by the "Holy Community" (Iera Koinotita), made up of 20 monks representing the 20 monasteries, which are at the same time of different nationalities: Greeks, Russians, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Serbs and Georgians.
There are 20 main monasteries in the Peninsula, but there are also many other constructions between churches or separate residences, which constitute other communities of monks called Sketae. Karyes, located in the center of the peninsula, at the foot of Mount Athos, acts as administrative capital, with many dispersed buildings, and is where the governor who represents the Greek state resides.
Running through this territory gives the maximum sense to our sport, as we had the opportunity to travel a long distance in one day, enjoying a beautiful setting, mountains and forests that reach paradisiacal beaches in the Mediterranean Sea (without inhabitants, Without houses, without tourism), while one stumbles with these majestic monasteries and full of spiritual life, that impacts to anyone minimally sensible. It is very difficult to find so many ancient constructions of this beauty, in this state of preservation, that are currently in full operation for the same purpose for which they were conceived many centuries ago.
By the way, and to make it clear… we also ran, OK? This was the initial reason for the project, do you remember? We did 4 stages with a total of 105 km and 5,000 meters of positive slope:
– Stage 1: 20Km, 4h30 and 1,100m+. First think in the morning is going to collect the Visa (diamonitrion) to enter Athos in the village of Ouranoupoli. Then a 40 minutes trip with a small boat, arriving at the small port of the monastery of Xenofontis. From there we head northwest to the monastery of Aranás along the coast, then cross the peninsula through the center, finding the Zografou super monastery, arriving again to the north coast and visiting the monastery of Vatopediou, and beginning to descend the coast towards the southeast in order to sleep in the monastery of Pantokratoros. The rout was 90% for small trails and 10% for track.
– Stage 2: 30Km, 6h30 and 900m+. We left Pantokratoros at 7am and make one of the most beautiful parts of the trip, all along a path by the sea, to the fabulous monastery of Stavronikita, which with the first light of the day offered us a tremendously warm and inspiring image. Then the rest of the stage was on a track, passing by the monastery of Iviron and arriving to sleep to monastery of Magistis Lavras.
– Stage 3: 35Km, 8h30 and 2,200m +. Undoubtedly, the best stage. 100% for complicated paths, precious but with great slope. We went up to the Mt.Athos, the sacred mountain, that is 2,050 meters high, and it leaves in chopped from the level of the sea. There we met some monks and pilgrims who went or came back from the summit, and they were astonished to see us advancing at a very sporty pace up, and running down the slope… when at night we told the "Pater" of the monastery the route we had done, he couldn’t believe believed it; they thought we were professional runners (great gift for our ego), because there hadn’t seen geeks like us doing that type of activity. As we descended from the mountain we appeared in the monastery of Santa Ana, hanging on a stretch of steep coast and sublime beauty. It seemed that we had stuck in a medieval film, and we believed protagonists of "The Name of the Rose"; Some authentic pilgrims in another time of history, although with equipment and running technology of 21st century. We continued along some very hard trails drawn between the cliffs, which never ceased to rise and fall with violence, but which gave us unforgettable views of a totally virgin coastline, only interrupted by some huge and beautiful monasteries/castles. We still found two more (Nea Skiti and Angiou Pavlov) before getting to sleep at Angiou Dionysiou.
– Stage 4: 20Km, 3h and 800m+. We left at 5:30 am because we needed to be at the port of Dafni at 9am in order to be able to catch the boat back to Ouranoupoli and not miss the plane back home. It was more difficult than we thought and we had to stress a little to not be late. Along the way we find the monastery Osiuu Grigoriou, and we still had time to visit what is possibly the most spectacular monastery of Athos, and the one you can see in most pictures in any Internet search: Simonos Petras.
There were no extremely harsh stages, but don’t think it was an easy trip; because the terrain was really tough, with hard roads always up and down, and a complicated terrain in many sections. It was not an extreme journey on the physical level, but it was not easy, at the same time, as we intended, it was not stresful, because we wanted to have time to visit and enjoy all the jewels that we would find along the route. At the end of the day, if we get the bug to fight with the chrono, every week we have a lot of races next to the house to be able to unleash the adrenaline.
Maybe I should have explained more the sport part of this trip, but in front a singularity like that, the running part seemed to me the least important, and really, as I said at the beginning of this chronicle, it has only been a way of moving that we love, that required a good effort and has made us enjoy ourselves a lot. But running can be done anywhere, instead running on Mount Athos, it becomes an almost sacred activity if we look at the 360º of this Trip.