March To Karakallou Monastery

image  Our second day on Mt Athos began officially with a church service that started at midnight and lasted until 7 am.  Since this day was the feast of Theophany ( Epiphany) the services all have extra or expanded elements.  In reality it was five separate services that all moved from one to the next:  Compline, The Lity, Orthos (Matins), The Great Blessing of Water and Divine Liturgy.  A meal immediately followed in the Trapeza.  We slept a few hours and caught a van at 11 to Karyes, a small village on the east side of Athos which servers as a major hub and supply center.

Karyes is a very odd place with shops, chapels, buildings in various stages of ruin, pilgrims of many nationalities and of course monks.  It very much reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Gold Rush towns.  image
After spending about an hour there looking around we make a strategic decision to walk to our next destination Karakallou Monastery.  Our decision to walk rather than catch a ride is based what we believe it will be a 2-3 hour walk.  Distances on Athos are given as walking time not in actual distance.  We have no idea of what terrain lay ahead between Karyes and Karakallou.

I’m carrying a 30 pound bag that converts to a backpack.  Patrick is carrying a lighter pack similar to mine; however he is wearing an outfit straight off the shelf of Brooks Brothers; long wool overcoat, cuffed pants, and dress shoes.  He looks good in church but not out on the muddy rutted roads of Athos.  Fr Peter and Gregory are carrying well loaded daypacks.  The first hour or so takes us down hill past a number of small houses and buildings, some abandon others in serious disrepair.  We are in good spirits walking at a casual pace still unaware of the hard work that lay ahead.  Gradually the road begins to climb and walking becomes a chore, particularly for me with the heavy pack.  Now I find myself wishing I had only brought along a change of underwear, shirt, toothbrush, and deodorant in a day pack instead of my NW backpacking style supply of gear.

One of the things I immediately notice is the native plants lining the road.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen heaths, euphorbia, photinia, and other plants common to our gardens back home growing in the wild.  While not in bloom they are interesting to see in such great numbers.  Olive groves are everywhere but most we see in this area are overgrown.  Scrubby oak trees predominate the forests along the route.

As a point of history, Mt Athos has gone through many periods of decline and destruction in its more than 1000 years of existence.  It has been invaded by the likes of the Crusaders, the Turks and even pirates.  Monasteries have been burned to the ground, churches destroyed, treasures stolen, monks murdered and so on.  In the last 20 years there has been a resurgence of interest in monasticism and many monasteries are being restored and revitalized.  We saw many monks in there twenties and thirties in the monasteries we visited.  So while there is a great deal of decay and terrible conditions in many areas, Athos is once again on the upswing.

Arriving at Iveron Monastery
After several hours of walking we come to Iveron Monastery located on the shores of the Aegean.  We want to stop here briefly to venerate the miraculous icon of the Mother of God (the Virgin Mary).  Printed and mounted copies of this icon are ubiquitous in the Orthodox world and one famous painted version that was done at Iveron had for many years streamed myrrh (sometimes referred as tears).  It was stolen a number of years ago and the owner murdered and has not been seen since.  At home I have a cotton ball with the myrrh from this icon on it in a small bottle.  It has the most other worldly smell to it. We immediately go to the church, venerate the icon and leave.  By this time it is close to 3 pm and we are told by a monk that Karakallou is an hour walk.  Tired from a difficult walk already and little sleep after a night in church we press on. 

Our first trouble comes within a few hundred yards of Iveron, the road is not clearly marked and there are several unmarked roads branching off as we cross a stream.  Fr Peter reminds us that we must be at the monastery by sundown (5:30 pm).  All monasteries lock their gates at that time and do not open them for anyone.  Keep in mind that these are the same gates built to thwart pirates and Crusaders… not a simple garden gate or door.  We soon discover that from Iveron the road is mostly uphill.  We all bear down and push on.  With the heaviest load I’ve been a good tenth of a mile behind the others most of the time.  I finally catch up with Gregory and he is looking very bad.  I’m in modestly good shape but I know he is not and he is the oldest of all of us.  I’m very concerned.  I make him stop for a while and give him some water.  When we start walking again we walk slow enough to maintain a conversation.  We finally meet up with Patrick and Fr Peter who are waiting for us.  We share some water and I pull out my stash of chocolate covered espresso beans and a few pieces of fruitcake I’ve brought along (a well appointed backpack does come in handy!).  We’ve already walked for more than an hour and have no idea how much further the monastery is.  It is about 4:15 by now.  Fr Peter offers to exchange packs, I reluctantly agree.  Without the additional 30 pounds I feel like I’m floating over the road in the first half mile. 

We Made It… Barely!
Patrick, in dress shoes, has developed a blister on the bottom of his foot that is affecting his ability to walk.  He now takes over in the rear and I’m up with Fr Peter at the front.  At around 5 we round a bend and see in the distance on a higher hill a large building.  Our hearts sink since we think that perhaps this is Karakallou.  If so, it seems like at least another hour away.  We have no choice but to keep walking.  We walk another half mile and round another corner and there before us is our destination.  It is now about 5.  We hurry down to the monastery over a rough cobblestone road and meet several monks standing outside the gate.  One gregarious young monk starts an animated conversation with Fr Peter in Greek.  I can’t tell if he is mad that we are here without calling first or that perhaps we are too late.  Sometimes it is difficult with the Greeks to know just what is going on in an interaction because they are so loud and animated.  I soon discover that he is glad to see us and although the meal is long over he has made arrangements to feed us.  We have a simple meal of a cabbage and onion stew, large pieces of fresh feta, olives, and homemade bread.  It is amazing how satisfying such a simple meal can be after a 12 mile walk. 

Moral of the story: beware of Greeks giving directions!

Photos: Patrick Barnes