Meditations on Mt. Athos: A Greek Orthodox Pilgrimage
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Our Signature Tour to Northern Greece and Athens offers a rare opportunity to visit the monasteries of Mount Athos. An unforgettable chance to experience life untouched for centuries, this pilgrimage is a special and limited offering for a small group of discerning male travelers. The tour starts in Thessaloniki, and includes a 4-day / 3-night visit to Mount Athos, a return visit to Thessaloniki and a visit to Alexander the Great’s birthplace at Pella. We conclude our tour with a flight to Athens, where we have a two-night stay including a guided tour of the Acropolis and other sights and dinner overlooking the Acropolis.
The theocratic republic of Mount Athos in Northern Greece is celebrated for its breathtaking scenery and its ancient monasteries, in which the life of the Middle Ages is still enacted; the manners, customs, dress and modes of thought and belief are virtually unchanged from their original forms. Here we will be received with kindness and courtesy and lodged in the guest quarters of three unique monasteries. We will inspect superb Byzantine frescoes, paintings and icons, and browse treasure rooms and libraries containing magnificent crowns, ceremonial robes, early books and illuminated manuscripts.
The monks place a strict limit on the number of participants (typically between 5 and 10). In accordance with the edict of the Emperor Constantine Monomachus in 1046 AD, access to Mount Athos is forbidden to women. We will be accompanied throughout by a Greek guide with long-standing relationships with the monks of Mount Athos, and by a professional HE Travel tour director (subject to minimum participation).
- Tour the port city of Thessaloniki, recently Europe’s Cultural Capital.
- Sail to Mount Athos to see its ancient monasteries and Byzantine wonders.
- Hike on spectacular mountain paths high above the Aegean Sea.
- Join the monks for meals, services, lodging and a glimpse at life as it was 1000 years ago.
- Observe the Orthodox life of faith and monasticism amidst natural beauty.
- Meditate on the Holy Mountain as monks have done for centuries.
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We start our journey in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki (Salonika), known for its culture and architecture. Then we drive to Ouranoupolis where we spend a night as our guide obtains our permits to visit Mount Athos. Ouranoupolis is a lovely small port city with many restaurants and a charming waterfront.
We depart from Ouranoupolis by boat to the Holy Mountain, home to the theocratic republic of Mount Athos. We will spend three nights as guests of the ancient monasteries, sometimes sharing simple meals with the monks. Each day we will travel between the monasteries by small boat, by mini-bus, or by hiking along stunning mountains paths overlooking the Aegean Sea. We will then tour the monasteries and inspect icons, crowns, coronation robes, ancient books, manuscripts, and a myriad of Byzantine artifacts. We will dine simply under frescoes of the saints and the Last Supper. At sunset generators are shut down and our world is illuminated by candlelight.
Mount Athos is most famous for its 20 ancient monasteries, but there are also several Skiti (smaller or newer monastic dwellings), an historic church in the village of Karyes (Prokrator), and hermits’ spartan dwellings located throughout the peninsula. We will observe the full range of religious structures during our pilgrimage.
Following our time on Mount Athos, we sail back along the coast to meet our vehicle, then return to Thessaloniki for two nights. During our full day there, we will visit the ancient sites of Pella and Vergina and learn more about their most famous resident, Alexander the Great.
We conclude our exploration of classical Greece with an included flight to Athens and a two-night stay in the capital city. From the Acropolis to the Temple of Zeus, Athens is bursting with art, history and culture. Walk through the agora and imagine life in the ancient capital. Stroll through the Plaka and look for bargains in the shops and from the street vendors. Try a cup of Greek coffee or Ouzo at a cafe in Syntagma Square and watch the world go by.
During the week following our pilgrimage to Mount Athos, we are offering our Classical Tour of Greece, for those with more time to spend in this ancient land. This tour includes visits to Nafplio and Olympia in the Peloponnese, to Delfi and Mount Olympus.
Day 1: Arrival in Thessaloniki
Fly from home to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, via Athens or another European hub airport. This city was Europe’s Cultural Capital a few years ago, and is known for its art, music, architecture and churches, as well as St. Paul’s preaching to the Thessalonians. An assistant will meet you at the airport and arrange your transfer to the Hotel Electra Palace. In the evening we will meet our guide to get to know each other, then have dinner in the hotel or in one of the restaurants in the Ladadika area (the Plaka of Thessaloniki).
Day 2: Ouranoupolis and Pilgrimage Preparation
In the morning we will tour some of the renowned churches and monuments of Thessaloniki. During our tour we will see sights such as the White Tower, originally part of the ramparts that surrounded the city, and locations where Saint Paul visited and spoke to the Thessalonians as early as 50 AD. At the old market area there are several tavernas and small restaurants where you can get lunch on your own.
After lunch we drive about three hours through the hills of the Halkidiki (Chalcidice) Peninsula to Ouranoupolis, where we will stay at a beach resort for one night. Our lodging will be at the Eagles Palace Hotel, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. We will also meet with our guide to prepare ourselves for our rare opportunity to be a pilgrim on Mount Athos.
Please note that the program on the Holy Mountain depends on the weather, the decisions of the monks, and on the local circumstances for the visits. Many factors can change our program. However, anything that we cannot see one day, we can usually see on the second or the third. The region is so amazing, that there is always something worth seeing of similar value.
This gay Greek Mount Athos tour will be very detailed and meticulous. The guide is specialized, highly experienced, and best of all incredibly enthusiastic about this trip.
Day 3: The Holy Mountain Beckons
We will enjoy breakfast at our Ouranoupolis hotel, then head to town. We’ll just take a backpack with enough clothes for our three nights on Mount Athos, leaving our main luggage with our driver who will bring it to us after our pilgrimage.
At the Pilgrims Bureau for the Holy Community of Mount Athos, our guide will help each of us obtain our impressive-looking diamonitirion, a document we present to the guest master in each monastery where we stay. One hundred permits are granted to Orthodox men each day, but only ten are reserved for non-Orthodox men. Women have not been allowed on Mount Athos for 1000 years.
Following is a sample itinerary to present an idea of what we will see on Mount Athos. However, no two trips are ever alike, ensuring that each pilgrim has a unique, personal experience.
Our route during our pilgrimage on Mount Athos will depend upon the decision of the Holy Community and the monasteries as to where we are to be received and lodged. On some days, we will ride in mini-buses between the monasteries, and on some days we may have a chance to walk along the ancient paths connecting the monasteries or take a small boat hugging the coast.
To start our pilgrimage, we will board a ferry in Ouranoupolis, then cruise along the peninsula past several monasteries to the tiny port of Dafni, the key access point to the Holy Mountain. Upon disembarkation, we will board a mini-bus that will take us to the Monastery Xiropotamou in Karyes, the only town and the capital of Mount Athos. Next, we will visit the Protator (main church of Karyes) where there is a must-see Panselinos fresco. Afterward, we will take a 5-minute walk to visit the Monastery Koutloumousiou, followed by a drive to Skiti Agios Andreas (the Skiti of St. Andrew).
From the Skiti we will drive along the northern coast of the peninsula to our home for the first night, Grand Lavra Monastery, considered the original monastery, and #1 in the hierarchy of the Holy Community. (We will talk with the monks to request the best kelia or cellars: the term for guest quarters in the monasteries.)
In passing from one massive walled, domed and pinnacled monastery to another, we pass through valleys and dense forests, and along cliffs rising precipitously from the sea. During the day the monasteries are powered by generators, but these are replaced by candles at sunset. Although the Internet and cell phones have appeared in some of the monastic offices, the scarcity of signs of modern life has led some travelers to compare Mount Athos to legendary Shangri-La.
In the monasteries we hear hammering on wooden boards echoing through the pre-dawn darkness of the courtyard, summoning the monks to prayer. This is the first of several times during the day when the monks unite in worship. We may see the Abbot seated on his gilded throne while bearded monks and novices prostrate themselves during services in the candle-lit churches. We inspect icons, crowns, coronation robes, ancient books, manuscripts, imperial charters and a myriad of additional Byzantine artifacts in the Monasteries’ treasure rooms and libraries. (Each monastery has a collection that would be a major museum in any large city!)
In the vast refectories (dining halls), under frescoes of the saints and the Last Judgment, we break bread at marble tables and eat bean soup, fish, vegetables, rice, cheese, olives and fruit. We also drink tea or wine made by the monks. Throughout the meals one of the monks reads aloud from the Holy Scriptures, while we eat in silence. In fifteen or twenty minutes, when the Abbot has had his fill, the meal is finished for us all.
These four days on Mount Athos will provide us with an incomparable flashback in time, a very memorable and moving experience.
Day 4: The North Coast of Mount Athos
From the Grand Lavra Monastery we will visit some of the other monasteries perched high above the rugged coastline of the north shore, such as Iviron and Stavronikita. We will then cross back to the southern coast for a night in the most photographed monastery of all, Simonopetra, dramatically perched at the top of a cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea.
Day 5: The Rich Heritage of Agion Oros
From Simonopetra Monastery we will cross back to the north coast to visit the richest and most famous monastery, Vatopedi, for our last night on the Holy Mountain, with several stops along the way.
Day 6: Return to Ouranoupolis and Thessaloniki
This morning we will explore the last of our monasteries in the morning then board a small boat to follow the more rugged northern shore to the port of Ierissos. We will then board our vehicle for the drive back in the modern world of Thessaloniki in the early afternoon. We will return for two nights at the Hotel Electra Palace in Thessaloniki. Before dinner we will all meet to discuss what we have just experienced.
Day 7: Shadows of Alexander
We will have breakfast in the hotel, then visit some of the most fascinating sites of the Macedonia region of Greece (which is just south of the country call FYROM – Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). We will drive west from Thessaloniki for about 50 minutes towards Veria. On the way we will make our first stop at the Palace of Aiges (home of Philip II, father of Alexander The Great), then we will visit the royal tombs. This necropolis is where they buried their kings even after they transferred their capital to Pella during the 2nd Dynasty. We will see the tomb and gold from Philip the 2nd, King of Macedonia and descendant of Hercules. Here you will also get a chance to see the tomb of the son of Alexander The Great and Roxana. Many people say that they lived in a magical moment here.
Next we will head to Pella, the ancient home of Philip II of Macedonia, and his rather more famous son, Alexander the Great. Today we can visit the Museum and also see the foundations of the palace and other structures that dominated this former capital city in the 3rd and 4th centuries BC. Still well-preserved are amazing mosaic pavements that were once used to decorate the floors of the nobles’ homes.
Our next stop is Miesa, a place near Thessaloniki where Aristotle had his school and where Alexander, Kassandros and Ptolemey were said to study together with other fellow friends as they passed their youth, before they departed to conquer Asia. The park is a paradise where we can see a small theatre sculptured from the rock, and also the location of the school. After the visit we will return to the hotel Electra Palace for dinner and to spend the night.
Day 8: Off to Athens
After breakfast in our hotel we will provide a transfer to the airport for a flight to Athens. Upon arrival at Athens Airport we will transfer to our Athens hotel, the Electra Palace Athens.
Enjoy free time to relax or to stroll around the Plaka neighborhood of small shops and restaurants, and churches, some dating to Byzantine times. In the late afternoon we will meet up with arriving members of our Classical Tour of Greece, and we will explore Athens together with them.
Tonight our farewell dinner will be on the terrace of a lovely restaurant overlooking the Parthenon, which crowns the floodlit rocky promontory of the Acropolis. Toast the conclusion of our journey with the famous Greek ouzo or perhaps another Greek favorite, homemade lemonade.
Day 9: The Glories of Athens
After breakfast we will meet our guide to for a half-day tour of the most important sites of Athens. We will visit the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis and make a stop at the National Archeological Museum.
We will also makes stops to see where the Olympics were held, and pass by the Parliament. Our Athens host will take us for a late lunch together in the Plaka. Your last Athens dinner will be on your own, but our guide will have lots of suggestions for you.
If you have extra time while in Athens, you might explore more of the city on your own. For starters, the nearby Plaka (old town) neighborhood is fun to explore any day, and especially during their legendary Sunday flea market, which is a shopper’s delight. You might also try a funicular ride to the top of Lycabettus Hill for a breathtaking view of the city. And you can’t miss the hourly changing of the tall pom-pom-footed guards outside Parliament, just above Syntagma Square, and on Sundays, they even add a marching band!
Day 10: Departure
We will provide transfers to the Athens airport for flights home or to begin the next part of your journey. Those continuing on our Classical Tour of Greece (see below) will depart this morning toward Nafplio and the Peloponnese Peninsula with an English speaking professional guide.
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Cultural Tour and Pilgrimage to Monasteries of Greece
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