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Introducing Mt Athos (Agion Oros)

If you’re lucky enough to be able to visit Mt Athos, do it – it’s an experience you won’t forget. For over a millennium, unbroken spiritual activity has survived on this isolated peninsula, in a semi-autonomous monastic republic following the Julian calendar. Athos has 20 working monasteries, and skites (monastic dependencies), plus kelli (ascetic hermitages). The north is thickly forested, the more inaccessible south dominated by soaring Mt Athos (2033m). With neither industry nor hunting, it’s essentially a nature reserve. An enormous World Heritage Site, Mt Athos is formally Greek, though ecclesiastically it's under the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople (İstanbul).

Legend attests that the Virgin Mary visited and blessed Athos; considered the Garden of the Virgin, it's dedicated to her – there’s no room for other women. Although this has frustrated some Eurocrats in Brussels, they’ve proven no match for 1000 years of tradition and the gold-sealed chrysobulls (decrees) of Byzantine emperors, whose names are still invoked in prayers and whose edicts are still respected.

With advance preparations, male pilgrims can visit for four days (with extensions possible). The experience is peaceful and tiring. You usually follow the monks’ lifestyle, eating and attending services (at 3am and 3pm daily, but on feast days sometimes up to 10 hours standing). When you traipse the quiet Athonite forest paths and marvel at the monastic architecture and art treasures, the uniqueness of the place registers; whether or not you’re religious, the experience will leave a strong impression.