Monday, 9 November 2009

Day 14 - The Great Escape

The last update left us wheezing at the main gates of Aghios Pavlos (St Paul's Monastery). We were all exhausted, and the last climb up the slope to the gate seemed to go on forever. Tyson had won the race, but Mike was close on his heels - employing imaginary ski poles to help propell him up the slope!

Our first priority was food. We had missed the main meal by nearly two hours - in fact the fast group had barely made it themselves, being ushered into the refectory while the prayers were being read! The monastery was all in darkness, and even the questhouse was quiet. I was rather worried we had missed out, but thankfully Alun saved the day - he managed to collar a monk and in due course a kindly monk brought a great bowl of beetroot and mashed potato, a fair hunk of feta cheese and a few loaves. We had a slap up supper in our room (although we were rather sick of beetroot by the end).

The guest accommodation at Aghios Pavlos is rather unusual in that it sits outside the main monastery walls, about halfway up the last slope that leads to the main gates. This could well be the gatehouse, mentioned as one of Sandy's previous haunts. The monastery certainly sits in a majestic position - perhaps not as wildly impressive as Simonas Petra, but still an awe inspiring building set high above the sea. The old monasteries are essentially castles built in defensive positions in order to protect against the marauding catalans and pirates that once plundered this rich coastline. Few monasteries are built at sea level, and almost all retain a forbidding appearance from ground level.

As it had been dark by the time we arrived at the gates, there had been no time to explore. Our room was basic but comfortable. It was our first night on bunkbeds, and both Tyson and I pulled the sort straw and slept up top. That made it pretty awkward to unpack kit and get comfortable. The strain of the day was clear - no sooner had we cleared away the plates than the snoring started. We all slept the sleep of the truely exhausted.

It was barely light when the alarm clock shrilled out, and the undead began to stir. There was a fair fug in the room, and there were a few heavy heads. The snoring had been ridiculous, not helped by the fact that we were packed into such a small room. After a quick wash we were ready for breakfast - we had been told it was at 0700 by the monk who brought the food the previous evening. We arrived early, but again the monastery was in silence. Odd. We eventually found someone deep in the corridors of the building who reminded us it was a fast day. There had been a quick breakfast for non-orthodox and workers at 0600. We had missed it! Thankfully there was enough beetroot and feta left from the previous evening to serve as a pretty adequate breakfast - but there was a rumbling in the ranks. Most of the talk was about bacon and eggs, dirty great steaks and chips with everything. A bowl of beetroot filled a hole, but it was clear that people were getting hungry.

As we packed the kit, Alun brought news of the weather. Tomorrow would be wet, and already the wind was building. We had planned a walk over the headland for the final night in Gregorio Monastery, but that seemed doubtful. The biggest fear was the weather - if it closed in overnight, the boats could be stopped. That would leave us trapped in the monastery until the weather cleared, with the risk of missing flights and yet more beetroot.

As we walked down the hills from Aghiou Pavlos, there was little enthusiasm for another hot day of climbing. We had already walked the path from Simonas Petra to Aghiou Pavlos, and few were interested in repeating the route. The sight of a boat making its way up the coast finally swung it - we would take a boat to Dafni and re-assess our options after lunch.

The boat was a large ferry, the Aghios Anna, which plies the coastline from Dafni to Kavsakolivia - calling at each of the ports in between. We caught it on its outbound journey, and sat on the sundeck admiring the beauty of the coastline and the isolated sketes and chapels high in the isolated ravines and peaks. There was much argument about the path we had followed - the cloud swirling across the mountains making it difficult to pick up the isolated wooden cross until we had almost past the skete of St Anna.

While it was strange to be back-tracking, we enjoyed the opportunity to see the coastline and to follow Sandy's route up through the mountain peaks. We had originally intended to pick up the boat from St Denys to Lavra (following Sandy's lead) but we had been frustrated by the storm that had blown in. This was a great opportunity to experience the route around the peninsular, and to photograph the various small sketes and boatsheds dotted around the coast.

Our adventure really ended at Ouranopolis, with an ice cold beer and a slice of spinach pie. From here on we were just tourists, heading back to reality with the herd. We are glad we made the decision. We were on the last boat out from the Holy Mountain, as the weather closed in later that afternoon. Had we gone to Gregorio as originally planned, we would still be there!

Sandy has been a difficult man to follow. We walked 280km over 13 days, through sun, wind and rain. We had experienced the long, hot slog along the roads, dark impenitrable forest, sunless ravines, endless climbs and perilous descents.

We have got as close to Sandy's route as we could, and have perhaps shared a little of the hardship that he faced. It makes Sandy's escape even more remarkable, and we have all enjoyed testing ourselves every step of the way. It has been a fantastic adventure! The team now returns home, with plenty of work ahead to properly write up reports and to collect all the photographs. In due course we'll add photographs and maps to this blog.

Tyson made his flight, and is even now on the first leg of his return trip. He leaves with the 'King of the Hill' award, as the fastest hillclimber, and we'll miss his ready smile and enthusiasm.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Day 13 - The long walk out

For once we were on time for breakfast - a bowl of gigantes (giant beans in a thin tomato sauce). With hunks of the heavy bread, an apple and some grapes, we were set for the day.

Papa Christopholos met us outside the refectory. The Abbot wanted to see us again, and had a present for us. We were led up the stone steps again and into the Abbot's office. Christopholos translated for us, as we thanked the Abbot for his hospitality. There were a few groans when the presents were handed out - we each had a large book of the history of the monastery, and a heavy wooden icon. Tyson was given another set for Sandy - they weighed a ton, and we would have to carry them the rest of the way! Still, it was a lovely gesture, and I am sure that we would be welcome again.

After saying cheerio to the Abbot, Christopholos led us behind the refectory and gave us a large loaf to take with us. He seemed rather concerned about our attempt to get to Aghia Pavlos in a single leap, "you must have food", he kept saying - and he was quite right! We then followed him on a merry dance around the buildings trying to find Sandy's hiding place.

Megalis Lavra is an enormous place, like a medieval castle with a multitude of buildings lining the high walls. We had read the details of Sandy's escape to Christopolous, so first step was to locate the infirmary. The current infirmary is behind the refectory, on the first floor. In fact there are two - one for sick monks, and the other for elderly monks, which is a little further down. This would place Sandy almost opposite the main red church, about the midpoint of the monastery on the southern side. Unfortunately there has been significant renovation work here, and Christopholos didn't recognise the description of the winding stone steps, or the gothic stone arches. Given Sandy's description of looking down on the main gate, Christopolos thought it might be useful to explore the old defensive tower. This is on the mountain side of the monastery, and looks down on the small square by the main gate.

We followed the balcony along from the infirmary, up a flight of stone steps and into the tower through an iron studded door. There weren't many hiding places in the tower - only two rooms at the top - one filled with dusty books, boxes and candle stands, the other being a tiny chapel. It didn't seem a likely place to run, but we took some photographs of the rooftops to help jog Sandy's memory. Of course, the hiding place may have been lost in the renovations, but I am convinced that it is there to be found.

Time had caught up with us, unfortunately, and we had to begin our great trek. Christopolous walked with us through the main gate and up past the outer buildings and waterwheel. I think he was sad to see us go, and stayed waving for quite some time. He said that he had always wanted to make the walk around the tip of Athos, but his health was so bad he didn't think he would ever manage it.

The first bit of our walk was a bit laborious - following the same path to Promodos. Here we branched off onto the older path, climbing a jumbled watercourse until we reached the path that snaked up a gulley to reach the main path that crosses the tip of the peninsular. At the top of the ridge we reached the decision point as there are two paths that cross the area - the higher path climbs high above the landslip, but is supposed to be the quicker route. The lower path descends to the skete of Kavsokalivia - a commune of artists that sits about 200m above sea level.

We decided to split the team, the hill-climbing goats (Tyson, Mike, Alun and me) went down, the speed freaks went up. It was a long descent to the first skete of Aghia Nilos, and from there contouring around the slope to Kavsokalivia. The fronts of our legs were burning as we dropped down across the great landslide - huge house-sized boulders making the going very slow. The view was incredible, and quite dangerous - we each suffered a tumble while not paying attention to the track. We were still high above the sea, and had to descend for a good hour before reaching Kavsokaliva.

We stopped in the shade of a high retaining wall, just down from the church. Sandy had mentioned the artists commune, and so the two slipways at Kavsokalivia had to be checked for suitable boatsheds. Alun stayed with the packs as we raced down the zig-zags to the sea. It took an age to descend - polished boulders, gravel and acorns making the going treacherous underfoot. We eventually spilled out at the edge of a bay - the final concrete steps stopping in mid-air. No slipway or boathouse to be seen. Disappointing, but at least we had ruled it out. We took a quick breather before starting the long climb back up the track to the first junction, near the church. It was hot work!

The second slipway was just as bad - a little further away from the skete along a path that headed west. Even Tyson was slowing up in the heat as we crossed the top of the cliff above the other slipway and followed the zig-zags down through thick woods. Eventually we came to a flat area filled with old olive trees, a hundred feet or so above the sea. The last section had large concrete steps, which we leaped down so fast that we scared the life out of the lead mule on the mule-train coming up. We had to climb up to a little ledge to give them room to get past!

The path made its final turn and we were on a large concrete area which served as the slipway and landing stage. The boathouse had been modified, but it was clear that it had once been a 2-storey building with stone steps up the side, and large double-doors facing down the slipway. We paused awhile, catching our breath and taking in the azure sea. Tyson paced back and forward along the shoreline - he later admitted that he was exceedingly tempted to leap in to cool off!

The climb back up to the skete was hard, and we were both dripping with sweat by the time we arrived back at the church. We were behind schedule, which meant no time for lunch. We had to start the long climb out, and the peaks swirling in cloud high above looked daunting.

The first challenge was to find the path out. The skete was a myriad of paths that ended in gates or houses, and we tramped back and forth with growing frustration. Eventually we found it - hidden behind a chicken coop and climbing up into the trees. Upwards we toiled, in places the ancient stones worn smooth with the passage of pilgrims. Here and there the track became a jumbled mix of rocks and earth that required immense concentration. Tyson and Mike set a cracking pace, and Alun and I struggled to keep them in sight. The climb was never ending - the false summits almost breaking our spirits, but eventually the track flattened off and we found ourselves in the skete of Kerasia.

We had climbed quite a height from sea level - almost 800 metres in all, the path sending us twisting and turning around the sharp pinnacles and scree slopes. Kerasia was a smaller skete, and we didn't see much activity. We had originally planned to meet the other members at Kerasia, but they had long grown bored and continued to to the next skete - St Anna. We pushed on too, but it was clear that we were at least two hours behind. In the back of my mind I could see the monastery gates shutting at sundown - the race was on.

As we crested the saddle before the descent to St Anna, we came across a man sat shirtless in a clearing. He had just climbed from St Anna and we exchanged information about the way ahead. The remains of lunch lay all around us in the clearing - rusty cans, wrappers, bottles and cans. Despite the mess, it seemed a good time to grab some food. We had been walking for nearly seven hours and only Alun had managed to grab some lunch. I broke out the emergency rations - pilchards, pasta and bread, and we sat in a circle eating as quickly as we could.

The view down to St Anna was incredible. The path crossed a high blade of rock, and we stood for a few moments next to the wooden crucifix that tops the peak. We could see the skete far below, and a separate skete further along the hillside. There around the headland was a sliver of sand and the ruined tower that signposted the way to the monastery of St Pauls.

We raced down the hillside, staring at our feet as we placed every step on the jumbled rock and scree. Nearer the skete the rocky path gave way to giant Tyson-sized concrete steps - which made the going even harder for the rest of us. The moment we got into St Anna we called the fast group, who gave us devastating news. Even though the monastery seemed so close from the hillside above the skete, it would take at least another hour and a half!

The final section passed in a blur. As the light was falling we kept the group tight, moving fast through Nea Skete and on the narrow track to the monastery. We eventually dropped down to the track leading up to the monastery - cutting through the gatehouse and up to the monastery. It was almost pitch black, but through some miracle the gates were open. We were safe!

We had covered 23km over difficult terrain in just under 10 hours, with only one 5 minute break. A bit of an epic, but great fun!

Nearing the end of things - more soon!

Friday, 6 November 2009

Day 12 - the search for the Russian Boatshed

It continued raining through the night - hard, heavy rain that drummed on the roof of the guesthouse block and made it difficult to sleep. It didn't bode well for our route around the tip of the peninsular, and we were all concerned about the ability to make the distance - we have had estimates ranging from 5 hrs to 8hrs, although I don't imagine many monks have made the journey in recent times. We also hear rumours of wolves, wild boar and mad hermits who push great boulders down on people. It has the recipe for a great challenge.

The general feeling in the camp is good, although no-one fancies another soaking. We have just about dried out our kit from the previous day, and we really don't want the same again. I had suffered particularly badly - the maps and papers almost written off. Thank goodness that the radiators were hot at Lavra!

After our wild drive to Lavra, and rapid supper, we had fallen into bed rather early. Athos time is confusing at best, and each monastery operates a slightly different schedule that makes things quite unsettling. We had intended to turn out for the service, figuring that Sandy would have been to a few in his time here. Deep in the night the now familiar harmonic rattle of the talamton (the large wooden plank beaten by the monk) signalled the start of the service. Only Alun managed to get on parade in time, and even he returned after an hour or so. His legs had given up - walking all day and standing up all night is not the best combination.

In an effort to avoid being late for yet another meal (we are getting a bad reputation), we had decided to be ready for breakfast/lunch by the refectory door by 0730hrs. We stood there for a good twenty minutes in the biting cold, before being ushered in to take our places. The refectory at Lavra is truly magnificent - the benches fixed in horseshoes around each marble table, with the most incredible frescoes all around. As it was a fast day, there was only bread and jam for the workers and non-orthodox, as the monks went without. Tyson slathered on the apricot jam and seemed quite happy, although I suspect the food situation would rule out monastic life for him.

The previous evening had been so hectic that we had totally failed to make contact with the monks. The guestmaster was quite a gruff fellow, and despite attempts to flash Sandy's letter and photographs, was pretty uninterested. Given that Sandy had spent so much time at Lavra, we weren't going to give up that easily. After breakfast/lunch, Alun managed to collar an English speaking monk. He was fascinated by the story of Sandy's escape, and knew that the Abbot would be interested. A quick chat with the guestmaster sorted it all out. We would stay in Lavra for another night, and meet the Abbot after supper. What a breakthrough!

As the weather was good, the young monk suggested a walk to the Skete of Promodos, which lies on the very eastern tip of Athos. It had been on my list of likely candidates for the location of Sandy's first escape attempt - it is close to Lavra, has a small landing stage and boatshed, and is Romanian (easily confused with Russian).

After unpacking our rucksacks, we headed out through the main gates and alongside the vegetable garden before picking up the old path to Promodos. It was overgrown and the stones green and slippery through lack of use but we were certain that Sandy would have come this way after leaving Lavra - it is the old path that heads around the tip of the peninsular. We followed it as far as the new concrete road and found it impossible to pick up any trace on the other side.

We reached Promodos after 40 minutes or so. The weather had cleared perfectly, and the views out to sea where spectacular. We decided to head straight down to the slipway, far below Promodos. The descent was tricky - in places the path was reduced to a few inches, and we had to push through with great difficulty. The path grew steeper and steeper, until we came over the last ridge and had a great view of the lighthouse and ruined boathouse far below.

The path to the boathouse was quite exposed, so we took our time on the last section. The boathouse lies on the eastern side of a rocky outcrop, quite invisible until you round the headland and walk down to the top of the slipway. It is two-story, of granite construction and built opposite the entrance to a large cave. The slipway runs down a natural gap in the rock, and was funneling a tremendous amount of wave power. Tyson managed to get across to the boathouse during a gap in the waves, and I followed soon after. The building is almost totally ruined, but we could make out that it had been single storey at the rear, with steps down into the boatshed. The main windows were so high off the ground on the slipway side that they were not barred. There were bars on the windows on the single storey side, and the place was so remote that it seemed a good fit for Sandy's Russian boatshed.

We walked back quite quickly, taking the opportunity to explore around Lavra. We were astounded by the size of the place - vast defensive stone walls topped with fragile-looking timber balconies projecting over the walls. The monastery is slowly being renovated, old sagging roofs and sun-bleached balconies being replaced by straighter lines and varnished wood.

Supper was early, a watery soup of potato, cabbage and carrot. Tyson looked frantic, but we managed to placate him with plenty of bread and cheese. After supper we met the older English-speaking monk - Papa Christopholos. First he ushered us into the church, insisting we go forward into the inner sanctum where the monastery's relics were being venerated. We hung back, careful not to cause offence, although Alun eventually lunged forward and kissed everything in sight - crossing and re-crossing himself like a natural!

We made our rendevous with Papa Christopholos just outside the church. He eyed us with suspicion, "what do you want?". We explained the story, and a smile spread across his face. His arms whirrled as he got increasingly animated. He had lived in Cardiff, and worked as a stevedore in Southampton. We all got on famously - at last we had an ally!

Christopholos helped us find the spot where Sandy photographed Dr Pavlides and the other monks in 1946, and we all lined up for a comparison shot. He also found the 1946 picture highly amusing - 'Micro' Phillipas had gone on to become the Abbot! It was nearly dark when we were led up the stairs to meet the Abbot. He was mid-conference with the architect and engineer working on the renovations, but made time to see us.

We filed into his office like naughty schoolboys seeing the headmaster. He was incredibly interested to hear about Sandy's escape, and our quest to follow Sandy's route. He read Sandy's letter out loud, and took a copy of both the letter and his photograph. Lavras are building a museum, he explained, and they would add it to the exhibits. I also took the chance to present him with the model boat, engraved with Sandy's message of thanks. It now sits in pride of place on the Abbot's windowsill.

We retired early. It had been a long day, and we were pleased to have reminded the monks of Lavra of the help their predecessors had given Sandy.

Tomorrow we hunt for Sandy's hiding place - Christopholos has a great bunch of keys and is keen to help us track it down. We can't spend too long though - we are due at Aghios Pavlos (St Pauls) before sundown! A long walk right around the tip of the peninsular!

More soon ...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Note from the editor!

Apologies - Day 10 has now been rejigged and consists of an amalgamation of two emails from Chris, the expedition leader, so please see the below blog...

Day 11 - to Great Lavra!

We have been slowly working our way down the coast of Athos, intent on following your route to Megalis Lavras (or the Great Lavra). This was the first monastery to be built on Athos in 963AD and is the only monastery not to have suffered a fire in its history.

It sits at the very top of the hierarchy on Athos, and takes the whole pilgrimage thing rather seriously - I fear we might need to up our game. Last night we had sat up planning our route. Sandy had left here by boat, but the journey around the tip of the peninsular is still considered rather dangerous.

The weather can change rapidly, and we had already noticed that the sea was beginning to build with the southerly wind. We were advised that the boat service is often cancelled - the operators agreeing this in advance to save them getting up for work. There was no way we could check this, so we had to have a back-up plan. We had the good fortune to meet an English monk last night, one of only five on Athos (there is also an Australian, but we haven't tracked him down yet). Father Medestos is chiefly responsible for painting icons, and his cell hangs high over the sea on the southern side. He was mid-brushstroke as we arrived, ducking under the low doorway and taking in the incredible view.

We sat and talked with him for a few hours, and he was fascinated in the story of Sandy's escape, and our quest to track down the locations. I gave him a copy of Sandy's letter, which he agreed to pass to the Abbot on his return from the farm at Monexilete. We talked about many things, and it seemed that he enjoyed the opportunity to speak English again. He was of great help in planning our route beyond Lavra. He gave us two likely locations for the boat shed - the first being at Kavsokaliva, and the other at Promodos. Kavsokaliva was an artists commune, he explained, and was at the mid-point of the bottom of the peninsular.

While this fits with Sandy's description, we can't discount Promodos, which lies at the tip closest to the Great Lavra. He understood that this was a Romanian skete (which may fit with Sandy's description of the 'Russian' boatshed) and Lavras also owns houses in the area. As both of these seem to fit, we have decided to cover both on our trip around the bottom end of the peninsular.

The weather wasn't particularly bad first thing in the morning, but it was clear that the wind was building and everyone was uncertain as to the likelihood of the boats running. Father Medestos sought us out just after the church service, and said that the boat was due in the next 30mins. I made the high-risk decision that there was still time for breakfast, and we filed in to the refectory. We threw down our fish and rice, anxious to be first out and to be able to make the boat. It is not that simple, and having finished our food we had to sit there and wait for the readings to end. It was nearly 0830 by the time we got out and raced across the courtyard to get out bags. We must have seemed rather ungrateful as we were out the gate within 2 minutes of breakfast, haring down the slope, through the tunnel and round the back of the monastery to the boatshed. Life on Athos seems to be punctuated by periods of intense activity, followed by long waits.

This 'hurry up and wait' approach struck a chord with the ex-Army members of our team, and they were quite content to sit waiting for the boat to arrive. I was getting rather restless. An hour went by quite slowly. The boat was overdue, which was not a good sign. Pilgrims were starting to walk up the steep path heading to Dafni, which wasn't a good sign. We had exhausted all entertainment. Tyson had eaten almost every snack he had in his rucksack. Alun had won at stone skipping, and I had explored the boatshed and slipway twice! It was time to put our back-up plan into operation. Dionysiou remains one of the few monasteries not connected to the road network.

It is probably only a matter of time, as we could hear heavy earthmovers at work high up in the gorge behind the monastery. If we wanted evacuation by truck, we would have to continue down the coast to Aghia Pavlo (St Paul's Monastery). On went the rucksacks, and we trudged back up the slope and into the monastery - starting a minor panic as people thought the boat had arrived. The path to St Pauls was dicey - in places quite narrow and terrifically exposed. It didn't help that the rain had begun, making the rocks quite greasy. We adopted a slow but sure pace, and soon crossed the highest point and could see a large ruined tower on the beach in the next bay.

It took a while to lose height, Tyson taking the lead down the jumbled path and on to the ruined building. The monastery sat above us, and as we commenced the long walk up the hill, I reminded Tyson that this was also one of Sandy's haunts. By now the rain was really chucking it down, and the wind was whipping around our heads, making things thoroughly miserable. It was a good half hour before we arrived wringing wet at the door of St Pauls. We still had an enormous distance to cover, and things were not looking bright.

The monastery of St Pauls may not be as immediately impressive as Simonas Petra, but it had warm radiators and served coffee, which puts it pretty high on my list. We were glad to strip off our wet clothes, and soon converted the guesthouse into a chinese laundery. The monks were very good about it, serving us drinks and helping us locate a taxi company in Karyes. They reckoned they could be with us in 1hr, and the cost would be... 100 Euros!!! (cue sharp intakes of breath and rapid calculations by John, the kitty holder).

If we were to stay on track, we didn't have a choice. The hour became nearly three, and we all got cold and wet again. Whose bright idea was it to wait outside in the rain? Luckily a monk took pity on us and ushered us into a nearby workshop. He was another Englishman, who had been at the monastery for nearly 20 years. It was strange to meet two Englishmen in quick succession. The minibus duly arrived, and we loaded kit and set off. It was a horrific experience - the rain had washed rocks down onto the road, and deep orange torrents crossed the road at every corner.

Our driver possessed magical powers, thrashing the engine to maintain speed on the treacherous route - at times there was less than a foot between us and a long drop to the sea. We kept very still, and even Tyson lost his grin. The weather worsened as we went on. At times the rain fell so heavily that the windscreen wipers couldn't cope. The torrents had grown, and the driver hesitated at each one before roaring across. By now he had finished his second can of beer, and was getting into his stride. It was with great relief that we finally emerged on the northern coast. The weather this side seemed much worse - the sea was in a furious swell, and a long smear of orange in the water showed the quantity of water being sluiced off the hills. The monastery finally appeared on the headland in front of us, a vast spread of buildings, walls and rooftops.

We screeched to a stop outside the main gate, and staggered off - grateful to have survived an epic drive. We raced to the guesthouse, where the guestmaster advised us to run to the refectory as the meal was already under way. Tyson led the charge, and nearly cannoned into the Abbot who flung open the doors as we arrived! After all that, we managed to get some food, and we are now in the guesthouse. The rain is still falling hard, running off the roofs and creating quite a racket.

We have made it to the Great Lavra - tomorrow we search for the attic!

Day 10 - We arrive at Dionysiou

We planned an early start from Xenofondos. Our destination was the monastery of Dionysiou, a good leap down the coast beyond Dafni. We had an added complication, however, as we needed to extend our permisson in Karyes. This meant breaking our journey in Dafni, and somehow getting over the peaks to Karyes as fast as we possibly could.

Our early start meant that there wasn't time to wait for breakfast. The main gate was still shut, but Alun found another door to the side of the monastery that was still open. We all felt a bit bad sneaking out while the monks were still in the service.

The side door opened onto a flat area above the stream bed. There had been plenty of building work, and the banks had been built up with concrete, creating a vast chasm that seemed rather out of keeping with the place. Outside the monastery, we came across a cluster of vehicles - a sure sign that progress has driven a road to Xenefontos.

Our path took us across the stream, and on to the shoreside path. We had a long walk ahead of us, and we were glad for the flat sections. We threaded our way through olive groves along a gravel path that swooped up and down around the headlands and bays. About an hour's walking brought us to Pandeleimonos - a vast monastery spread across the whole side of the bay. It was a fascinating place, green-skinned roofs, domes and spires making it look quite unlike anything we had seen so far. The obligatory crane soared high overhead, a sure sign that construction work was afoot.

As we got closer, we walked through a rough area of builders rubble at the foot of the great sea wall. The path then took us nearer the buildings, past a vast granite building that must have once held hundreds on monks - the windows were barred, although whether that was to keep the monks in, or invaders out, wasn't clear! Our path took us past the main gate, but all was quiet. We hurried on to our lunchtime destination - Dafni.

It took another hour to reach Dafni, the path being well washed out in places. Tyson made fantastic speed up the hills, leaping steps and making the rest of us feel thoroughly miserable. He is definitely cured!

We were spat out by the mountain a good height above Dafni, and it was a long slog downhill to reach the town. It felt good to finally get on your tracks, although I suspect that Dafni has changed considerably in the intervening 68 years. It is now a typical border outpost, complete with post office, police station, customs house and coffee shop.

Tyson and I grabbed the chance of a lift to Karyes while the others interrogated the coast guard officer as to the potential route. We needed to secure the necessary extension to our permission to stay on Athos - a bit of a diversion, but absolutely necessary to avoid future trouble.

The road to Karyes was a series of wicked switchbacks climbing up over the watershed, and then winding back down on the other side. There wasn't really room for us in the minibus, and we perched three to a seat (although the Greek chap who had previously been sitting comfortable wasn't too cheerful about it)!

Karyes was another frontier town - a curious mix of hardware stores and churches. Strange looking monks darted here and there, and we passed large groups of Germans lolling about waiting for the daily bus. The guidebook said that the Office of the Holy Community was opposite the main church. We gingerly climbed the white marble steps to find the door locked - it was shut! This was a problem, so we regrouped in the coffee shop back on Holy Ghost Street to review our options. As we had seen a few monks passing by, we decided to make another attempt - hanging around by the door like the cats we had seen outside every monastery.

Eventually a kindly monk came out, and asked us what we wanted. Once he heard about your story, and our quest to follow you route, he couldn't have been more helpful. In a few minutes we had our passes stamped and we were on our way.

Back down in Dafni things were happening quickly. But more of that later.


While we had been off sorting paperwork, the rest of the group had tracked down the coastguard - a friendly chap, who seemed terribly concerned about our proposed route.

"The path from Dafni to Simonos Petra is impossible - too dangerous after all the rain" he said, holding court in our corner of the coffee shop. I suggested going by boat to Simonas Petra, then walking from there to Dionysiou. He didn't advise it as the paths had been lost.

I wasn't convinced, and neither was Tyson. We were both itching to walk from Dafni, as we knew Sandy had definitely passed this way on your way to Simonos Petra. In the end we went for a compromise - by boat to Simonos Petra, and walk from there. We would have to deal with the impossibility of the path as and when we got there.

So we left Dafni by boat, feeling a bit of a fraud - especially when the path looked managable from the boat. My guess is that the coastguard hadn't walked the route in his life! We should have trusted our own judgement.

We leapt out at the harbour of Simonos Petra, keen to get up to the monastery which towered high above us on a blade of rock. We were walking without packs, as we had sent these on ahead to Dionysiou. Suitably lightened, we should have been quicker up the slope, but the last few days were taking their toll. Tyson was first up, and we soon joined him in the small square just outside the main gate.

We were met by a softly spoken monk, who invited us into the guest lodge and treated us to a glass of Tsiporo, a plate of Lokoumi and a glass of water. He was interested to hear about our adventure, and that we were following in your footsteps. He was keen to give us a quick tour, so we quickly followed him through the gateway opposite the guesthouse, climbed the long slope and emerged in another courtyard. He darted through another doorway, and suddenly we were on the wooden balcony, high above the sea.

Tyson sprinted on ahead, following the curve of the building out of sight. The balcony was solid, but between the cracks in the oak boards we could see rocks far, far below. I was quite pleased when the monk popped his head out of another door and ushered us into the church.

The church was spectacular - he led us through the first two chambers into the inner sanctum. It was difficult to take everything in - we were faced by a wall of icons, and the monk explained them in order of importance. Above our heads were wildly elegant candelabra, interlocking golden symbols of eagles and coronets. The place was fantastic.

The monk was keen to show the icon of the Virgin Mary, to the left hand side of the inner church. He explained that the icon was special - it had caused the vats of oil to be miraculously filled in times of trouble - in the 1600s, in 1932 and most recently in 1989. The last time had seen a great fire spread through the brush around the monastery, and they had been lucky to escape. As we left he gave each of us a phial of the special oil.

We felt sorry to leave, as he had been very welcoming, but we had to move on. We were following the old route along the coast, climbing the difficult path up the headland before diving down to the bay of Gregoriou Monastery, then up another steep climb before contouring around the slope and down another steep slope to Dionysiou. The very path Sandy would have used, as there is no other way.

We had to move quickly, as supper was to be served at 1600hrs. The race was set between Mike and Tyson, and we really sped along - leaping from slab to slab on the twisting descents, and puffing like steam engines on the climbs. It was wonderful to be free of the rucksacks. We arrived with moments to spare - sprinting along the waterfront and up the long slope under the low tunnel, before diving right through the gate.

We made supper with moments to spare, as the bell had rung the moment we stepped into the courtyard! The meal was served in the painted refectory, and it was hard to concentrate on the meal without staring in wonder at the ancient paintings all around us.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Day 9 - We travel along the rugged coastline

Our last update had us holed up in Zographou monastery. It was a fascinating place, but we didn't feel particularly welcome at first. Bit by bit they warmed to us, and we slept well.

We were not particularly sure about the timings of the morning service, and hung around outside the refectory waiting for breakfast. In fact it was quite a long wait, and we got to know the many cats milling around the kitchens. Eventually the church doors opened, and the monks streamed out, streaming incense in their wake. We were invited to sit at our 'heretics' table, where we had a good view of the refectory.

Through a glass door on the left we could catch glimpses of the priests eating in the separate room. Every now and again they would stop eating and cross themselves. Ahead of us was a long table of the workers - mostly Bulgarian and dressed in various shades of grey or fawn. On the right hand side was a separate long table, where a monk sat and glowered at the room - his enormous moustache giving him a quite threatening air. Every few mouth-fulls he would stop, stroke his moustache and stare around the room. We avoided eye contact.

Breakfast was a delicious combination of fish and potatos, served with a strong red wine. I had heard that mealtimes were governed by the time it took to read a lesson, so I shovelled it in like there was no tomorrow. In fact, there was plenty of time and I need not have worried (and I suffered from indigestion all day)!

Our route from Zographou took us on old paths up and over a number of ridges, and then down to the sea. The paths varied in quality, in places the ancient cobbled path took us through the woods, but were washed away and overgrown in sections, making the going quite slow. Now and again modern life would interfere, and we would emerge from the wood to the shocking devastation of a modern bulldozed road pushed through the ancient landscape. Progress reaps a sad harvest on Athos, and it is a shame to see such wonderful paths lost forever.

We soon reached another monastery, and paused by the main gate to replenish our water supply - although John managed to accidently brim his rucksack due to a faulty tap! We continued on past the ruins of a large monastery outbuilding, following the main path to the next port along from Zopgraphou, and hugging the shoreline to our destination - Xenefontos.

We arrived at Xenefontos just as the sun was sliding down onto the horizon - the deep yellow light bathing the outer walls and balconies. It couldn't have been a greater contrast with Zographou (particularly the terrible storm that had raged while we had been there). All was quiet as we walked up the slight slope and through the great archway. The heavy doors are a work of art in themselves - thick oak armoured with overlapping plates of iron, and dotted with heavy studs. We were glad that we had not missed the curfew!

Once inside all was quiet. We couldn't find anyone, and decided to set up our camp in a shaded corner of the courtyard, next to the guesthouse. Eventually a monk emerged from a nearby door, and was quite suprised to see us. We were quickly hustled into the refectory for a meal, as we had almost missed it. They couldn't have been more kind and interested in us, and we felt real warmth in the place.

Tomorrow we properly get onto Sandy's path again. We continue along the coast to Dafni (where Sandy hid with the Greek major), and then try and find the difficult path to Simonos Petra and Dionysiou.

Foul weather is expected, which may make things more challenging...

Monday, 2 November 2009

Day 8 - On Holy Ground

A bit of an early start. We were up and about by 0700, as there were a few things left to organise. First stop was the Pilgrims Office, where we needed to pick up our diamonitiron (the paper pass we require to enter on to Athos). The previous evening, we had been told by a shopkeeper that it would not be a problem to cross the road border and enter on foot - it was simply a case of convincing the Greek policeman manning the border that we were bona fide.

The man in the pilgrims office wasn't nearly so positive. He confirmed that entry on foot was forbidden by the 1922 law. There was no-one we could call, and he got pretty heated about the whole thing. We decided not to risk being flung off the mountain and instead organised a ferry to the first landing point. This was a frustrating start to the day. It seems that Sandy also broke the law in 1941, and the man in the pilgrims office said that he could have been prosecuted. I suspect that would have been the least of his worries!

Anyway, 68 years of progress has thrown up plenty of bureaucratic obstacles. With heavy hearts we conceded defeat, and trotted down to buy a ferry ticket.

The town was already awake, with much chatter as the shopkeepers set out their stalls - anything and everything connected with Athos is on sale; icons (large and small), posters, maps, porcelain model monasteries, monastery themed clocks, hats, scarves, flags and even walking sticks! No copies of 'Dare to be Free' which is pretty poor - they even had Athos cookbooks!
We avoided the worst of the excesses, and headed down to the tower for breakfast. Tyson and I found the local bakery and filled our packs with all sorts of goodies. The others went for an omlette soaked in olive oil. Each to their own!

The ferry arrived by 0900, and we watched as vans and lorries arranged themselves on the deck. All around us swarthy looking men were having a final coffee and cigarette before heading on to the boat. We joined the queue on the pier, all clutching our tickets in the pouring rain.

When we finally left Pyrgos, the boat was packed. Every available chair was taken, and many others stood around in the doorways. Through good fortune, we found ourselves sat next to an English-speaking Bulgarian who was travelling to the same monastery. He was a fountain of knowledge, but a difficult fountain to turn off - we left Lawrence talking to him, in the hope he would be able to extract some useful information.

As a result of being denied the ability to enter on foot, we were faced with an impossible circular walk of nearly 40km to head back from the boat landing point to the border post (but on the other side) and then back to our first night's monastery. It was difficult to see how we could achieve it, and common sense prevailed. We decided to skip the first section for the moment, with the aim to find the places on the walk-out at the end of our trip.

Conditions weren't great for our first day - with strong winds and rain. Visibility was generally poor, but the boat passed quite close to the shoreline, giving us an excellent opportunity to recce the initial stages of your time on Athos. The slopes rise steeply from the sea, with no visible pathways from the border to the first cove. Here and there are the ruined shells of isolated buildings, but they seemed very difficult to get to. The first real bay contained a long whitewashed building, with the stumps of a ruin right in front of it on the beach. Tyson and I agreed that it seemed a good fit for the place where the monks wouldn't let Sandy in and he started a fire on the beach.

A little further along the coast was a large monastery building built on sloping ground facing south-east. It could be Monexilete, but it is called Thivias on the map. Some details fit, as it is built up on the sea side to create a flat platform. However it has a domed church, which may make it too large a place to fit with Sandy's description (unless the built it in the intervening 68 years).

We arrived at the port of Zographou a few minutes later. We were quite constrained with our choice of accommodation for the first night on Athos. While Sandy didn't stay at Zographou (in fact, he avoided the place because of the fear it was German-friendly) he did meet a cadet monk from Zographou, so it seemed a good place to start.

Zographou was certainly an experience. The long walk up the hill from the port was tiring - this is the first day with our full packs, which take some getting used to. The rain fell quite heavily, leaving us slithering on the track. Here and there were abandoned Russian vehicles, and we passed a few workmen patching up the road.

We were quite pleased to see the monastery appear over the final ridge line. Zographou is an enormous place, built from vast blocks of stone. It has a damp, decrepit air, and the majority of the building is shrouded in scaffolding. I had been warned it was a poor monastery, but it is clear that there is now renewed investment in repairing and maintaining the buildings.

We entered through the great arch, through two sets of iron studded doors and into the great courtyard. Directly opposite was the church, built of red and cream bricks and with multiple domes - an impressive sight. The buildings around the courtyard were in various states of disrepair, with Bulgarian workers sheltering from the rain under the colonnade which ran around the west side of the square.

We were led to the guesthouse, where we were given coffee, and a stern lecture on the problems with heretics, the fact that we were all catholics and therefore enemies of the orthodox church, and the gory details of the burning of the monks during the great Crusades! We were instructed that we weren't welcome in the services, and in fact should stay in our rooms throughout!
We did as we were told - although we all took turns to creep around the building to have a good look around while they were in the church.

After a half day shut up in our rooms, we were all going stir crazy!

Day 7 - Preparing for Athos

We had originally planned for a rest day in Pyrgos (Ouranopolis), but at the last minute decided to split the last day. Tired feet and all that. Our 'rest day' therefore was to begin with following your footsteps on the short walk from Ierissos to Pyrgos.

Our hotel was run by a Romanian lady, and so our pidgin Greek didn't quite work. It was quite an old place, full of pictures of the monasteries and maps showing the distances you had walked.
From our discussions with the locals, we had discovered that the old Ierissos had been destroyed in an earthquake in the mid 1930s, and had been rebuilt nearer the sea. Many of the old, square houses survive - built on a raised platform with steps up to the door, and with elegant colonial shutters in greens and blues. Without Dino (our Greek friend) we found it jolly difficult to find out anything about Mayor Salos or Lazarus. We were also unable to raise the incumbent village mayor, which was a disappointment.

Our route took us east along the top of the main square, until we reached the main road. We followed the road past a boatyard, and on a winding route upwards over the hill that separates Ierisos from the next village - Nea Redestos. This village was created in the 1920s, when the great flood of Greeks arrived from Turkey. The village is clustered around the shore side of the Xerxes canal. It is likely that the village was here when you passed through in 1941, although it may have been smaller.

We were rather disappointed by the canal. Some of us had visions of a deep canyon, but in fact the northern side of the canal is an area of flat ground between gentle slopes. A small ditch meanders through this flat area, the remains of the once impressive route across the peninsular. We leapt the ditch to get across to a track on the other side - we can all now say we have jumped across Xerxes canal! The cutting got more impressive further south, and to avoid the road we branched off the track to the south-east, sliding about on tracks cut through the heavy clay soil.
We eventually reached the beach a little way beyond the exit point of the Xerxes canal. We weren't entirely certain of Sandy's route, but the beach seemed a pretty safe bet. We darted from cove to cove, all the while willing the tower of Pyrgos to get nearer. it was a clear day, and we had splendid views of Pyrgos, with a background of Athos shrouded in cloud.

It took us about 2 hours to get to Pyrgos. We weren't able to go the whole way on the beach as occasional headlands blocked our route. Pyrgos itself has become a bit of a tourist town - loud signs proclaim "Athos Hotel", "Pilgrims Hotel" and even a "3D Monastery Experience". Most people arrive here by coach, take a boat trip around the nearest Athos monasteries, and then head back to their hotels. We got a few odd looks as we tramped down the main street, our feet caked in clay and sand!

Tomorrow we head on to Athos - first we have to negotiate our permissions, and try and get confirmation that we can cross the border on foot.

Day 6 - Nearing the Border

The last update saw us balanced mid-way between Arnea and Ierisos, at the village of Megali Panagia.

We awoke fairly early, and made our way to the starting point on the path to Athos. This time we made sure that we were on the correct road - in our enthusiasm the previous evening, we had trotted out of Megali Panagia with a spring in our step, and only realised we were heading the wrong direction when we were all there admiring the sunset and someone piped up "doesn't the sun set in the west?".

At least we hadn't tramped too far from our route, and we were able to backtrack to the village. It had been a relief to return, as it had become instantly cold the very moment the sun had dropped over the horizon. It gave us renewed respect for your navigation skills - we are equipped with all manner of maps, compasses, GPS navigation deviced, and yet we still made a simple error in our haste to get on.

It was perhaps a good lesson to learn, and this time we wanted to make sure we were on the right track. After a quick coffee in the square, we canvassed the locals - and the results were interesting. It seems that Megali Panagia lies on the old monks route to the Holy Mountain, and once we were shown the paved track we all felt sure that you must have been directed to follow this route. We bid goodbye to Dino, our Greek guide and driver, who faced the long drive back to Athens!

The old path is now poorly maintained, but here and there we came across the old surface, paved with flagstones and boulders. The track starts in the olive groves on the edge of the village, and heads south-east through the wild oak forest, skirting plunging ravines and mountain eyries. We set a good pace, with Tyson (now fully recovered) striding out ahead with his relaxed stride.

Although the route was fairly clear, we were relieved to come across a spring in the bend of the track. We had told to find this on our way, and it confirmed that we were heading in the right direction. We were pleased to be on the path, as the forest here is particularly thick - a jumbled mass of vegetation, with trees even growing out of the sheer rock sides of the ravine.

We stopped at a small church a little way off a right had fork in the track. It was whitewashed inside and out, the sparten furniture outlined in a halo of woodworm dust. It looked in terrible condition, but it was so isolated that it was understandable. We didn't stay long, and pressed on to our next stop - the village of Gomati.

We were just nearing the edge of the village when a maroon van overtook us at speed, bucking wildly on the rocky track. It was Christos Galatsanos, who had met Lawrence at the Oxi Day celebrations in Arnea and who was anxious to capture us on film. We crested a rise, and below us was an arched bridge over a small stream, all shrouded by tall plane trees. Christos took a few snaps as we crossed over the bridge and walked on to the outskirts of the village.

A few hundred meters up the path, we were met by the village president - Hristodoulos Yiovvanakis, a friendly man who had stopped working in his fields to come and meet us. He presented us with a large pot of honey, and walked with us the short distance to the village of Gomati.

We stopped in Gomati for a coffee. We had intended to have some lunch, but it was easier to just press on. We were just lining up for photographs in the square, when with a screech the ET3 TV crew arrived. We now had two camera crews trying to get shots of Tyson (which he hated). Great fun, and I am sure we are now household names in Greece.

The ET3 crew are great fun - lead by the impossibly named 'John Striker'. They have already done a 10min special on you for Oxi Day - "Sandy Thomas, the man who said Oxi". It was great - we watched it in a bar in Arnea and cringed when the locals spun round to point at us when we were on the television. Tyson is a natural - better get him an agent when he gets back!

The next few miles were a bit of a slog. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the tarmac road was simply radiating heat. For some reason we can travel all day on a rough track, but people have quickly had enough after a few miles on tarmac. We had to climb quite high before beginning the descent to Ierissos. The old path has been obliterated by the new road, and the deep cuttings make it impossible to cut the corners. We had to follow the road and cope with the speeding cars hugging the kerbs - quite a risky business.

Over another ridge we caught sight of Ierissos far below, laid out in a distinctive grid pattern. The village was quiet when we arrived, and we headed straight for the main square - now planted with tall trees. We stopped in front of a war memorial in the centre of the square, and Tyson was filmed placing a wreath in rememberance of the Allied serviceman and those who had helped them on their escapes.

It had been a long day, and we finally managed to get a meal in the main square. It had been a long time since that small coffee in Megali Panagia!

Tomorrow we make the short hop to Pyrgos (now Ouranopolis) and steel ourselves for our time on Mount Athos.