Wednesday, 4 November 2009

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.

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