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 ...

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