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.

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