Athos is not just a holy land for Orthodox believers from around the world and pilgrimage destination, it is also two dozen monasteries which have been living in solitude and by their own rules over a thousand years.
To visit Athos, one should get up before dawn and even obtain a ‘visa’. Every day hundreds of men come to the centre of issuing permits which opens at 5.30 am. Women are prohibited from visiting the holy land.
“Athos is the centre of Orthodox Christianity for every Orthodox. I believe it is that even the centre of the spiritual life of the whole planet. The soul of every Orthodox Christian turns to it,” an Orthodox priest from Russia told Belsat TV.
“Athos is part of our cultural heritage. One of our saints built a monastery there. It is part of our history,” a pilgrim from Serbia said.
“It is a storehouse of great spiritual experience of people, monks who forsook the world. This helps a person to carry the cross of their life,” a pilgrim from Minsk said.
“I strengthened in my faith when I was 18 thanks to a certain Orthodox saint. Although I am Catholic, since then Mount Athos has been my dream,” a Catholic monk from Belgium told our crew.
There is no land border with the enclave. One can get there by sea through the town of Uranopolis which is a gateway for about 250,000 pilgrims every year. The above-mentioned ‘visa centre’ is situated here; 99 of 100 visitors sail off the local pier. Many businesses play up to the rhythm of the pilgrims; local residents often speak Orthodox countries’ languages.
“There are many pilgrims from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova. Therefore, the Russian language is important. He who knows it will have a job all year round,” waiter Grigory said.
At the moment, the split between the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople is not in the air. Although most believers whom the Belsat crew talked to said that they would keep coming here despite the recommendation of the Moscow Patriarchate, the flow of pilgrims may ebb as Moscow is able to control its priests and religious persons.
“We were going to stay longer, but then we decided to leave. We will obey the Russian Orthodox Church’s prohibition,” a pilgrim from Austria said.
If more people do so, Uranopolis, which has been transformed from a small village into a jolly town for 50 years, will be facing a problem.
“70% of tourists are those going to Athos. Most of them are Russian-speaking. Only one-third is tourists who come to spend their vacation in Uranopolis. But the current financial crisis in Greece made us look for other options. Many locals have vineyards, olive fields, honey farms. One can also earn on fish and seafood,” Stata Adamopuliu, Head of Uranopolis cultural society, told Belsat.
In addition, there is a crystal clear sea, superb landscapes, fabulous weather as well as many French and German tourists who are ready to pay in euro.