The unique, sacred, self-governed state of Mount Athos — the most eastern of the three peninsulas jutting into the Aegean from Halkidiki - has been the spiritual heart of the Greek Orthodox church since 1054. At just 50km long and 10km wide, it's small but exquisite and picturesque. In Greek mythology, this ancient and mystic finger of land is said to have been a mountain that was thrown at the God Poseidon by the giant Athos. (He missed).
The oldest monastic community
But, mythology aside, Mount Athos is famous for another reason. That's because it's home to the oldest monastic community in the world - one which has detached itself from the rest of civilisation, keeps Byzantine time and uses the Julian calendar.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Altogether, 20 monasteries and hundreds of cloisters, houses and hermitages dot this awe-inspiring landscape which, with its valleys, gorges and ravines, is so beautiful it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. The slopes of Mount Athos are home to approximately 2000 monks, who live in fortified architectural marvels and who safeguard, catalogue and restore holy treasures such as paintings, murals, manuscripts, embroideries, icons and historical relics.
The Holy Mountain
A pilgrimage to Mount Athos - known as the Holy Mountain - is unforgettable. Yet it isn't without its difficulties and restrictions. Women are not allowed here, prohibited by a decree issued in the mid-11th century; and a maximum of just 120 Greek Orthodox and 10 foreign visitors are permitted per day. All visitors must obtain a special entrance permit, which is valid for a limited period.
So the best way for tourists to see Mount Athos and its myriad monasteries is by boat cruise, departing from Ouranoupoli every day for a half day excursion.
It’s like opening a window to another world.