Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eastern Travel Guide: Greece

Eastern Travel Guide: Greece

Dimitris Salapatas

(This article –travel guide- was published in KOINONIA, the Journal of the Anglican & Eastern Churches Association, New Series No. 65, Trinity 2015, pp. 29-33 Also to be found:

Greece is a country rich in Orthodox Christianity. Many of the Apostles of our Lord and other Saints lived and received martyrdom there. Various events found in the New Testament have taken place in Greece. It is a diverse country when referring to its Christian expression and ecclesiastical architectural style. The Northern part reminds the pilgrim of Byzantium, the South and West have been influenced by Western architecture, whilst the Greek islands maintain their unique style. Some of the most significant holy places in Greece are:  

Mount Athos

Mount Athos is a captivating and unique place in Northern Greece, being a monastic community for centuries. The 20 monasteries (including one Bulgarian, one Russian and one Serbian) with the countless hermitages and the nearly 1.500 monks, has been a holy place for all Orthodox Christians since the beginning of Christianity. Currently, women are not permitted to enter Mount Athos, also known as the Virgin Mary’s Garden. This monastic community is the only place in the world which retains the Byzantine time, reminding the faithful of a rich cultural and religious past, but also a prosperous present and future. The spiritual and monastic characteristic of the Holy Mountain marries together with the natural environment surrounding it.

The norm is that the pilgrim will visit one monastery a day, in order to receive a better experience of life on the Holy Mountain. Upon visiting, the monks normally greet you with the traditional tsipouro or raki, together with a loukoumi (a dessert). Monks are very friendly on the Holy Mountain. Staying in the monastery everyone is required to follow the program, i.e. Matins and Divine Liturgy, beginning at 4 am, then lunch at 8 am. After that the day is yours to further look around and visit the nature surrounding the monastery, or even visit other monasteries or the capital city, Karyes. Evening prayers are normally at 6 pm and then dinner around 8 pm. All the visitors are required to stay in at night. After 9 pm the external doors are locked, so try not to be outside the monastery at night.
The easiest way to travel to Mount Athos is to fly to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. From there, the pilgrim can take a 2-3 hour coach drive to Ouranoupolis or Ierisso, depending on which side of the Holy Mountain and which monasteries you wish to visit. From either city you can take a boat ride, which stops near every monastery. In accordance with the procedures established by the Greek Government, foreigners must obtain a written permit to visit Mount Athos from the «HOLY EXECUTIVE OF THE HOLY MOUNT ATHOS – PILGRIMS’ BUREAU»  located in Thessaloniki. The deliverance of this permit is carried out by the «Pilgrims’ Office» branch in Ouranoupolis. Personal appearance and passport /ID are required in order to obtain this permit. A letter of recommendation is no longer required.
In general, the Holy Executive of the Holy Mount Athos Pilgrim’s Bureau issues only ten permits a day for non-orthodox visitors and 100 for Greeks and Orthodox visitors. These permits are valid for a four-day visit on specific dates. Prolongation of the four-day validity can be issued from Mt. Athos authorities in Karyes. Clergymen should obtain in advance a written consent (Evlogia) from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Meteora – The Greek Grand Canyon

Meteora is a majestic place situated at the centre of Greece, in the area of Thessaly, next to the town of Kalambaka, where it meets the foothills of the massive Pindos mountain range. The name, Meteora, literally means suspended in the air, which is the name given to the group of tall, precipitous rocks that predominate in that area, together with the monastic community that is formed by the monasteries which are built on top of them, being located half way between earth and the heavens. The rock formations were created by a river segment when they were underwater millions of years ago. They were moulded by the river waters, winds and pressure, giving us these lovely and weird rock shapes.
The Holy Meteora is the second most sacred monastic community, after Mount Athos in Macedonia (Northern Greece). It has been acknowledged by UNESCO as a Monument of Global Cultural Heritage. Since 1995 the Greek State acknowledged the holiness of Meteora by Law, characterising it sacred, intact and inviolate, so as to secure its authenticity and reassure its effective protection.

The site of this unique place strikes the visitor with a curious mixture of awe and amazement. This is heightened by the fact that many became monks here, building amazing monastic complexes on the top of rocks, away from cities and people, becoming hermits, finding spiritual tranquillity. It was the ideal refuge for the hermits and the anchorites, who put their lives in danger by climbing on the peaks and the cavities that had been formed, so as to live away from society.
According to tradition, the first hermits had already settled by 9th century AD. This spiritual place has given Orthodoxy countless saints, leaving behind important work and fascinating monasteries, with unparalleled iconographic paradigms from the Cretan and Macedonian School of Byzantine Iconography.  Currently there are six monasteries, which are all that remain from the glorious past, of more than 20 monasteries. Unlike Mount Athos, men and women are permitted to visit Meteora (two out of the six monastic communities are convents). Ideally, two days are more than enough to see the monasteries. However, it should be stated that people with disabilities or elderly people will find it challenging to reach the actual monasteries, since they are mostly on top of the giant rocks. The largest monastery (The Holy Monastery of Grand Meteoron), for example, has more than 250 steps to climb.
In order to reach Meteora its best to fly to Athens; from there you can either take a coach or the train, which run frequently and the tickets are not very expensive. The journey is about 4.30-5 hours. Nevertheless, the beautiful journey from the Greek capital to Meteora passes through many historical sites, including Thermopylae (the Golden Gates), where the Greeks fought against the Persian Empire, whilst also passing through a number of cities, mountains and valleys.

Greek Islands

The Greek islands are amongst the most famous holiday destinations. However, they also maintain a religious importance, where a unique ecclesiastical architectural style is maintained. One of the most characteristic style churches in the Greek world is found on the islands of the Aegean, especially in the Cyclades, with their white stone walls and blue dome, uniting thus the colours of the Greek flag and the colours of the sky and the sea. However, on the islands in the Ionian Sea, the visitor finds the Western influence, in architecture and iconography. Each Greek island has a special veneration for a saint, making each one unique. Three Greek islands have officially been named ‘holy islands’, i.e. the holy island of Tinos (where thousands of Greeks visit frequently the Church of Panagia Evanggelistria), the holy island of Patmos (where St. John the Evangelist wrote the Book of Revelation) and lately, the holy island of Milos (where catacombs were dug into the volcanic soil, where the first large Christian cemetery on the island exists). Additional famous religious destinations are: a number of islands in the Dodecanese (including Rhodes and Symi), which have a special veneration for the Angels and Archangels and the three islands in the Ionian Sea which have the whole bodies (relics) of the local saints: Corfu (St. Spyridon), Zante (St Dionysius) and Cephalonia (St. Gerasimos).

The Greek islands are easily accessed, by sea and air. Aeroplanes and ships leave Athens and Thessaloniki daily and sometimes 2 or 3 times a day, depending on the season. Many companies fly directly from London, mainly to the big islands (including Crete, Rhodes, Corfu, Zante and many more). The tickets are not very expensive, so if you are in Athens, it is cheap to visit a Greek island. It is, of course faster to fly; however, a mini-cruise in the Aegean or the Ionian Seas is a wonderful experience.   

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