Visiting Mount Athos
Mount Athos is one of the holiest sites in the Christian world. It is a mountainous island (really a peninsula but the only method of access is by boat as there is a national park without roads in the way) in northern Greece with a series of ages and historical Orthodox Monasteries on it, representing different branches of Orthodoxy across Christendom.
The town in Greece which serves as the point of access is Ouranoupolis, which can be seen on the map above. From Ouranoupolis there are daily ferries to Dafne, the small port half way down on the western side of Mount Athos.
Mount Athos highlighted in red on a map of Northern Greece above.
You need to know at least the following things before planning a visit:
Only men are allowed on the island. There are no exceptions.
You need a permission document issued by an office in Ouranoupolis in order to board the ferry, because there are strict quotas on the number of men on the island at any one time. The permission document is called a Diamonitrician.
You do not need to be an Orthodox Christian to obtain a Diamonitrician but if you are another sort of Christian you might have to wait longer. (This is not a hard and fast rule.) Undoubtedly connections help. Without them you may find that the process proceeds lethargically.
Obtaining a Diamonitrician is tricky. It can require a lot of paperwork and it may take several months to be issued. It is generally valid for a maximum of three nights / four days. The paperwork is substantially more complicated if you are an ordained priest in any branch of Christianity! you need permission from the Patriarch of Constantinople. The links at the end of this article explain the entire procedure in detail.
If you fail to confirm your Diamonitrician two weeks in advance by telephone, it will be cancelled. If you renege on a Diamonitrician (i.e. you just don't show up), you may be informally banned from Mount Athos in the future. Once you have been once and the trip has been a success, subsequent journeys get easier.
You will need a reservation for a place on the ferry of your choice (at the time of writing 06:45 or 09:30); this is not difficult and can generally be arranged once at Ouranoupolis although procedures for advance reservations are explained in the links and information below.
Then you will need permission from individual monasteries to stay with them. Most of them take guests but most of them only for a maximum of one night. There is no other accommodation on the island and the monasteries often close their doors by approximately 4pm. It is forbidden and unwise to sleep outdoors (dangerous animals roaming at night). The links below explain how to reserve monastery beds in advance.
However if something goes wrong and you cannot make a reservation in advance, do not be too concerned; monasteries will take pilgrims who simply show up unannounced. (The Rule of Benedict, that governs Monastic life, requires them to do so.)
There is no use for money on the island except at a souvenir shop in Dafne. The monasteries do not accept payment from guests, who will be fed and given accommodation without expectation of remuneration. This is a strict rule and you should not try to pay or offer money.
Ouranoupolis is a three hour or so drive from Thessaloniki by either public bus, tour bus (in the summer months) or taxi.
You cannot walk from Ouranoupolis to Mount Athos or back again.
There are two ferries a day, both early in the morning (current times stated above), and you must book your seat on them. Arrive in Ouranoupolis the night before and stay in one of several sweet hotels.
No meat is eaten on the island. There is fish and alcohol. As with all Benedictine monasteries (and all Orthodox monasteries are Benedictine), you will receive a balanced diet; the Rule of Benedict sets out culinary minima.
A quick read of the Rule of Benedict (it is not long) is desirable to acquaint yourself with monastic life on Mount Athos
There is gratis public transport on the island but you are commended to be of fit health, to travel with a rucksack, and to be prepared to walk a few kilometres a day (more if you want) between monasteries. You need to be ready for the fact that there are no lunch venues on Mount Athos. So either bring food from the mainland with you in your rucksack, or ask the monastery in which you were sleeping the prior evening for some rations to take with you. They will typically oblige.
Hiking the Holy Mountain on Mount Athos takes up to two days, depending on your fitness, and therefore excludes a more careful exploration of the monasteries during a single three night visit.
You will probably find yourself overnighting in Thessaloniki on the way out, or back, or both. Reserve this accommodation in advance as Thessaloniki, while quite an agreeable city, has a range of accommodation options the most salubrious of which are best reserved in advance.
Join the 'Friends of Mount Athos' organisation. https://athosfriends.org/
Here are a series of information articles about visits to Mount Athos. Read all of them with care. They explain a lot of the rules applicable for visitors to Mount Athos, including no video photography and conservative attire at all times. They also explain how to make the various reservations that are an inevitable part of the trip.
https://athosfriends.org/ (click on 'Visiting')
Travel to Ouranoupolis
The following information is not covered in the otherwise comprehensive guides to Mount Athos stated above.
During summertime the tour buses of Ammon Express travel between Thessaloniki and Ouranoupolis four times a week in each direction. This is the most convenient and comfortable way of reaching Ouranoupolis by bus. Contact them directly to make a reservation:
These buses depart from outside the Capsis Hotel Thessaloniki at 8am on the four appointed days of the week and we commend the Capsis Hotel Thessaloniki as a good choice of hotel in Thessaloniki more generally. It both meets international standards and is of a reasonable price.
During non-summer months (and indeed all year) there are public (non-charter) buses from Thessaloniki's Chalkidikis bus station:
There are four buses per day, every day, at the time of writing, from this bus station in Thessaloniki to Ouranoupolis. They are here:
Hence they leave Thessaloniki at:
These times are subject to change. Do not rely just on this webpage.
If your Thessaloniki hotel is any good then they can arrange all this for you. The bus is seldom full.
The location of the bus station on a map of Thessaloniki is here:
This bus station is a 20-minute drive (or two-hour walk) south of central Thessaloniki where the principal hotels are located.
From Chalkidikis bus station there may not be a direct bus to Ouranoupolis. You may have to take a bus to Plana (the bus's eventual destination may be Vourvournou or another town in this pretty remote region of northeastern Greece), and then you must proceed by another local bus or by taxi from Plana (really a hamlet and a road junction) to Ouranoupolis.
If you don't fancy all this faffing around then the Thessaloniki taxi companies will be delighted to hit you for up to EUR250 to drive you directly from your hotel to Ouranoupolis (and another EUR250 back again). That is the direction in which you will be pushed if you let it be known that your are visiting Mount Athos. Information on public transport between Thessaloniki and Ouranoupolis, although such transport does exist, is hidden from foreigners who are assumed to be wealthy if they have a Diamonitrician for Mount Athos.
Here is some information from a PALADINS Organisation associate:
Bus Terminal [Thessaloniki] to Ouranoupolis: “KTEL CHALKIDIKIS” tel. +30 2310 316 555, web site:( www.ktel-chalkidikis.gr ) Several daily departures by bus from Ouranoupolis (148 km,3 hours). The first bus is at 06.00h. There is a boat connection with the bus from Thessaloniki, as well as with the domestic bus [public transport on Mount Athos].
This 06:00 one gives you connection bus - boat - bus from Dafni to Karyes. Do not forget to collect your diamonitarion in Ouranoupolis.
It's the Balkans; things can be a little chaotic; good luck!
We cannot provide formal assistance for persons wishing to visit Mount Athos but we may be prepared to provide informal help upon reasoned and well-intentioned request.
We are grateful to two persons who as is habitual for The PALADINS Organisation shall remain unidentified, for assisting us with the information on this webpage.