Not all tourists visiting Greece are overwhelmingly bent on soaking up the sea and sunshine. Some come to seek inner solace rather than merely a good time. Religious tourism is something that everyone with an inner self can appreciate.
Say the word “Greece” to different people and you’ll get different reactions. To the average sun-starved office workers it’s a glorious week in the islands or Crete. To the teacher or Oxford don it’s the Parthenon and the places where Pericles, the philosophers and the poets once walked. To a priest or pastor, it’s where Christianity first entered Europe and where the likes of the Apostle Paul once preached.
The great majority of Greeks adhere to the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity which became separate after splitting with the Roman Catholics in 1054. The sheer number of churches in the country, from the large domed metropolitan cathedrals in the cities to the myriad tiny stone chapels dotting the countryside, attests to the durability of the faith.
In this age of globalized tourism, the spiritual aspect of travelling is often overlooked and swamped by more worldly concerns. But in Greece three areas in particular have resisted this, and remain magnets for those who want to slip back to a quieter, more mystical time: Mount Athos, Meteora and Patmos.
To most people Mount Athos, the semi-autonomous monastic community clinging to a narrow peninsula in the north Aegean Sea, is known for its 900-year-old ban on women. Only men can visit. Not even a female animal is allowed on what the Greeks call the Holy Mountain (except for cats, which are needed to deal with the rats and mice). No-one quite knows how this rule got started. Though a few feminists in the European Parliament have occasionally agitated to have the rule overturned, it continues to hold firm.
So if you’re a man, and want to visit Mount Athos, what do you do? If you’re the Prince of Wales you can just hop ashore from a luxury yacht and spend a week of meditation among the icons. But since the overwhelming majority of British males are not the Prince of Wales (contrary to the belief of some locals), the procedure is slightly longer. It takes a couple of days to submit your passport details to the Mount Athos office in Thessaloniki, the nearest big city. Make sure you put down your religious affiliation (if there is one) as well, as once on the Holy Mountain you will be segregated from Orthodox if you’re a Protestant, Catholic or anything else. The office issues about 110 stay permits a day, between Easter and late autumn, when the weather closes in. There are separate guest quarters for Orthodox and adherents of other creeds, in a proportion of about ten to one.
Many thousands of men make the pilgrimage to Mount Athos each year, 90 percent of them Orthodox from all over the world, especially America. From Thessaloniki you go by road about 120 miles to Ouranoupolis (which means literally Heaven Town) on the border of the monastic realm. A stay usually is for three days, and many are those who come away from it as a life-changing experience.
The ladies need not feel completely left out. But it is not advised to put on a false beard and try to slip through with the men. The monks are quite adept at spotting that sort of thing. You don’t need the indignity of a strip search. Very few women, if any, have ever gotten away with it. The more acceptable method is to view Mount Athos from the safety of a cruise boat that sets out from Ouranoupolis and spends a day coasting around the green peninsula (but no closer to shore than 300 metres, so women shouldn’t get the idea of diving off the boat and swimming to the forbidden land!) offering grand views of most of the twenty monasteries that make up the community.
Orthodox Easter week (which usually differs from Western Easter by up to five weeks) is the best time to visit, as at that time the monasteries will be echoing to the Byzantine prayer chants while clouds of incense billow up among the icons and citrus trees are just beginning to blossom. Any reputable travel agency can arrange the trip for you.
Greece’s second religious tourism magnet is Meteora – the clutch of monasteries atop a series of gigantic, tower-like geological pillars soaring to more than 1,800 feet out of the western end of the Thessalian plain. Just six monasteries remain out of the two dozen that flourished since the 14th century, when the peaks were a refuge from marauding Slavs. It used to be that if you wanted to visit, you were hauled up the sheer side in a string bag. Now there are civilized steps to climb, though supplies are still pulled up the old way. Sorry, no women allowed here, either, though one of the cloisters is actually a convent.
The nearest town is Kalambaka, about 300 kilometres from Athens, nestling under the Pindos mountain range. Plenty of package tours to Meteora stop at Kalambaka for rest and refreshment. The town is reachable by bus from Athens, the trip taking about four hours.
For a real spiritual experience, though, it’s hard to beat Patmos, the barren little island in the eastern Aegean where Saint John wrote the Revelation, the last book of the Bible. Thousands of tourists each year are bused up from the main port of Patmos to the great monastic castle dominating the countryside. From the castle it’s a short walk downhill to the cave where Saint John lived, had his apocalyptic visions, and wrote them down.
Around Easter some 3,000 people might arrive at Patmos a day, most of them on organized tours. Most of these are Greeks and other Orthodox, such as Cypriots and Russians. The real tourist period starts in June. That’s when the glorious Aegean sun lights up the surrounding sea and island peaks, and gives you some idea of what Saint John experienced.
Article by John Carr
…innumerable churches and monasteries give testimony to the country…
The wealth of its Byzantine monuments makes Greece the perfect destination for thousands of religious pilgrims. Monuments of centuries-old ecclesiastic architecture and art, innumerable churches and monasteries give testimony to the country’s rich religious heritage.
Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches in cities or in small villages, cathedrals, small churches in the countryside, monasteries and cells, decorated with excellent mosaics, paintings and icons, testify the persistence of faith and tradition.
In western Thessaly, Meteora, the 14th century Byzantine monasteries, are sinuously perched on the summits of smooth and vertical grey rock pinnacles. Built on the easternmost finger on the Halkidiki peninsula of northern Greece, the over 1000-year-old monastic community of Mt. Athos includes twenty monasteries containing some of the finest examples of Byzantine treasures and a plethora of classical and medieval manuscripts. Finally, on the island of Patmos, the monastery of St. John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse, where St. John is believed to have written the Book of Revelation in the later part of the 1st century AD, count among the most wondrous monuments world-wide.
Travellers following the steps of St Paul through the biblical sites of Corinth, Lechaion, Cenchrea, Athens, Thessaloniki, Philippi, Christoupolis (today’s Kavalla) – the first European city to convert to Christianity – and the island of Rhodes, are on a journey to an unforgettable religious experience.
Article by Hellenic Sun Editions
KAVALA: The ideal destination for religious tourism…
The Prefecture of Kavala constitutes one of the most significant cradles of Christianity, the very first place in Europe where St. Paul preached the word of Christ and converted the first people that embraced this new religion which was destined to bring tremendous changes on the planet.
Apostle Paul visited Greece during his second sojourn that was launched in the spring of 49 AD in Antioch of Syria. After crossing Galatia and Phrygia he reached Troy. There he had a vision in which a man from Macedonia urged him to travel to his homeland to preach there.
In that manner, he reached Neapoli, the contemporary town of Kavala, one of the most important ports in the Balkans at the time, which had been founded in the 7th century BC by residents from the nearby island of Thassos.
Along with Silas, Luke and young Timothy, Paul took the Egnatia Road and in a few hours reached the town of Philippoi, the most significant Roman town of Eastern Macedonia at the time.
Dedicated to his mission, St. Paul launched his sermons next to the purifying waters of River Zygaktis, a place of worship for the residents of Philippoi. It is there where he met a group of women who listened to his teachings with attention and interest.
One of the women, Lydia, a person with a bright spirit, immediately realized that the God mentioned in the teachings of Apostle Pavlos was going to change her life forever. She promptly asked to be baptized. Lydia was the first European to be baptized a Christian.
A church was erected at that point – a place of baptism, now called the baptistery of St. Lydia, one of the most important pilgrimages in Greece.
Because of his teachings and the ensuing massive conversion to Christianity, as well as the miracles he performed creating great commotion at the town of Philippoi that was held by the Romans at the time, Paul along with Silas were taken to the Agora and brought before the Peopleʼs Court. The judges, claiming that the law prohibited the preaching of new religions in a Roman town – since that would bring confusion and division among the citizens – sentenced them to jail.
After they were flogged, they were locked up inside a small water cistern. The “jail” of Apostle Paul can still be found today at the same spot.
Nevertheless, there are many more important pilgrimages that evidence the religious sentiments of the locals, some of which are listed below.
Article by Hellenic Sun Editions
In 1937, Chrysostomos, the Metropolitan of Philippoi at the time, erected here the first church. The monastery was built in 1946 and was inaugurated in 1956. Religious celebrations are held here on 30 July each year.
In 1969 it was established as a convent and was inaugurated in 1977. SACRED RELICS: The miraculous icon of the Metamorphosis of the Saviour, brought here in 1922 by refuges from Asia Minor.
The Monastery holds celebrations on the day of Aghios Panteleimon (27 July), Aghios Nektarios (9 November) and the Metamorphosis of the Saviour (6 August).
Furthermore, high level theology seminars are held here with the participation of university professors.
It was rebuilt after the end of WWII. Nevertheless, the monastery church was built in the 19th century on the spot where an 11th century church used to stand.
SACRED RELIC: The monastery houses a piece of the Holy Nail of Christʼs crucifixion, gifted by Byzantine Emperor Nikiforos Votaneiatis (1078-1081) to Philotheos Monastery at Mt. Athos.
SACRED RELICS: The monastery houses the holy relics of Aghios Arsenios Farasiotis, Aghios Ephraim the Martyr of Nea Makri and Aghios Ioannis Rossos.
It is a convent and holds celebrations on 18 November based on the Old Calendar, since it belongs of Mt. Athos.
SACRED RELIC: It is here where the miraculous icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God is housed. It is a male monastery, celebrating on the day of the Dormition of the Mother of God (15 August).
SACRED RELIC: The miraculous icon of St. Panteleimon. The monastery holds celebrations on 27 July, the day of St. Panteleimon.