The Road to the Holy Mountain

Martin Puchner

Twenty years ago, I stumbled upon one of the most unusual places on earth. A young student of logic, I was attending a workshop in Thessaloniki with extra time to spare, and the teacher suggested that I go to Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain. He would organize a pilgrim’s pass since the peninsula was an autonomous region controlled by the Orthodox Church and closed to tourists, cars, women, and female animals. I had never heard of the place. Three days later, I was dropped off by an old boat, with bearded monks in black habits my only fellow passengers. Completely unprepared, I awkwardly dragged my hard-shell suitcase across the mountainous island for the next week, earning looks from passing monks. Upon arriving at a monastery, I would present my pass, written in Greek and using the Julian calendar, and would be shown a room. Around 4 a.m. loud banging on a 10-foot wooden beam carried on the shoulder would signal the beginning of service, which took place in ancient chapels flooded with flickering candlelight that seemed to bring the silver-clad icons to life. Ancient monks were prostrating themselves on the floor, vigorously. During the day, I would set forth again, trying to find my way to the next monastery. Although I have become a relatively intrepid traveler, I have never felt so removed from the world nor encountered a more exotic place ever since.

I did not realize until many years later that Mount Athos has exerted an unusual influence on travel writers, especially those from the United Kingdom. Among them was young Patrick Leigh Fermor, who had just completed a career of being kicked out of one public school after another. In December of 1933, he set out from Holland on foot, following the river Rhine south and the Danube east, headed for Constantinople. It took him over a year to arrive at his destination. Apart from money occasionally wired, he lived off his wits. Picking up languages, customs, and songs like so many walking sticks, he charmed his way into shepherd’s hovels and Transylvanian castles with equal ease. Fishermen shared their last fish and countesses invited him to fancy dress balls, eagerly decking him out in new clothes. There were a few brushes with calamity—a stolen passport, a slide down a dark mountainside—but someone always came to the rescue.

PICKING UP LANGUAGES, CUSTOMS, AND SONGS LIKE SO MANY WALKING STICKS, HE CHARMED HIS WAY INTO SHEPHERD'S HOVELS AND TRANSYLVANIAN CASTLES WITH EQUAL EASE.

If there was a theme to Fermor’s march, it was the spontaneous hospitality of strangers. So ubiquitous was the willingness to bail out this disheveled Englishman that Fermor was positively shocked on the rare occasions that he encountered hostility. Few of his gracious hosts seem to have asked what Fermor was doing wandering across Europe apparently for no good reason except to write home about it. Those hoping to read of his exploits had to be patient. A Time of Gifts, the first volume of his memoirs, was not published until 1977 and its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, appeared in 1986.

By that time, the world had changed several times over. Middle Europe and the Balkans, a patchwork of regions where Fermor could meet Slavs, Sephardic Jews, Hungarians, Danube Swabians, and Turks on the same day, had been cruelly changed by Fascism and World War II, then cut in two by the Iron Curtain.

Fermor had changed as well. When someone he encountered wondered what Fermor was doing, he was suspected of being a spy, to his great consternation. Yet it turned out to be a prescient guess. As soon as World War II broke out, Fermor enlisted, putting the knowledge of languages and terrain acquired during his trip to good use as an undercover agent, a job for which he was excellently suited and in which he acquired much glory. Posted to Crete, he lived among Greek partisans and engineered his most famous act, the abduction of the German commander of the island, which turned him into a war hero and the protagonist of a film, Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). The years of his wartime service get special billing in Artemis Cooper’s recent biography, and they make for gripping reading.

Despite this wealth of incident, Fermor is an exceptionally difficult subject for a biography. A great raconteur, he had already told the most dramatic moments of his life himself and was unwilling to be outshone by a biographer, whose questions he kept deflecting. His travels and his life existed in order to be turned into literature by no one but himself.

Written decades after the events described, his books were not travelogues, exactly, but rather what he called a “personal synthesis” of events recollected across a considerable distance of time. This distance was greatly increased by the loss of his diaries, which meant that Fermor had to piece everything together from memory, using nothing but two maps on which he had marked his progress. He never quite got over the loss, but it may well have been a blessing in disguise. The older Fermor was free to elaborate, embellish, and dramatize his journey, adding explanations and histories he could not have known at the time. Relieved from the immediate pressure of events, he could dazzle his readers with striking metaphors and syntax every bit as baroque as the Bavarian church towers he described with so much relish. It was a winning formula, combining the verve of a young traveler with the control of a mature writer.

Danube River Near the Iron Gate (2006). Photograph by Cornelius Bechtler. Wikimedia Commons

The only problem was that that the journey remained incomplete. Fermor was working on the last part, and even learning to use a typewriter, when he died at the age of 96 in 2011, leaving his readers hanging on a cliff overlooking the lower Danube.

Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron have now edited and published the third part of the trilogy. Not all the diaries had been lost after all, and together with Fermor’s own work-in-progress, entitled by him A Youthful Journey, they serve as the basis of The Broken Road. Happily, we find our protagonist up to his old tricks. He makes friends easily, engages everyone in conversation, and notes the history and architecture of the lands he traverses. In Bucharest he resides at the Savoy-Ritz, which turns out to be a brothel. On the Wallachian plane, he finds shelter with a Yiddish-speaking grocer, whom he quizzes about the difference between the Torah and the Talmud (to no avail). When he finally reaches the Black Sea, starved, bleeding from a fall, and cold, he is rescued by a group of knife-wielding Bulgarian shepherds and Greek fishermen and dances with them through the night.

As Fermor moves further and further east, a new theme emerges: the growing influence of the Ottoman Empire. He registers the appearance of minarets and enjoys the ruins of a mosque; he takes note of different forms of clothing and social mores, explaining the tumultuous history of these borderlands in his characteristic asides. We find him excited upon encountering Turks and he has fun shocking his British hosts by smelling of pastourma, dried and salted pieces of meat that hail from the nomadic past of the Turks.

But as he gets closer to Turkey itself, a certain unease creeps over his pages, and this unease turns into apathy once he arrives at his destination. Those hoping to gaze with Fermor at the Blue Mosque, marvel at Ottoman miniatures, or follow him down the winding streets of Beyoglu will come away empty-handed. Fermor’s manuscript simply stops, and his notebooks consist of nothing but a few perfunctory notes. What went wrong with Fermor and Constantinople, as he invariably called the city that had served as his guiding star for over a year?

Fermor had always been a British philhellene in the tradition of Lord Byron, whose works he read during his trip, and this attitude deepened during the formative experience of helping the Greeks during World War II. After the war, he moved back to Greece, where he lived on and off for long periods of time, watching the increasing hostilities between Greece and Turkey with dismay. The experience colored and reinforced his original impression; it may well have been the block that kept Fermor from completing his manuscript. In a sense, Fermor never reached Constantinople, the city of Byzantine emperors; he only reached Istanbul, the capital of the Republic of Turkey.

The most important thing Fermor did in Istanbul was to meet the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, who gave him a letter of introduction to Mount Athos. As soon as Fermor arrives at Athos, his diary perks up, and the account of life on the island forms the surprising culmination of his last, posthumous book of travels. His road was not broken; it only led neither to Constantinople, nor Istanbul, but to the Holy Mountain.

What does one ask a hermit on Mount Athos?

Fermor’s diary shows him marveling at the breathtaking beauty of these grand edifices towering over the sea and dwarfed in turn by the snow-decked peak of Athos. He reveled in rich libraries and icons; food and drink were in ample supply. He hiked around small mountain passes, and almost got lost in heavy rain, but once again he was rescued, this time by a layman, one of the many (male) inhabitants who ran the monastic island. By now he had become an expert at speaking languages he did not know, and the mountain’s diverse inhabitants gave him plenty of occasion to exercise the skill.

These encounters are of a piece with his earlier travels, but there is something that distinguishes this island from everything else: it is truly a world apart. Some monks knew little about the outside world, but even those who were widely traveled had made the decision to withdraw once and for all to this singular place. During his time on the mountain, Fermor was visibly fascinated by this world and we find him intensively chronicling what life there looked and felt like, noting the smallest objects to the rhythms of everyday life.

Against all expectations, Fermor, the professional peripatetic, got hooked and kept coming back for more of the same. Long before he managed to write his travel books, he published his slim A Time to Keep Silence (1957), easily the best description of cloistered living I know, based on time spent at an abbey in Northern France. In the last volume of his trek across Europe, we therefore get not the grand finale of a travel adventure, but the origin of Fermor’s enduring fascination with monastic life.

When reading Fermor’s descriptions of Athos, I was struck by how little the island has changed. Fermor notes the same procedures and experiences that have been lodged in my memory, the Julian calendar, the early-morning banging and incense-heavy services, though Fermor usually stayed in bed, nonplussed by the prostrations of the monks. The attraction of Athos was not religious, exactly, though he was struck by the beauty of early-morning chants amid a sea of candles, icons, and gold on the rare occasion that he attended the ceremony.

Like Fermor, I marveled at the hospitality of the island to those allowed on it. I chanced onto Athos during Lent. The only meal was at night and consumed in long halls without talking; while a monk read, everyone wolfed down a bowl of stew to avoid savoring the meal. Exhausted from dragging my suitcase across the mountains, I felt light-headed and incoherent, but a kindly monk at Iviron, one of the oldest monasteries, smuggled me into the kitchen, where he served me a divine fish stew. To top things off, he taught me how to make Greek coffee (“you must let it boil over three times”). He had traveled to the US several times, and wanted to hear from the outside world he had once known.

Even though it sets itself apart, Mount Athos is not cut off from the world entirely; rather, it looks at the world from a careful distance. This was part of the attraction for Fermor: he happily supplied his hosts with news from the outside, just as he was struck by how different that world looked from the vantage point of the Holy Mountain.

 Mt. Athos, Simonopetro Convent, (ca. 1910) 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. Flickr / Bain News Service

One night I shared a room with a butcher from Athens, and in the morning he motioned me to come along. I left my suitcase behind, and we made our way up the mountain. Before long, we came upon a clearing with a hut and about 20 people milling about. We joined them, and I finally realized that we were waiting for a hermit to make an appearance. The door opened, and an ancient, haggard man appeared, supported by two slightly less ancient ones. As soon as they had taken a few steps towards us, everyone around me was lying on the ground, face down. I looked around, didn’t know what to do and awkwardly knelt down as a kind of compromise.

My wavering must have drawn the hermit’s attention, for he pointed at me with a knotty finger, uttering some words. I gestured that I didn’t understand and in any case did not want to draw attention to myself. But one of the monks supporting him spoke English and translated that the hermit wanted to know who I was. I muttered something inconclusive. The hermit spoke again, and the supporting monk translated that I was invited to ask a question. By now, my fellow worshippers were casting incredulous and envious glances at me, but I barely noticed because incoherent thoughts were now racing through my head. Should I ask about the end of the world? The meaning of life?

Finally I was forced to admit that I actually did not have a question. Slightly irritated, the hermit waved and dismissed the gathering. Discontented murmuring emanated from the crowd, which slowly dispersed, blaming me for the end of the audience. All the way down my Athenian butcher kept yelling at me that I had just blown the chance of a lifetime.

What does one ask a hermit on Mount Athos? I still don’t know. Fermor didn’t encounter any hermits, though he passed a hermit’s hut, wryly observing that it was the most desolate sight he had ever seen. Perhaps being a hermit was one step too far for the convivial Fermor. Despite his skepticism, I’m sure he would have known what to say: it would have been the ultimate test for this gifted conversationalist.

Periodically the monasteries on Athos crack down on the hermits, accusing them of encouraging personality cults. They undoubtedly do. But I think there is another reason for the crackdowns: the hermits capture a truth about Athos. Having set itself apart, the island lays in waiting for pilgrims and travelers, waiting for our questions, fears and desires, a Christian oracle speaking in voices that are not of this world.


Fermor was not the only travel writer attracted to Mount Athos. The mountain has been something of a secret magnet for travel writers for over a century. The seed was sown by Robert Curzon in the 1840s and picked up some 80 years later by Robert Byron, whose The Station gives a glowing account of this island’s unusual history, its untold treasures, and its strange but appealing form of life. Fermor had met Byron before setting out, and he read The Station while on Athos. “The types and the spirit of Athos are caught brilliantly,” he notes, as if testing the literary history of the island against the real thing.

Bruce Chatwin, the other great 20th-century travel writer, made his career with accounts of Patagonia and Australia. More restless even than Fermor, he never completed his grand theory of nomadic life even though he came close to practicing it. And yet it was Mount Athos that became his obsession. Having heard of the mountain from both Byron and Fermor, Chatwin finally went there in 1985, already infected with AIDS. “I have been out of the world a bit,” he wrote to Susan Sontag on a post card that can be found in a recent collection of his letters edited by his wife, Elizabeth Chatwin, and his excellent biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare. To his great regret, he did not manage to go back before his untimely death in 1989, at the age of 48.

What is it with Mount Athos and British travelers? Hailing from an island nation, these Brits traverse the world with a bravado undoubtedly encouraged by the British Empire. But there is something more specific going on as well since these imperial (or post-imperial) men of letters, including Robert Byron, Patrick Fermor, and Bruce Chatwin, were all products of the British public school system. Aren’t these schools a world apart, full of peculiar rules and practices? And they instilled in their pupils a love for all things Greek. Mount Athos added a twist to this predilection, for it didn’t represent the Greece of Homer and Pericles; it was the Greece of the Orthodox Church—more Catholic and exotic than Rome. Even for me, who grew up Catholic and served as an altar boy in a Gothic Cathedral from the Middle Ages, the services at Athos were overwhelming in their use of incense, candles, gold, and music, and I watched prostrations on ice-cold stone floors with as much shock as a puritan. Even though the monk who had so kindly fed me took time to explain the theory of the icon—“it is a ladder that takes you up to God”—I continued to look at these serene faces staring at me with unease, as did most of these other travelers; only Chatwin, in the final stages of his illness, actually wanted to convert.

Even though he never thought of conversion, Fermor found on Athos what he had hoped to find in Constantinople: the heart of Byzantine Christianity. And he found it pretty much unchanged. This is perhaps the ultimate secret of Athos, that it is close to being frozen in time. Byron could read Curzon and find the place unchanged, just as Fermor and Chatwin could read Byron, and I, Fermor, and come away with the same impression. “Time has stood still here,” Fermor notes. While the first two volumes of his travel writings derived their appeal from a foot-journey across a Middle Europe that had disappeared forever, the last one culminates on an island intent on never changing at all. It is a strange destination for travel writers, the opposite of what these itinerant spirits represent. Where they cannot get enough of the world, Athos has turned its back on it; where they record change, Athos has its sights set on eternity. But perhaps this is what they were looking for all along, a place where their wanderings might finally come to rest.