Never has the sky been so blue, so deep, so fierce with heat. On the side of the road, the burning wind makes her hair swirl. Her delicate gaze is hidden behind her sunglasses. She’s waiting, standing next to her glinting car. Her husband is sitting inside. Patient. She waves, from afar. She smiles coyly, putting on her relaxed face. She speaks English with a seductive accent. She says: Good morning, I’m Maria, let me explain a few things to you, please pay attention. She looks like she’s not kidding. She’s a representative of the Greek Ministry of Tourism. She specifies that this is neither a game nor a hobby. She explains very seriously that this trip to Mount Athos is like a secret mission, without saying any more about its mysteries and its different stages.
The drive from Athens takes the traveller along the winding Greek roads to Thessaloniki and, from there, all the way to the Aegean Sea, its clear, transparent waters fading into the horizon. You have to spend a windy night at Ouranopoli. Wake up at dawn, still half-asleep, the sun painting the shadows on the mountains and the water with gentle brushstrokes. Then you must drive to a dull office with a wobbly ceiling light and failing ventilation. Five heads stick up behind the counter, waiting. It’s the morning, and the air has not even cooled down a little. The Greek town of Ouranopoli serves as an antechamber to Mount Athos. Agents check IDs and grant visas one by one. The key to the realm of the gods costs thirty euros. The official stamp of the Mount Athos authorities is affixed to an artificially aged document. The faithful usually go there once a month, their money mysteriously channelled to the monasteries to rebuild a wall, maintain the orchard, or keep the scenery picture-perfect.
The fan is still blowing hot air around the office. The agent says that the boat will be leaving from the other shore, in a short while now, that you should hurry if you don’t want to miss it. It’s the last leg of a three-thousand-kilometre journey. The shore is blue, bathed in sunlight. The boats are floating gently, bobbing against the quays. The village marina is nestled in a pleasant bay. Fishermen are setting out on shoddy little boats. The faithful arrive by car and park somewhere nearby. Bid farewell to a wife, a child, a friend. They’re carrying plastic bags and suitcases. They make the trip regularly. They’re meeting another believer, or an acquaintance. They greet each other, chat a little, try to find some shade. In this harbour, faiths meet. They leave in the morning, near dawn, to reach for the aura of the gods. Meanwhile, at sunrise, Europe is coming into being, waking up without making a sound.
The ferry boat makes the round trip, every day, on the same schedule. More has to be paid, ten or twenty euros. The money will end up somewhere, best not to ask too many questions. Then you have to take a blue seat, either on the quiet lower deck or the windy upper deck. Maria, the Ministry’s envoy, had warned that this trip, organised a few months ago, was an exception. Normally, it’s only for the faithful. Journalists struggle. And tourists circle around, never able to access Mount Athos. Their boats merely point towards the shore. They aim at the monasteries facing the sea, far away. The curious take photographs with telephoto lenses. Ten thousand of them visit this peninsula in the summer but can’t touch it. They just look at its natural beauty, its wild state, deserted beaches and elusive crosses.
The boat sets off slowly. The sea is rough. Hearts pitch and roll. A Russian man and his son are taking photos on the deck. Each one takes a snap of the other. They live between New York and Moscow. They come to Mount Athos regularly.
JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE, SUMMONING UP THEIR ORTHODOX BELIEFS AND NEEDING A BREAK FROM THE WORLD.
It’s a peculiar space: the peninsula of the Virgin Mary, as people also call it, is closed to the outside world; women have not been allowed there since 1405. News arrives there sporadically. Joys and sorrows stop at its frontiers. On Mount Athos, there is only God, immanent, and his thousand monks scattered in twenty or so monasteries. Some of them, sitting on top of unreachable mountains. Others, on the shore, like the Vatopedi monastery, whose boat is now coming in to dock, after a little more than an hour on water.
It’s the most important monastery, the most flamboyant, the largest, on the forty-odd kilometre-long peninsula. Its architecture is monumental. The ancient walls are made vibrant by historical painted frescoes. Monks move past each other in the paved courtyard, enigmatic black shadows. The two churches of the monastery are overflowing with gold chandeliers, candles, sacred paintings, Jesus-adorned ceilings, and incense burning at mass. This incense is the smell of the monks’ everyday life.
A GRAVE AND FLORAL SCENT. NATURAL. ACCORDING TO A NEARBY MONK, THE MONASTERIES OF MOUNT ATHOS, VATOPEDI IN PARTICULAR, ARE WELL KNOWN FOR THEIR SMELL OF INCENSE MIXED WITH WARM AIR, A SCENT YOU CAN SMELL FROM FAR AWAY.
Vatopedi monks repeat the same day over and over, every day. Rise at half past three, when the devils are still dancing. Go to mass in the dark. At this hour, the church is lit by just a few candles, allowing only a glimpse of a face, a body, an attitude, the whisper of a prayer. Later on, work on various chores. Return to mass. For lunch, eat a bit of bread, olives and tomatoes. Have a lie-down, just for a moment. Return to mass until evening. At last, sleep, mind drifting. Every day, start again, the same way of the faith. It’s enough for us, a monk says, we don’t need anything more. He goes on, drily: we’re not allowed any entertainment or amusement.
THEY NEITHER PADDLE IN THE WATER NOR STARE AT THE SKY.
Another goes on: we don’t let current affairs or family matters distract us here. They remain, infinitely faithful and confident, far from their own, cut off from political mayhem, willing volunteers for chores and duties.
In Vatopedi, after first mass, then later in the evening, the monks attend to their tasks. Each one of them has a profession. A French monk binds books in his small office, in one of the upper corridors of the building. He stays there when he’s not praying. It’s peaceful. From the window, he can see the sea, still and immaculate. On the shelves, books and accessories. He’s been on Mount Athos for ten years. His beard has gone white. His outfit has kept its original blackness. He recalls: I was a culture journalist for the French periodical Combats. He had his wild years in 80s Paris and its epic nights, dashed through like there was no tomorrow, each night an unending mystical orgasm. He goes on: I wrote an article once about Régine in Bobino, I thought she was a cross-dresser that one. He says that before he settled down for good he lived the fantasy to the full. His brother sometimes comes to visit. He stays connected through sporadic rumours of decadent events. Level-headed, he analyses Le Pen’s success; he’s not surprised. He says: France is a racist country.
In the courtyard, where draughts ebb and flow, another French monk hurries to the church. He stops. He speaks softly. Almost a whisper. He hasn’t heard French spoken in a long time. He’s surprised. He came here just like everybody else, on the boat, twenty-eight years ago, and never left. The sun was already constant above. The rhythm of the days was already in place, everything the same, day after day. In France, he came from the Lorraine region. Since then, the fire of the blast furnaces at the ArcelorMittal factories has had time to cool down, then die. He almost holds his breath when he asks if they’re still burning. He barely knows who François Hollande is. After his arrival, he didn’t leave for seven years. The world has degenerated into farce little by little. It’s a shock, he says. His family is far away. He thinks it’s better that way. He just says: I hope that if my brothers and sisters die, I’ll know.
Meals again. Masses too. Behind an anonymous door, the monks’ private collection is a testimony to what Mount Athos has been for centuries. Letters from the Turkish sultan, sacred treasures, from when the island was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Gifts, from the neighbouring kingdoms. In a corner, hidden at the bottom of a glass display case, a box from the wedding of Camilla and Prince Charles, with a piece of the wedding cake, rotting there for eternity. A monk says he often comes to visit because he’s orthodox, but he doesn’t show it. He continues in the same gloating vein: Poutine comes here as well. He loves our wine. And he mentions, all in the same breath, Papandreou, Samaras and all the other Greek leaders, coming for a taste of the blessings of the Mount. So many seals of authority. All around, the wind stirs the natural world, tumultuous. Trees shiver excitedly. Flowers bloom. A few cars meander from monastery to monastery on the mountain and valley tracks. The green is fierce. Inside the church, the same show is on for one last time, until the next day. First a monk burns some incense. He diffuses the fragrance in the chapel. It’s the sort of smell that, after a while, becomes familiar. Tamed. You discover it as it approaches, as another wave of it washes over you, full of possibilities, potentialities.
Incense, like everything else, is made on site, by the monks. The resin, in big yellow blocks, comes from Ethiopia. The monks who dedicate themselves to incense spend their time in a workshop on the ground floor, near the entrance to the church, where they break it up, dry it and cut it into pieces. They end up with small balls of various sizes, coated in white powder, which they place in boxes, small and large. They work without a word, hands plunged into the smell they create every day. They’re focused. In the workshop next door, their colleagues in spirit make ointments with herbs they have foraged on the uplands. A monk swears that these creams have powers. To heal, to embellish the skin or to mend a scar or smooth a wrinkle. The monk in charge of the ointments says that sick people who come here will inhale the fumes of certain plants or softly massage unguents into their skin and then leave as good as new.
An American monk, with a neat, combed beard, awaits death. It will come and claim him, one day, between a mass and a meal, between two ceremonies, between one night and the next. He’s not afraid. He says it will come to gather him in, just like the others before him. It will carry him away. His body will end up dismembered in the communal grave, next to the monastery. His skull, more or less yellowed, will be stored on the shelves of a small wooden hut, where the skulls sleep for eternity. Some still have teeth attached to them. Jawbones hang, tenuous. The American monk looks at them, touches them. He’s been on Mount Athos for seventeen years. He knows that he will never leave. Only his spirit will escape, freely, he hopes.
The boat returns, a few days later. It collects the faithful, who are going back to their habits, on the far shore. Another life, more modern, more overwhelming, faster. Where Rihanna continues to turn teenagers on. Where conflicts, wars, rage, and hatred proliferate. Where it’s sometimes necessary to protect oneself from the noise of everything at once. The boat leaves slowly. The coast disappears beyond the waves. The monasteries fade away into the landscape. This place does exist. Forever and ever.