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130km (80 miles) SE of Thessaloniki

The most important thing to know about Mount Athos is that you can't just come here. And if you're a woman, you can't come here at all. In 1926, Athos was declared a Theocratic Republic. Although part of Greece, it is self-governing -- hence, the need for an entry permit. Up-to-date information on permits should be available at two websites (www.macedonian-heritage.gr/Athos [make sure you use a capital "A"] and www.ouranoupoli.com) and at the Holy Executive of the Holy Mount Athos Pilgrim's Bureau, 14 Karamanli, Thessaloniki (tel. 2310/861-611). Recently, there have been mutterings that antidiscrimination regulations of the European Common Market may force Athos to open its doors to women; to avoid potential complications, however, Mount Athos has refused any Common Market funds for restoration of its monasteries and it is highly unlikely that the bureaucrats of the Common Market will prove a match for the monks of Athos and their centuries of tradition.

Ouranopolis is the jumping-off point for Mount Athos, but it is an increasingly unappealing little town filled with souvenir shops. However, the handsome tower immortalized in Joyce Nankivell Loch's A Fringe of Blue still stands. Joyce Loch and her husband, Sydney, both Quakers, lived in Ouranopolis on and off from the 1920s to the 1960s and worked with villagers and refugees from Asia Minor. For some years, the tower was both the Lochs' home and a weaving school; today it houses exhibits.

There is almost always at least one boat a day at 9:45am from Ouranopolis to Mount Athos. In summer, additional departures are often scheduled.

If you can't go to Athos itself from Ouranopolis, take one of the excursion boats that cruise around the peninsula (tickets cost about 25€). The Ouranopolis Port Authority (tel. 23770/71-248) usually has information on the excursion boats. (When Prince Charles visited Athos in 2004, Camilla Parker-Bowles circled the Holy Mount on the Royal Yacht.) The views of the rugged, pine-clad mountain promontory are superb, and you'll be able to see a number of the monasteries, most of which were built between the 9th and 19th centuries. Most look like villages from the outside, perched on astonishingly high and sturdy stone foundations and surrounded by massive walls.

The first, and still the most important, monastery, the Great Lavra or Meyistis Lavras (lavra means a community of monks), was founded around 960, and others quickly followed. In 1060, an imperial decree barred "every woman, every child, eunuch, smooth faced person, and female animal" from Athos, which suggests that there had been incidents of inventive nonchastity over the years. In recent years, hens have been allowed onto Athos to produce eggs, and cats to catch vermin.

Today, there are 20 active monasteries, many visible from the sea, with at least that many again closed over the centuries. Solitary hermits still live on Athos, but most monks follow a communal rather than an isolated life. In fact, monastic life has had something of a revival; Father Gabriel, gardener at the Iviron Monastery, was quoted in the July 28, 1998, Athenian newspaper Kathimerini as saying, "More are interested in becoming monks than we are ready to accept." According to the same story, Father Gabriel has added to his gardening duties the preparation of a computer catalog of manuscripts and icons. When asked if this would take a very long time, he replied, "We've got all eternity."