SOFT rain drifted across the small town of Karyes and mist hung over the slopes of Mount Athos as our small band of pilgrims unfolded from the cramped confines of a battered taxi on Holy Ghost Street.
It was mid-morning and the small shops selling icons and the Greek Orthodox equivalent of rosaries, CDs of plainsong hymns and other religious memorabilia, were packed with pilgrims and those trying to find shelter.
There was not a woman among them and, apart from a handful of adventurous souls, this isolated semi-wilderness, a semi-autonomous region in northeast Greece, has been a male preserve for more than 1000 years.
Tim, John and I arranged to visit the monasteries of Mount Athos - known in Greek as Agion Oros, the Holy Mountain - before leaving Australia. After a quick stop in Ouranoupolis, the small port town to the north of Mount Athos where the monks maintain an office, and collecting our diamonitirion, the elaborate visas headed with the symbol of the Byzantine double-headed eagle and signed by the abbotts of the four principal monasteries on the Athic peninsula, we had travelled down the coast by water taxi to Daphni. This beachside hamlet has little more than a ferry wharf for pilgrims to alight and a turning circle for taxis and buses.
We had been driven up the slope to Karyes through the mizzle to be assigned the monasteries in which we would sleep, eat and pray over the next three days, should we be so minded.
Tim, a Sydney colorectal surgeon, John, a Greek-Australian lawyer, and I are just as unlikely pilgrims as Chaucer might have chronicled. None of us is particularly religious but sharing a fascination for history, faith, and this extraordinary link to the past - the continuity of Eastern Orthodox Christianity from the epistles of the apostle Paul, whose letters to the Thessalonians, Philippians, Corinthians and Galatians in the 1st century seem undisputed.
Like millions of others, we had embarked on religious tourism - perhaps the oldest form of discretionary travel - just as on the other side of Greece, near Corinth, the sybils writhing in the vented gases and uttering their prophecies had attracted supplicants to Delphi from prehistoric times.
As the clouds cleared, a monk in the administrative office advised us that we would be welcomed at Pantokratoros, a monastery that has existed since at least 1363, and then at Xenofontos, founded circa 1070.
We asked a tall, bearded and dark-robed monk whether it was possible to walk to our first destination.
"It's a good walk," he said. "If you like walking." The oracle could not have done better and, after redistributing the loads in our backpacks, we struck out along a road that fortunately ran south and downward toward the distant Aegean.
The road, maintained by the European Union, runs through forests of walnut and chestnut trees and the occasional koumara, a wild fruit of the arbutus family used to flavour ouzo.
Through the clear air, we could see the rooftops and grounds of some of the 20 monasteries still extant in the acreage known as the Garden of Panagia, the Garden of the Mother of God, whose guardians, the Greek Orthodox patriarchs, had decided more than a millennium ago that the Virgin would be the only woman permitted to enjoy this paradise.
After exchanging greetings with a monk carrying a plastic shopping bag who had been gathering wild roadside salad greens, we entered the grounds of Pantokratoros, a cluster of tiled buildings atop a cliff and within a protective wall with a heavily armoured water gate. We were welcomed by the pilgrim supervisor who greeted us with a dish of loukoumi, the sticky sweet known across the Dardanelles as Turkish delight, and an invitation to sign the visitors' book.
Lodging in the monasteries is free. Our cell was an airy dormitory, the beds hard, the shared ablution area contained showers and washbasins and both Western-style lavatories and the squat variety.
The banging of a simantron, a carved board, and the ringing of a bell called us to the katholikon, the church, for vespers about 6pm. Behind the entrance portico was the narthex, an antechamber walled with frescoes, and inside the candle-lit space black-robed monks, wearing tall headgear from which streamed billowing black cowls, were standing before raised seats that could be dropped down if they wished to sit.
On either side of the main chamber, small knots of monks were gathered around lecterns and a choirmaster fussed back and forth, pulling out hymnals and scriptures, preparing for the psalterion, the singing of the liturgy in a ritual unchanged since Pliny the Younger described it in a letter to the Emperor Trajan circa AD113.
Other pilgrims, some groups escorted by their village priests, entered and genuflected before approaching the iconostasis that separated the main chamber from the inner holier sanctum and kissed the icons of Jesus and John the Baptist on the right, and the Virgin Mary and the monastery's particular saint on the left.
Through a door in the middle of the iconostasis, glimpses of priests at the table on which the eucharist was to be prepared could be seen.
Throughout the service there was a constant bustle of priests blessing the worshippers with fragrant clouds of incense from their puffing censers, pilgrims entering and departing, monks coming and going. The repetition of the chants ran together into an almost hypnotic call. Breaking the spell, a solitary monk appeared with what seemed like a long boat hook, which he raised to the large candle-topped circular chandelier in the centre and gently started tugging until it began to swing clockwise and anti-clockwise and also back-and-forth, with its large ivory-coloured ostrich egg ornaments swaying pendulously below.
This was the Dance of the Angels, a ritual performed only in Athic monasteries, a symbol of the celebration taking place in the heavens in the spiritual world of the angels, the swinging chandelier representing their joy.
In the darkened katholikon, the bending candle flames, the bass voices and the heavy clouds of incense shrouding the black-robed figures dipping and bowing appeared as one with the murals painted when Constantine established his New Rome at Byzantium.
The simple meal in the refectory, monks at their tables, pilgrims at theirs, was eaten quietly. A monk read from the scriptures, as plates of pasta with fish (caught by the monasteries' fishing monks), salads and cheeses circulated. A pitcher of wine stood by a jug of water.
Before dawn, the shuffling of monks could be heard and then the simantron sounded for matins, a three-hour service after which we left to visit other monasteries to view relics, murals and mosaics.
The libraries remained locked, unfortunately, their rare handwritten ancient books now the target of international gangs of armed thieves, but as pilgrims we were largely welcomed and even found an Australian-born monk at Vatopaidi who pressed on us gifts of replica relics, including a copy of the Virgin's girdle and a small vial of holy oil.
At another, a young monk pressed on us a bottle of tsipouro, a distilled spirit that we sipped on a balcony overlooking the ocean after vespers at Xenofontos.
Just after matins the following morning, a young man was baptised on the stone wharves in front of the monastery before he plunged into the sea as prayers were said for him by the abbott and an assembly of monks.
We had managed to visit seven of the monasteries as we traversed the sanctuary. Our fellow pilgrims were principally from eastern Europe, Serbia, Russia and Montenegro, and there was one young man who had been travelling the world, from Peru to Tasmania, seeking the essence of Christianity. Under Athos he thought he had found what he sought.
The old monasteries are being restored after years of neglect with funds pouring in from the old Eastern Bloc, where the Eastern Orthodox Church spent uneasy years under the domination of the Soviets.
For those who make the pilgrimage to the monasteries of Mount Athos, the reward is rich and enduring, challenging and provoking. Far more than a hard mattress in a cell with a view.