topics: salanaki (food), sports, Mount Athos (Agios Oros), Greek Orthodox monasteries, salt and bikes, travel, mythology; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: March 7-8, 1998

Food of the Day: salanaki

Many of the tavernas or restaurants in which we eat offer fried cheese as one of the mezedes, or appetizers, on their menu. We like salanaki because it is so simple and tasty. The chef simply grills a big thick piece of mild cheese until the outside is hardened while the inside stays soft and gooey. A cheese lover's delight. Stay tuned for descriptions of other ways that we've enjoyed Greek cheese.

Person of the Day: Sofia the Bike Racer. click to view a photograph

During our stay in Larisa, we were fortunate enough to meet Sofia, a member of the local bike racing team. Like any good bike enthusiast, when she heard that a group of cyclists was heading through town, she raced over to meet us. We showed her our Web site and encouraged her to join in one of the upcoming Chat 'n' Debates. In return she gave us some helpful advice on routes for our upcoming rides, and tips on good restaurants for dinner in Larisa. She also told us a little about the racing scene in Greece. It turns out that she is a prize-winning racer herself. We wish her the best of luck in the upcoming racing season - particularly for the races to decide who joins the Greek national cycling team. We hope to see her at the Olympic games some day.

Place of the Day: Mount Athos (Agios Oros)

The Athos peninsula, or Mount Athos (Agios Oros), which in Greek means Holy Mountain, is an exclusively monastic community within the Greek mainland. Inhabited only by monks who live in twenty different monasteries, the Mount Athos area is effectively cut off from the rest of Greece. Access to the peninsula is only possible by boat, and visitors are strictly regulated. Law permits no females, human or animal, on the peninsula (though it doesn't include hens in this ban - monks like eggs). The same law once forbade beardless men, but that provision was later struck out. We can't be sure, but we think they took it out when they saw a picture of Anthony's beard. click to view a photograph Beyond the ban on women, the numbers of adult foreign males that may enter the peninsula is limited to ten per day, though unlimited numbers of (male) Greek nationals can visit.

The best explanation for these seemingly bizarre rules is an explanation about monasteries themselves. The word monastery comes from a Greek term that means "living alone." This is essentially what Christian monks do - live in more or less isolated communities in which they can separate themselves from the world and all its distractions and then devote themselves to attaining salvation. In many Christian monasteries the monks are protected from the temptations of the world, both by physical distance (living inside the monastery) and by strict rules of discipline and behavior.

Many monks, particularly in the Greek Orthodox monasteries, of which Mount Athos is the most famous example, abide by a rigorous daily regimen of work (which they believe has intrinsic value), prayer and meditation. At most Mount Athos monasteries, the monks eat only twice a day and most of their time away from work and meals is spent in prayer. Apparently, the community at Mount Athos believes that isolation and an ascetic lifestyle are best preserved by simply forbidding women and limiting the number of visitors.

Mount Athos' mountainous terrain and rugged coastline naturally isolates the peninsula. This, perhaps, explains why hermits, who were trying to cut themselves off even more completely from society, have inhabited it from the early days of the Byzantine Empire, and why the first monasteries were established during the 10th century AD. With the support of the Byzantine emperors, who gave the monastic community special privileges and protection - including the decree that forbade females - Athos grew to include forty monasteries, but this number has since declined to twenty. Even under Turkish rule, Athos retained many of its privileges, though the monasteries did suffer for supporting the Greeks during their fight for independence in the 19th century. Since the establishment of the modern Greek state, Athos has also become a political entity. Under the Greek constitution, the monasteries rule themselves as an autonomous district of Greece. All the monks are required to be (or become) Greek citizens.

Because of the length of time that it has existed, the number of artists who have resided there, and its many wealthy patrons, Athos is the repository of some fabulous treasures: priceless reliquaries, icons, mosaics, paintings, and illuminated manuscripts. Many of these treasures, as well as displays depicting the unique architecture of the monasteries and the daily lives of the monks, are currently on display as a special exhibit at Thessaloniki's Byzantine museum.

This very special exhibit, named aptly enough "The Treasures of Mount Athos," opened in 1997 to coincide with Thessaloniki's reign as Europe's cultural capital. Many of the items on display have never before been allowed to leave Athos. Partially for this reason, the exhibit has not yet been closed, allowing the public (at least half of whom would otherwise never get the chance) an opportunity to see these treasures. Judging from the busloads of waiting groups and the press of guided tours inside, the public is taking full advantage. Unfortunately, it was forbidden to photograph most of the exhibits, but we did manage a snapshot of a finely crafted bell that used to call the monks to prayer at one of the monasteries. click to view a photograph Because of Mount Athos' rich historical, cultural, geographical, religious, architectural and material heritage, it has been included as a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage site visit the World Heritage Site page.

Tech Fact of the Day:

Salt is bad for bikes. After we took our unscheduled dip in the Mediterranean with our bikes (see Rider Notes), we made sure to wash off the bicycle drive trains thoroughly. The salt in the water can corrode the chain and freewheel, making them wear out more quickly. With so many miles to go, we don't want to have to replace any (more) of our moving parts.

Group Dispatch, March 7-8
picture of Padraic

While Corinne stayed in the hotel to work more on her dispatches, the boys woke up early to check out the special exhibit on Mount Athos at Thessaloniki's Byzantine Museum. Unfortunately, they knew that this was as close as they would get to the Mount. Because of time constraints - including the requirement that they get a special letter of recommendation from the U.S. Consulate - they hadn't been able to visit Mount Athos itself, so they were determined not to miss the exhibit. (For more about the exhibit and Mount Athos, see our Place of the Day.)

Afterwards, we raced back to the hotel to pack for our long... train trip to the small town of Katerini, from which we would cycle to our final destination, Litohoro, under the shadow of Mount Olympus. click to view a photograph We had decided that the exhibit was important enough to sacrifice part of the ride for a little culture.

From Katerini, the map showed a nice little road along the beach that would allow us to avoid the busy main road almost all the way to Litohoro. Unfortunately, we couldn't find that nice little road, or indeed, anything approximating a road along the beach. So we made our own. We only had to push the bikes through a few hundred meters of thick sand on the beach, then lift them over our heads to ford a shallow channel, and then stare down a pack of sheep dogs that considered our crossing of the pasture an intolerable offence. Finally, we found a narrow dirt road that headed, well… in the opposite direction, but we were happy to take this back (all the way to Katerini) so that we could finally get on with the ride to Litohoro.

As it turned out, the evil main road wasn't very evil after all and we soon arrived in Litohoro without too many harrowing incidents involving trucks. After gawking at Mount Olympus click to view a photograph for a while, and searching desperately for somewhere to sleep (the youth hostel had closed and most of the open-in-the-off-season alternatives were a little pricey), we checked into a hotel and went hard to work on our dispatches.

Mount Olympus click to view a photograph is not only the highest mountain in Greece at 2,917 m (9,570 ft), but as Greece's very first national park, it is also the home to many species of wolves, foxes, deer, wild boars, jackals, wild cats, and smaller animals. Of course, the mountain is most famous for being the home of the gods of ancient Greek mythology. They lived on the top in idyllic pleasure, enjoying the pure mountain air (according to Homer the mountain never clouded over; the locals assured us that Homer had it wrong) and generous servings of nectar (the drink of the gods) and ambrosia (the food of the gods), though they regularly left to mingle with the mortals down below.

We scanned the cloudless (maybe Homer was right after all) mountain for signs that the Greek gods were still there, but found none - probably a good sign considering that in Greek mythology the gods often interfered with the lives of mortals. And it seemed that every benevolent action by a god was countered by a malevolent action by a rival god. The last thing we need right now is Ares, the god of war, taking some sort of interest in our journey. We do still have to travel through some troubled areas.

After a very quiet night sleeping below the mountain, we woke early, rode back down to the main road, and turned south. Despite an occasional castle (ho-hum) click to view a photograph, Mount Olympus continued to dominate the scenery click to view a photograph until we reached the lovely Vale of Tembi click to view a photograph, a narrow gorge cut by the River Pinios between mountain ranges including Mount Olympus to the north and Mount Ossa to the south. At about the midpoint of the Vale, we stopped to enjoy the scenery from a suspension bridge - apparently built for tourists - that spanned the river. click to view a photograph This gave us yet another pretty view of the Vale. click to view a photograph Unfortunately we couldn't stay all day. We re-mounted our bikes and followed the Pinios River upstream and inland to the city of Larisa, our final destination.

Larisa could hardly be called a prime tourist destination, but perhaps because of this, we found it to be a delightful little city. Full of stylish and busy cafés, interesting restaurants and tavernas, it was a very pleasant place to walk around, and soak up the European atmosphere.

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