VISITING A MONASTERY
As visitors approach a monastery, the first thing they observe is that the buildings look like big castles, like fortified medieval citadels an imposing and very tall wall, with towers now and then, with loop holes and hole for throwing hot (oil or water), as well as a huge dominating tower on the highest or the weakest spot of the monastery. The reason for these structures was the need of the monks to defend themselves against many and various enemies that tried to conquer and loot Mount Athos over the centuries (pirates, Franks, Catalans e.t.c.).
In the middle of the wall there is only one entrance to the monastery with two gates close to each other. The gates are heavy wooden doors lined on the inside with long iron rods and on the outside covered with big metallic plates.
Between the two gates there is a small cell where the visitors meet the Gatekeeper (Pyloros). His job is to lock the gates after sundown and open them at sunrise. He also checks the permits of the visitors and leads them to the main hall (Archontariki). There the visitors meet the Chief Host (Archontaris) who will offer them water, coffee, tsipouro (a greek drink made from pressed grapes), and Turkish delight.
Later, after signing the visitors book, the Archontaris helper will lead the visitors to their rooms to rest.
In the afternoon (around 16:00), the visitors get down to the main courtyard. The main church of every monastery is there, usually in the middle of the courtyard. Next to the church there is a small building that spring water (Phial) where the waters are blessed in special services.
Around the main church (catholico) there are other chapels, various buildings and many trees. At some point in the courtyard and always next to the main church (catholico) there are the church bells where hang bells of various shapes and sizes.
When the visitors enter the main church to attend the service of vespers, they get the feeling that there is a climbing staircase which starting from one chapel to the next, from the temple and the paintings on the walls and leads to the main church and to the Sanctuary a staircase that ends with the extension of the soul upto the dome from where Jesus Christ oversees the World.
Immediately after the Vespers the church bells ring for everybody to get to the Table (Trapeza), because it is time to eat.
The Trapeza is made to accommodate a lot of people and is a big and spacious building usually situated opposite the main church. The first to enter is the Superior (Igoumenos) followed by the monks and the visitors who enter last. The food is generally plain and frugal. Meat is not consumed. Meals consist of beams, vegetables, olives and fruits -occasionally, on feast days, fish- and their traditional bread. The wine which is always home - made is of the highest quality. In the middle of the long table and usually to its left there is pulpit from which the Reader reads, during the meal, extracts from the Bible and sermons.
After dinner the visitors return to the main church.
There the visitors are welcomed by the (Vimataris) a monk who takes out the Holy Remains from the monastery’s safe and put them in the sanctuary so that the people can pay their respects to them.
The rest of the day is free. These are perhaps the most important moments for the visitors who can now wonder around the courtyard take a rest, or talk to the monks, listen to their views, and the monks have the opportunity to offer advice and give their blessings.
In the early hours of the morning (around 04:00) the visitors go to the main church (catholico) to attend the early liturgy service (Matins). Then they have (early breakfast) Trapeza (around 08:00) and leave the monastery to continue their journey.