From Karyes it is a three-hour walk to the sea, and the beautiful monastery of Stavronikita. Here a Macedonian monk called Hector talks about life without females.
"People say it is wrong to banish women," he says. "The European Union tells us we must change. We will never change." He half smiles. "When man not see woman, he see inside himself. That is what we are here for, to see inside, and to pray for the world."
But what is it like never to look at a woman? Hector gazes across some olive groves at the sapphire Aegean: "Well, actually, once every few years, one or two monks may indeed see a woman. Sometimes, you understand, women come to the beach here, for an adventure. It is illegal, but they come swimming. They wear bikinis, and then... then is difficult for us." He looks wistful for a while. Then he smiles again. "But most monks will never see a woman. And after a time... you know... is not so difficult."
Another clue to the monks' attitude to women is provided by the writings of Robert Curzon, an English traveller who visited Athos in the 1840s. On his wanderings around the monasteries, Curzon came across a man who had been left as a foundling on the peninsula, and thereafter been brought up by the monks. This experience meant the man had spent all his life in Athos, and therefore had no idea what women looked like. The only idea of the female body that the man possessed was derived from icons of the Blessed Virgin. Perhaps that is why the man asked Curzon if all women had haloes.
Extreme cases such as this are hard to find these days. But it is still possible to encounter unusual experiences. Down the road, at the monastery of Dionysiou, another monk talks of the ups and downs of life in a woman-free world. He is the only English monk on Mount Athos, a kind-eyed, thirtysomething, Oxford-born eccentric who gives his name as Father Jeffrey. "I think it's good there are no women here," he says. "This is a safe place and it should stay that way. But that does not mean you do not have sexual desires, sexual thoughts. The Evil One is always with you."
He turns and squints at a rose, radiant in the sunshine. "You might know we are allowed radios, very occasionally?" He pauses, shyly. "Well, the other day I heard a woman's voice on the radio. It was the first woman's voice I have heard for years. It was so beautiful..." There is pain in his eyes. Then he concludes. "But it is better that there are no women here. Without women, men can concentrate."
I also hear about a monk in Athos, who never saw a woman in his life and then he saw a piece of newspaper -left behind by a careless visitor- which had the photo of a woman and the poor monk had so many temptations.
P.S If interested in Curzon's book mentioned in the passage above, please find it here.