How we ended up at the Prophet Elias Monastery on the top of Mount Eros is still a mystery. As we crossed from Athens to Hydra by ferry, our boat tossed about like a cork in a typhoon while attendants staggered through the cabin grabbing onto the railing for support, stuffing used seasickness bags into a large, black, plastic sack and handing out fresh ones. We arrived on Hydra relieved, exhausted, and not ready to face a return crossing late the next day. That first evening, we sipped wine and snacked on zucchini pies on the terrace of a closed restaurant watching the sun set over a remote cove as the hospitable owner thatched new seats into well worn, indigo chairs – and offered to make us whatever we wanted. Under Hydra’s spell, everyone agreed we should stay an extra day. And as simple as that, a new plan was hatched.
The next morning, we passed the keeper of our small inn as we headed into town for breakfast. “If you want to hike to the monastery, just cut up from the harbor near the yellow house. Maybe it will take an hour and a half.” We talked for a while, and I thanked him even though I had immediately dismissed the suggestion. Craning my neck, I could see the monastery perched way at the top of the jagged hillside. “Maybe you can make it a guys trip.” I offered to Pat. But no one grabbed at the thought, and the idea died.
After breakfast we investigated the area near the harbor, stretched out on benches in the sun, and watched a dog we named “Speedy” frantically chase a garbage truck – the lone motorized vehicle on an island of donkeys. Late morning, we set off to wander. As we cut away from the harbor, I pointed to the yellow house and mentioned, “This must be the way to the monastery.” And for some reason, we turned and just kept walking. Half of us were shod in completely inappropriate footwear; Emily wore a pair of canvas Toms, Taylor sandals, and I had on my only pair of shoes, black leather loafers which I generally wear to work.
A few of us carried water, no one had food. Yet somehow, as if driven by a primordial urge, we began a hike towards the monastery.
The sun beamed down from a cloudless sky, much warmer than I expected on a late October day. One by one, we pulled off layers of clothes which I stuffed into my backpack. The parched and arid landscape indicated this weather is typical, that not a drop of rain should be expected. We passed locals sitting on their front stoops and a mix of the ubiquitous Greek cats – big and small and of every possible cat color. Some followed us part way up the hill before ultimately stumbling upon a new distraction.
After an hour, we passed an old church and some stone relics. Pat speculated, “We must be close.” But as I looked up the hill through the dense pine forest, I saw no indication of a crest. Below us, a line of crisp, white, sail boats cut across the deepest indigo sea I have ever seen. The piercing brays of a donkey echoed off the canyon walls.
Eventually we passed a pair of hikers, the first people we had seen in a while, heading down from above us. One of them chirped, “You are nearly there. Probably only 45 minutes to go.” I was a bit below the rest, and held out hope I had misheard – perhaps they said, “four or five minutes to go”. My optimism faded when Pat said, “This can’t be a 90 minute hike. We’ve been at it for over an hour, and we still have 45 minutes?” Yet no one suggested we turn back. We had come too far to quit, or even worse, to return, prepare, and try again.
As we climbed higher, the views opened up to reveal a string of the Saronic islands and the hulking, mountainous tip of the Peloponnese peninsula. The paved walkway turned to rubble, a dead cat lay on a stone wall with one paw raised as if politely waiting to ask a question, a herd of sheep passed – their clanging bells sounding like a calypso band. I stopped periodically using the stunning view as a excuse to catch my breathe. Then as promised, 45 minutes later, we spied the monastery. Ryan bounded up the steps and shouted, “C’mon mom, you’re nearly there.” “Ryan, I need to go slowly. I’m fine, but I’m shaky. I need a snack.”
Ryan flew ahead, and just as I arrived at the base of the monastery, he ran out the door as if he was being chased away by the monks. Then he held out his hand, “Mom, here. Eat this. Turkish delight. There’s a dish of it inside the door along with cold water.” The Turkish delight tasted like roses dusted in a sweet layer of powdered sugar. I ate the cube slowly, savoring each nibble, and letting the sugar melt on my tongue. Then I ducked inside the door and grabbed a second piece, refilled my water bottle, drank it empty and refilled it again. As I sat on the wall, I wiped the sweat off my forehead with my sleeve and savored the contentment of reaching this completely unintentional goal.
The top of Mount Eros consists of the 19th century monastery, an 18th century church, and a group of fractious donkeys I can only surmise serve as the means for the monks to travel back and forth from home to town. Surely, they can’t walk this each week. I had asked our inn proprietor if the monastery was opened to the public, but he warned us, “No, you can only walk outside.” As I sat there, I considered who are these monks. Why do they live in solitude yet provide Turkish delight and water for uninvited visitors? This struck me as perhaps the most simple and pure expression of a holy life.
We began the walk down, expecting an easier descent, amazed at how steep the path was, cautious not to stumble on loose stones. As we approached the restaurant where we planned to lunch, the waitress sat outside smoking a cigarette while the cook ate his meal. “Sorry, closed.” His lunch smelled delicious. (so delicious that everyone returned the next day after I left for Athens and confirmed it was amazing). We settled for a mediocre meal, a carafe of wine and a bottle of water nearby – all somehow transformed the way hot dogs at a baseball game taste so much better than they do in your kitchen, by the fact we were starving and exhausted and sitting outdoors on a cobbled street on a Greek island.
The next morning in pitch darkness I left Hydra to return to Athens just in time for my writing class. The teacher talked about how he prepares for a writing assignment. First, before he even arrives at a destination, he selects the angle. Chances are, he has pitched and sold this angle to a magazine, and it can’t be changed on a whim. Then, he researches the history and background layering context and detail over a skeletal framework. Lastly, he arranges a series of local interviews to conduct once he arrives.
I considered the haphazard way I approach my trips, and particularly this trip to Hydra. As he spoke, and ever since, I have contemplated the angle of the monastery. Who are these monks? Do the villagers know them? Do they come down weekly to collect their provisions? Do they ride down on donkeys? And I chastise myself for preparing so poorly.
Since returning home, I have read two different articles about the Elias Monastery on the internet. One claimed that two monks inhabit the hill top retreat, another asserted there are four. In either event, it is a tiny group. Why do they live there? And why do they make batches of Turkish delight for strangers they will never meet?
Maybe we will return to Hydra someday, or more likely that idea will be nudged aside by the next destination I discover in the coming months. Yet for now, I can not forget this remote monastery, nor the monk I will never know and how much his simple act of kindness meant to me.
Categories: Western Europe