Anyone who has read John Mole's earlier publication, It's All Greek to Me! (and if you haven't I strongly recommend it), will know that this book is not going to be an entirely serious read. But like the earlier book, it is based on a deep love of Greece and the Greek people, and also in this instance of the Holy Mountain. Mole has lived in Greece on and off for forty years, latterly in what was, when he bought it, a tumbledown ruin on the island of Evia. He has made a number of visits to Athos and is a veteran of the path-clearing pilgrimages.
The first 200 pages chronicle a motorcycle journey from southern Evia to Ouranoupolis. Harley, as you may have guessed, is a motorbike, but not a souped-up, deep-throated Harley-Davidson. Harley is a twenty-year-old Yamaha 50cc step-through. 'Harley matches my temperament',' explains Mole. ''Happiest on the flat, coasts downhill, weak and wheezy uphill... Sometimes we are overtaken by bicyclists.'' And while a real Harley-Davidson would probably cover this distance in an afternoon, Harley takes about a week, though I didn't count the days. They deliberately travel on minor roads, and sometimes they end up on farm tracks, but remarkably they never suffer a major breakdown.
When Mrs Mole (Arfa is her name, but that's another story) asks John why he proposes to make this ill-advised journey ''What about poor Harley? He's as decrepit as you', he retorts,' 'It'll do us both good. The open road... I'll take Father M his books... I might climb Mount Athos.' ''You? With your knees?'' she exclaims. He poohpoohs her objections, but he does take her advice to look after his knees, and he wisely remembers to pack hiking poles, knee braces, and ibuprofen.
Much of his story resonates deeply with my own experience. I too have had problems with my knees. I have never ridden a motorbike, but I do know most of the roads that Mole rides along. I too have spent many holidays on Evia and have driven up and down the route to Thessaloniki and Quranoupolis. And 1 know most of the places in between: the industrial horrors of Aliveri and Chalkida; the gorgeous relics of St John the Russian; Denise Sherrard's hospitable balcony; the 'cakily made-up' ladies of Loutra Aidipsou; the dramatic gorge through the Vale of Tempe; the mountain village of Litochoro, gateway to Olympus; the twenty-seater loo at ancient Dion; the noisy pollution (but superb churches) of Thessaloniki; and finally the welcoming simplicity of the Hotel Zeus in Ouranoupolis. He describes them well and arouses my nostalgia.
Interspersed between the stages of the journey are innumerable digressions on all manner of topics, more or less related to the context. Not surprisingly, there is a certain amount of repetition, but you will learn a lot about Greece, including many things that you will not find in a guidebook.
The remaining 100 pages of the book are devoted to the Holy Mountain. There is a tear-jerking scene of farewell to Harley who has to stay behind in an alley beside the hotel, with the key in the ignition in case he is in the way. The plan is to take the ferry down to Daphni, then the bus up to Karyes, from there to walk to Fr M's monastery, and then walk ('knees permitting') to Simonopetra and Dionysiou, from where he will have 'a crack at climbing the Holy Mountain'. The monasteries on the west coast are nicely described as they pass by and some wonderfully Athonite conversations are recalled. ''My name is John, Father, May ask yours?' 'It's not important.' 'Where are you from, Father?' 'From here.' "Where is your family?' 'My mother lives here. The monastery belongs to her. Jesus is our brother.'' There is a digression about Vatopedi, which is not on the route. Then from Karyes he walks down to the Axion Estin cell, bolstered by elastic socks, knee bandages, and trekking poles, 'the rambler's walking frame', as we are told more than once. He is shown the church by Fr T who suddenly drops to the ground in front of the icon of the Mother of God. Mole is taken aback: ''Red Cross training kicks in... shout for a defibrillator... turn the patient on their back...'' He stops himself just in time. ''Thank goodness I hesitated. It was a prostration not an infarction. Monks do up to a hundred of these in their cells at three in the morning before matins.''
He walks on down to Fr M's monastery, expecting to find his friend in the gift shop where he used to work, only to be told that he passed away the previous month, having fallen out of a plum tree. He leaves the books (all by P. G. Wodehouse) with the monk librarian, ''Is this why you came to the Holy Mountain.' he asks. I surprise myself with my answer, the first time I have voiced it aloud, 'No.'
He takes the bus back to Daphni and then strides out along the dusty dirt road to Simonopetra, pondering his answer to the librarian's question, while lorries and SUVs rumble past, leaving sandstorms in their wake,
''Ahead of me through a haze of heat and dust the Holy Mountain taunts me with the hidden promise of a point to it all. My experience of Athos so far is that there is no revelation, no glimpse of the divine, no inspiration other than what you bring in yourself. You don't get spiritual enlightenment handed on a plate. You have to work hard at it with effort and sacrifice. But before this you need a kind of notion, an intuition of what you are striving for.''
This book provides plenty of food for thought as well as laughter and tears.