The Megali Panagia monastery, on the Greek island of Samos, is nestled in a serene and beautiful spot. I could hardly imagine a location better suited to a life of quiet contemplation.
The college where I did my A levels was just around the corner from a Carmelite convent so I regularly passed the nuns as they went about their daily business, and I mine, but I never did see inside the walls.
I suspect my views of the monastic life are very much romanticised. I was a huge fan of the gentle mystery series Cadfael while I was growing up, where aside from solving the odd murder, life seemed to consist of maintaining a herb garden while devoting hours to the study of esoteric manuscripts. It sounded rather nice; given the chance, who wouldn't choose to spend their days gently pottering and reading? And of course, as a lover of historical ruins I've often found myself wandering through the remnants left behind by British monastic orders, most of which were dissolved and their assets seized by Henry VIII. As with many castles, the outlines left by history give only the vaguest notion of how things would have been, allowing plenty of scope for the over-active imagination to fill in the gaps.
This monastery on Samos, however, is very much in use. In fact, much of it appears newly built, despite dating back to the 16th century - it was obviously undergoing extensive renovation. We were asked to dress modestly lest we encounter any of the monks, but the place felt eerily quiet - that is, aside from our group of academics disturbing the peace.