Does a tiny Greek island really house a miracle-working icon of the Virgin Mary? Seeing is believing

In these troubled times it pays to have a little faith

The tiny island of Old Trikeri, in Greece's Pagasitic Gulf, is as quiet an island as can be found this side of deserted. There are no cars, no police, no schools, no doctors, no bakeries. Numerous tracks shaded by trees criss-cross the island, but there are few roads. Tucked away into a curve of the Pelion peninsula, a short sea-crossing from the mainland, it's been mouse-quiet for centuries.

The tiny island of Old Trikeri, in Greece's Pagasitic Gulf, is as quiet an island as can be found this side of deserted. There are no cars, no police, no schools, no doctors, no bakeries. Numerous tracks shaded by trees criss-cross the island, but there are few roads. Tucked away into a curve of the Pelion peninsula, a short sea-crossing from the mainland, it's been mouse-quiet for centuries.

Approaching the island, the first signs of civilisation you might notice are three or four plastic chairs perched on the headland, put there because it's a nice, breezy place to sit after the heat of the day. Coming into the port you dock beside a rusty old tub, tipped up on its side and used as a diving platform by local children. There's a jumble of fishing boats in front of the first of the island's two tavernas and a strip of scruffy beach where vegetables are sold twice a week. The village's only shop, further along the harbour-front, is little more than a large cupboard.

In winter the island is often wet and grey, and the population dwindles to between 30 and 60 inhabitants, mostly fishermen and people staying on to tend the animals while the grey-green olive trees rattle in the wind. But once a year, as many as 2,000 souls arrive on Old Trikeri in search of miracles. For it is here that the miracle-working icon of Our Venerable Lady Virgin Mary was unearthed, on 10 September 1825.

The early inhabitants of the island first migrated to the mainland sometime in the 11th century, fearful of pirates who were plundering the area, and the island remained deserted until the 19th century when a monk named Damianos Koslis set up home in a cell down by the old port. Nothing much had changed in the intervening centuries. The olive trees were pretty much the same trees, and though paths had been lost and the church of the Virgin Mary had fallen into ruin, pirates still menaced the area. It was fear of them that made Damianos Koslis build a shack as a hiding place beside the tumbledown church. And here, one dark night, the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream.

The Virgin ordered Damianos to dig in the ruins where, beneath a wild olive, he would find her lost icon. She appeared to Damianos three times before anyone took the monk seriously, and when, with help from the mainland, he finally dug up her icon, it glowed and let off an endless fragrance. A great celebration was held, and over the next three years a new church dedicated to the Virgin was built beside the ruins of the old.

The monastery of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary stands today in all its splendour, a mere 10-minute walk from the village. In normal times it has few visitors and seems almost too grand a building for so small an island. I was only staying on Old Trikeri for three days and did not hear about its icon until I was due to leave. I was curious to learn more about it, and it was suggested I talk to the local priest,.

The monastery was up a steep rubble-strewn path rutted by the previous winter's rains. A long, thin building, on the day of my visit it was besieged by 10 or more local women frantically tugging up weeds from between stones; others were watering flowers and polishing candlesticks, crosses, steps, cups, and anything else that could be polished. The monastery was undergoing a spring-clean in preparation for the pilgrims due to arrive that weekend.

The priest was an anxious little man dressed in grubby robes. He was supervising the women, and although he'd agreed to spare a few minutes, it was obvious he wouldn't have time to answer more than a couple of questions. What I wanted to know most of all was what miracles had actually been performed. Either he found the question impertinent or his English was not as good as I'd been led to believe, but whatever, a cleaning crisis materialised and he disappeared.

The icon itself was inside the monastery, the frame supporting it and with which it would be carried in procession, leaning against an alabaster pillar painted to resemble marble. Both the face of the Infant Jesus and the Virgin were too dark to make out, either blackened by fingers, time, or more likely a century of smoky incense wafting about the church. Surrounding the icon, and now encased with it behind glass, were heirlooms – gold and silver rings and a late-Victorian gold watch, the offerings of earlier believers.

I still do not know what miracles were performed, not even after rooting around on the internet to find an answer. Perhaps the icon simply being dug up and found was miracle enough. Certainly if that had not happened, if the Virgin Mary had not come to Damianos Koslis in a dream, the monastery itself would never have been resurrected from the ruins.

I did not go to Old Trikeri in search of miracles, but by the time I left I'd begun to wonder if some could be so subtle that you would hardly recognise them when they happened. Perhaps in these troubled times it is miracle enough to find such a simple and beautiful place as the Holy Monastery of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, with its cloistered courtyard that on most days is an oasis of silence, surrounded by olive trees on top of a hill that looks down through a haze of heat to a warm and glittering blue sea.

Brian Patten's book, 'The Story Giant', is published by HarperCollins (£12.99)

Travellers' Guide

Getting there: Tricky. The quickest and easiest option if you're travelling from the UK is to buy a package from a specialist tour operator. Brian Patten travelled with Tapestry (020-8235 7788, www.tapestryholidays.com), which charters flights between London and Manchester to the small airport at Volos, the gateway port to the Pelion peninsula. Transfers to Trikeri island by road and boat take about 2 hours 30 minutes.

Travelling independently and taking a scheduled flight from the UK, you'd first need a cheap return to Athens (eg on easyJet, 0870 6000 000, www.easyJet.com, from Luton). From the Greek capital, the next step is a four-hour bus ride to Volos.

From Volos, you can hire a car to explore the peninsula and count on negotiating a fishing-boat ride to the island.

The closest point is Alagoporos, some 10 minutes away by sea but in the middle of nowhere. A crossing from the mainland resort of Afissos takes about 50 minutes.

Accommodation: Brian Patten stayed at the Galatia Hotel (00 30 423 55 233), where simple but pleasant apartments cost €40-€60 (£24-£37) per night according to season.

A week's holiday with Tapestry costs £500 per person until 13 July, including flights, transfers and accommodation, rising to £600 in high season.

For independent travellers, there are sometimes rooms available at the Diavlos Taverna, by the harbour – but it's all a bit hit-and-miss.

More information: Greek National Tourist Office, 4 Conduit St, London W1R ODJ (020-7734 5997; www.gnto.gr)

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