Travel: And some Greek monasteries that you are allowed to visit
Sunday 29 June 1997
If you are off the beaten track, you could take advantage of an old tradition that lingers in remote areas of the mainland of providing accommodation for travellers (strictly single sex, women in convents, men in monasteries). It is sensible to ring before turning up and try to make it there before 8pm or sunset whichever is earlier. And don't expect luxury or an en-suite bathroom - you will be put up in one of the tiny monkish cells that the residents inhabit.
It is worth making the effort to get off the beach and seek out sacred places in Greece, and not just monasteries. The countryside is dotted with tiny whitewashed churches, packed full of icons and set in tranquil locations. Most have pine trees strategically positioned beside benches in the grounds so the weary, sticky walker can cool off and contemplate. One of the more enchanting habits of the Greek Orthodox church, and one which has been adopted by Greeks building houses today, is to position their places of worship smack on the top of hills. The views are usually fantastic.
Monasteries do not generally charge admission but they often sell postcards (much more charming than the tourist cards), miscellaneous iconography and sometimes home produce - honey, lace and so on. It is the done thing to buy something, or to make a donation.
The following monasteries are some of the more noteworthy but wherever in Greece you end up, you will be close to a sacred building worth visiting. One of my most precious memories is of watching the sun go down over the Aegean, sitting on the steps of a tiny monastery, no longer inhabited but with its minuscule church intact, so remote that it had been used by the resistance to hide allied servicemen during the war. I was there in the middle of August and no more than two miles from the main tourist town of the island, yet I was entirely alone.
Monasteries of the Meteora
Made famous by appearances in films including For Your Eyes Only, these buildings, perched on columns of rock that appear inaccessible, are in a valley to the north of Kalambta in central Greece. Legend says that Saint Athanasios, who founded the earliest of the buildings, flew up to the rocks on the back of an eagle. In fact religious hermits first moved into the caves here in the late 10th century. The area reached its heyday in the 16th century when 24 of the rocks boasted monasteries and hermitages, but has declined since. Today the four most accessible monasteries and convents are basically monuments for the tourist trade and only two continue primarily as monasteries. Allow a full day to visit.
Ossios Louks Monastery
Near Delphi, this is one of the great buildings of medieval Greece, the product of a flourish of Byzantine art that predicted the last outpouring which produced the celebrated churches of Mystra. The setting is also wonderful, remote and opening out onto the peaks and countryside of Elikonas. The monastery is small with two churches: the 11th century Katholikon which became a much-copied blueprint for Byzantine octagonal-style churches, with a glorious interior of red and green marble and gold mosaic; and the Theotokos, 100 years older and grey in comparison. Although a handful of monks still live here, the place is essentially maintained as a museum.
The Monastery of Mega Spilia
This is famous as the oldest monastery in Greece (dating from the fourth century) but it has burned down and been rebuilt so many times - the last in the 1930s - that there is little sense of this. Its heritage is reflected instead in its collection of treasures which is outstanding - as, incidentally, is the view. There is charred image of the Virgin which is said to have been made by St Luke. Men can stay overnight.
Monastery of Arkadhi, Crete
Around 25km south-east of Rethimnon, this has national as well as religious significance. During the 1866 rebellion against Turkey it became a Cretan stronghold and as the fighting turned against them, guerrillas and local people took refuge here. As the Turks prepared to storm the building the defenders blew up their stores of ammunition. Hundreds, possibly thousands of Cretans and Turks died. The vault where the explosion occurred has been left without its roof as a memorial but other parts of the grounds and buildings have been restored. One of the finest pieces of Venetian architecture on the island, a Rococo church, survived the explosion.
Monastery of Saint John
It was in a cave on the beautiful Dodecanese island of Patmos that St John the divine had his revelation. The imposing monastery in his name was founded in 1088 and dominates the island from its hilltop position, guarded by solid fortifications. It houses an amazing collection of religious relics, books and other treasures dating back to the earliest days of Christianity. Make the effort to walk up the hill, then you can stop half way at the Monastery of the Apocalypse, a more modest affair but built around the actual cave where God spoke to John. For 700 years the monks here ran the political affairs of the island and they still have a say - tourism is notably more muted here than in neighbouring islands.
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