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Monday, July 29, 2013

The Backroads of Crete

The Church of St. Nicholas in Kourtaliotis Gorge, Crete
Piles of stones beside St. Nicholas Church
The Backroads of Crete are full of olive orchards and orange groves, but also some interesting surprises. There are numerous gorges on the island and when our biking group was on the way to the beach at Plakias, we went through the Kourtaliotis Gorge. Of course it was beautiful, but nestled in the rocks and oleander was a tiny church, St. Nicholas.  It seemed to be a place where only a handful of monks prayed a long time ago.  Behind it were small piled-up shrines of stone, which resemble votive offerings beside the church.  These stones reminded me of what I saw after the hurricane two years ago.  I think they're mainly markers visitors make to claim a history to the place.

The smallness of country churches in Greece was a surprise to me; it reminded me of the North Carolina mountains where there are so many small churches in close proximity to each other.  Of course, they, too, were probably built before modern means of transportation.  In contrast, there are so many huge, medieval churches in western Europe, even deep in the countryside.
A typical memorial erected among the orange groves of Crete
Even smaller than Crete's country churches are shrines on the side of the road which look like miniature churches or buildings.  They're memorials to loved ones who've died and we saw them frequently.  Dennis, whose mother's family came from Crete, reprimanded me for taking photos of graves in churchyards and said it was bad luck.  Hope it is not bad luck to take pictures of these roadside shrines.

One time Cindy (she lives in Shanghai and was also on the lookout for great photos) & I came upon an abandoned church, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  We both took pictures, but I wanted to check out the inside.  It looked to be Middle Byzantine in style and my guess was that it came from the 12th century.  She went on, but I tried to check out the inside. 

A 14th century church between the villages of Koufos and Alikianos
The door was locked, but through the narrow opening, I could see in the center of the church was a fresco of Mary surrounded by two saints.  It was too narrow to photograph, but the image was clear despite two obvious vertical cracks.  There were more frescoes to the sides and above, but I really couldn't see them.

On the outside of the church, there was also  fresco of Mary in the arch over a side door. This painting in the tympanum was badly damaged, but I took a picture (below).  It also had painted trim  directly under the arch in a beautiful red and blue pattern.

A badly damaged fresco of Mary over the door dates
to the 14th century

On the lintel below, there is a red cross.  Of course, it's never a good idea to paint the outside of a building and expect the image to stand up to time and weather.

A sign on the road pointed out the name.  It was the Church of the Zoohodos Pigi (in Greek and in English, but what could that possibly mean?)   When I had the chance to check the Internet, there were a few other churches of the same name in Greece.  It took awhile to find a reference to this one, which is between Alikianos and Koufos.  Apparently it was quite important at one time. It was built later than I thought, in the early 14th century following an earthquake of 1303, but over the foundations of a 10th century church.  (Earthquakes have always been a problem on this island, and in much of the Mediterranean.)

Zoohodos Pigi means "life giving source."
 Zoohodos Pigi means "life giving source."

The frescoes could have inspired Greece's greatest artist, El Greco, who grew up in Crete, with this tradition.  No one knows exactly where El Greco was born, but his family was from Chania and this church is about 10-20 miles away.   I'm also reminded that these paintings were done about the same time or only slightly later than when Giotto was doing amazing things with frescoes in Italy.

Not far away, we had already passed a town called Alikianos where there was large new Greek Orthodox church, light blue and terra cotta in color.  So it's easy to understand why a church in the middle of nowhere isn't in use, but I hope that the Church of Zoohodos Pigi will be restored.

There's a new Greek Orthodox church in the village of Alikianos

The same day and just a few miles down the road, as we had to go up hills too steep for my endurance, we came to the biggest surprise of all  --  Someone had recently dumped excess oranges in a pen and the goats were chomping away, peels and all.  How funny to realize that the many delicious Greek goat cheeses come from goats who feed on oranges!   This reminds me that I'd like to find out how to make that delicious orange cake (sometimes called orange pie) from Crete.  I bought some honey in Crete and could use it.  But when I ate my grocery store orange today, it didn't taste quite like the fresh, delicious oranges of Crete.
The Goats' lunch -- so good!