Wednesday, 20 June 2018

A small island chapel
offers a place of prayer
to visitors every day

Nimble walkers pick their away across the rocky breakwater in Georgioupoli to the Chapel of Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Although I have woken to beautiful sunrises in Georgioupoli each morning for the past week, dark clouds have moved in from the north by noon for the past three or four days, and there have been heavy thunderstorms throughout the afternoons.

The rain and the thunderstorms have failed to put a damper on this holiday, and have been beautiful to watch from the safety of the balcony in my hotel room.

But they may have come as a disappointment to many holidaymakers and tourists. The beaches and hotel pools have emptied quickly, the sunbeds by the shore have been tossed about and covered in both rain and waves, and in one place much of the sand has been washed away.

The traders selling stretch-canvas copies of paintings and the tattoo artists along the seafront have had to wrap up everything each time a shower descends, and business must have been a disaster for them for the past week.

The little tourist trains that run trips around the area have had to cancel some of their schedules, and people who have rented cars must feel that they have got little value for the money.

Perhaps the only people who have benefitted from the heavy rains are the tavernas and restaurants as people scurry for cover and decide to buy a drink and then – as the rains show no signs of easing – decide to buy a meal.

But the bars and tavernas are already busy with trade because of people watching the World Cup matches, so they already have a bonus attraction this season.

Saint Nicholas … everyone’s image of ‘blue and white’ picture postcard Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

And so, I am amazed, despite the heavy rains, to still see people picking their way along the rocky, narrow breakwater between the harbour and the beach that leads out to the small islet with the tiny Chapel of Saint Nicholas.

This is a venture that is guaranteed to end in a wet soaking these days, and even has its risks as the rocks become wet and slippery in the rain.

But still they go, in twos and threes or more, like ants in a line, nimbly picking their way across the volcanic rock to see the white-washed chapel. It is everyone’s ‘blue and white’ image of Greece in summer sunshine, and has become the symbol of Georgioupoli and the most photographed scene in this area.

Inside the chapel of Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The chapel remains open, day and night, and it is so small that only three or four people can stand inside at any one time. Yet it has an iconostasis or icon screen, and there are invitations to light a candle in the porch and to say a prayer.

As I watch them, warily if not perilously, pick their way back across the rocks from the chapel in the rain, I wonder what prayers they have to say – apart from those for their own safety.

An invitation to light a candle and say a prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Few of these tourists step inside the two main churches in Georgioupoli – Analipsi (the Resurrection) near the main square and Saint Barbara, by the harbour – but it is interesting that a small chapel like Saint Nicholas has its attractions even for tourists who I imagine have no engagement with church life at home.

But tourists too need to connect with the sacred, and benefit from their spiritual life being met in the places they visit.

Even in the thunderstorms, people know that there is something special about this place. Most light a candle, many sign the visitors’ book, all feel welcome and everyone goes away with a feeling that this is a special and sacred place. And it is in this that this chapel is a place of mission for the Church in Crete.

Looking back to the resort from the porch of the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

I wonder, as I look across at this chapel from breakfast this morning why we cannot leave our churches open all day and every day in Ireland. The risks are minor, but the benefits of being a place of prayer and welcome that offers visitors a moment to connect with the sacred and the spiritual are immeasurable.

Sunrise on a beautiful morning in Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Visiting the cathedral in
the old town in Chania

Chania Cathedral faces Platia Mitropolis or Cathedral Square, a small square in the old town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Chania, the second city of Crete, this week, I also visited the city’s Greek Orthodox cathedral on Chalidon Street. This is the main street that crosses the old town of Chania from to Eleftherios Venizelos Square in the harbour to 1866 Square in the new town.

Walking from the harbour, Chania’s Cathedral faces Platia Mitropolis or Cathedral Square, a small square on the left-hand or east side of the street, with a statue of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras facing the harbour.

The cathedral is dedicated to the Panagia Trimartyri (the Virgin of the Three Martyrs), the patron of Chania, and the cathedral celebrates its feas-day on 21 November, the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary.

The cathedral is popularly known as the Trimartyri or the ‘Three Witnesses’, because – while the central aisle is dedicated to the Virgin Mary – the north aisle is dedicated to Saint Nicholas and the south aisle to the Three Cappadocian Fathers.

There has been a church on this site since at least the Venetian period, and perhaps even earlier. However, after the Turks captured Chania in 1645, the Ottomans turned the church into a soap factory, and the boiler for the ingredients was where the bell tower now stands.

However, the icon of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary was kept in a storeroom inside the church, with an oil-lamp always lit before it, on the sufferance of the Turkish Pasha of Chania.

In the mid-19th century, a man called Tserkaris worked at the soap factory. According to a local legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a vision and told him to leave, because she did not want her house to be used as a soap factory. Tserkaris left, taking the icon with him, but the church remained a soap factory until the business failed.

A little later, the child of Mustapha Naili Pasha accidentally fell into a well south of the church. In despair, Mustapha Pasha called upon the Virgin Mary to save his child, in return for which he would give the church back to the Christians of Chania.

The child was saved miraculously, and the soap factory was handed over to the Christian community to build a new church, with financial support from the Sultan and the Veli Pasha, the Turkish commander in Crete. Tserkaris then returned the icon of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple

The church was completed in 1860, built in the style of a three-aisled basilica. The middle aisle is higher and covered by a pointed arch. The other aisles are covered by cross-ribbed vaults and are divided vertically by the women’s balcony.

The architectural elements of the cathedral are associated more with the tradition developed in the period of the Venetian occupation: sculptured pseudo-pillars, cornices and arched openings. The east wall is decorated with large and impressive icons.

The cathedral was frequently used as a place of refuge and suffered much damage during the Cretan revolt of 1897. It was restored at the expense of the Russian Tsar, to make amends for the Russian bombardment of Akrotiri. The bell-tower on the north-east side of the cathedral bell was also a gift from the Tsar.

Trimartiri also suffered a lot of damage during the German bombing of Chania in May 1941. The cathedral was carefully restored in the post-war years, and today, because of its central location in the old town, and the attractive square in front, it is constantly visited by tourists.

Inside the Cathedral of the Panagia Trimartyri in Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Meeting the open-minded
chief rabbi with a vision for
Greek’s Jewish community

With Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin at the Holocaust Memorial Service in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania

Patrick Comerford

After the Holocaust Memorial Service in Chania on Sunday night [17 June 2018], remembering the 256 Jews from Crete who were killed in June 1944, I had a lengthy conversation with the Chief Rabbi of Greece, Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who has been the leader of the Jewish community in Greece since 2015.

He has been described as a liberal Orthodox rabbi, but he refuses to be boxed in by any one label, and he insists instead that he is just a Jew.

‘Maybe I was described as liberal Orthodox because I believe the role of a Jew should be outside and not closed into a ghetto,’ he said in a recent interview with Laim Hoare of the online magazine eJewishPhilanthropy.

He points out that traditionally Greek-speaking or Romaniote Jews never had ghettos. ‘We always lived outside with everybody else. Jews should be a part of wider cultural life and not forget how, with others, we created the basis of modern European art and culture.’

Greece has had a thriving Jewish community for thousands of years, and the Jewish community once numbered 90,000 in Thessaloniki alone.

From as early as 540 BC, Greece was a large and important centre of Jewish life, and Jewish culture in Greece has always been multicultural. The Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews have been in Greece for more than 2,000 years. Others are descended from Italian and Sephardic communities who arrived with the Venetians or after expulsions from Spain and Portugal. The Ashkenazim began arriving in the ninth century.

In the 1600s, Thessaloniki became one of the largest Jewish communities in the world and was known as the ‘Mother of Israel.’

Many Greek Jews left Greece in the 1900s because of the economic crisis, and during the Holocaust, at least 60,000 of Greece’s pre-war Jewish population of 77,000 were killed.

Today there are about 5,000 Jews in Greece, including 3,000 who live in Athens, where there are several functioning synagogues, 2,000 in Larissa, 700 in Thessaloniki and several smaller communities in islands such as Rhodes and Crete.

Gabriel Negrin was born and raised in Athens in a family of Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews. He attended the Athens Jewish Community School, and from an early age he was involved in the life of the synagogue. As a boy, his love for Jewish customs and his tendency to mimic the older pious men earned him the Greek nickname ravinakos, meaning ‘little rabbi.’

He studied sound-engineering studies in Crete, where his best friends were Christian Orthodox. The Jewish community in Athens then sent him to study as a rabbi at the Shehebar Sephardic Centre in Jerusalem. There one of his best friends was an assistant to the Greek Patriarchate.

He returned to Athens, and at the age of 26, he succeeded Chief Rabbi Isaac Mizan as the Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Athens and the spiritual leader of the largest community in Greece.

The role of chief rabbi includes dealing with bureaucracy, ritual slaughter for kosher meat, performing weddings and circumcisions, visiting the elderly and the sick, representing the community in official occasions and leading prayers.

The economic crisis in Greece has increased his pastoral work has a lot. The Jewish community in Athens is in danger of losing its young people, and he has also identified the lack of opportunities for Jewish learning as a problem in recent years.

To close that gap, he started delivering a short sermon in Greek, after the Torah portion reading every Shabbat. He has also changed the commemoration of the dead every Saturday, using the time for a class about Judaism. His topics include why men and women sit separately during prayer, or, after the recent terror attacks, what martyrdom is according to Judaism. This is now attended by dozens of people every week.

Rabbi Negrin is knowledgeable on all things Greek and Jewish and can engage with topics as diverse as Hellenism in ancient Israel, Alexander the Great’s relationship with the Jews, and the works of Greco-Jewish philosopher Philo.

He has a strong working relationship with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, and the two meet regularly.

As we stood in the passage way that links the synagogue with tombs of the rabbis, he spoke of his interesting dialogue with the Muslims, including the Bektashi Order, a dervish order with headquarters in Tirana, Albania, and with strong Greek influences.

According to a recent study of global anti-Semitism; 69% of the Greek population hold anti-Semitic views, the highest percentage outside the countries of the Middle East and Africa.

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, with his understanding and his generous open-hearted approach to dialogue and community life, seems the ideal person to lead the Greek Jewish community through the present crisis and to a new future.

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin places candles in the Holocaust memorial in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania on Sunday night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Monday, 18 June 2018

At a memorial service
to recall the 256
Holocaust victims in Crete

Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin places candles in the Holocaust memorial in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I was both privileged and humbled to be a guest last night [17 June 2018] at a memorial service in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania – the only surviving synagogue in Crete – to mark the anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish community of the Greek island during World War II.

Early on the morning of 9 June 1944, while the 256 remaining Jews of Crete were being sent by the Nazis to Athens for deportation to Auschwitz, the Tanais, the container ship carrying them from Chania to Athens, was torpedoed by a British submarine HMS Vivid off the coast of Santorini.

In all, about 1,000 prisoners were on board the ship, including 400 Greek hostages and 300 Italian soldiers. No one survived.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Jews of Crete were destroyed by fire in the Holocaust, but not in the way the Nazis had planned. The crew of the HMS Vivid believed they were sinking an enemy target, but never realised horrific purpose of its voyage or who was on board.

The bimah in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The service in Etz Hayyim Synagogue last night was led by the Chief Rabbi of Athens, Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, and I was invited to join in reading the names of the 256 Jews from Crete who died on board the Tanais.

During the Haskhavah or memorial service, the New York-born poet Natalie Ventura, who now lives in Crete, read her poem ‘Memorial Service.’

Later, we lit 256 candles to remember each one of the victims, and in silence the candles were placed around the synagogue, in the courtyard and the garden, in the mikvah or ritual bath, and on the tombs of the rabbis buried here in Ottoman times.

This was a humbling occasion, and as a visitor to Crete for 30 years I found it deeply moving to have been invited to take part.

The revival of the Etz Hayyim synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter the old town where there has been a synagogue since the Middle Ages. It is in the heart of the walled maze of alleyways and narrow streets that spread out from the harbour with its mediaeval lighthouse and the port’s surviving mosque.

There had been Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews in Crete for more than 2,300 years, and they survived wave-after-wave of invaders, including Romans, Byzantines, Saracen pirates, Venetians and Ottomans.

They were strongly influenced by Sephardic intellectual traditions with the Spanish Jews in Crete in the late 14th century, and the two Jewish communities intermarried and accommodated one another.

The Jews of Chania were accused of a ritual murder in 1873. But, thanks to the efforts of the French consul-general, the missing child was found in a neighbouring village, and the Greek authors of the plot were jailed.

At the beginning of the Greek-Turkish war in 1897, there were 225 Jewish families in Crete, or 1,150 people in a total population of 250,000, spread across the three cities in the island: Chania (200 families), Iraklion (20 families), and Rethymnon (five families). They are engaged in commerce and in various manual occupations.

After World War II, the Etz Hayyim synagogue stood empty. The sleeping building was desecrated, and was used as a dump, a urinal, and kennel, damaged by earthquakes and filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikvah or ritual bath oozing mud and muck.

The Ark in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The revival of the synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis who grew up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete. He first learned about Crete’s lost Jews when he was a young man, and his family ties inspired many visits to this island. He returned to Crete in 1995, set about restoring the synagogue, and Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.

The synagogue’s floor plan is in the Romaniote, or Greek tradition. The ark faces the eastern wall, while the bimah faces the western one. The rebuilt mikvah is fed by a spring. The scattered remains of the tombs of past rabbis have been recovered and they have been reburied.

In a hallway, a simple plaque bears the names of the Jews of Chania who drowned in 1944.

Etz Hayyim suffered two arson attacks in the same month in 2010. But there was international outage, and donations poured in for the restoration of Etz Hayyim. A synagogue in Athens, where most of Greece’s 5,000 Jews live, lent spiritual support by declaring itself a sister synagogue.

Today, barely more than a dozen Jews live in Crete, and Evraiki, the former Jewish quarter, is now crammed with tavernas, cafés and souvenir shops. Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew, Greek, and English. and is home to a research library with 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who was once a student in Crete, regularly comes to Chaania from Athens to help with the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Candles on the graves of the rabbis in the synagogue courtyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Last night, the poet Natalia Ventura read her poem ‘Memorial Service’:

Your absence
perfumes the air
like incense in this house of prayer.

Through the evening service,
we listen still
for the music of your presence,

half expecting a miracle:
your voices
ringing in our ears.

Your names – at least – survive.
We say them one-by-one,
speak the being behind the name.
Whole families grouped
like sheaves of wheat –
Elchais: Chaim, Elvira, Rebecca, Leon,
Osmos: Solomon, Stella, Ketti, Mois.
A shower of names, unrelenting –
Avigades, Dientes, Depa, Evlagon, Ischakis, Cohen, Kounio.
A tide, a torrent, hailstones
hitting hard: Isaak. Zapheira. Matilda. Nisim.
Zilda. Salvador. Raphael. Rosa.

We light candles
to your memory, carry them
to every corner of the courtyard:
set them on the steps,

the Hebrew-lettered stones,
the walls round the rabbis’ tombs;
among the roses, potted palms
and jasmine; under the walnut,

under the pomegranate tree
until the courtyard’s a sea
of light, shimmering with spirit –
yours and ours entwined.

Sorrow and joy,
absence and presence,
Then and Now cross borders,
join hands, are one.


With Chief Rabbi Gabriel Negrin at the Holocaust Memorial Service in Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania

No sight of the ghosts
of old soldiers at the
castle in Frangokastello

The ruins of Frangokastello … said to be haunted in the early morning dew by the ghosts of old soldiers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

There is a story in Crete that the ghosts of old soldiers who fought in a rebellion against the Turks almost 200 years ago, can be seen riding and marching along the beach at Frangokastello in the early morning lights at the end of May and in early June.

After visiting Hóra Sfakíon on Saturday afternoon [16 June 2018], we continued on to Frangokastello (Φραγκοκάστελλο) and the ruins of the Venetian castle in a remote setting on the south coast of Crete. Frangokastello is about 12 km east of Hóra Sfakion and takes the whole area takes its name from the large, ruined 14th century castle by the long sandy beach.

The castle was built on a fertile plane by the Venetians in 1371-1374 as a garrison to impose order on the rebellious Sfakia region, to ward off Saracen pirates, and to protect Venetian noble families living in the area and their properties.

The Venetians named it the Castle of Saint Nikitas after a nearby sixth century church. Local people, however, never saw the castle in a positive light, and contemptuously named it Frangokastello, the ‘Castle of the Franks,’ meaning the Castle of the Crusaders or the Castle of the Catholic Foreigners.

The name stuck and eventually even the Venetians came to call it Frangokastello. The history of Frangokastello begins in the Bronze Age. There was intensive human activity in the wider area around Frangokastello as early as prehistoric times, even in mountainous and inaccessible areas.

Several Minoan sites have been found, dating from 1800 to 1450 BC, when many people lived in settlements. Some examples of pottery have been preserved from that period. br />
From the mid-seventh century AD to 824 AD, Arab raids led to coastal sites being abandoned gradually as villages moved inland seeking protection from the Saracen pirates.

Frangokastello overlooking a long sandy beach on the south coast of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Throughout the period of Venetian rule, there are references to powerful noble families of Byzantine descent who held large fiefs and exercised a major influence on the Orthodox population.

The Venetians gave them limited administrative powers, introducing a feudal system that was adapted to local circumstances in Crete, and the Sfakia area was ruled by the Skordilis clan. Two branches of the clan, the Pateras and Papadopoulos families, often fought with each other in feuds. Venetian sources claimed they were criminal and often committed oppressed the local people.

The Venetian Senate eventually agreed on 10 February 1371 to build a fortress to protect the area from pirate raids and to control the local population.

But, according to local lore, the building work was sabotaged by local people. Every night, the local Sfakians, led by six Patsos brothers from the nearby village of Patsianos, destroyed what the Venetians had built each day. Eventually, the Venetians brought in extra troops and the Patsos brothers were betrayed, arrested and hanged.

The beach at Frangokastello seen from the castle walls (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The castle was built between 1371 and 1374. Although the Venetians called it the Castle of Saint Nikitas, local people contemptuously referred to it as Frangokastello. The name eventually stuck and was adopted by the Venetians as well.

The castle has a simple rectangular shape, with square towers at each corner and the remains of a Venetian coat of arms, with the lion of Saint Mark of Venice, above the main gate, along with the arms of the Querini and Dolfin families. The south-west tower, the biggest of the four towers, was the most important and protected the main gate.

The buildings within the walls, as well as the battlements, included garrison residences, stabling, stores and kitchens.

The fortress never seems not appear to have served the purpose for which it was built, as the Sfakia area remained lawless and there were times when Frangokastello did not even have a token garrison.

The Venetians repaired the castle for the last time in 1645, and the shape of the building remains since that period, although it appears to have played no significant role in defending the island against the Ottoman invasion and capture of Crete.

The castle ramparts and the beach seen from the south-west tower in Frangokastello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

During the period of Turkish rule, Frangokastello continued to decay. The Turkish forces fighting the rebellious Sfakiots camped there during the Orlov Revolt (1770). The failed rising was led by Ioannis Vlachos or Daskaloyiannis. He surrendered and was flayed alive in Iraklion as an example to other would-be revolutionaries.

During the next Cretan revolt against Turkish rule in 1828, Hatzimichalis Dalianis, a Greek patriot leader from North Epirus in present-day Albania, captured Frangokastello, and garrisoned the castle with a force of Sfakiots and Epirotes.

For a week, 600 Greek rebels faced 8,000 Turkish soldiers. But his decision to abandon familiar guerrilla tactics and face the much larger Turkish regular army on the open plain favoured the forces of Mustapha Naili Pasha, the Governor of Crete.

The decisive battle was fought at Frangokastello on 17 May 1828. The Greek rebels were besieged by the Turks and Dalianis was killed along with 338 of the defenders. The remainder capitulated, surrendered the castle to the Turks, and were allowed to leave. But it is said that those who were killed were left unburied until a strong wind blew sand from the nearby beach of Orthi Ammos and covered them.

In the weeks that followed, many of the Turks involved in the siege were then killed in rebel ambushes launched from the local gorges. Mustapha Pasha blew up the ruined fortress so it could never be used again by rebels.

Later, however, during the great Cretan Revolt (1866-1869), the Turks were forced to rebuild the castle in order to control the island. Frangokastello fell into disuse after the liberation of Crete.

In recent years, the south-west tower has been partially restored. Visitors can climb to the top for spectacular views of the castle buildings and the long sandy beach below, and the base of the tower is used for exhibitions.

Inside the north-west tower of Frangokastello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

According to tradition, around the anniversary of the battle in the last days of May and the first days of June each year, the ghosts of the armed Cretan and Epirote soldiers who were killed in the fighting, are seen at dawn marching and riding their horses towards the fortress, only to disappear in the sea. These ghosts are called Drosoulites (Δροσουλίτες), or dew-men, because they only appear in the morning mist.

Although their appearance has been explained as a meteorological phenomenon, the castle ruins are a reminder of the tortured history of Crete, and visitors are told of the legend of the ghosts that haunt it, the Drosoulites, at this time of the year.

Perhaps it was too late in the day, perhaps it was too late in June. But we never saw the Drosoulites at Franngokastello. Or, perhaps it was a case of old soldiers just fading away.

The beach at Plakias seen from Sellia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

After exploring the ruins, we had an ice cream on the beach below the castle and then continued on past the Church of Saint Nikitas to Sellia, for views of the beach at Plakias, into the Kotsifou Gorge and on to Kanevos for a late lunch in Taverna Iliomanolis.

The road back to Georgioupoli took us back across the White Mountains, into Rethymnon and along the coast.

The Kotsifou Gorge at Kanevos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Sunday, 17 June 2018

A journey across
the White Mountains
to Hora Sfakíon

Hóra Sfakíon, a small coastal village and harbour on the south coast of Crete, depends on tourism, fishing and the production of olive-oil herding (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

It was raining for much of the day yesterday [16 June 2018], but two of us joined a small party from Georgioupoli and spent much of Saturday visiting Hóra Sfakíon and Frangokastello on the south coast of Crete.

From Georgioupoli, we took the turn off the National Road at Vrysses and travelled through mountain villages that led up to the Askifou Plateau and the tiny village of Askifou, where we had our first coffee break.

We drove on to Imbros, and then for a time alongside the deep Imbros Gorge for a while. The journey brought us on across the rugged White Mountains (Lefka Ori), with breath-taking views, pretty villages and along a constantly twisting and winding road that has been dubbed the grand corniche of Crete.

But the clouds were so thick and heavy, and the rain fell so much that we never caught the expected glimpse of the islands of Gavdos and Gavdopoula, the southernmost islands of Europe.

One travel writer says that the more bullet holes you see in the passing road signs, the closer you are getting to Hóra Sfakíon.

Walking through the narrow streets of Hóra Sfakíon in the rain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Hóra Sfakíon (Χώρα Σφακίων), sometimes known simply as Sfakiá (Σφακιά), is the capital of the remote and mountainous region of Sfakiá, and is a small town of just 265 inhabitants. The local economy depends on tourism, fishing, the production of olive-oil, and sheep and goat herding.

There are three different explanations for the name Sfakiá. One says Sfakia means ‘land of the gorges,’ from the word sfax, meaning a chasm. A second says it is named after the oleander tree, known as sfaka in the Cretan dialect. A third version says Hóra Sfakion was originally called Sfikia but the name was later corrupted to Sfakiá.

The harbour and its small beach in Hóra Sfakíon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Hóra Sfakíon has two small harbours, where the ferry boats from Agia Roumeli dock. In the summer months, these ferries bringing hikers from the Samaria Gorge to their buses back to their hotels across Crete. Ferries also leave Hóra Sfakíon for nearby Loutro, which can only be reached by boat, and the island Gavdos.

Hóra Sfakíon prospered during the Venetian and Turkish occupations and up to the 18th century carried on a flourishing trade with its own small fleet. But Hóra Sfakíon was also a centre of resistance to both the Venetians and the Turks, and the combination of the impenetrable White Mountains to the north and the rocky beaches on the south coast helped local people fight off all invaders.

The small beach known as Vrissi, immediately west of the village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

It was said to have had a hundred churches and chapels, but few of them survived suffered the bombardment during the Battle of Crete in World War II and the Allied evacuation that followed. A plaque on the waterfront commemorates the Dunkirk-style wartime evacuation when 10,000 men were taken off the island.

After strolling through the streets, by the restaurants and tavernas, and through the steps and the white-washed houses, we found ourselves at a quiet local beach, known as Vrissi, immediately west of the village.

A church built into a cave behind the harbour and the beach of Vrissi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

We went in search of some of the survivors from among the 100 pre-war churches and chapels, and found two tiny chapels at each end of the village.

One was a tiny chapel built into a rocky cave above the beach at Vrissi. The back of the church and the churchyard outside are built into the recess of the cave, and the church bell is perched above the cave.

The second chapel stands on its own on a traffic island by the bus stop.

From Hóra Sfakíon, we continued on our journey along the south coast to Frangokastello (Φραγκοκάστελλο) and its Venetian castle. But that’s a story for later in the day.

A tiny chapel in a traffic island behind the bus station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saturday, 16 June 2018

It’s surprising what
you find to read in
an Irish bar in Crete

It’s surprising what you find to read in an Irish bar in Crete on a summer afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

You never quite know where you are going to find an Irish pub, nor do you quite know what you are going to find in one.

Of course, you can expect to find plenty of Guinness and Kilkenny, flags flying in the country colours of the proprietor and plenty of fittings and furniture that have been brought over from Ireland.

I’m not a beer drinker, nor am I terribly fond of anything that smacks of being faux Irish. So, I have seldom been to the sort of Irish pub you find across the world.

But late one afternoon this week, as two of us were strolling around Georgioupoli, we were caught by the attractive location and looks of McGinty’s Irish Bar – as in ‘Paddy McGinty’s Goat’ – which had its ‘grand opening’ last week.

The bar is located at a landmark junction in the road, and we sat out on the terrace watching people passing as we sipped our cold drinks in the late afternoon sunshine.

And it’s surprising what you find to read in an Irish bar in Crete on a summer afternoon. One wall in McGinty’s is lined with shelves overfilled with the most eclectic collection of books that would delight, engross and entertain most of my friends and colleagues simultaneously.

A two-volume history turns up in Crete 150 years later (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

For example, stuck in at the end of a middle shelf, side-by-side, was Thomas Baker’s two volume History of the College of St John the Evangelist, Cambridge, published in Cambridge almost 150 years ago in 1869.

It was the sort of discovery that would delight Aunt Dot in The Towers of Trebizond, where she says ‘Cambridge was our university’ and she describes her family’s High Church Anglicanism approving ‘the improvements in the improvements in the chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge under Dr. Beale’.

Many of the pages in these two volumes had not been cut since they were published, indicating clearly that they had not been read too carefully by their owners over the past century and a half.

But in those idle moments, I took down both volumes, knowing there were family memories and stories to be found inside their covers.

Here are the college records of Henry ‘Comberforth’ BA, later Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, who was admitted to Saint John’s on 31 March 1533. He graduated BA (1533), MA (1536) and BD (1545), and went on to become a Fellow of Saint John’s College and a Proctor of Cambridge University. When he was the ‘parson of Polstead’, near Colchester, in 1539, Henry was still associated with the college. He was still a Fellow of Saint John’s when he was involved in a bishop’s visitation to Saint John’s in April 1542.

Here too is Henry’s brother, Richard Comberford MA, so often confused by 18th century genealogists with Richard Comerford of Ballybur, Co Kilkenny. It is noted that Richard was born at Comberford, Staffordshire, and was admitted to Saint John’s on 8 April 1534. He was a Fellow of Saint John’s in 1538, and later was the Senior Bursar in 1542-1544.

Richard Comberford of Cambridge and his brother John Comberford both leased lands at Much Bradley in Staffordshire from the college.

Perhaps these appear to be absurd links for someone to become engrossed with during a holiday on a Greek island. But the leases on the lands in Much Bradley push the family connection back a generation earlier than I had realised, and so these volumes provide particularly interesting links that I must pursue when I get back home.

As I was poring over those volumes and memories, an old postcard fell from the pages, with coloured illustrations of the coats-of-arms of Cambridge colleges. It may have been there as a bookmark. Perhaps I was wrong; perhaps someone had started to read these books before I arrived in Crete this summer.

Meanwhile, bars here, of all sorts, are doing a roaring trade. The season seems a little quiet at the moment, but certainly there are roars coming from all the bars every night as people gather to watch World Cup matches.

A bookmark found inside the covers of the books in McGinty’s Irish bar in Georgioupoli on a summer afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In search of an elusive
blue dome in the trees
beyond the beach

The elusive blue dome, hidden in the trees behind the beach at Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Blue domes are commonly seen on Orthodox Churches in Santorini and Mykonos and other Cycladic islands in Greece – indeed, the Lidl multinational supermarket chain caused controversy last year when it removed crosses from the domes on churches in Santorini in images it was using to market Greek products.

The blue domes of Aegean and Cycladic churches are so well-known that have come to typify stereotypical images of picture-postcard Greece. But in Crete, the domes and roofs of churches normally have distinctive terracotta tiles.

For the past few days I have been surprised, therefore, to see from the balcony of my hotel roof in Georgioupoli what I thought was the blue dome of a church in the distance, appearing over the tree tops to the east.

Late yesterday afternoon, while the sun was still beaming down, despite forecasts of more expected thunder, two of us set out to walk east along the beach in search of the unusual blue dome and what we thought was a church.

No-one knew where we were looking for, and seemed beyond belief that every time we thought we were near the church it the dome and the tower seemed to vanish from our eyes again and again.

We cross through beach bars and all-included hotels, we walked around swimming pools and children’s play areas, all the time chasing this blue dome, and eventually crossed gingerly across the main road with a mixture of fear, trepidation and delight as we realised the dome was on the other side of the national road (VOAK) that links Chania to the west with Rethymnon and that continues further east on to Iraklion and Aghios Nikolaos.

But there was no village around, and no signposts for either a church or a monastery.

Finally, we found the blue dome and the tall tower – only to realise that these were eccentric architectural features in the Pilot Beach Resort. It is yet another hotel offering tourists inclusive packages, so they do not have to venture outside the hotel gardens and grounds – least of all, I imagine, in search of a church.

The hilltop chapel of the Prophet Elijah in a small graveyard east of Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Disappointed, we started walking back on the old road towards Georgioupoli, and we came across a hilltop cemetery chapel that we can see from our hotel balcony too.

The Prophet Elias (Hλίας) or Elijah is a popular dedication for mountain-top and hill-top churches and chapels throughout Greece, because of his association with hilltops and mountains, including, in the New Testament, the mountain of the Transfiguration.

Inside the hilltop cemetery chapel of the Prophet Elias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The chapel is tiny but inside there is a number of icons of the Prophet Elijah, including one covered in a gold-like metal, telling the story of him being taken up to heaven by chariot and horses of fire (see II Kings 2:1-12).

An icon of the Prophet Elias in the hilltop cemetery chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The panorama that spread below us included the bay and harbour of Georgoupoli, including the much-photographed tiny chapel of Aghios Nikolaos at the end of a rocky breakwater.

The tiny chapel in the grounds of the Feriniki holiday apartment complex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The walk back along the road to Georgioupoli was surprising short. Within ten minutes we were back in the resort.

In the grounds of the Feriniki holiday apartment complex, behind our hotel, we came across another, whitewashed private chapel, small enough to go unnoticed but large enough for three or four people to stand in.

The chapel has a tiny, simple wooden screen that replaces the traditional iconostasis or icon screen, and is decorated with a number of locally-written icons.

Its simplicity is real, and unlike the imaginary but elusive blue-domed church to the east, it offers space for prayer and reflection.

Inside the chapel at Feriniki, with its simple icon screen holiday apartment complex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Friday, 15 June 2018

Limerick-based writer
publishes book on
Achill mission

Canon Patrick Comerford and Patricia Byrne at the launch of ‘The Preacher and the Prelate’

Today’s edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette [15 June 2018] carries this quarter-page news report and photograph on page 4:

Limerick-based writer
publishes book on
Achill mission


Patricia Byrne’s book, The Preacher and the Prelate: The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland, published by Merrion Press, tells the story of Canon Edward Nangle and the controversies stirred by his mission on Achill Island, Co Mayo, in the mid-19th century.

Speaking at the launch of her new book in O’Mahony’s Bookshop, O’Connell Street, Limerick, Patricia said: ‘Researching and writing this book took five years of my life. It was an obsession really for those five years. The story is raw, tempestuous, tragic and trauma-filled. It is the story of one man’s attempt to transform an island.’

Patricia Byrne is a Mayo-born writer who resides in Limerick. She writes narrative nonfiction and personal essays and is a graduate of the NUI Galway’s writer programme. Her first novel, The Veiled Woman of Achill: Island Outrage and a Playboy Drama, was published in 2012. Her work has featured in New Hibernia Review, The Irish Times, and on RTÉ’s ‘Sunday Miscellany.’

Was this the necropolis
of the gods or a lost
archaeological site?

Had I stumbled across an abandoned archaeological site in Georgioupoli? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

As I wandered through the streets of Georgioupoli in the intermittent afternoon rain yesterday, I wondered whether I stumbled across the cave of the harpies or the necropolis of the gods of classical Greece.

Perhaps it was an abandoned set for Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans, perhaps even a lair of the maenads and the nymphs.

Was this a lair of maenads and nymphs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Had I approached this place from another side, I might have thought I had stumbled across an abandoned archaeological park, or a workshop where Sir Arthur Evans had slaved away at creating figures he thought were needed for never-existing gaps as he worked away in ruins of a Cretan palace not in Knossos but right here in Georgioupoli.

I could imagine some amateur antiquarian, following in the footsteps of Lord Elgin, thinking he had found his own equivalent of the Parthenon in Crete, chipping off the pieces he wanted only to abandon them as local residents stumbled upon his criminal folly.

A harpy … guarding the site or watching the users of an ATM (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

But my imagination had run ahead of me. As I looked up at one harpy, perched on the wall that separated these premises from the next-door bank, I realised how incongruous the whole scene is.

I asked around, but few people could remember what this place had once been. Perhaps a jeweller’s shop, perhaps a bar that had been over-the-top in its decoration, perhaps a workshop owned by someone who had a vivid imagination but had over-estimated the market for works like these.

Many of the works are still unfinished, balanced and propped up by heavy wooden supports and cement bags or tied to the bare walls.

An abandoned capital amid the pillars and upturned urns (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scattered around in the open air are upturned urns, the heads of columns in various classical orders and solitary pillars as though they had been ripped from a stoa or the portico of a temple.

Waiting for it all to start (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

There are seated gods, semi-naked women lounging or standing around, as though they waiting for the Bacchanalia feast to begin tonight, and laurel wreathed women with cornucopias or lyres and varied musical instruments.

In mythology, the harpies were said to live in a cave in Crete. Could this have been their lair, for there are winged harpies in the most unexpected places, buxom and ready to pounce with their talons.

A harpy in her cave in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The most celebrated story in which the Harpies play a part is that of King Phineus of Thrace was given the gift of prophecy by Zeus. Angry that Phineus gave away the god’s secret plan, Zeus punished him by blinding him and putting him on an island with a buffet of food that he could never eat because the harpies always arrived to steal the food out of his hands before he could satisfy his hunger.

His plight continued until Jason arrived with the Argonauts. ‘The dogs of great Zeus’ returned to their cave in Minoan Crete, and in gratitude Phineus told the Argonauts how to pass the Symplegades, or clashing rocks.

Prometheus remains bound to a rock, waiting to be freed by Heracles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Here too is Prometheus, bound to a rock, where each day an eagle is sent day-by-day by Zeus to feed on his liver, which then grows back overnight to be eaten again the next day, now waiting to be freed from his torture by Heracles.

Close by, Zeus sits on his throne but has his back turned on the plight of Prometheus.

Athena has lost her spear but still wears her helmet. In his Laws, Plato attributes the cult of Athena to the culture of Crete, introduced, he thought, from Libya at the dawn of Greek culture.

Rising from the water of a planned fountain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A young woman carrying a vase of water on her shoulder and another in her hand rises from what must have been planned as a fountain or a water feature. A similar figure has lost her head and one hand.

The front of the building is still covered in scaffolding, and a growling lion looks as though he is still prepared to protect the site.

But there is little risk that any tourist is going to pilfer the place, mistaking its value or significance. Even if someone wanted one of these pieces, many of them larger than life, it would never fit into cabin baggage on a Ryanair flight, and its weight would tip the scales for checked-in luggage.

Too heavy and too large to carry back in a cabin bag (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Thursday, 14 June 2018

A small church in Georgioupoli
is a reminder of Saint Barbara

The small, traditional Church dedicated to Saint Barbara close to the harbour in Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

The two main churches in Georgioupoli are the large parish church dedicated to the Ascension (Analipsi), with its splendid flurry of frescoes filling the walls, the ceilings and the dome, and the tiny white-wash chapel of Aghios Nikolaos, at the end of small, rocky breakwater between the harbour and the beach and a must-visit place for every tourist in this resort town.

There are other churches and chapels here, including the archaeological site at Aghios Georgios (Saint George), and some tiny private chapels.

Tucked into a small corner near the harbour is the older, small, traditional Church dedicated to Saint Barbara (Αγία Βαρβάρα).

Few tourists notice this church. Perhaps they think it is closed, but a gentle push on the church door leads into a peaceful and calming space for prayer and reflection.

Inside the Church of Saint Barbara in Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The walls and the iconostasis or icon-screen of this small are covered with a large number of icons of Saint Barbara, and a lamp with incense is kept burning before her shrine.

Saint Barbara was martyred in the Syrian city of Heliopolis during the reign of the Emperor Maximian (305-311).

She is a popular saint in Crete, and for 30 years I have been familiar with Saint Barbara’s Church in Rethymnon, close to the cathedral in the old town.

The saint’s shrine in the Church of Saint Barbara in Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Her relics were moved to Constantinople in the sixth century, and 600 years later they were moved to Kiev by Princess Barbara, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenos and wife of the Russian Prince Michael Izyaslavich.

Her relics now kept in Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev, where he is commemorated each Tuesday.

An icon of Saint Barbara in the church in Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Barbara is commemorated in the Church Calendar on 4 December. She is the patron saint of armourers, artillery troops, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives because of her old legend’s association with lightning, and also of mathematicians.

As thunder rolled across Georgioupoli briefly this afternoon, I wondered whether these association also explained some of the paraphernalia in the gardens of Aghia Varvara.

In the gardens of Saint Barbara’s Church in Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)