25 April 2024

An afternoon visit to
four churches and
the site of a basilica
in Panormos in Crete

The modern Church of Saint Agathopodos looms large above the small coastal town of Panormos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The tourism business in Crete is waking slowly after a winter of hibernation. Cities like Rethymnon, Chania and Iraklion are busy already. But, although this is the end of April, many restaurants and hotels are still closed, and they are waiting until Easter, which is late in the Greek calendar this year (5 May 2024) before opening their doors this year.

The long winter recess gives hoteliers and restaurateurs extended opportunities to redecorate, redesign and refurbish, to rethink their menus and to clean out the wimming pools.

Platanias, on the lengthy coast stretch east of Rethymnon, seemed quiet over the last few days. There is a limited bus service from Rethymnon along the route that is known locally as ‘Hotels.’ When I visited some of the hotels and restaurants I have known for many years, everything seemed quiet from the street. But when I stepped inside, hotels like La Stella and restaurants like Merem, Myli, Vergina, Finikas and Pagona’s Place, they were hives of activity preparing for the new tourist season.

Panormos, east of Rethymnon in Crete, is ‘picture postcard’ Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The taxi rank in Platanias had a few white taxis every time I passed by, but the hourly shuttle bus was running between the bus station in Rethymnon and Panormos 20 km to the east had been reduced to one every two hours.

I spent last Thursday morning in Platanias, sipping cups of coffee with old friends before going for a long walk on the beach. Even there, there were no sun beds on the beach, and the small beach bar at Pavlos Beach had not yet opened.

On Sunday afternoon, I decided to catch the bus out to Panormos, once a fishing village but now a pretty resort. Panormos is picture-postcard Greece, with its neat blue-and-white doors and windows, colourful overhanging bougainvillea and hibiscus, old vines draped across crumbling gates, boutique hotels and shops, cobbled streets, ruined mediaeval Milopotamos castle, the small beaches and an old harbour.

The Church of the Ascension and Saint George in the heart of Panormos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

On previous holidays in Rethymnon and Platanias, it had become something of a tradition to go to Panormos for Sunday lunch. Since then, life has changed, circumstances have changed, and I was on my own on last Sunday. But Panormos was still an inviting and welcoming place to visit that afternoon.

Few of the restaurants were opened last weekend. In the past, I have spent lazy Sunday afternoons over long, lingering lunches in Porto Parasiris (2019, 2021) and Ankyra (2016, 2017) overlooking Limanaki, the sandy beach. Both places had still not reopened last weekend, but I had yet another long, lingering lunch at the other end of the beach in the Captain’s House, overlooking the harbour and the crystal-clear waters.

But the real reason I wanted to visit Panormos last weekend was to see five churches: the Church of Aghios Georgios, with its splendid dome and majestic fresco of Christ Pantocrator; the ruins of the Basilica of Aghia Sophia, dating from the fifth or sixth century; the cemetery chapel; the church ruins in the mediaeval castle; and the recently-built Church of Saint Agathopodos, named after a saint from Panormos who is counted among the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete.

The ruins of the Basilica of Aghia Sophia, dating from the fifth or sixth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Crete has been a crossroads of civilisations since antiquity because of its geographical position between Asia, Europe and Africa. It is believed that Panormos stands on the site of the Roman city Panormus.

Panormos is also known as Kastelli of Milopotamos or the Castle of Milopotamos because the castle of Mylopotamos (Castello di Milopotamo) above the harbour was built by the Genoese pirate Enrico Pescatore ca 1206-1212.

Within decades, the Venetians captured castle during their conquest of Crete. The castle was besieged by the Kapsokalives family in 1341, when it was held for the Venetians by Alexios Kallergis, but they failed to capture it. Hayreddin Barbarossa and his pirates attacked the castle and set it on fire in 1538. But the Venetians restored it immediately because of its strategic location.

Venetian rule came to an end here in 1647 when the castle was seized by the Turks as they marched from Rethymnon on Iraklion (Candia), although the Venetian General Gildasi (Gil d’Has) tried in vain to retake it.

Today, all that is left of this once strategic Venetian fort is a small part of the wall that looks like a pile of stones on a rocky outcrop above the beach and harbour, with the ruins of a church, where the emblem of the Kallergis family can still be seen.

The Basilica of Aghia Sophia was once the largest church in Western Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

To the south-west of the village, a small road goes under the main road from Rethymnon to Iraklion and leads along a narrow country road to the remains of the Basilica of Aghia Sophia. It was built in the fifth or sixth century and was once the largest church in Western Crete, an indication of how Panormos was an important Church centre in early Christian times.

In the west, the word basilica is associated with a church that has received a specific papal recognition. But in the Orthodox Church, the word is an architectural description of churches built in an ancient style, and it makes no claims about the importance of a church or the priests associated with it.

According to archaeologists, the Basilica of Aghia Sophia in Panormos was the seat of the Diocese of Eleftherna, which transferred there after the destruction of the ancient city of Panormos. In time, the name Aghia Sophia was given to the entire area around the basilica.

Aghia Sophia was destroyed in a Saracen raid in the seventh century, but may have continued in use until the ninth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Like most coastal basilicas of that era, this basilica was built in the fifth and sixth centuries, and was once one of the largest in Crete, measuring 54 metres in length and 23 metres in width, with a wooden roof.

This was a basilica with a nave, two aisles, a simple apse and transepts that gave it the shape of an archaic cross. The large dimensions are evidence that Panormos was once a powerful city. The aisles were separated by tall base blocks that supported four Corinthian and Ionic columns. There were pebble and slab floors, and a small container filled with bones found under the chancel floor may have been a foundation deposit.

In front of the church, at right angles to the aisles, a narthex and an atrium had a Corinthian colonnade around a cistern that may have been a baptistry.

The findings during the excavation included marble and limestone parts of the building, including Ionian and Corinthian columns, capitals and parapets, embossed ivy and fig tree leaves, and parts of a marble iconostasis. The discoveries also included coins, pottery and a large amount of glass pieces.

Aghia Sophia was violently destroyed during a Saracen raid in the seventh century. However, there is evidence that it continued to be used until the ninth century: coins from the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) were found on the site as well as minuscule inscriptions on pillars and slabs in the church.

The graveyard chapel in Panormos looks almost like an Alpine ski chalet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The basilica was uncovered following research by the theologian Konstantinos Kalokiris, and the site was excavated in 1948-1955 by the archaeologist Professor N Platonas. However, every time I visit the site, the remains of Aghia Sophia have been fenced off and there is only one battered and fading sign indicating its importance.

Walking back from Aghia Sophia into Panormos, the village graveyard sits in a shaded area below the new main road linking an Rethymnon.

The graveyard chapel, nestled in among pine trees on a gentle slope, is of an unusual design, and looks almost like an Alpine ski chalet rather than a Greek Orthodox chapel.

The dome in Saint George’s Church has a majestic image of Christ the Pantocrator (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The church most visitors see in Panormos is the recently-built church dedicated to the Ascension (Analipsi) and Saint George (Agios Georgios). Although it is a relatively small church, its dome has a modern, majestic fresco of Christ the Pantocrator that is one of the finest I know in Crete.

In particular, I wanted to see the Church of Saint Agathopodos (Εκκλησία του Αγίου Αγαθόποδου), an impressively large church for a village of this size. The church is in the western part of Panormos, close to the school and clearly visible from the road from Rethymnon to Iraklion.

Saint Agathopodos (23 December) is one of the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete – Theodulus, Saturninus, Euporus, Gelasius, Eunician, Zoticus, Pompius, Agathopodos, Basilides and Evaristus – who suffered in the mid-third century during the reign of the Emperor Decius (249-251).

The Church of Saint Agathopodos is named in honour of a saint from Panormos who is one of the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The governor of Crete, also named Decius, had these 10 arrested in different places in Crete, including Agathopodos or Agathapos from Panormos. They were put on trial and they were tortured for 30 days before being beheaded in Alonion, the main amphitheatre of Gortyn. Saint Paul of Constantinople (6 November) visited Crete about 100 years later and moved their relics to Constantinople.

The large church in Panormos is named after Saint Agathopodos or Agathapos, and was built in recent years. I particularly wanted to see the large fresco of the Theotokos in the apse of the church. It is four metres high and was completed in 2019 by my friend the Rethymnon-based icon writer Alexandra Kaouki and has been highly praised.

Alexandra and I had coffee near the Rimondi Foountain in Rethymnon two days earlier, so I was disappointed that the church was closed on Sunday afternoon. On the other hand, I have another reason to look forward to a return visit to Panormos when I am back in Crete.

Alexandra Kaouki working on her large fresco of the Theotokos in the apse of Saint Agathopodos Church (Photograph:Alexandra Kaouki / Facebook)

Panormos has become into a prosperous tourist resort in recent years, with boutique hotels, apartments, restaurants, tavernas, coffee shops and tourist shops. Until recently, it was a small coastal village with about 400 residents, secluded off the national road.

Despite developments in recent decades, Panormos has kept its atmospheric charm and the small harbour continues to serve local fishing boats.

In the small sandy bay, the blue water was clear and inviting. But windy storms have hit Crete for the past week, and two young boys were the only people braving the water, while a family sheltered below the rocks overlooking the beach.

The wind was gathering pace, and after a short beach walk I climbed back up to the narrow streets of Panormos. I had another hour to wait before the next bus back to Rethymnon, and so I spent some welcome time sipping coffee at Locus café in its picture-postcard setting, before catching a later bus along the ‘Hotels’ route and through Platanias and back to Rethymnon.

The small sandy shore with its clear and inviting blue water (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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