04 July 2010

A tiny church in a mountain village

The bell above the village church of Aghios Vassilios (Saint Basil) in Koutouloufári (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

This morning I went to church in the village church of Aghios Vassilios (Αγιος Βασίλειος, Saint Basil) in Koutouloufári (Κουτουλουφάρι).

The present church was built in 1840, but it incorporates part of a smaller church that was built many centuries before.

Ancient maps and records indicate that there has been a settlement in the Koutouloufari area for hundreds of years. However, local historians say the present village has its beginnings in the Byzantine period after a severe earthquake that destroyed the settlement where the port of Hersonissos now stands. The residents moved east to a new settlement, close to where the Hotel Nora now stands, and they named this settlement Zambaniana.

However, the village suffered severely from constant pirate raids, and the villagers were forced to move on once again, further inland and uphill towards Mount Harakas.

On reaching the church of Saint Basil, they told a local priest named Koutifari what had happened. He gave them land around the church to build a new village, and they named it Koutouloufári in his honour.

Inside the tiny village church of Aghios Vassilios in Koutouloufári this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

As the village prospered and became wealthy, many large buildings were erected. During the Ottoman period, the village was renowned for its oil, wine and almonds.

By the 1970s, Koutouloufári was almost deserted, with only 150 inhabitants left in the village, and up to 1980, the inhabitants of Koutouloufári were mainly farmers. However, the development of tourism on the northern coast of Crete brought investment and work to the area and the population grew once again. The new prosperity also attracted city people who bought old houses Koutouloufári and restored them.

The new church in Piskopianó towers over the village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I first visited Koutouloufári in 1994, when I was staying in nearby Piskopiano. Today, a new church towers over the stepped, narrow streets of Piskopianó.

For its parts, the village of Koutouloufári remains a fine example of a Cretan hill village with its narrow streets following the contours of the hill. There are some fine buildings of architectural note, with multi-arched buildings. Oil and wine were produced and farm animals were sheltered on the ground floors, while families slept on a raised loft or upper floor if one existed. Most of these buildings are stone-built, with the minimum of dressing. Many have been turned into houses in recent generations, others have been turned into shops and restaurants, but a handful are still in ruins.

After a stroll on the beach in Hersonisos last night, I went to dinner with some friends who own an hotel in Piskopianó. We went to a tiny mountain village, above Neapolis, the one town in Crete that can boast of being the birthplace of a Pope.

The conversation lasted longer than the food, and we talked about old friends, compared politics in Greece and Ireland, failed to solve the present economic crisis in Greece, and let our humorous imaginations run riot with dreams about the future face of tourism and tourists in Greece.

I was woken shortly after 6 this morning by the sun rising in the east over the blue sea of the Aegean. Less than two hours later, the bells of the small church were ringing across Koutouloufári. The welcome was warm from both priests and people, and the church was packed, and after the Liturgy there was a first anniversary commemoration of a local woman who died last year.

This afternoon, I may head off to Knossos. This evening I hope to have another stroll along the beach at Hersonisos before heading back up the mountain to Koutouloufári.

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