03 July 2012

A day in the mountain villages above Rethymnon

A quiet corner in the sun in Adele in the hills above Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

The resorts to the east of Rethymnon spread for miles in a ribbon along the north coast of Crete, full of cheap shops and restaurants and a growing number of fur shops that specialise in catering solely for money-laden Russian tourists.

Driving through this glitter, it appears at first glance that there is little of the “Real Greece” in this area. But we found out this morning that once you turn off the main highway that runs to Iraklion, there are pretty, traditional villages, each with its own story, and monasteries that played unique roles in the history of Crete.

The village of Adele is in a green and verdant plain, abundantly rich in olive groves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We arrived first in Adele, a small village 9 km east of Rethymnon, in a green and verdant plain that is abundantly rich in olive groves, and trees laden with oranges, lemons, apricots and prickly pears.

The church of the Monastery of Aghios Panteleimon ... its feast day is later this month on 27 July (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Although Adele is a small village, with a population of fewer than 450 people, it is the seat of the Municipality of Arkadi. We stopped to see the church of the Monastery of Aghios Panteleimon (feast day 27 July) and visited a traditional textile workshop.

The statue of Kostas Giamboudakis near the Porta Guora in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But Adele is also the home village of Kostas Giamboudakis, the hero of the destruction of the Monastery of Arkadi, which is one of the formative incidents in Cretan history. His statue stands near the Porta Guora, three or four minutes walk from where I am staying in Rethymnon.

On 8 November 1866, the Monastery of Arkadi was surrounded by thousands of Turks. Giamboudakis asked Abbot Gabriel Marinakis for permission to set off the gunpowder stored in the monastery. Many women and children were inside the monastery, but Giamboudakis decided they should all die together to protect them from the shame of falling into Turkish hands. All present were given an option to leave, but each and every one opted for self-sacrifice rather than surrender.

From Adele, we travelled on to the village of Pigi, about 1 km east of Adele and 9 km east of Rethymnon on the road to Arkadi. Pigi has a history dating back to the Venetian period, and we stopped briefly for refreshments in a village with a refreshing name.

The English traveller Robert Pashley was the first to write about the origins of the name of the village. In his two-volume account of his travels, published in London in 1837, he says the name Pigi “comes from a rich source that supplies the village with excellent water.”

Moni Arsanios in the village of Pagalohori dates from the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From Pigi we travelled on another 5 km east through the village of Pagalohori, 11 km east of Rethymnon, to visit Moni Arsanios (Μονή Αρσανίου), dating from the 16th century. Below us, there were panoramic views out to the Cretan Sea; above us there were views up to Mount Psiloritis, the highest mountain on the island.

The katholikon or main church in the monastery is dedicated to Aghios Georghios (Saint George), and a smaller church is named after Saint Mark the Deaf. But the monastery probably takes its name from a monk called Arsenios, who built the monastery in the 16th century.

The katholikon was dedicated to Saint George in 1600. When The Turks occupied Rethymnon in 1646, the monastery may have been deserted. In 1655, Bishop Neophytos Patelaros put the monastery under the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the Stavropegic and Patriarchal status of Arsaniou was reconfirmed in 1778 and again in 1850.

The Stavropegic status of Moni Arsanios did not protect he monastery from natural and political calamities(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But the Stavropegic status which the protection of the Patriarch of Constantinople gave to the monastery did not protect it from natural and political calamities. Many of the cells of the monastery collapsed under a strong earthquake in 1856, and ten years later, in 1866, the Turks destroyed what they could in the monastery to punish the monks for their revolutionary activities.

A new Church of Saint George was built in 1888 on the ruins of the old church, but the Turks returned in 1896 to burn and plunder the monastery. A year later, they murdered the monk Father Gabriel Klados, hanging his head on a tree in Rethymnon to use for target practice.

By 1900, it looked as though the monastery could not survive, but it was reconstituted in 1903. Further woes came with World War II, when the Germans executed Abbot Damianos Kallergis in 1941 for the support the monks gave to the Greek partisans and the resistance to the Nazis. But the monastery survived. It was renovated in 1970, the katholikon was decorated with frescoes in 1988-1990, and a museum and conference centre were founded.

The Pantokrator in the dome of the katholikon in Moni Arsanios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The katholikon is a cruciform basilica with a dome. There is a fine carved wood ikonostasis (icon screen) and the walls are decorated with vivid frescoes.

Along with the visitors who come to the conference centre and museum, the monastery has a steady daily trickle of tourists. But the future of Moni Arsanios must be a matter of faith today as there are only three monks living permanently there. The two I met on Monday morning are in their mid-80s, the third monk is in his mid-40s.

A modern sculptor on a roundabout on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From Moni Arsanios, it was little more than 20 minutes back into the Rethymnon.

By early afternoon, the morning clouds had broken up and the skies were blue. The waves were tumbling onto the white sand with such rolling strength, beaten up by a northerly breeze, so that even the pleasure boats, paragliders and jet skis had stayed on shore, oblivious to those resorts stretching out along to the east.

The irresistible blue of sky and sea in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But the temperatures were in the mid 30s, and despite the impossibility of swimming in those churning waves we could not resist the attraction of the blue Mediterranean waters, and we lingered a little longer.

In the evening, we joined an old friend from Iraklion for dinner in Akri in the old town, and the conversation between the three of us over the table continued on till late in the evening.

Walking back from the bus station along the rock shoreline beneath the Fortezza the tide was in and the waves were choppy. It should be even more dramatic this evening under the full moon.

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