Monday, 2 September 2013

Visiting two monasteries in the
mountains south of Rethymnon

A quiet corner in the monastery of Agia Irini, 5 km south of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

A holiday in Greece has always had its spiritual dimension for me, and this morning I caught a bus from the centre of Rethymnon up into the mountains above the town and visited two monasteries about five to 12 km south of the town.

It was a beautiful sun-kissed day, and the olive groves were basking in the warmth of the morning sunshine as the bus climbed up through the hills, leaving the blue sea behind us as we drove on through the Gorge of Myli.

The church at Chalevi is known for its magnificent flame or teardrop-shaped windows (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Our first stop was at the Monastery of Panagia Chalevi, on the way to the village of Chromonastiri, about 12 km south of Rethymnon.

This Venetian-era monastery dates from the 16th or 17th century, but all the monastery buildings have been abandoned since the end of the Turkish occupation and only the single-aisle church remains in repair and in use.

The church is dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (Panagia), and has magnificent flame or teardrop-shaped windows. Beside it stand the ruined monastic buildings, which were built like a fortress and since 1980 it has been a protected monument.

The monastery once had stavropegic standing, which meant it was under the direct authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Although the stavropegic standing was lost in 1725, it was restored in 1850 by Patriarch Anthimos IV, and the church which had been abandoned once before was restored in 1864.

However, Chalevi ceased to function as a monastery once again in 1900, and in 1935 it became a dependency of the Arsaniou Monastery. In 1991, the monastery was attached to the restored monastery of Agia Irini.

We stopped briefly to have a look at the military museum in the village of Chromonastiri, before returning to the Gorge of Myli, and along the winding road through the village of Roussospiti, which clings to the side of the rocky mountain, before arriving at the gates to the Monastery of Agia Irini (Saint Irene), which stands 260 metres above Rethymnon, which is 5 km to the north.

Agia Irini may have been founded some time between 961 and 1204 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Agia Irini is one of the oldest monasteries in Crete. Some accounts say it was founded some time between 961 and 1204, and it was certainly built before 1362, when a Venetian document testifies to its existence.

But the monastery was destroyed several times during the many revolutions in Crete against Ottoman rule, and after the revolution of 1821 at the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, the monastery went into decline.

In 1844, the Schools Commission assumed the management of the monastery and in 1866, after it suffered great damage at the hands of the Turks, the monastery was granted to the nearby monastery of Chalevi.

However, during the last Cretan revolution of 1897-1898, the Turks burnt the monastery, the ruined monastery was formally closed in 1900, and the ruins remained deserted for most of the 20th century.

At first, the monastery lands were granted to the monastery of Arsani, but in 1925 the lands were distributed among local Greek war veterans.

The grave of Metropolitan Theodoros Tzedakis outside the church in Agia Irini (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Sister Akaterina, who brought us on a tour of the monastery, told us how the Metropolitan of Rethymnon, the late Bishop Theodoros Tzedakis, had a vision in 1989 for the restoration of the monastery and invited a group of nuns to form a new community at Agia Irini.

The nuns moved into the buildings and restoration work started in 1990. At the time, Agia Irini was a jumble of dilapidated buildings. Today, it must be one of the most beautiful monasteries in Crete, having been restored with great care, using the principles of monastic architecture from a bygone era.

The restoration work was acknowledged in 1995 with the annual European Union award for cultural heritage, the Europa Nostra Award.

The restoration work was acknowledged with the Europa Nostra Award in 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

From the entrance, the monastery looks like a walled fortress. Unlike other churches, the main church is not in the centre of the enclosure but outside it on the higher level of the sacred rock.

Sister Akaterina told us how the church was officially opened in 2003, and was consecrated two years ago on 20 August 2011 by Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria.

On the ruins of an old olive mill stands the smaller chapel of Saint Raphael, Saint Nicholas and Saint Irene. The monastery also has a small museum, a refectory, and workshops for icon painting, embroidery and sewing. The nuns use olive oil and tsoikoudia from their own trees and grapes to make hand-made soap and her extracts.

Outside the courtyard, an older three-aisled church of Saint Irene, Saint Catherine and Saint Euphemia is awaiting restoration.

Eight nuns now live in the monastery. In their shop, the nuns sell traditional handicrafts of weaving and needlework, their own almond-flavoured drink, candles, religious books and icons, including unusual icons written on odd pieces of ceramic. Two of the nuns took part in the recent icon exhibition in Rethymnon as part of the Renaissance Festival which closed on Sunday.

It was another 5 km journey back down the mountain to the coast and Rethymnon, where we spent the late afternoon in the sun on the beach, swimming and walking along the shore.

The corner kiosk ... an essential part
of the way of life in every Greek town

How could daily life on Tsouderon Street continue without this unique contribution to the rhythm and character of Greek daily life? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

On the day I arrived in Rethymnon last year I was saddened to see the local períptero beside the bank in Tsouderon Street had closed, with the shutters pulled down and bolted. My worst fear was that the downturn in the Greek economy had brought about its permanent closure.

Those fears were allayed when it opened the next day. How could daily life on Tsouderon Street continue with this unique contribution to the rhythm and character of Greek daily life? Thankfully it is still there this year. For the períptero (περίπτερος) or kiosk is a part of everyday life in Greece and an essential element of the streetscape of every Greek city and town.

The local periptero meets local needs from early in the morning to late at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Early in the morning or late into night, the períptero is the first and last place most Greeks look for when they are buying buy a newspaper, cigarettes, ice cream or soft drinks. In the days before mobile phones, this was the place to make a phone call. The kiosks sell everything imaginable, from pens, lighters, postcards, stamps and disposable razors, to kombolói (κομπολόι), the worry beads that serve every Greek male as an antidote to smoking.

Late at night, long after the last shop has closed, you do not have to walk far to find a kiosk that is still open. One recent count estimated there are 46,000 períptera throughout Greece, with 1,200 in central Athens alone, 5,500 throughout Athens and 1,500 in Thessaloníki. In Rethymnon, there is virtually one on every street corner. They usually open all day long, from morning until late at night, seven days a week.

Some of my other favourite períptera include one in Syntagma Square, outside the Economy Ministry in Athens, where I found a toothbrush and socks late at night after my luggage failed to arrive with me, and another in Venizelou Square on Iráklion which has the most bedazzling range and variety of newspapers.

As a major outlet for high consumption goods, the small kiosks are big business throughout Greece. They contribute to up to 5% of the annual GDP of Greece, and the average daily turnover of a single kiosk can total €1,500 – it is said a well-located períptero can take as much as €2,500 a day. Even in these bad days for the Greek economy, the local períptero has its takings boosted by the boom in tourism this year.

The three main product lines in a períptero are cigarettes, newspapers and ice cream (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The three main product lines contributing to this high turnover are cigarettes, newspapers and ice cream. Greek law allows one tobacco sales point for every 400 people, and because the kiosk operators take up most of this quota they enjoy a virtual monopoly on cigarette sales.

Greece has a large number and variety of daily national and local newspapers. Most kiosks string the daily newspapers up like washing on a line – many even use clothes pegs to secure the afternoon editions to make front-page easy reading for passers-by.

When it comes to ice cream sales, many kiosks are operating close to the margins of the law. They are supposed to sell dairy products at a regulated distance from shops and supermarkets. But manufacturers’ pressures and inducements ensure few supermarkets ever complain formally. Local regulations usually limit kiosks to two fridges each, but the distributors of ice cream and soft drinks, anxious to promote their own brands, often put pressure on the operators to take more, so that fridges and coolers take up space on the street.

Some local officials turn a blind eye, but others are more rigorous in pursuing operators with extra fridges. The kiosk managers are at the mercy of local regulators, but are particularly vulnerable when they are dealing with the kiosk proprietors.

A modern períptero on a street corner in modern part of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But you cannot buy a períptero. A law dating back to 1949 allows only wounded soldiers drawing a pension from the Defence Ministry to own a kiosk. Although Greece sent troops to the Balkans in recent decades, traditional tensions with Turkey eased long ago, and Greek troops have not fought in a war in the memories of most Greeks.

So, the proprietors are often soldiers’ widows, or policemen and soldiers who have been injured in peacetime activities. Most are not involved in the daily management of their kiosks, and many kiosks have been have been passed down the family line.

The law allows the owners to rent their períptera for three-year periods than can be renewed, and it is estimated that fewer than 5 per cent of kiosks are owner-managed, while more than 95 per cent are rented. Indeed, the licence owners often demand high initial down payments and high weekly rents.

‘The kiosk. / Standing on its feet all day/ with its small-stock melancholy, / dressed / in its afternoon papers’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Greek poet Kiki Dimoula portrays everyday life in Athens in her poems. In Mourning in Kypseli Square, she talks of

... the kiosk.
Standing on its feet all day
with its small-stock melancholy,
in its afternoon papers.

But the reality is less melancholy and more colourful. These small, stand-alone mini local shops are often wooden cabins. At one time, they were generally painted yellow, although many today many are made of steel.

The local períptero is usually colourful and is seldom melancholy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The legal size of a períptero is small – just 1.9 metres square for the central cabin, with an extra one metre all around, generally used as an area for displaying newspapers, or keeping a fridge or two or a freezer stocked with ice cream and cold drinks. The displays often spill out onto the streets, sometimes taking up more extra space than the original kiosk itself. But because of their convenience, few people complain – apart from neighbouring shopkeepers.

The central cabin generally has small windows on three sides, with a door at the rear. Normally, only the front window is used for shopping; even when the other windows are open, they are intended to allow the seller to watch his shop and goods. Most of the time, the seller is alone managing his business. Inside, when the space is overloaded with stock, the cabin has no space for two.

Although everyone in Greece now seems to have at least two mobile phones, some períptera still have a telephone at one of the side windows for local people.

The whole kiosk is generally covered by a colourful protective canvas, often sponsored by cigarette or soft-drink brands, with overhanging eaves that are often dripping with kombolói (worry beads), newspapers, plastic beach toys and postcards. In addition, many períptera have stocks of phone cards and prepaid cards for mobile phones, ice creams, confectionery, soft drinks, magazines and postcards. Others sell football scarves and pins with Greek flags or the logo of the local football clubs.

This is also the place to buy sweets, chocolate, chewing gum, pasteli (παστέλι, the uniquely Greek sesame-seed-and-honey bar), as wells as batteries, ballpoint pens, stickers, towels, razors, shampoo, contraceptives, metro tickets, bus tickets and parking tickets. At archaeological sites such as the Acropolis in Athens or Knossos in Crete they sell guidebooks, maps, tourist trinkets and cheap figurines.

Few períptera ever accept credit cards. The culturally-accepted and expected habit when it comes to paying is to place your money on a little tray like a coloured ashtray, on the counter, and your change is placed there too.

In the past, because this is a cash-based business, kiosk operators faced the constant danger of armed thieves demanding cash or phone cards. It remains to be seen whether the new threats to the survival of the kiosks are the disastrous downturn in the Greek economy or the anti-smoking laws and increased taxation on tobacco.

A kiosk in the sunshine on the seafront in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)