Monday, 4 July 2016
A morning visit to a monastery in
the olive groves above Rethymnon
The terrace in front of my rooms in Julia Apartments in Platanes look out on a beautiful rich garden, with a wide variety of trees, plants and multi-coloured summer flowers.
The apartments at the back of the building look up to the mountains of Crete, with their olive groves, twisting roads that wind their way through the valleys, and hill-top villages that predate the arrival of the Venetians and the Turks on the island.
On the crest of one those outcrops stands a large new church, as yet unpainted but surrounded with rich and colourful gardens.
Already I have been to the neighbouring village of Tsesmes, which leads on to the old road to the Venetian village of Maroulas.
But my eye was caught the other day by a sign in the village indicating the road to the Monastery of Saint Anastasia the Roman. It was only 1.5 km walk, or so the sign promised. With this promise in mind, two of us set out on a walk along the mountain track to the monastery this morning.
The waking distance was more like 3 km, and we certainly felt it in the heat of the morning sun as we left Platanes and Tsesmes behind us and climbed up through the olive groves and the rustic landscape.
The monastery is off the beaten track, down a side road off a minor road. No tourist buses or guided tours ever reach here, and in its simplicity and its stillness we found a spiritual welcome.
The Monastery of Saint Anastasia the Roman is the first monastery in Greece dedicated to this saint. It was founded in 2008 by a visionary monk from Rethymnon, Father Vassilis, who had spent some time on Mount Athos, and it has been a full monastery – albeit a monastery with only one monk – since July 2009.
The large katholikon or main monastery church is still unfished. Outside, the concrete walls have still not been rendered or plastered. Inside there are no frescoes on the walls and the icon screen has a few simple, modern icons.
The stark simplicity adds to the spiritual atmosphere of the church. Beside it is smaller chapel of Saint Kosmas the Aetolian.
Father Vassilis worked away quietly in the gardens as moved around freely admiring his flowers and plants. There was no museum, no souvenir shop, and nothing to detract from the tranquillity and the peace we had found there.
Below us, the coastal plain east of Rethymnon spread out as a joyful vista. From our balcony, we could see Julia Apartments immediately below us and pick out familiar features in Tsesmes and Platanes. To the west, clearly visible, the dome and the fortezza basked in the late morning sunshine.
The blue Mediterranean sea was beyond, calm and peaceful as far as the distant horizon.
But who is Saint Anastasia the Roman?
This word anastasis is Greek for resurrection, and there are two Saint Anastasias in the Lives of the saints, both from prominent and famous families and who both confessed their faith in Rome.
The first was forced by her parents to marry a non-Christian man. He died a few days later, she lived the rest of her life as an ascetic, giving all her property to the poor. She was martyred by fire during the reign of Diocletian, and is commemorated on 22 December.
The second Saint Anastasia never married and also died a martyr’s death during the reign of Decius and she is remembered on 12 October.
We were the only visitors to the monastery this morning. The road back down to Tsesmes seemed easier, and for that seemed shorter. It was 6 or 7 km round trip.
We stopped for lunch in Pagona’s Bar, and lingered for longer than we expected. It may be one of the finest lunches I have had in recent years in Crete. I shall return.