04 July 2016

A morning visit to a monastery in
the olive groves above Rethymnon

The Monastery of Saint Anastasia the Roman amid the olive groves on the slopes above Tsesmes and Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

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.

The main church in the Monastery of Saint Anastasia looks largely unfinished (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.

Inside, the unfinished appearance gives the monastery church a stark and simple spirituality (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.

The suburbs of Rethymnon and the Mediterranean Sea spread out below the Monastery of Saint Anastasia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.

An icon of Saint Anastasia the Roman in the main monastery church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.

In the gardens and cloisters of the Monastery of Saint Anastasia the Roman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Greek roadside shrines remind travellers
of a life lost and so many lives saved

Roadside shrines or ‘kandylakia’ are a source of puzzlement for visitors and pious reminders for Greeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I was at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday [3 July 2016] in the local Greek Orthodox parish church in the village of Tsesmes, which is just a stroll from Julia Apartments, where I am staying in Platanes, just a little east of Rethymnon.

It is a typical Greek village church, but with very few frescoes and small in size, perhaps because when it was being built in 1970s nobody planned for the tourism boom in this part of Crete – and if they did, they no-one ever imagined that non-Greeks would go to church in a small, ordinary Orthodox church on Sunday.

But there are even smaller replicas of Orthodox churches that first-time visitors often ask about in conversations with a long-time visitor like me.

Road-side shrines or kandylakia (καντηλάκια) are small shrines that can be seen throughout Greece, usually on the side of roads, often on awkward corners and bends on the road, but sometimes too in the gardens of homes or even at the entrance to a restaurant.

The shrines are often seen on winding, steep roads, on hairpin bends and on precipitous slopes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

These shrines, which look like miniature typical Orthodox parish churches, are unique to Greek culture and life. They seem to be especially prominent on winding, steep roads, on hairpin bends and on precipitous slopes.

Usually visitors are told they commemorate someone who has died in a tragic accident. But sometimes they are thank-offerings from someone who survived a potentially fatal accident. In these cases, they have been paid for by a survivor or a survivor’s family to give thanks for a life saved rather than a life lost.

These kandylakia or small shrines can be made of concrete, stone, metal, wood, wood, marble and even ceramic materials. Although they often look alike, each one is unique.

Inside, the shrines have icons, candles and votive lights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Inside, they usually have icons, perhaps of a favourite family saint, and beeswax candles or votive lamps lit by olive oil. Some may even have even have a small hand censer for burning incense.

Greek custom expects at least one icon and a votive candle inside a shrine. Some families include small bottles of holy oil and request that the date and name of the person who died or who was saved is inscribed on the kandylaki.

The burning lights inside a shrine can be seen by passers-by (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The shrines have a central door, along with some small windows so the burning lights inside can be seen by passers-by. In some cases, especially in larger cities, kandylakia may even be large enough for someone to walk into and use as their own small prayer corner.

In the more mountainous parts of Crete, kandylakia may be carved into the side of a cliff rather than being erected as free-standing shrines on the side of a road.

In large cities, such as Athens and Thessaloniki, they are also used by passers-by as public prayer corners where they can stop and pray when the neighbouring church is closed, or saving them the time and commitment of visiting the church in the middle of a busy or fraught day. They may even have a small donation box.

In some cemeteries, I have seen kandylakia where people may pray for or commemorate dead family members.

Some kandylakia are the size of a child’s playhouse with space inside that is just large enough to hold small ceremonies. These can serve as private chapels on private property, or they may be used as the family’s private icon or prayer corner.

The ‘kandylakia’ represent the world of Greeks in miniature (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The kandylakia represent the world of Greeks in miniature: their religious outlook, their attitudes towards families, relatives and ancestors. For the Greeks, remembrance is a cornerstone of society, remembrance of family, history, religion and culture. Family members say prayers there periodically and tend a shrine as lovingly as they would tend a grave.

The kandylakia reminds every Greek traveller of the need to learn a lesson from a close-call around the bend and to appreciate life. They are warning signs from local families to passing drivers. Just as they can mark one life lost, they can also mark many lives spared.

The kandylakia can be made of concrete, stone, metal, wood, wood, marble and even ceramic materials and each one is unique(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)