12 July 2017

The sun sets on another
holiday in Greece

Sunset on the beach at Platanias in Rethymnon last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The sun has set on another holiday in Greece.

It is late on Wednesday evening [12 July 2017], and I am at the airport in Chania, where I arrived two weeks ago, waiting to board a late-night flight to Dublin.

This has been the sixth consecutive year I have stayed in Rethymnon, and this is the third year in a row that I have stayed in Platanias, just 4.5 km east of Rethymnon on the long sandy beach that stretches for miles along on the coast.

Last night at sunset, two of us walked along the beach at Platanias watching the sun set in the Mediterranean beyond the Fortezza in Rethymnon to the west.

Because of the high tides churned up by the full moon, it has not been possible to swim in the sea some days. But there have been walks by the sea each day, mainly in Platanias, but also at the harbours in Rehtymnon and Iraklion, in Panormos and Georgioupoli, and there have been days by the pool too.

There have been visits to small vineyards and vast expanses of olive groups, trips into the mountains and along the Mediterranean coast with its bays, beaches and sandy coves, visits to the monastery in Arkadi, visits to friends in Piskopiano in the hills above Hersonissos, a stop-over in neighbouring Koutoulafari, and a journey to the waterfalls at Argyroupolis and the lake at Kournas.

Platanias is only a 10-minute, €8 taxi trip into the centre of Rethhymnon, and there have days strolling around the back streets and narrow alley ways, browsing in the book shops, visiting the studios of artists and icon writers and seeping in the architectural and archaeological legacy of this Venetian city.

As well as going to church in Platanias and Tsemes on Sunday mornings, I have visited cathedrals, churches, chapels and monasteries in Rethymnon, Iralklion, Piskopiano, Koutouloufari, Arkadi, Argyroupolis and Panormos and the tiny chapel of Aghios Nikoloas on a rocky islet off the coast at Georgioupoli, reached on foot along a long and narrow spit of an artificial causeway that is constantly washed over by the waves.

Perhaps the three cultural highlights of these two weeks have been my visits to the Museum of Christian Art, housed in the former church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in Iraklion, the new museum in the monastery of Arkadi, and the workshop of the iconographer Alexandra Kaouki, beneath the slops of the Fortezza in Rethymnon.

On most mornings, I have enjoyed breakfast on the terrace overlooking the gardens at Julia Apartments where I have been staying in Platanias. There was fresh bread from the bakers’ shop on the ground floor, and fresh fruit and orange juice from the supermarket a few doors away. But because of a late winter, there were no fresh figs for breakfast this year.

Although the temperatures have been in the high 30s in Crete for the past few weeks, the trees and the flowers are still in full bloom, so that the afternoon walks to and from the beach have been through beautiful arrays of hibiscus, bougainvillea and riots of purple, pink, white, yellow and red that paint a colourful scene against the bright blue of the sky and the sea.

My walking averages each day have been over 5 km, and with the healthy food I have been eating in the local restaurants each evening, it feels as though this has been a good holiday for my health. Once again, the warm hospitality and genuine welcome from Greeks has been overwhelming.

This afternoon, a chance encounter on the street with a former student and priest-colleague from the Church of Ireland led to five of us having a lengthy afternoon lunch in a shaded corner in Platanias before a final walk on the beach.

It is back to work tomorrow, refreshed spiritually, mentally and physically. The journey from Dublin to Askeaton tomorrow may take as long as the flight from Crete to Dublin tonight, and at times this week the day-time temperatures in Ireland have been half those in Crete. There is a diocesan meeting in Limerick later on Thursday, and I need to finalise my preparations and sermons for Sunday’s services.

Next week, I am back in England for three days for the annual residential conference of the Anglican mission agency, USPG. The conference was in Swanwick, Derbyshire, last year, but returns to High Leigh in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, this year. I am chairing one of the sessions on Wednesday morning, and hope to visit Cambridge too before I catch a late-night flight back on Wednesday.

I have known Rethymnon since the 1980s, I have stayed here perhaps a dozen times, and I have been to Greece almost 40 times. But I shall be back in Greece sooner than expected. A surprise present means two of us are going to visit Athens for two or three days next month [August 2017].

A colourful corner of Platanias in Rethymnon, walking back from the beach this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Greeks have a word
for it: (15) Europe

A troika of flags at the entrance to Arkadi Monastery: the European Union, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Outside the castellated walls of the Monastery of Arkadi, three flags fly side-by-side in the summer breeze greeting new arrivals at the car park: the flags of the European Union, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Greece.

The middle flag is an interesting reminder that this monastery and the Church of Crete are not part of the Church of Greece but come under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

Irish people who are concerned with the symbolism of flying national flags on church premises today [12 July] may take a second look at a national flag flying so proudly at the entrance to a monastery. But Orthodoxy has always been intertwined with Greek national identity and pride.

The Greek flag is known popularly to as the ‘sky-blue-white or the ‘blue-white’ (Γαλανόλευκη or Κυανόλευκη). Its nine stripes of blue and white represent the nine syllables of the slogan Ελευθερία ή Θάνατος (‘Freedom or Death’). These are the words said to have been on the lips of people who died in Arkadi in the horrific explosion in 1866. Captain Michalis, the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis on the Cretan struggle for independence, was subtitled Freedom or Death, and it was published under this name in Britain and other countries.

The EU flag may also come as a surprise to some visitors. Greeks have suffered severely under the present programmes of austerity, and when they do not blame corruption in the public sector for their present woes, they regularly lay the blame at the Troika, and more particularly at the EU, especially Germany and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

But like many public projects in Greece, the restoration of Arkadi and the opening of the monastery’s new museum last year would not have been possible without strong funding from the EU. Greeks know any public spending project is heavily dependent on EU funds, and despite talks of a possible ‘Grexit’ a few years ago, Greeks remain determinedly loyal to the European dream.

Greeks will casually point out that not only did they give Europe democracy, but here in Crete they even point out they gave Europe its very name.

In Greek mythology, Europa (Εὐρώπη, Eurṓpē) was the mother of King Minos of Crete, a woman with Phoenician origin, and the story of her abduction by Zeus in the form of a white bull is a story in Cretan mythology.

The earliest literary reference to Europa is by Homer in the Iliad, which is commonly dated to the 8th century BC. Another early reference to her is in a fragment of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women discovered at Oxyrhynchus. The earliest vase-painting securely identifiable as Europa dates from mid-7th century BC.

The Greek word Εὐρώπη (Eurṓpē contains the elements εὐρύς (eurus), ‘wide’ or ‘broad,’ and ὤψ/ὠπ-/ὀπτ- (ōps/ōp-/opt-) ‘eye, face, countenance.’ It is common in ancient Greek mythology and geography to identify lands or rivers with female figures.

Europa is first used in a geographic context in the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, in reference to the western shore of the Aegean Sea. As a name for a part of the known world, it is first used in the 6th century BC by Anaximander and Hecataeus.

The name Europe, as a geographical term, was used by Ancient Greek geographers such as Strabo to refer to part of Thrace below the Balkan mountains. Later, during the Roman Empire, the name was given to a Thracian province.

The use of the word ‘Europa’ in Church documents from the eighth century for the imperial territory of Charlemagne provide the source for the modern geographical term Europe.

The first use of the term Europenses, to describe peoples of the Christian, western portion of the continent, appeared in the Hispanic Latin Chronicle of 754, in a reference to the Battle of Tours fought against Muslim forces.

The EU also used Europa as a symbol, depicting her on the Greek €2 coin – replaced by an image of Arkadi on a special commemorative €2 coin last year – and on several gold and silver commemorative coins. The second series of euro banknotes is known as the ‘Europa Series’ and her image can be seen in the watermark and the hologram. Which brings me right back to spending Euros and flying the EU flag at the gates of Arkadi.

Europa on the Greek €2 coin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)