24 April 2024

A return visit to
the churches and
chapels in Piskopianó
and Koutouloufári

The Church of Aghios Vasilios in Koutouloufári dates from the 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

During my much-needed but all-too-short return visit to Crete, I was staying in Rethymnon, a place I have known intimately for half my life. But there were opportunities too to visit many places in Crete I have come to know and cherish over the last three or four decades, including Platanias, Tsemes and Panormos, east of Rethymnon; Iraklion, the main city in Crete and the fourth city of Greece; Hersonissos, east of Iraklion; and Koutouloufári and Piskopianó, two mountain villages that have been transformed into resort villages while still clinging on to their charm and character.

The bus journey from Rethymnon to Hersonissos was lengthy, though not quite the odyssey I had remembered: the buses in Crete have improved and generally run on time, but I was slightly confused by the layout of the new bus station in Iraklion.

The second leg of the journey took me to Hersonissos, and I was visiting my friend Manolis Chrysakis and his family, who have been in the hotel and tourism industry in Piskopianó since the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Byzantine details survive in doorframe in the Church of Aghios Vasilios in Koutouloufári, dating from the 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

For historical reasons, Crete, like some other Greek islands, stands outside the Church of Greece and is part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Archbishop of Crete is based in Iraklion, and Piskopianó is a parish within the Diocese of Petras and Cherronisou. Like all dioceses in Crete, this diocese has had the status of a metropolis since 1962.

Christianity in Crete traces its origins to the mission of the Apostle Paul and his companion Saint Titus, and the head of Saint Titus is an important relic in one of the oldest churches in Iraklion.

The town of Chersonisos first became the seat of a diocese at the end of the fourth century, or the beginning of the fifth century. The large old basilicas that have been excavated in Chersonisos confirm the early importance of the diocese, which became known as the Diocese of Cherronisou (sic).

The first basilica in Hersonissos was built on top of the rock of Kastri. This was a three-aisled basilica, and it was one of the largest churches in Crete. The Bishop of Cherronisou took part in the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in 431. Over 20 years later, the Bishop of Cherronisou signed the Confession of Orthodox Faith in 457 at the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Leo I (457-474).

A larger basilica, Saint Nicholas, was built in Hersonissos in the sixth century. It was 50 metres long and 19 metres wide, and the floor of the narthex and of the middle aisle of the nave were covered in mosaics. The ruins of the baptistry survive beside the church. The remains of a building at the north wall of the narthex are thought to be part of either a Syrian-style tower or a minaret built after the Arabs began using the church as a mosque.

The Saracen raids in the seventh century forced the bishops to abandon their vulnerable coastal centre at Hersonissos, and the diocese was relocated to the safer environment of Piskopianó in the hills above the coast.

The bell of the Church of Aghios Vasilios in Koutouloufári in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

From Hersonissos, I decided to walk rather than taking a taxi up to Koutouloufári, a village I have visited constantly since 1994, and where I have stayed at least times.

It is still Lent in the Calendar of the Orthodox Church, and it would have been interesting to stay in Greece for Easter Week this year, as I have done before. As I strolled around these two villages at the weekend, I had fond memories of the warm welcome I have always received from the people and in the churches in Koutouloufári and Piskopianó throughout the seasons.

The Byzantine church of Aghios Vasilios (Αγιος Βασίλειος, Saint Basil) in Koutouloufári (Κουτουλουφάρι) dates from the 14th century, but it was extended and rebuilt in 1811 and again in 1840, and incorporates parts of the smaller church built many centuries before. The woodcut iconostasis dates from 1850.

It seems there has been a settlement in the Koutouloufári area for centuries. Local historians say the present village has its beginnings in the Byzantine period after a severe earthquake destroyed the port of Hersonissos. The residents moved east to a new settlement at Zambaniana. However, that village suffered severely from constant pirate raids, and the people moved once again, further inland and uphill towards Mount Harakas.

On reaching the church of Saint Basil, they told a local priest named Koutifari what had happened. Father Koutifari gave them land around the church to build a new village, and they named it Koutouloufári in his honour.

As the village prospered and became wealthy, many large buildings were erected. During the Ottoman period, the village was renowned for its oil, wine and almonds.

Inside the Church of Aghios Vasilios in Koutouloufári, in the mountains above Hersonissos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Koutouloufári was almost deserted by the 1970s, with only 150 inhabitants left in the village, and up to 1980, the inhabitants of Koutouloufári were mainly farmers. However, the development of tourism on the north coast of Crete brought investment and work to the area and the population grew once again. The new prosperity also attracted city people who bought old houses in Koutouloufári and restored them.

The village of Koutouloufári remains a fine example of a Cretan hill village, with its narrow streets following the contours of the hill. There are some fine buildings of architectural note, with multi-arched buildings. Oil and wine were produced and farm animals were sheltered on the ground floors, while families slept on a raised loft or upper floor if one existed. Most of these buildings are stone-built, with the minimum of dressing.

Many of these traditional buildings have been turned into houses in recent generations, others have been turned into shops and restaurants, but a handful are still in ruins.

The chapel in the graveyard in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

From Koutouloufári, I strolled along the mountain road east towards Piskopianó, passing so many restaurants where I have eaten in the past, and some of the hotels where I have stayed in the past, including Astra and Ariadni.

One year, when I phoned Manoli in advance to tell him I was visiting Crete later that week, I was greeted warmly and thought I was being invited to see what had been done to the ‘graveyard’. I had to listen again – he referred to the grapeyard, or the vineyard, and the small vines he had been tending.

But there is a graveyard between Koutouloufári and Piskopianó, which probably marks the boundary between the two villages. I stopped at the chapel in the graveyard, and gave thanks for the many people in the past who welcomed me to this part of Crete, which, until the pandemic lockdown, I had been visiting almost every year since the 1980s.

The new Church of the Transfiguration rises high above Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The name of Piskopianó may hint at its earlier, historical, episcopal importance, or it may describe the location of the village, looking out as a balcony over this stretch of the north coast of Crete.

Today, the Church of the Transfiguration (Metamorphosis) dates from 2002. Building work was completed in 2008, and the church was officially blessed and opened in 2014.

The church stands in a large open square, towering above the stepped, narrow streets of Piskopianó and with the mountains as a stunning backdrop.

The church has a wide, four-aisled nave, and inside work continues on completing the frescoes and the wall paintings in bright, modern colours.

Inside the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Piskopianó is a parish within the Diocese of Petras and Cherronisou, and, for a short time, this place was the centre of a diocese.

When Arab pirates started attacking Crete in the seventh century, many early Christian churches and basilicas were destroyed, including the Basilica of Aghia Sophia in Panormos, which I also visited earlier this week.

When Hersonissos was abandoned, the see of the diocese was transferred to Piskopianó, and remained there until the ninth century, when the diocese was relocated to Pedialos.

The image of Christ the Pantocrator surrounded by the Four Evangelists on the ceiling in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The old basilica in Piskopianó was a three-aisled church built in the sixth century. It was 45 metres long and 20 metres wide, it had an interior arch that was 9.4 metres in diameter, and its floor was covered with marble.

While the Bishops of Cherronisou were seated in Piskopianó, they are mentioned in official documents from the eighth to the tenth centuries, and the Bishop of Cherronisou took part in the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 787 AD.

The diocese was relocated to Pediados in the tenth century, and in the 19th century it was seated in the Monastery of Agatathos.

The earlier Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Maryin Piskopianó, with its Byzantine-style doorframe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Meanwhile, the older parish church, the Church of Eisodia Theotokou or the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, still stands on the square, west of the newer, modern church.

I knew this older, smaller church intimately when I went there every Sunday when I spent weeks on end in Piskopianó in the 1990s. It is a small single-nave, barrel vaulted church that dates from the 19th century and that has been renovated a few times since then.

The church incorporates an earlier Byzantine-style doorframe. The iconostasis is woodcut, with gold encrusted leaves, and the icons on the iconostasis date from 1863. The marble in the sanctuary probably comes from the earlier Basilica of Piskopianó, which has not been excavated yet.

Inside the Church of Eisodia Theotokou in Piskopianó, built in the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Behind the 19th century church, the south wall of an older barrel-vaulted church has been preserved. The wall was decorated with paintings, and I understand some of these have been preserved, including a scene of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and the figures of the three saints.

Between the churches, on the south side of the square, two 19th century buildings have been renovated and serve as the priest’s office and as a guesthouse.

Below these churches, the tiny Church of Saint Dimitrios has its own bell tower, and is part of the Ecclesiastical Museum built in Piskopianó in 1996.

The tiny Church of Saint Dimitrios beside the Ecclesiastical Museum built in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

From the churches in Piskopianó, it was a short stroll down to Mika Villas, where there was a warm welcome from Manoli and his family.

Over coffee by the pool, we talked for hours about old times and old friends. But it was good to see the changes he has made to the hotel, with new facilities, including renovated rooms, new pools, a new hammam, new gym, new bars and new reception and bar areas.

I last visited Piskopianó and Koutouloufári in July 2017. Walking around Piskopianó last weekend, I could see how tourism in Piskopianó has changed too over the years. The Irish package holiday business there disappeared many years ago with the collapse of Budget Travel. None of the hotels now caters for Irish tourists in any significant numbers, the former ‘Irish bars’ have changed or closed, sops have been transformed and renamed, and some of my favourite restaurants have closed, including Lychnos, which had its balcony overlooking the olive groves below and with a panoramic view out to the sea.

Mika Villas in Piskopianó … transformed in recent years by Manolis Chrysakis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

As I walked back down from the hill from Piskopianó to Hersonissos and the coast, I realised how I once thought I knew every building, every hotel, restaurant and bar, and every olive grove on this road.

There was a time when I walked down this road on a daily basis to buy a newspaper and walked back up again each day in the 1990s. It feels as though I once knew every detail of this route on those daily walks almost 30 years ago.

On this sunny April afternoon, it was comforting once again to take my time in sunshine and the coolness of a spring afternoon and appreciate the beauty of those hillside olive groves.

I was catching another bus Hersonissos back into Iraklion, where I was having dinner with yet another old friend.

The olive groves on the hillsides between Piskopianó and Koutouloufári above Hersonissos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
25, 24 April 2024

‘I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness’ (John 12: 46) … looking out into the village of Piskopiano in Crete from the Church of the Transfiguration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost. The week began here with the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Easter IV), although this is still the Season of Great Lent in Greece, and Sunday last was the Fifth Sunday in Lent in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today remembers Saint Mellitus (624), Bishop of London and first Bishop at Saint Paul’s, and the Seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood, Solomon Islands, who were martyred in 2003.

Later this evening, I hope to take part in choir rehearsals in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford. But, before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

Saint John the Evangelist depicted in a fresco in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopiano in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

John 12: 44-50 (NRSVA):

44 Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. 47 I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, 49 for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’

‘Whoever sees me sees him who sent me’ (John 12: 45) … the Ancient of Days depicted in a fresco in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopiano in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Wednesday 24 April 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Living by faith is hard, and it is never the obvious path.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with an extract taken from a sermon by the Revd Chris Parkman, Chaplain at Saint John’s Menton, and volunteer for A Rocha France at Les Courmettes.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (24 April 2024, United Nations International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for peace in the world. May all in positions of power actively pursue justice and peace and protect the lives of those who live in danger of war and conflict.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again:
keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Risen Christ,
faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep:
teach us to hear your voice
and to follow your command,
that all your people may be gathered into one flock,
to the glory of God the Father.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Saint Mellitus Church in Tollington Park, Islington … Saint Mellitus is remembered in the Calendar of Common Worship on 24 April (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org