25 April 2024

An afternoon visit to
four churches and
the site of a basilica
in Panormos in Crete

The modern Church of Saint Agathopodos looms large above the small coastal town of Panormos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The tourism business in Crete is waking slowly after a winter of hibernation. Cities like Rethymnon, Chania and Iraklion are busy already. But, although this is the end of April, many restaurants and hotels are still closed, and they are waiting until Easter, which is late in the Greek calendar this year (5 May 2024) before opening their doors this year.

The long winter recess gives hoteliers and restaurateurs extended opportunities to redecorate, redesign and refurbish, to rethink their menus and to clean out the wimming pools.

Platanias, on the lengthy coast stretch east of Rethymnon, seemed quiet over the last few days. There is a limited bus service from Rethymnon along the route that is known locally as ‘Hotels.’ When I visited some of the hotels and restaurants I have known for many years, everything seemed quiet from the street. But when I stepped inside, hotels like La Stella and restaurants like Merem, Myli, Vergina, Finikas and Pagona’s Place, they were hives of activity preparing for the new tourist season.

Panormos, east of Rethymnon in Crete, is ‘picture postcard’ Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The taxi rank in Platanias had a few white taxis every time I passed by, but the hourly shuttle bus was running between the bus station in Rethymnon and Panormos 20 km to the east had been reduced to one every two hours.

I spent last Thursday morning in Platanias, sipping cups of coffee with old friends before going for a long walk on the beach. Even there, there were no sun beds on the beach, and the small beach bar at Pavlos Beach had not yet opened.

On Sunday afternoon, I decided to catch the bus out to Panormos, once a fishing village but now a pretty resort. Panormos is picture-postcard Greece, with its neat blue-and-white doors and windows, colourful overhanging bougainvillea and hibiscus, old vines draped across crumbling gates, boutique hotels and shops, cobbled streets, ruined mediaeval Milopotamos castle, the small beaches and an old harbour.

The Church of the Ascension and Saint George in the heart of Panormos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

On previous holidays in Rethymnon and Platanias, it had become something of a tradition to go to Panormos for Sunday lunch. Since then, life has changed, circumstances have changed, and I was on my own on last Sunday. But Panormos was still an inviting and welcoming place to visit that afternoon.

Few of the restaurants were opened last weekend. In the past, I have spent lazy Sunday afternoons over long, lingering lunches in Porto Parasiris (2019, 2021) and Ankyra (2016, 2017) overlooking Limanaki, the sandy beach. Both places had still not reopened last weekend, but I had yet another long, lingering lunch at the other end of the beach in the Captain’s House, overlooking the harbour and the crystal-clear waters.

But the real reason I wanted to visit Panormos last weekend was to see five churches: the Church of Aghios Georgios, with its splendid dome and majestic fresco of Christ Pantocrator; the ruins of the Basilica of Aghia Sophia, dating from the fifth or sixth century; the cemetery chapel; the church ruins in the mediaeval castle; and the recently-built Church of Saint Agathopodos, named after a saint from Panormos who is counted among the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete.

The ruins of the Basilica of Aghia Sophia, dating from the fifth or sixth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Crete has been a crossroads of civilisations since antiquity because of its geographical position between Asia, Europe and Africa. It is believed that Panormos stands on the site of the Roman city Panormus.

Panormos is also known as Kastelli of Milopotamos or the Castle of Milopotamos because the castle of Mylopotamos (Castello di Milopotamo) above the harbour was built by the Genoese pirate Enrico Pescatore ca 1206-1212.

Within decades, the Venetians captured castle during their conquest of Crete. The castle was besieged by the Kapsokalives family in 1341, when it was held for the Venetians by Alexios Kallergis, but they failed to capture it. Hayreddin Barbarossa and his pirates attacked the castle and set it on fire in 1538. But the Venetians restored it immediately because of its strategic location.

Venetian rule came to an end here in 1647 when the castle was seized by the Turks as they marched from Rethymnon on Iraklion (Candia), although the Venetian General Gildasi (Gil d’Has) tried in vain to retake it.

Today, all that is left of this once strategic Venetian fort is a small part of the wall that looks like a pile of stones on a rocky outcrop above the beach and harbour, with the ruins of a church, where the emblem of the Kallergis family can still be seen.

The Basilica of Aghia Sophia was once the largest church in Western Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

To the south-west of the village, a small road goes under the main road from Rethymnon to Iraklion and leads along a narrow country road to the remains of the Basilica of Aghia Sophia. It was built in the fifth or sixth century and was once the largest church in Western Crete, an indication of how Panormos was an important Church centre in early Christian times.

In the west, the word basilica is associated with a church that has received a specific papal recognition. But in the Orthodox Church, the word is an architectural description of churches built in an ancient style, and it makes no claims about the importance of a church or the priests associated with it.

According to archaeologists, the Basilica of Aghia Sophia in Panormos was the seat of the Diocese of Eleftherna, which transferred there after the destruction of the ancient city of Panormos. In time, the name Aghia Sophia was given to the entire area around the basilica.

Aghia Sophia was destroyed in a Saracen raid in the seventh century, but may have continued in use until the ninth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Like most coastal basilicas of that era, this basilica was built in the fifth and sixth centuries, and was once one of the largest in Crete, measuring 54 metres in length and 23 metres in width, with a wooden roof.

This was a basilica with a nave, two aisles, a simple apse and transepts that gave it the shape of an archaic cross. The large dimensions are evidence that Panormos was once a powerful city. The aisles were separated by tall base blocks that supported four Corinthian and Ionic columns. There were pebble and slab floors, and a small container filled with bones found under the chancel floor may have been a foundation deposit.

In front of the church, at right angles to the aisles, a narthex and an atrium had a Corinthian colonnade around a cistern that may have been a baptistry.

The findings during the excavation included marble and limestone parts of the building, including Ionian and Corinthian columns, capitals and parapets, embossed ivy and fig tree leaves, and parts of a marble iconostasis. The discoveries also included coins, pottery and a large amount of glass pieces.

Aghia Sophia was violently destroyed during a Saracen raid in the seventh century. However, there is evidence that it continued to be used until the ninth century: coins from the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) were found on the site as well as minuscule inscriptions on pillars and slabs in the church.

The graveyard chapel in Panormos looks almost like an Alpine ski chalet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The basilica was uncovered following research by the theologian Konstantinos Kalokiris, and the site was excavated in 1948-1955 by the archaeologist Professor N Platonas. However, every time I visit the site, the remains of Aghia Sophia have been fenced off and there is only one battered and fading sign indicating its importance.

Walking back from Aghia Sophia into Panormos, the village graveyard sits in a shaded area below the new main road linking an Rethymnon.

The graveyard chapel, nestled in among pine trees on a gentle slope, is of an unusual design, and looks almost like an Alpine ski chalet rather than a Greek Orthodox chapel.

The dome in Saint George’s Church has a majestic image of Christ the Pantocrator (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The church most visitors see in Panormos is the recently-built church dedicated to the Ascension (Analipsi) and Saint George (Agios Georgios). Although it is a relatively small church, its dome has a modern, majestic fresco of Christ the Pantocrator that is one of the finest I know in Crete.

In particular, I wanted to see the Church of Saint Agathopodos (Εκκλησία του Αγίου Αγαθόποδου), an impressively large church for a village of this size. The church is in the western part of Panormos, close to the school and clearly visible from the road from Rethymnon to Iraklion.

Saint Agathopodos (23 December) is one of the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete – Theodulus, Saturninus, Euporus, Gelasius, Eunician, Zoticus, Pompius, Agathopodos, Basilides and Evaristus – who suffered in the mid-third century during the reign of the Emperor Decius (249-251).

The Church of Saint Agathopodos is named in honour of a saint from Panormos who is one of the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The governor of Crete, also named Decius, had these 10 arrested in different places in Crete, including Agathopodos or Agathapos from Panormos. They were put on trial and they were tortured for 30 days before being beheaded in Alonion, the main amphitheatre of Gortyn. Saint Paul of Constantinople (6 November) visited Crete about 100 years later and moved their relics to Constantinople.

The large church in Panormos is named after Saint Agathopodos or Agathapos, and was built in recent years. I particularly wanted to see the large fresco of the Theotokos in the apse of the church. It is four metres high and was completed in 2019 by my friend the Rethymnon-based icon writer Alexandra Kaouki and has been highly praised.

Alexandra and I had coffee near the Rimondi Foountain in Rethymnon two days earlier, so I was disappointed that the church was closed on Sunday afternoon. On the other hand, I have another reason to look forward to a return visit to Panormos when I am back in Crete.

Alexandra Kaouki working on her large fresco of the Theotokos in the apse of Saint Agathopodos Church (Photograph:Alexandra Kaouki / Facebook)

Panormos has become into a prosperous tourist resort in recent years, with boutique hotels, apartments, restaurants, tavernas, coffee shops and tourist shops. Until recently, it was a small coastal village with about 400 residents, secluded off the national road.

Despite developments in recent decades, Panormos has kept its atmospheric charm and the small harbour continues to serve local fishing boats.

In the small sandy bay, the blue water was clear and inviting. But windy storms have hit Crete for the past week, and two young boys were the only people braving the water, while a family sheltered below the rocks overlooking the beach.

The wind was gathering pace, and after a short beach walk I climbed back up to the narrow streets of Panormos. I had another hour to wait before the next bus back to Rethymnon, and so I spent some welcome time sipping coffee at Locus café in its picture-postcard setting, before catching a later bus along the ‘Hotels’ route and through Platanias and back to Rethymnon.

The small sandy shore with its clear and inviting blue water (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
26, 25 April 2024

Saint Mark depicted in a fresco beneath the dome in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopiano in Crete (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 Mark the Evangelist.

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 Mark’s Basilica faces onto Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Mark 13: 5-13 (NRSVA):

5 Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

9 ‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10 And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’

The winged lion of Saint Mark at the Hotel Leo in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Thursday 25 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 (25 April 2024, Saint Mark) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for all who seek to share the Gospel. May we give thanks for Saint Mark, for his gift of communication and his faithfulness to the life and mission of Jesus.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who enlightened your holy Church
through the inspired witness of your evangelist Saint Mark:
grant that we, being firmly grounded
in the truth of the gospel,
may be faithful to its teaching both in word and deed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
by the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The former Saint Mark’s Basilica in Iraklion, Crete (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

Saint Mark depicted in a fresco in Saint George’s Church in Panromos, east of Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)