a visit to skopelos

during my three year stay in greece, i managed to visit at least one island in each of the six major groupings, plus crete and evia, two large islands that stand on their own. after tinos, i had been to five of the six – the ionian, the dodecanese, the argo-saronic, the northeastern aegean, and the cyclades – so the next weekend, i went to the sixth, the sporades, choosing the island skopelos as my destination. skopelos is known, among other things, as the island where part of the film mamma mia was shot, so if it was good enough for meryl streep and pierce brosnan, it was good enough for me.

the trip took about four hours by ferry.

the water was incredibly blue.

skopelos town is a typical greek harbor town: built into a hill, a prominently-featured church, and lots of narrow pedestrian alleys (lined equally with local-serving businesses and tourist shops) and stairways flanked by houses, all leading down to the main road along the harbor.

the view from my hotel room.

in many respects, the photos that i took over the weekend all show the same thing – brilliant blue skies and water, dramatic ocean views, cute villages – so let’s cut to the chase: the church of agios (saint) ioannis kastri, which was featured in mamma mia. visitors to the sporades are somehow obligated to see the church, or at least are subject to incredulous gasps of horror from abba fans if they don’t, so i went on a drizzly sunday morning.

the church itself is not particularly interesting in terms of either architecture or decoration; in fact, it doesn’t even appear to merit its own wikipedia page, and that’s saying a lot. instead, it’s the setting that’s the attraction.

next: ye gods

exploring tinos

we spent three days exploring tinos. after visiting panageia megalochori, we went off in search of cute villages – one day by driving, one day by hiking. tinos does not disappoint.

falatados steni kardiani smardakita  smardakita again

we also climbed the hill of exombourgo, which was a venetian fortress in the 15th century and now has a war memorial at the top.

venetian ruins at the base the mountain intrepid climbing (ahead of me) the view from the top

a good end to the day – the village of panormos.

next: more hiking

tinos – part 1

our time in greece is nearly at an end! for our last weekend trip to an island together, my wife and i chose tinos, one of the cycladic islands that we had not yet visited. the cyclades include andros, mykonos, paros and santorini, among many others.

the main town of tinos is called chora, and it is best known for the church of the virgin mary, or panageia megalochori – at least, that is the name according to the map. according to wikipedia, the church is called either panacea evangelistria, the all-holy bringer of good news, or megalochori, she of great grace. wikipedia goes on to say

the complex is built around a miraculous icon which according to tradition was found after the virgin appeared to the nun pelagia and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried. the icon is widely believed to be the source of numerous miracles. it is by now almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and is commonly referred to as the “megalócharē” (“[she of] great grace”) or simply the “chárē tēs” (“her grace”).

wikipedia further notes “by extension the church is often called the same [megalócharē], and is considered a protectress of seafarers and healer of the infirm.” due to this latter role, one frequently sees worshippers crawl on their hands and knees from port up to the church. there even is a carpet laid at the edge of the road for these pilgrims.

photography is not allowed inside the church, presumably to protect the icon. no one seemed bothered by the visitors using their cellphones to take pictures of other parts of the interior, however, so i discretely took some shots as well. naturally, the altar screen is fantastically carved and beautifully decorated, but the church also features hundreds of votive lamps with figures of boats, houses, tools, even body parts hanging from them. a woman working in the church explained that these were tammata, or vows, representing the objects of worshippers’ prayers or promises to the virgin.

next: exploring tinos

going for the gold, day 4 and done

it was time to return to aliki, to drop off the bicycle and go to the airport. i gave myself plenty of time, and set out to explore along the coast, randomly choosing the church of saint irini as a target destination.

the first church i came to turned out to not be saint irini, but it was picturesque. the only “problem,” such as it was, was the careless development around the site.

drama in three directions.

the next church i found also was not agia irini, but it was picturesque as well.

finally, the third church i came to was agia irini. there are a lot of little churches in greece … as with the others, the front door was locked, so i couldn’t check out the altar screen.

and with that, i was done. figuring i’d need the next two hours to get back to aliki. the road was surprisingly flat, however, so i got back two hours earlier than i expected.

naturally, after lunch, i figured, “heck, the airport is only 4.5 km away, i can walk that!” and i did, with my 20-pound backpack. up to the end, i was a glutton for punishment, but i got what i wanted:

going for the gold day 3, including live at the apollo (part 5)

i woke up in parikia, had an entirely adequate breakfast, and set off on the bike again to look for a local church and some caves. the church was easy to find – it was visible from the main town – but since the road didn’t actually go along the coast, i had an early dose of hill riding/pushing to do. again, the area was pretty empty because tourist season hasn’t started yet.

possibly rental cars that are sitting in a field awaiting delivery. these will figure into the story later.

my first stop was agios fokas, a small church located 6 km from town. the church itself isn’t particularly notable – it’s a typical chapel – but nearby is what appears to be an abandoned naval station of some kind, and a memorial marker for the passenger ferry ms express samina, which struck a reef on september 26, 2000, killing 81 passengers. the story (which you can read by clicking on the link) is pretty awful.

from there, it was off to find the archilochus caves, located (according to the guidebook) only 10 minutes away. there were no signs, but i followed the road back, figuring they were just over the hill. you can guess how that turned out.

after far too much time searching for the caves, i decided to move onto the temple of delian apollo, which was up a different series of hills.

remember the cars? they’re down there.

the temple of delian apollo was built in the 5th century bc. “delian” refers to delos, the island birthplace of the god apollo. the site location was well marked, but you can tell how important a site is by the amount of security around it, and there was nothing more to protect the temple ruins than a rusty open gate. with little exception, it appeared that any stone that had any type of carving on it had been taken down to the archaeological museum.

i returned to parikia to begin my exploration of the town. one of the main attractions is the ekatontapiliani church, built in the 4th century, possibly by constantine the great, the roman emperor for whom constantinople was named. it’s very impressive inside, and perhaps as a result, the building comes with a sinister legend:

according to the popular legend, during the reign of justinian, ekatontapiliani was build by the former assistant of the chief craftsman of agia sofia, ignace. when the pupil finished the temple, he invited the master to admire his work. the chief craftsman felt envy and was afraid that his pupil would overshadow his reputation. pretending that he wanted to show him an architectural fault, he took his pupil on the roof of the church. from there, the chief craftsman pushed his pupil with intent to kill him. the pupil however held on to the teacher and finally they both fell and were killed in front of the church.

for the rest of the day, i strolled the narrow backstreets of parikia, admiring the shapes i found in various doorways, alleys and staircases. and cats.

next: day 4, which comes after day 3.

going for the gold day 2 – an interstitial post

i got up the next morning, had breakfast, and mounted the bike for my next leg of the journey, a 15 km trip to a popular seaside town called naoussa.  boy, was my butt sore.

i figured that if i took smaller roads closer to the shore, i’d avoid the hills inland. i was wrong on two counts: first, that there actually were roads, and second, that i’d avoid hills.

the asphalt ended about 500 meters outside of town.

after about 30 minutes of pushing my bike across rough terrain, i came to a paved road, but first took a detour onto a peninsula to see what i could find:

the answer was “not much.” another “not much” were the villages between piso libadi and naoussa. maybe a lot of the houses are just occupied for the summer, but outside the village centers themselves, there seemed to be a lot of desolation. i frequently saw something i saw in india: a walled lot with nothing built on it. i got the sense that a lot of people started selling land for construction when times were good, and then the money dried up.

this sense of emptiness extended to naoussa itself, but only because it was shut up for the winter. some local-serving businesses were open, but the atm sign said it pretty well.

there was no reason to stay in naoussa for the night, and no place to stay anyway; so, after lunch, i gingerly got back onto the bike and rode (a.k.a. pushed it uphill and coasted downhill) another 11 km to parikia, the main town of paros, where i easily found a room and a meal, and i made my plan for days 3 and 4.

next: day 3.

going for the gold

i was two domestic flights away from achieving gold status on star alliance, so i decided to book the cheapest round-trip ticket i could, to tick that box and also see an island i hadn’t visited yet. i chose paros, in the cyclades, with the idea of doing some photography; and, because it’s annoying to stop and start the car every time i want to take a photo, i decided i’d rent a bike instead. i haven’t been on a bicycle for 2½ years, but given that i’m recovering from shin splints and so cannot run, i figured i’d get the added benefit of three days of low-impact aerobic exercise as well. win-win all around.

i had an easy half-hour flight and a quick taxi ride to the lovely seaside town of aliki to pick up my bike.

typical greek harbor village amazingness.

suitably provisioned with helmet, water and snacks (and about 20 pounds of clothes and camera equipment on my back), all was good for three minutes, and then i came to the base of the first of a series of hills where the road turned inland. i assessed the state of my quads and realized that this was one of the stupidest ideas i’d ever come up with.

the first of many reality checks; and things i saw along the way, including a pretty sweet house in the hills; two proskinitaria,memorials to the victims of a road accident (i’ve just released a book of photographs of proskinitaria – check out www.paulcohnimages.com for more information); and cows.

my destination was 21 km away, a hotel i’d booked that morning to be assured of having some place to stay. because it’s still march, most hotels are still closed for the season, but a few stay open longer into the fall and open earlier in the spring. despite having a booking confirmation from agoda.com, however, it turns out my hotel is not one of those. after some discussion, they opened a room for me anyhow. it’s just one night, but i don’t think they’re so keen on the extra money that they’re glad to have me.

the view from my hotel room. i earned this today.

after a rest and a large meal, i decided to follow up my 21 km bike ride with a hike up a hill to visit the church of saint anthony, about 170 m above sea level. because honestly, at that hour, there wasn’t much else to do with the day. on the way up, i came across the ruins of a venetian castle, carefully protected from the main road by a single rusted strand of barbed wire.

windmills in the village of marpissa on the way to saint anthony; ruins of the castle.

the hike was long, but not overly difficult, and the view from the top was fantastic. the church grounds themselves were empty – not a person to be seen.

the church, from the base of the hill; the view from up top; the church lends itself to abstractions. 

next: day 2


with the coming of easter, it is carnival season in greece, and we went to a carnival parade this past weekend. regarding carnival, wikipedia says:

carnival typically involves a public celebration and/or parade combining some elements of a circus, masks and public street party. people wear masks and costumes during many such celebrations, allowing them to lose their everyday individuality and experience a heightened sense of social unity. excessive consumption of alcohol, meat, and other foods proscribed during lent is extremely common. other common features of carnival include mock battles such as food fights; social satire and mockery of authorities; the grotesque body displaying exaggerated features especially large noses, bellies, mouths, and phalli or elements of animal bodies; abusive language and degrading acts; depictions of disease and gleeful death; and a general reversal of everyday rules and norms.

shocking business!

as it happened, while there was some consumption of alcohol, the parade was carefree and family-friendly, with some impressive costumes (including a woman dressed as a contortionist on a table, complete with portable tabletop). we were accompanied through the streets by various troupes of musicians, including a brazilian percussion combo and a team of people playing hand drums; and then, about halfway through the event, the paraders piled into a courtyard where we were met by an even larger brazilian drum club and an accompanying dance troupe – a total surprise, and absolutely thrilling.

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