By Alexia Amvrazi
Travelers have made pilgrimages to faraway lands for millennia to commune with God and celestial deities. Greece, where Greek Orthodoxy remains a core aspect of the national identity, is a land of many religious and spiritual mysteries and miracles, and there are innumerable places to yacht to and explore chapels, churches and monasteries, many built in honor of the Virgin Mary.
Visiting them is usually a double blessing as you get to see the sacred site as well as, usually, its stunning natural backdrop or surroundings: forests, beaches, mountains, valleys and villages.
Here we select the absolutely unmissable destinations for seafarers traveling the Greek isles, but keep in mind that everywhere you yacht to there are wonderful religious sites to discover.
The Monastery of the Virgin Hozoviotissa, Amorgos
Sail to Amorgos, once the film set of Luc Besson’s dreamy 80s blockbuster ‘The Big Blue’, to visit Greece’s second oldest monastery. It stands 300m high, built into an imposing rock; the walk up offers jaw-dropping vistas of the sea, including the pretty beach of Aghia Anna, and an endless skyline. At the monumental whitewashed monastery, built in 1088, visit the miraculous icon of ‘The Panagia Hozoviotissa’ (Virgin Mary); notice the many tamata (votive offerings) left here by those who come from around the world to pray for her divine support. While there you’ll be invited by the resident priest to sit and sip psimeni, a traditional local brew of raki cooked with spices. Tip: buy a tiny bottle of precious Myrrh oil made by monks, as it is thought to have numerous health benefits for both body and soul.
Panagia Ekatopiliani Church, Paros
In translation meaning ‘the church of a hundred doors’, although there are only 99, this 4th Century AD church in Paros’ capital, Parikia port, is a major destination for pilgrims, especially on August 15th, which commemorates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Admire the three atmospheric chapels within and their 17th and 18th Century icons, the most revered by devotees being ‘The Virgin Mary of Ekatontapiliani’, ‘The Praying Madonna’, ‘The Assumption of the Virgin Mary and ‘The Pandokrator’. Don’t miss on visiting the Bema of the Ekatopiliani, where you can see the small amphitheater of Synthonon and the marble Ciborium, both rare sights only to be seen in this impeccably preserved paleo-Christian church. Tip: Save time to visit the on-site Byzantine Museum, where relics from the church are housed.
The Monastery of St John the Theologian, Patmos
A striking UNESCO World Heritage Site, this fortress-like monastery is said to be where St John the Theologian wrote ‘The Apocalypse’, a document that concludes the Holy Bible. It is the immediately noticeable crowning glory of an island with 450 chapels and churches, where a light-filled spiritual ambiance is palpable almost everywhere you go. Located in Patmos’ picturesque Hora, with labyrinthine streets and beautifully maintained, traditional whitewashed houses and mansions, near the monastery also visit the mystical Cave of The Apocalypse. Visit the Chapel of Theotokos to admire beautiful 12th Century frescoes and post Byzantine chapels of St Nicholas, St John the Baptist, St Basil and the Holy Cross, and don’t miss the Chapel of Christodoulos, where valuable religious relics such as shards of the Holy Cross and the skull of St Thomas are preserved. Tip: While here, buy a bracelet made of knots, each of which is created with a spoken prayer by nuns. Prayer bracelets are sold around the island, but these are the most authentic.
Nea Moni Monastery, Chios
Famous for its magnificent Medieval era mosaics and located in the central part of Chios, it was built in the 11th Century as a sacred tribute to the Virgin Mary. Surrounded by a high wall within which you’ll find the monastery, monk’s cells and two churches among other features, it is burrowed among high, green-carpeted mountains. Here you can also explore the ‘Underground Palace’, a series of marble cisterns created for the nearly 1000 monks who once lived there (today it operates as a nunnery). As one of the country’s 18 archaeological UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is well worth visiting if you’re travelling to the northern Aegean island, and don’t forget to take in the beautiful views all around you. Tip: Visit the on-site museum to see relics and traditional religious crafts from the island.
The Church of Our Lady, the Panagia Evangelistria, Tinos
Perched on a hill in Tinos’ Hora, this church is where on August 15th but even throughout the year pilgrims crawl up on their knees (on a red carpet laid out for them) to pay homage to the Virgin Mary. The greatest draw is the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary – by now encased in silver and jewels by those who have had their prayers granted – from the 7th Century AD. The icon is said to have been discovered in 1823 by a nun named Pelagia (who was later canonized as saint) who unearthed it with guidance from the Virgin Mary through her dreams, and later built the church around it. Part of what has by now become a large monastery complex was built in honor of St John the Theologian, the church, which was constructed from marble that Tinos is famed for, as well as from the sacred island of Delos, offers what many have described as a profound sense of spiritual respite. Tip: If you’re interested in buying souvenirs from the church, stroll along Megalochari St where several shops sell copies of icons and relics. Rosaries perfumed in rose oil are a magical treat to bring home.
Important note to visitors: Upon entering Greek Orthodox monasteries and churches you are expected to be clothed in modest garments, or at least to wear a sarong if you are wearing shorts. Some religious sites provide long skirts. Also, check visiting hours online to avoid trekking over only to find it closed!