Churches thriving on stony ground

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There’s always a church nearby in Greece. Some are in the towns and villages, but many are in the middle of nowhere. In caves, down gorges, up cliffs, stuck in the middle of an olive grove or a rocky field.

 Prodromou Monastery, seemingly impenetrable in the Lousios gorge. Still, the Turks managed to reach it.

Prodromou Monastery, seemingly impenetrable in the Lousios gorge. Still, the Turks managed to reach it.

 We struggled to find the abandoned, half-ruined Ayios Panteleimon church in the middle of an olive grove near Gerolimenas in the south of the Mani. It was built in 991AD, making it one of the oldest in Greece, but amazingly you can still see the frescoes inside (see below)

We struggled to find the abandoned, half-ruined Ayios Panteleimon church in the middle of an olive grove near Gerolimenas in the south of the Mani. It was built in 991AD, making it one of the oldest in Greece, but amazingly you can still see the frescoes inside (see below)

The official number of parish churches and monasteries is just under 10,000, but I reckon that’s underselling Greek churches, because there are also hundreds, if not thousands, of private chapels, put up by families or communities for their own worship, on in private graveyards.

The small Byzantine town of Monemvasia, tucked into its rock in the southeast corner of the Peloponnese, had 27 churches and chapels - and that's not counting the ones built on the mainland, overlooking the rock, like the one below. (Below that are some random photos of nice churches - had to put them somewhere!)

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 Leonidio church, tucked at the end of the impressive Dafnon gorge

Leonidio church, tucked at the end of the impressive Dafnon gorge

 A typical tiny Maniot stone church - this one's Ayios Nikolaos, near Avia in the north of the Mani. You can still see remnants of Byzantine frescoes inside (below)

A typical tiny Maniot stone church - this one's Ayios Nikolaos, near Avia in the north of the Mani. You can still see remnants of Byzantine frescoes inside (below)

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On top of all those churches, there are thousands of kandilakia, or roadside shrines. Like dolls’ chapels, they are built most often to commemorate a fatal accident or to give thanks for a non-fatal one.

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Greece is still a deeply religious country, with various studies showing anything from 88% to 98% of Greeks identifying with the Greek Orthodox church. In one study in 2015, half of Greeks said they prayed regularly and a quarter attended church services at least once a week. Only 4.1% said they never prayed or went to church.

Even if you are a bit of an armchair church goer, you don’t miss out. In Methoni at least, services are broadcast right through the town with a loudspeaker on the belltower. There was no lie-in for us on a Sunday, living as we did a hundred metres up the road from the church.

And it seems even tiny, in-the-middle-of-nowhere churches are well-maintained, and well-used. One day when we were walking on a Sunday up in the hills behind Kardamyli, we came across a service in tiny Agios Nikolaos church, set in the totally ruined and abandoned village of Mavrinitsa. The priest was chanting, there were half a dozen worshippers inside and almost as many sitting around outside - three men chatting and smoking and a woman in a red t-shirt following the service from the steps - crossing herself and muttering the responses.

 Until we heard the priest chanting and the bell ringing it was hard to believe this church, in the abandoned village of Mavrinistsa, was still consecrated, let alone thriving. Below: the woman in red and I listen to the service from the steps outside.

Until we heard the priest chanting and the bell ringing it was hard to believe this church, in the abandoned village of Mavrinistsa, was still consecrated, let alone thriving. Below: the woman in red and I listen to the service from the steps outside.

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(Early the following morning, as we were walking back up the hill to pick up our car, we met the same woman, no longer in her Sunday best, coming down from her village on a tractor with her husband. She stopped, greeted us warmly and thrust bits of bread into our hands. We were bemused if grateful to be sharing her breakfast.)

Other times if we passed a remote rural church on a Sunday there would be candles and incense burners still alight, so presumably there had been a service earlier.

(Photo series below: The first time we went to the little whitewashed church of St Nektarios, in the hills behind Methoni, was during my father's not-80th-birthday celebrations, and there was no sign of life within. But when we went back on a Sunday, the candles were lit.)

Religion and state are still firmly tied in Greece. Students all attend Christian Orthodox instruction and priests get their salaries and pensions paid by the government. The Constitution specifically prohibits other religions trying to convert Greek citizens.

 This church gets the prize for my favourite name (as well as being pretty gorgeous). It's the church of the Virgin Zoodochos Pege Samarina, between Ancient Messene and Chora

This church gets the prize for my favourite name (as well as being pretty gorgeous). It's the church of the Virgin Zoodochos Pege Samarina, between Ancient Messene and Chora

Perhaps this link (between church and state) is one reason why religious services are held not just on Sundays and saints’ days, but on more secular national holidays like “Oxi” Day, celebrating the then Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas saying “No!” (Oxi!) to Mussolini during WWII.  

 Church and state: Priests outside the church in Pylos join the procession for the 20 October celebrations of the Navarino Bay defeat of the Turks by a combined British, French and Russian naval force. The photo at the top of the page is also taken at the same festival.

Church and state: Priests outside the church in Pylos join the procession for the 20 October celebrations of the Navarino Bay defeat of the Turks by a combined British, French and Russian naval force. The photo at the top of the page is also taken at the same festival.

More than anything, for us tourists, Greek churches are beautiful. There are many different styles, even in the smallish area of the Peloponnese we visited. But almost all of them are lovely. Here are some more of our favourites.

 Stone church in the tiny Mani village of Omales, near Areopoli

Stone church in the tiny Mani village of Omales, near Areopoli

 Another gorgeous Byzantine church at Mystras

Another gorgeous Byzantine church at Mystras

 Panagia Lagadiotisa cave church in a Taygetos Mountain gorge, near Mystra

Panagia Lagadiotisa cave church in a Taygetos Mountain gorge, near Mystra

 Flomochori church, in the Mani

Flomochori church, in the Mani

 A break on a handy church bench, during proceedings at my father's "not-my-80th-birthday" walk around churches near Methoni. George Mandow, me, Paul Green, 22 October 2017

A break on a handy church bench, during proceedings at my father's "not-my-80th-birthday" walk around churches near Methoni. George Mandow, me, Paul Green, 22 October 2017