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.
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!)
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.