On Wednesday, there was an excursion organised by Papathanasis going to several monasteries and churches in the west of Crete. Trips like this provide a welcome break from the village, especially for many of the women. There were about 20 people on the excursion, including Wiltrud and me.
We left Sfakia at 7:30 am, made our way west past Chania following the coast road, with endless views of olive groves, and had our first stop for coffee and breakfast at Kolymbari, a sea-side town at the eastern base of the Rodhopou Peninsula. Nearby is the famous Gonia Monastery, and the 50-year-old Orthodox Academy of Crete, which we were given a tour of. It hosts an impressive collection of buildings used for seminars, a large library and offices. The Academy focuses on theology, the environment, and other issues, offering programs for schools, dialogue with other religions, and education. One amusing item the guide showed us was a kind of resting stick the monks used to support their weight comfortably while standing up – they could even sleep in an upright position balanced on one of these.
We next took the road towards Elofonisos, which runs along the beautiful and dramatic Topoliano Gorge, to Chrysoskalitissa Monastery, a 17th-century complex built up on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. The name of the monastery comes from the last of the 90 steps which lead up to it, which was said to be made of gold ("chryso" in Greek); local tradition has it that the Patriarch was forced to sell this golden step in the first years of Ottoman rule to pay the heavy taxes imposed by the sultan. Now only those who are devout and without sin are able to see the golden step. The monastery was saved from destruction by the Ottomans, it is said, when a swarm of bees nesting in a cavity in the rock attacked their troops. A monk gave us a brief talk about the monastery, and we were offered refreshments on the terrace – very welcome on such a hot day after climbing all those steps.
Next on the program was lunch in the attractive village of Elos, which is famous for its chestnut trees – they had just had their annual chestnut festival on the weekend. We ate delicious traditional food at the Kastanafolia restaurant, followed by complementary chestnut liqueur (made with a raki base, chestnuts and cinnamon) and roasted chestnuts. Up behind the restaurant are remains of an old Turkish aqueduct, a stream with arched footbridges, and the Byzantine church of Agios Ioannis dating from the 14th century, with frescos painted by the famous west Cretan painter Ioannis Pagomenos.
We drove back up the Topoliano Gorge a way and then turned onto a small, winding road which eventually took us to the village of Sirikari, which lies above the Tsichliano Gorge. We were met there by the local priest’s wife who showed us around the new (2018) large church of St Nikiforos the Leper. Unusually, it has a low interior screen and a richly inlaid marble floor. Nearby is the one-room stone hut where Nikiforos was born, which explains why such a substantial church has been built in this out-of-the-way place. (For a brief summary of Nikiforos’ life, see http://www.agiosnikiforos.gr/?page_id=194.)
It was getting dark when we left Sirikari, and the bus wound its way down to the coast near Kissamos, then sped along the main coast road until our last stop for coffee at the Kalami café overlooking Suda Bay. During the last leg of the trip back to Sfakia, the women recounted very amusing stories from former years and had all of us laughing hysterically. We arrived back to a warm evening Sfakia at 9:30pm, tired but happy.