Archive for November, 2009

Exciting news

November 30, 2009

As of 2009, three new, very exciting projects on Skiathos have been completed and must not be missed. The first is the paved walking path to Kastro. It starts by the small church of the Virgin Mary, and continues the 1600m to the old town Kastro. The stones are a little uneven to prevent the walker from slipping, and are beautifully coloured to blend in with the landscape. The path will be purely pedestrian and not even mopeds or bicycles will be allowed on it. Following the path, the walker will pass the small church of the Two St.Theodorores, with it beautiful star-studded blue ceiling, and takes him to the Church of John The Baptist, where there is a small kiosk for refreshments. The church is dedicated to the Decapitation of the Baptist, and has some haunting icons on the moment of the execution. This is also where the shrine in memory of those killed by lightning here in the 1920’s stands, as well as the old grave with skeletons of locals from Kastro. The path continues down to the next surprise: a small amphitheatre that partly looks over Kastro. Hopefully, there will be special events hosted here during the summer months.

Visitors should be warned of one thing though: walking back! It is a very steep ascent and you will need to be quite fit to do it. Of course, one can also visit Kastro by taking a boat to the small beach below, but as this usually does not allow for much time at Kastro, walking is highly recommended.

The other exciting new building is the Church of St. Alexander (Agios Alexandros). To get there you will need to either walk or drive down the road to Kastro, then turn left at the injunction that has signs pointing towards Kechria beach, Ag. Anastasia church and Ag. Alexandros. On foot, it takes about half an hour to get there but if you are a fan of stunning views and some magnificent architecture, this simply must not be missed!

St. Alexander was a priest who lived in Constantinople in the 4th century. He took part in the First Council of Nicea in 325, which was attended by Constantine the Great himself. During this council, the “heretic” Arius was voted against, as his teachings about Christ as a human were rejected by most of the Christian Fathers. St. Alexander was known as a charismatic and pious man and eventually became the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The church itself is built in a more Cycladic style than we are used to on Skiathos: it almost looks like it belongs or Santorini, for example. Its architecture is a wonderful mix of straight and curved and the exterior walls are adorned with traditional plates on the walls. Two terraces, one on the side and one above the church, offer stunning views of Pelion and Kastro. As the church is usually locked, one will have to look through the front door and windows to see the low iconostasis, which has mosaic icons, as well as the wall paintings of various saints, such as St. Nicholas and the Transfiguration of Christ.

It is wonderful to see that things really are happening on Skiathos. These three new works all deserve applauds and are a definite must for both locals and visitors.

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Kounistra Day

November 28, 2009

Following the age-old tradition, the icon of the Virgin Mary of Kounistra was once again returned to her “home” for one night on the 20th of November.  The day started with a service at the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin (Panagia Limnia) and then continued with a procession to the Acropolis area where a shorter service was held outside the graveyard, constantly accompanied by gunshots fired by local men that stood above Bus Stop 4. Then mayhem descended!

According to custom, the icon is now to be carried by the locals and as this is the only opportunity for laymen to hold it, especially women, what can only be described as ‘granny war” broke out. Elderly ladies started fighting over who would hold the icon, and instead of being a dignified handing over of the icon from person to person, the dear old ladies started pulling and shouting and as soon as one got hold of the icon, another snatched it after just a few meters. Not to be disrespectful or anything, but the scene brought back images from those Monty Python sketches where gangs of grannies, “berserking” through the streets of London, attack phone booths and teenagers with their handbags.

The procession then continued to the Kounistra Monastery following the path that leads up from the Megali Ammos area. It may be a shorter walk than the main road, but nevertheless a long one. Men and women, children and elderly all followed, and some ladies even did the walk bare foot. This is what the Greeks call táma, or holy promise, which is done either in the hope of a miracle or as gratitude for one. Other forms of táma are the little metal plates that hang on icons, depicting body limbs, babies, boats or whatever the prayers concern. Walking bare foot to the monastery can also be a purely sign of faith and devotion.

At the monastery, another service was held, followed by a barbeque where everyone was invited. Feasts in connection with religious holidays is another old custom that dates all they way back to the ancient Greeks. The ancients would often celebrate their gods with animal sacrifices and afterwards the meat was shared by those attending. Today, the religion may be different but the practice lives on.

The next day, the icon was ceremoniously brought back to the main church (Three Hierarchs) in Skiathos town. This time, the attendants had changed their track suits and trainers to suits, dresses and high heels and after a quick ceremony; the Virgin was put in her little shrine in the church and as the weather was glorious, everyone went for coffee on the old harbour.

These old traditions do seem a bit extraordinary to the foreign eye, especially to those of us that have grown up in the secular north, but nevertheless they are very fascinating and well worth attending.

November saints: Kounistra

November 1, 2009

The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Skiathos, and the icon representing her power as patron of the island is called Kounistra. The name has been a source of debate for hundreds of years but the most imaginative one is that it means “the Swinging” as it supposedly was found swinging in a tree by the hermit Symeon in 1650. The old monk had seen a shining light coming from the forest he lived next to and after months of praying and fasting he finally found its source. It was the Kounistra icon, an image of the Virgin as a young girl. Too old and weak to climb the tree, Symeon spent the night praying by the tree and at the break of dawn he hurried to Kastro to tell the locals the news. This was during the Ottoman occupation and Kastro at the time was inhabited both by Greeks and Turks and they all went to the tree to witness the miracle. Some may wonder why the Turks went as they were Moslem but then we forget that Christ and the Virgin are both recognized as holy by the Koran; in the holy scripture of Islam Mary is referred to as Myriam Ana. Apart from that, the Turks would have been just as curious as the Greeks to see the icon in the tree. The honour of climbing up the tree and retrieving the icon was given to the main priest, one Ioannis Pappas (lit. John Priest) and it was then carried back to Kastro in a holy procession. Ever since then, the Kounistra icon protects Skiathos.

Kounistra has been credited with a myriad of miracles, mostly to do with health, but what is even more fascinating is the fact that there are whispers of acts of punishment and anger by Her. When an iconographer wanted to restore the icon he met the Virgin in a dream, where She threatened to kill him if he laid a finger on Her. A local tried to cut down the tree She had been found in and died instantly. When a group of friends disrespected John the Baptist by having a party by his church in the 1920’s they were all killed by lightning. The lightning story is actually true and visitors can see the shrine dedicated in the victims’ honour but whether or not they were killed in an act of holy vengeance can, of course, be discussed. One version of the story even tells us that the Kounistra icon was found by the bodies!

kounistra_procession

The Kounistra icon carried in a holy procession.

Kounistra is today housed in the main church of the Three Hierarchs in Skiathos town, along with an icon depicting the Retrieval. Thousands of tamata, votive offerings made by people in the hope of miracles, surround the icon and a part of the tree rests against the shrine. A copy of the icon is also kept in the Kounistra monastery that was built some years after the icon was found. The first abbot of this monastery was old Symeon himself but after it was closed in the 19th century the icon was moved to town. Today, the beautiful monastery is open for visitors and it is well worth going to.

The Virgin Mary of Kounistra is celebrated on November 21. The day before, the icon is carried in a procession from Skiathos town to the monastery and then a wake is held all night. The next day it is brought back and some say that the icon is much heavier to carry back, as the Virgin is sad to leave her home.

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