Today is Sunday and so my plan is to walk up to the Church of Evangelistria (Panagia Evangelistrai Megalochari) also known as Our Lady of Tinos, to observe the rituals, ceremonies and customs of the faithful.
I’ve always had an interest in witnessing religious ceremonies, even as an atheist/agnostic. I must admit I move more towards the agnostic side the older that I get. Maybe I’m hedging my bets! However, these religious practices have never been part of my upbringing so they are out of the ordinary for me – and that is what piques my curiosity.
The bottom of the hill leading up to the Church of Evangelistria is a short walk from my apartment. Two streets run parallel to each other leading up to the church – Evangelistria and Leof. Megalocharis. The latter is the one that has the strip of carpet laid out to protect the knees and hands of the pilgrims.
I am conscious that this devotion displayed by the worshippers is a personal and private matter. I want to take photographs to show my quite religious husband who isn’t with me on this trip. Although an Orthodox Christian himself, the practices are very different in Egypt though the fasting element is very similar. I’m very conscious that I need to be discreet and unobtrusive. I take a few photographs from the bottom of the street and then continue walking up the hill showing the respect that is expected.
It was so interesting. Some of the worshippers were obviously experienced in this ritual. I could tell by the way they had prepared themselves in terms of dress, even down to knee pads, fingerless padded gloves and water bottles strapped to their back. Others seemed a little less prepared. It is clear that some are novices to this practice. One lady really looked like she was struggling. Her long skirt with elasticated waist would pull down every time she knelt on it, forcing her to stop and hitch it up higher. Seconds later she’d knelt on her skirt again and I felt exasperated for her. Another ‘learner’ hadn’t thought about her low cut top that gaped when she bent over. Trying to clutch her neckline with one hand to protect her modesty and then use the other to keep her balance whilst on her hands and knees was never going to work. I’m sure there isn’t a guidebook on handy hints for pilgrims – the best attire to wear but I think it would be of use to some.
A little further up the hill, a young girl was making the ‘crawl’ up to the top of the hill accompanied by what could have been her mother and grandmother. The girl looked about 14 years of age and although she had only made it about 40 yards up the hill she was clearly struggling. At one point she indicated to her lower back and began to raise her body up to stretch her back. This was met with a scolding from the older of the ladies and the girl immediately relented and carried on with her struggle. And that is what it’s meant to be right? Believe me, it is a challenge walking up this steep incline on two legs if you are unfit like me but I can’t imagine the discomfort of crawling this distance on hands and knees.
As I make it to the church I notice that it is primarily women who are making the walk on bended knee. I only see one man doing the same – I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this – if any but it’s just an observation.
I perch myself on the church wall that surrounds the entrance to the church and admire the spectacular stone mosaic that welcomes you. The façade itself is very ornate and quite beautiful. Once through the entrance, the grand carpeted stairway gives you a sense that you are entering somewhere quite holy and spiritual.
The faithful continued to come on their hands and knees, some on foot and many carrying the largest candles you have ever seen. These colossal sticks of wax take prime position in the tourist shops that line Evangelistria and Leof. Megalocharis. The racks of cheap plastic bottles in which to scoop up a handful of holy water have now been pushed to the front of the shops. Sunday’s must be very lucrative for them. I’m sure that in some way it all helps to support the economy of the island which is a positive thing.
The constant stream of worshippers continued in towards the sound of the chanting priest who is calling them to prayer. The hippy hatted with high heels, the black-cloaked widows, ladies wearing sequinned dresses – bare-legged and bare-armed. Through the ornate archway, they walk with an air of determination, then up the deep red, carpeted dual staircases.
As I sit on the wall silently observing the congregation I try to understand the desire to worship but also the compulsion to suffer. It doesn’t resonate with me but I do feel emotional watching so many people putting so much faith in their religious beliefs.
I leave the church feeling reflective and take a slow amble down the hill try to decide how to spend the rest of my last day on the island. I hadn’t spent much time on the beach during this trip and decided to visit Panormos beach which I’d had a fleeting glance at through the bus window when visiting Pyrgos.
I go to check out the timetable at the bus station and there isn’t a bus until 11 am. As I have time to wait, I see that there is a bus that will take me to Kionia Beach and it will also get me back to the bus station in time to get the bus to Panormos.
The friendly staff indicate the correct bus to catch – it’s only a small bus and it costs a couple of euros. 10 minutes later the bus pulls up outside a large concrete hotel called the Tinos Beach Hotel. It’s not the most attractive of hotels and looks like something the large tour operators would send their clients to. It’s well located right on the beachfront – horses for courses and all that.
The beach itself appears a little desolate. We are nearing the end of the summer season and a small beach bar looks as though it has seen better days. I daresay that everything gets a spruce up at the beginning of each season. After a walk along the beach, I plonk myself in one of the beach bar chairs and absorb the view.
A small group of Greek ladies have descended onto the beach and prepared themselves for a swim. Not long after they’ve inched themselves into the icy cold water I hear two of them let out a loud shriek. As I try to make out what all the fuss is about I can see them pointing into the water and moving hastily back to the water’s edge. I immediately know what it is and decide enough is enough and make my way to the bus stop.
Back at the bus station, I board the bus to Panormos. I hope that whatever is giving the women on the beach the heebie-jeebies won’t be present at Panormos. It is located in the opposite corner of the island to Kionia so I can only hope! It’s about an hour over to Panormos but the landscape is stunning. I pass monasteries perched up on the side of mountains, turtle rock jutting out by the roadside, pretty villages and of course hundreds of dovecotes that sit amongst miles of terraced agricultural land.
Panormos is set in a small circular bay with a harbour lined with fishing boats and a nice selection of tavernas.
I pass a small wooden bridge that goes over a stream and is home to a family of ducks. The beach itself is backed with tamarisk trees giving much needed free shade. I spread my towel under a tree – though it’s not a particularly comfortable place to sit as the tree roots poke out at regular intervals in the sand. Anyway, I’d rather be sitting on lumpy sand than frying in the midday heat.
I decide to have a dip in this very welcoming bay. The sand shelves gradually and it looks like a lovely place to swim. No soon had I reached the water’s edge I began to see clusters of activity from groups of locals. There was more gesticulation into the water and hurried movements away from whatever it is. Of course, it’s the dreaded jellyfish.
I’m so hot that I decide to brave it and I wade in up to my thighs. I then find myself doing a mad meerkat impression, swinging my head from side to side looking for these nasty little stingers. After splashing my body with the cooling water I beat a hasty retreat to the water’s edge. What ensues is quite entertaining. A small posse of elderly Greek ladies take it upon themselves to patrol the water. The ladies have removed their Crocs and are using them as a scoop to whip the little blighters out of the water. A man with a child’s bucket and spade digs a jellyfish grave in which they are all promptly deposited.
However, industrious these jellyfish vigilantes are, there are too many floating about to make it a comfortable experience. I know when to call it quits and decide to head to one of the taverna’s to eat instead.
As I walk along the quayside I’m attracted by some movement in the water. I go to take a closer look and can see the most beautiful jellyfish I have ever seen. It is about the size of a dinner plate with a large red domed head. It pushes its way through the water by lifting and pushing its lacy, transparent skirt backwards and forwards. It’s fascinating. It isn’t the large jellyfish like this that sting you but its smaller and more ferocious cousins. I’m later told by someone that the little beads on the bottom of the jellyfish are fish eggs. I’m not convinced by this so I later do a bit of research to find out more. The website Oceana have a video of a very similar looking jellyfish called a Fried Egg Jellyfish. It is different in colour but its physiology is almost the same. An interesting read.
Marine biology lesson over, I seek out somewhere to eat. The tavernas are busy, many people arriving in small boats that are then tied to the quayside. After strolling up and down the row of eating establishments I just pick a random one that has a spare table.
The restaurant is called Maistros. I order a Greek salad, chicken souvlaki and wine by the glass not the jug – I don’t want to be knocked out for the rest of the day as I still have to pack!
I must say Panormos has a really lovely feel to it. Small and friendly. Most people in the restaurants seem to know each other and what better place to meet and socialise on a Sunday afternoon.
I’m conscious of time and head to the bus stop at the edge of the beach and wait for the bus. This is the last one back so it’s imperative that I don’t miss it. once on board I take in one last view of the Tinian landscape. I’ve got that feeling again – the one where you wish you could stay longer. Of course I could stay longer. I still have another 5 days until the end of my trip but it would be ridiculous not to visit Andros as it’s so close.
I first visited Andros probably nearly 30 years ago now – but more about that soon.