This Small Greek Island Is Home to More Than 700 Churches

5 October 2017
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A major pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians, the Greek island of Tínos has long been overlooked by other travelers.

It was our second morning in Tínos, Greece, when we saw our first pilgrim. The woman, who appeared to be in her 60s, was crawling on her hands and knees along the street that leads from the port up a hill to the majestic Our Lady of Tínos church. Though it felt disrespectful to watch her intimate struggle, it was impossible not to keep turning back to follow her excruciatingly slow but deliberate progress.

Ever since an icon of the Virgin Mary credited with miraculous healing powers was found at the site of the church in 1823, thousands upon thousands of Christian pilgrims have made their way to this raw and beautifully pristine island, often to present the icon with silver and gold votive plaques and pray for a blessing. The greatest number of believers arrive in March, for the Feast of the Annunciation, and in August, for the Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin. Many of them crawl almost half a mile up to the Renaissance-style church, the most important Eastern Orthodox pilgrimage site in Greece.

“The Virgin Mary has saved Tínos,” I was told by Maya Tsoclis, a Greek television personality who is based in Athens but spends more than half of the year on the island. And though she laughed, she wasn’t really joking. Almost everyone I spoke to credited the Virgin with protecting Tínos from the fate that befell tourist-packed Mykonos, only a 30-minute ferry ride away but a world apart. “The pilgrims have scared both foreigners and Greeks away from here,” Tsoclis said. “When I was growing up, everyone associated Tínos with being dragged by their grandparents to the Virgin Mary on smelly boats with food packed in Tupperware. The people on the ferry going to Mykonos, which is the next stop, were happy to pass Tínos by.”

Tsoclis’s TV show, Traveling with Maya Tsoclis, ran from 2007 to 2013, and during three of those years she also served in the Greek parliament. Now she and her husband, Alex Kouris, own the successful Cyclades Microbrewery on Tínos, and she puts out an ambitious annual magazine about the island, Tama, which means “votive” in Greek. “I have been to so many beautiful places, but sometimes there is a voice that whispers to you that you belong to a place,” she said, describing the hold Tínos has on her. “Other Greek islands are only about the beach, but here it’s also about the incredible villages you find inland.”

One morning I followed Tsoclis in my car out of the main port — also called Tínos — away from the streets lined with tourist shops selling religious paraphernalia. Taking a narrow, winding road, we headed up into the hills, toward the village of Kampos, where her father, the renowned artist Costas Tsoclis, and her mother, Eleni, spend every summer. It was early April, and the rocky fields we drove by were covered in a haze of green grass and dotted with wild flowers — in contrast to the summer, when the land is dry and barren. We kept climbing upward, and occasionally I would spot a dovecote built into a slope or ravine. The island is home to hundreds of these stone towers, with fanciful geometric patterns cut into their façades, some meticulously maintained and painted bright white, others crumbling. They were built by the Venetians — who ruled Tínos for more than 500 years, ending in 1715 — and were used to raise pigeons for meat and fertilizer made from the birds’ droppings.

When we arrived at Kampos, we parked at the edge of the village and entered on foot (almost all the villages on Tínos are car-free, because the ancient streets are too narrow). In the distance we could see craggy Mount Exomvourgo, the island’s highest peak. Next to the Tsoclis family’s old stone house is the Costas Tsoclis Museum, a whitewashed former school with an extension made of local stone, which displays dozens of the artist’s works. Visitors to the museum (open June through September) are greeted in the front courtyard by Tsoclis’s St. George and the Dragon, a multipart sculpture in which the saint is represented in a life-size wall relief and the beast by a 20-foot-long snaking metal tail. Despite being an atheist, Tsoclis — who is in his late 80s and continues to make new work — says he uses Christian symbols because “they carry the hopes of millions and millions of souls.”

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