Although I’ve been coming to the Greek island of Zakynthos for years, I’d only once visited the monasteries at the rocky northern end of the island, near the village of Volimes, known for its lace making and honey. This year we decided to take a day trip in our hire car and headed up the spine of the island, with the salt flats of Alykes on our right, then turning into the rocky interior where the landscape becomes barren and covered with gorse and wild thyme.
We followed the signs to the well known St Denis monastery or Monastery of Theotokos Anafonitria that I had visited on a coach trip some years ago and knew we must have arrived when we found 2 coaches parked beside the snack bars and souvenir shops in the middle of nowhere. There was a heavy downpour as we arrived, so we sat in our hire car for a bit, then ventured inside when the rain had stopped. We managed to time our visit just right, in between a groups of Greek ladies all dressed in black, who were obviously making a devotional visit and a coach load of scantily dressed tourists, all short shorts and strappy tops. Just so you don’t make the same mistake it is considered extremely disrespectful to enter a church in Greece dressed as if for the beach – ladies, cover your shoulders and gentlemen, put on your long trousers!
We entered the walled compound through a stone archway, into a pretty courtyard with a defensive bell tower and the small church opposite the arched entrance. The monastery was built in the 15th century and is quite sparse, inside apart from some lovely painted frescoes on the altar screen and a painting of St Denis. There is also an impressive icon of the Madonna and child, that apparently was brought here from Constantinople and after which the church is named. The front of the icon is decked with row upon row of gold rings and earings that must have been donated by faithful pilgrims. St Denis or Aghios Dionysios, was born on the island in 1546 to a wealthy family on the island with connections to the Venetian government of the time, becoming Archbishop of Zakynthos and after his death, was made the patron saint of the island. It’s typical for the Greeks to name their children with saints names, and half the boys on the island must be named Denis, including my Greek brother-in-law.
After our wander around, we drove a little further along the road to stop at a second monastery of St Georgios Krimnon, built in a similar style with a courtyard, defensive tower and church inside the enclosure, although this time there were cloisters along one side of the courtyard. The church was closed at the time, so we couldn’t look inside but we were intrigued by the large bells hanging from the olive trees outside. We couldn’t get away without buying some nougat from the old man and his wife manning the roadside stall who was calling everyone to come and buy his fruit, honey and oil with all the persistance and patter of a trader in the bazaar.
Our monastery visits made an interesting stop on a tour of the north of the island, taking in the small town of Volimes that’s famous for it’s lace making, rugs and honey and a photo stop on the cliffs overlooking the picturesque bay of Navagio or Smuggler’s Bay that features on all the guidebooks and postcards.
More things to see on Zakynthos