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No.47 The Frescoes of Sklavopoula

I went to Crete this past September for the sea, the mountains, and the language (I’d been learning modern Greek for two years). I also found unexpected adventures. One of these was Sklavopoula.

It was just a short paragraph in the Rough Guide to Crete that caught my attention, telling of a remote village in the southwestern mountains with three churches from the 13th and 15th centuries, with frescoes.  I found it on my Michelin road map. I had already been up in those squiggly lines, in my nimble little Fiat Panda, and had mastered the art of honking while rounding curves, to warn oncoming cars not to take my side of the road — and going slowly in case oblivious goats lurked in the shadow of the hills. I knew it would be an all-day trip from my base at Kastelli Kissamou on the northwest coast. So I set off early one sunny morning to find the three churches.

The drive was beautiful. I stopped several times to look at little churches along the way, to buy olive oil and honey from roadside stands, and to admire the mountains and valleys. When I finally entered the village of Sklavopoula, there was the first church, the Ecclesia tou Ayiou Yiorgiou (Church of Saint George), next to the school, just as the Rough Guide said.

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The guidebook’s instructions were to go to the house next to the school and ask for the key. I found a family party in the courtyard of the house and approached with some trepidation, trying out my Greek. They welcomed me eagerly, and a lively discussion ensued, in which several teenagers competed for the honor of escorting me up the back way and into the little church.

I have seen many carefully restored frescoes in museums, and well-maintained old churches and cathedrals around Europe, but there was something uniquely haunting about these ancient images looking at me out of the past, unrestored and yet still alive. The other two churches were to be found along a footpath to the left of the kafeneio in the center of town. The cafe was easy to spot.

By this time, it was mid afternoon, the local lunchtime, and I was quite hungry. So I entered the cafe, which turned out to be the general store as well.

The proprietor made me an omelet, a salad, and a huge plate of fried potatoes, and chatted with me while I ate. He charged me 5 euros, then tried to give me back one euro because I had only eaten a small part of the potatoes!

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He showed me the footpath to the other two churches, the Church of the Madonna and the Church of Christ the Savior, and invited me to stop back for some water after seeing them. He gave me some complicated instructions, which I thought I understood, about how to find the house of the man with the keys, and to call out to him by name.

I set off down the hill. My first difficulty arose when I came to what seemed like a dead end: on the one side, thistles, on the other, the wire fence of a goat pasture. I went back and forth for ten minutes, trying to figure out where to go. It was hot; I was getting thirsty and tired.  Finally, I realized that what I thought was part of the pasture was a passage, opened by pulling up the wire fence, which was really a primitive gate. On I trudged, past a few stone houses, hollering all the time for the man with the keys. But I saw no-one aside from goats and some dogs that became very agitated by my hollering. My shouts and their barking sounded all the louder because the only other sound was the buzz of cicadas in the olive groves.

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Eventually I spotted the two churches, side by side up another hill. I decided to try the doors. I was in luck: they were not locked. The interiors were cool and silent. Dark shadows contrasted with brilliant sunlight shining through the small windows. The frescoes seemed to glow from within.

Back up at the cafe, the proprietor, now joined by his wife, greeted me with cold water and a plate of grapes, for which they refused payment. I rested, refreshing myself with food, drink and more conversation. What would have been rather dull small-talk in English at home in New York became fascinating and rewarding in another language and setting. They sent me off with another bottle of cold water for the road.

Here’s a last look south towards the Libyan Sea:

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< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.

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About the author:Karen G. Krueger practiced law in New York City for 25 years. She now teaches the Alexander Technique, a mind-body method for achieving greater poise and efficiency of movement and dealing with chronic pain and stress.

Here are some tips from Karen for your excursion to Sklavapoula:

I went to Sklavapoula from my base in the northwestern town of Kastelli Kissamou.  A day trip — longer by about two hours — is also feasible from the more popular Chania (a very beautiful city, well worth visiting). Sklavapoula is easily accessible from Palaiochora, a seaside resort town on the southwest coast.

When I was planning my visit to Crete, I first decided to spend a week at Kastelli Kissamou.  I then found a seaside rental apartment in Kastelli using the website Homeaway, a very comfortable small apartment carved out of the home of the owner, Minas.

Before I paid the deposit, I exchanged e-mails and one phone call with Minas, to make sure that I had a sense of dealing with a honest person.

I was scheduled to arrive at the Chania airport after dark, so rather than deal with renting a car and driving in unfamiliar territory, I e-mailed Minas for help.  He arranged a taxi to meet me at the airport, reserved my rental car from a firm in Kastelli, and then drove me into town the day after my arrival to pick up my car, a little Fiat Panda with manual transmission that was perfect for the windy roads of Crete.  Note that if you need an automatic rental car, you should specify that, as many rentals have stick shifts.

I like to navigate with a real map, so I used the Michelin map of Crete, 759 National, purchased from Amazon.

When I read about Sklavopoula and decided to go there, it was not hard to find my way there using this map.

Photography and story by Karen Krueger

Planning to make a visit to Sklavopoula? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.

44°
partly cloudy
81% humidity
wind: 11mph NNE
H 57 • L 40
58°
Thu
59°
Fri
59°
Sat
61°
Sun
61°
Mon
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