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