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Go for Greece

A wonderful way to see Greece is with just an airline ticket and a backpack. Pick an island with an airport, buy a ticket that allows about two weeks, put a bathing suit and a set of quick-drying clothes in a backpack (wear another set), don’t bother making a plan, and expect daily adventure!

Island-hopping is a fantastic way to discover Greek culture: old-world villages of white stucco and Grecian-blue rooftops, picturesque facades peeking out from a mass of bougainvillea, out-of-the-way beaches and year-round sunshine, countless churches and monasteries, fresh fish and feta salads, plus some of the most easy-going and friendly people on the planet.

My husband and I have done this trip several times. We’ve visited Naxos, Paros, Crete, Samos, Patmos, Mykonos, Kalymnos, Kos, and Antiparos.

You may or may not already be a pilgrim. If not, it’s easy to try it out in Greece because devotion is a way of life there. Expect to see sweetly revered, homemade shrines sitting on boulders along roadsides in the middle of nowhere – someone is obviously tending the oil lamps daily. You’ll discover dusty masterworks of art hanging anonymously in the shadows of village churches. You’ll often see gold wedding rings pinned to priceless icons, in supplication for ailing children – sometimes, you’ll even find the no-longer-needed leg braces of the children, testifying to prayers answered.

View of Monastery (apparently)

The spots you stumble over unexpectedly, which are not covered in the guidebooks, can be the most special. On an isolated wooded mountaintop on Samos, monks have created a childlike, year-round Nativity including plastic flowers in a rusted coffee can, a string of colored lights without electricity, and friendly animals made of logs and scraps of cloth.

My suggestion for a meaningful pilgrimage? Catch a boat to Patmos. It’s a tiny, rugged island with a powerful, historical punch. Called the Jerusalem of the Aegean, St. John the Divine was exiled there by Roman Emperor Domitian in AD 95. The spot most revered by the Patmians is the Cave of the Apocalypse where legend says Apostle John lived for eighteen months and received the Book of the Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible.

The city of Skala has been Patmos’ main port since 1600. Cruise ships, hydrofoils, and ferries arrive there daily. Public services, shops, banks, and transportation agents are all available. Hora is the second major city, perched on the island’s summit with magnificent views of whitewashed villages, a craggy coastline of bays and tranquil beaches, and the enfolding aquamarine sea.

Boatride to Patmos

We caught the Patmos Ferry from Samos’ Pythagorian port. Once onboard, an argument broke out immediately between the ferry’s captain and one of the passengers, an Orthodox priest in long black robes and a miter. The priest prevailed and got to steer the boat to Patmos.

It was a three-hour trip, on uncomfortable metal benches, which only reinforced the centuries-old notion of pilgrimages – more pain, more credit. We were already miserable, nursing injuries from the day before, when we drove our rented motorscooter into the ditch of a winding mountain road as a wildly gesturing truck driver zoomed past in our lane. Heading for Patmos, my arm was in a sling, and we both had bandaged legs. We were in terrible pain – until we stepped off the boat on Patmos. Call me zealous or just sappy, but there’s something restorative in the air.

There are at least a dozen B- and C-class hotels on Patmos. And countless rooms to rent – typical of all Greek islands, an army of room-renters gathers to greet you as your ship nears port. Forget about being selective with the people. They’re generally alike – honest and delightfully inviting, stout, tanned and wrinkled, old men and women. Language is not a problem because they are used to waving potential customers down labyrinthine streets to appraise their rooms.

The best idea is to follow one and see what you find. If it doesn’t work out, just go back to the harbor and find another. They know to wait for the second round, and the third, etc. Remember: Traveling through Greece without prior hotel arrangements is definitely an adventure, but generally successful. (It’s a good idea to pay for one night at a time.)

Once you’ve settled in a room and you’ve scoped out the bathroom facilities, look around for a grocery store and restaurants. Food is second after shelter. (And always carry toilet paper in your pocket!)

We created tasty, panoramic breakfasts each morning with fruit, yogurt, fresh-baked pastries, and a couple of spots on the stonewalls that overlook the harbor. It’s a good idea to plan for lunch at the same time, with rolls and cheese, and of course bottles of water. Most businesses close down during the afternoon sun. Dinner is always a treat with delicious menus, fantastic scenery, and plenty of both locals and tourists to watch.

The first site to explore is the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, founded in 1088 by St. Christodoulus. Located in Hora, the monastery dominates the island spiritually, politically, and physically, with its fortressed walls and towers, built to discourage raiding pirates. It contains a rich treasury plus one of the finest libraries in Greece, including thousands of centuries-old manuscripts and historical documents. It’s a 15-minute bus ride from Skala, or a 50-minute walk with numerous benches along the way, each one with a more amazing seascape view.

Taking the same route back down, you’ll find perched on the hillside the Monastery of the Apocalypse, including the 18th century Patmian School, the modern Theological College, and most important the Cave of the Apocalypse.

Out in Patmos

We entered the cave and found an Orthodox monk stationed there, telling visitors how John used to go down to the harbor to preach and baptize. We sat on the ledge of a carved-out window overlooking the harbor, soaking up the atmosphere. After sitting through two 10-minute lectures in Greek, the monk finally came over and repeated it just for us in perfect English. What he said could have fit into anyone’s religion. He told how John demonstrated the possibility of transforming a personal negative experience, through inner perspective and resolute action.

The dark, quiet cave, the sunlight and sea breeze coming through the window, the artworks depicting the story of John’s visions, the mark on the floor where he supposedly rested, the stillness and the lingering spirit – by the time we returned to the sunny pinegrove at the cave’s entrance, we were so moved that we could hardly talk. There is definitely a powerful, residual presence in the cave – whether it’s that of a holy man from 2,000 years ago, or simply the goodness of pilgrims who’ve traveled there over 20 centuries.

Whether you travel to Patmos as a pilgrim in search of a still moment in today’s upside-down world, or you go simply to find good food and stunning scenery, you won’t leave unaffected by the spirit of the Patmians. They revere their island’s claim to fame and are happy to share their good fortune with visitors.

If you do go, keep in mind that a phenomenon is happening on Patmos, typical of our modern culture. The island’s fast growing tourist industry can easily stand in opposition to its 2,000-year-old history as a pilgrimage destination. A decade ago, the late Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios officially named Patmos a “holy island,” again trying to build a fortress around its spiritual treasures and discourage today’s pirates called consumerism and consumption.

In other words, if you’re looking for discos and nude beaches, it’s probably better to check out Crete or Mykonos. It’s still a great idea to do it with just a plane ticket and a backpack!

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