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Greek Miracles

Hardly any one in all Greece receives so many kisses as a special icon of the Virgin Mary – in the Cycladic island of Tinos. There is always a line of people waiting to kiss her, and today, I will join the line myself.

Evangelistria Church

The beloved icon is housed in the Evangelistria Church in Tinos Town. The Virgin, in Greek Panagia, relieves, heals and performs miracles, to such an extent that the nun who pointed out the spot where the icon was found nearly two hundred years ago, was canonized in 1971 and Tinos was appointed a holy island.

Religion and Greek business sense form a synthesis in Tinos Town. Entering the harbour, one notices the church immediately, atop a hill in the distance, the highest spot in town, and on the waterfront, lots of hotels, taverns and travel agencies. Everything seems centred around the Panagia, a necessity as the population, normally 6000, swells to four or five times that number during festivals.

An ocean of café and tavern chairs await the pilgrims at the longer side of the harbour. Tables in six layers, under shady awnings, occupy the street. In a quiet hour, this area is an example of absolute order, even the ashtrays are perfectly in line. The owners apparently compete in making a good impression, perhaps with the Panagia at the back of their minds, for if she didn’t bless them with hordes of customers, they would have to earn their living elsewhere.

Pilgrim Street
Leoforos Megalocharis, the pilgrim street, with the church at the top, looks magnificent from the harbour. Broad and straight, it’s ready for the invasion, peaking around the Annunciation and the Ascension of the Virgin, on 25th March and 15th August. Every weekend, however, a stream of pilgrims arrives, to the delight of the shopkeepers who supply them with the necessary paraphernalia.

Pilgrim candles, from two feet to the height of a man, would melt in the sun if not wrapped up in paper, mostly red-brown. Little votive plates depicting an eye, an ear, a baby, a ship or other motives, are hints to the Virgin about one’s miseries. Plastic cans in gaudy colours are for holy water, drawn from a spring in the basement of the church. Mass-produced icons, with or without silver, are sold everywhere.

Gradually, the street gets steeper and flanked by eucalyptus trees. The archaeological museum on the left reveals that Tinos was a place of pilgrimage even in ancient times: a Poseidon shrine whose sculptures and columns edge the museum courtyard. Of a more recent date is a kneeling bronze woman at the end of the street, stretching one arm pleadingly up towards the church. From in front, she looks frightening, as had her face and chest wasted away.

Tourist Intruder
A crippled man is racing around in his wheelchair with a plastic mug in his hand, begging. I find him a bit too clever and do not intend to show my own generosity, so before he catches me up, I rush up the steps to safety within the walls. Actually, the walls are part of a white building surrounding the church, containing several small museums, a hostel and offices, behind elegant arches. In the majestic cypresses next to the church, thousands of chirping birds give a refreshing concert every night.

The cream-coloured Evangelistria looks more like a marble palace than a church. The entrance is upstairs. A young woman, evidently doing penance, is climbing the steps on all fours, morally supported by her boyfriend, and equipped with protecting pads under hands and knees. The darkness of the church is a relief to my eyes, at the same time overwhelmed by all the decoration – marble columns and stucco, icons, censers, oil lamps.

The Panagia, residing under a marble canopy to the left, is so bedecked with strings of pearls and jewellery in precious metals that her face is only visible through a tiny hole. “Signómi!” a man hisses behind my neck, impatient to kiss the glass plate that protects the Panagia. His attitude, that I don’t belong here, hurts me. A friendly lady in black senses my state of mind and hands me a little bag of sweets. “It’s because someone died,” she whispers.

Thanks to Panagia
I will return to the harbour via Odos Evangelistria, the bazaar street. Here, the Panagia is exploited indeed. She appears on lighters, mugs, penholders, shells, T-shirts, necklaces and is also available on expensive large eggs, painted in Russia with the finest brushes. Thousands of crosses are waiting for a neck to adorn. On busy days, when customers flock to their shops, the owners certainly send the Panagia a thought of gratitude, well aware of who is the cause of the economic miracles.

Although the smell of incense still hangs in my nostrils, they react when a woman lights a piece of coal in a clay cup, then puts some libani on top of it to advertise her oriental fragrances, accompanied by chimes playing in the wind. Metre-long sausages are basking in the sun, inside a small fridge counter, while glass amforas sparkle, containing almonds, nuts and colourful fruits in honey. One table is full of dovecots in miniature, reminding me of the real dovecots that dominate the landscape of Tinos – low square towers with neat decorations, of Venetian origin.

At first glance, young people seem to be  missing, but that’s because they prefer the Pallada district, round the bend where the tavern area ends. When the music bars close, they continue to Paradise Club outside town, as if wishing to spare the Panagia their own noise. Most of them probably have a relaxed attitude towards her. Should they, however, win the first prize in the national lotto one day, they will for sure cry to heaven at the top of their voices, “Panagia!”

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