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Goumenissa and the Greek Orthodox church

I’d actually visited the region before and not that long ago, in September- October 2015. There was no particular draw-card as such but the fact that I knew people helped. We were granted leave to stay with Lizzy Scott, a friendly and engaging expat who rented an apartment in Thessaloniki. She’d moved there some years before to be closer to her son and grandkids. We’d met when she visited the vicinity of the area near to where the family I was volunteering for in northern Greece lived. Dirk and Maria lived in a rustic little village called Pendolofo.

I didn’t get a chance to write about any of this back then because I was pretty frenetic at this stage of my journey. I left Thessaloniki and Greece with only 5 nights or so before I had to be at a language camp in Warsaw, Poland, and I’d resolved not to travel by anything other than trains. I accomplished this objective arriving on the day of the day of the camp orientation on an overnight haul from Bratislava, Slovakia. It will stand out in my memory for being an extraordinarily varied week in my life: a succession of rail platforms; overnight sleeper berths; grey skies; brightly lit city centres; midnight border-crossings replete with grim-faced border officials and menacing German shepherd sniffer dogs; a bustling party hostel in the heart of Budapest; and a smattering of hopeful refugees heading northwards.

And so I arrived back in Thessaloniki on the 9th of March, a Thursday. We were received by a smiling Liz and spent two nights in her apartment before driving back to Pendolofo with Maria and her two young boys, Arionas, 2, and Achilleas, 4. Maria was raised here and in Athens. Dirk is a Dutchman, a little older and very well-travelled. We wouldn’t see him on this trip because he was back in the Netherlands earning an income he couldn’t hope for in Greece. He would go back for several weeks at a time and we arrived bang in the middle of one of these working visits. Maria had intimated that she’s be grateful for some help with the childcare.

Child care is exactly what we did for the proceeding 10 days with one or two days off in-between. It was tough on Mirjam. I probably shouldn’t have insisted on doing the volunteering at this time but we agreed that we needed to economise especially if we were going to rent a car and place for the second part of our ‘holiday’. As kind and accommodating to our needs as Maria was this leg of the trip was not a holiday. Young kids are hard work! Ha ha. The training ground begins here! I do think there’s an added pressure when you’re looking after someone else’s kids. What authority do you have? Can I exercise ‘consequences’ when they misbehave? etc.

The area around Pendolofo is scenically very attractive: at the foot of the Mt Paiko range in Central Macedonia a short distance north of the ancient city of Pella, famous for having produced the legendary warrior king, Alexander. I did the museum and the excavated remnants of the city on my previous visit. On that occasion the last of the cotton harvest was being reaped and I cycled along roads where cotton lint festooned the branches and twigs of the roadside vegetation, giving it a faux-wintry look, as if the late autumn had suddenly ended prematurely.

Image thanks to visitgreece

Testament to the durability of the cotton was the fact that the branches of these same trees and shrubs were still liberally spotted by the stuff several months later. We saw it on our drive north along the same roads some 15 months or so after I had last travelled them. The drive takes you from the region of Pella to Kilikis. Maria remarked with a look of resignation on the contrast between the conditions of the roads in the two regions. Pella is relatively well-funded whilst Kilkis is not. That said, beyond the road narrowing, I couldn’t say there was a noticeable difference in the quality of the tarmac. There were occasional holes, especially when passing through the smaller towns, but nothing to compare with the state of affairs in some parts of Africa I’d lived in.

Other than Mt Paiko, perhaps as a consequence of Mt Paiko, there are several monasteries in the vicinity of Pendolofo. One of them, the monastery of St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, is a mere 20 minutes jog from Pendolofo as I discovered, literally at the end of the road. Perhaps ‘slog’ would be a more appropriate verb here considering the uphill ascent. I made it as far as the imposing gates where I discovered that my attire was unsuitable – trousers and collared shirt pictured for men, full-length skirt or shawl covering arms and legs for women – and returned a few days later with Mirjam in tow. (To clarify, we walked at a SEDATE pace appropriate for a pregnant woman and a man with unusually stiff legs).

We entered the premises without encountering anyone but a priest in a black cassock pointed us towards a reception-cafeteria. I should add that the monastery itself is a towering multi-story building that appears to have been built in modern times, which should not be too surprising considering that this part of Greece was only relinquished by the Ottomans in 1902. We were met by a bearded father, probably in his early to mid-forties, who introduced himself as Father Seraphim. ‘Like the angel’ he told us in his halting English. He very kindly offered us tea or coffee and went off to prepare it. He returned a little while later with the beverages and a few Greek pastries.

We ate and then gestured for him to return since Mirjam wanted to buy something from amongst the impressive collection of newly printed colour-illustrated books on saints and liturgy, icons, holy crucifix, incense sticks, candles, oils and more besides. We engaged him again in conversation and the more interest we showed the more he divulged about the contents of the books, the life of St Nicodemus, and the various feast days on which their sacred icons would be on public display. Foremost amongst these is the Panagia – Mary and baby Jesus – framed in gold and silver relief. He insisted we take a diverse selection of postcards and prints of the monastery, the icons and the processional displays. I’ve photographed them all together below.

I have to say he was a cheerful man with sparkling eyes and not the dour stereotype many expect to find holed up in a monastery on a remote mountainside. There was a touch of the religious fanatic one finds in many of the clergy of whatever faith and a sense of dire anticipation hung tangibly in the air when he asked us whether ‘we believed.’ We reassured him that we did and his sense of relief was endearing. ‘Thank God’ he proclaimed.

After our indoctrination we were given permission to take a look at the main chapel on the ground level (there was one that appeared to be perched on top of the enormous building) and a smaller one skilfully built into the side of a narrow ravine a short distance away from the main monastic building. Although the first chapel possessed the more awe-inspiring articles, the gold-rimmed icons and menalia, it was the more modest of the two that appealed more to me. Built into the slope of the mountain one side even incorporated the volcanic strata revealed through its construction. The only downside was that it possessed the temperature of a walk-in fridge!

The Greeks are still a very religious people by and large. That is to say that the Greek Orthodox faith is deeply embedded in their culture and way of life for better or worse. I have just illuminated a few of the positive attributes – beautiful buildings and a sense of aesthetic in the iconography, carving and painted relief work. There may be acts of almsgiving and the like of which I am unaware of. I don’t really know too much about the charitable activities of the church. If I were to put the question to Dirk the answer would be none. He reserves a scathing criticism for the men in black. ‘They rob the widows of their pensions’ he proclaimed the last time I was there. Maria is also quite outspoken in her condemnation of the church, principally because they don’t pay any taxes to the state.

Maria has been trying for several years to help her parents run a guesthouse in the town of Goumenissa at the foot of the mountains in this part of Kilkis. Goumenissa is only a ten minute drive from Pendolofo and where Achilleas goes to pre-school. She and Dirk have tried hard to promote the potential of the area abroad, investing in heaps of marketing. Dirk acquired a fleet of mountain bikes for the more health-minded visitors interested in outdoor adventure pursuits.

What Maria says she resents the most is the privileged position that the church takes in any economic consideration. The mayor of the region needs votes to stay in power and a good relationship with the Greek Church ensures that he has their considerable backing. He scoffed at her suggestion that Mt Paiko be developed and marketed as a premier cycling destination and insisted that the region’s focus will be on the monasteries and encouraging more pilgrims to visit.

The ability of the Greek Church to get its way on other matters was highlighted by Maria one morning in conversation with me. She had just heard the results of a local government vote on a proposal by the Monastery of St Nicodemus to increase its boundaries. Maria said that they’d alleged that local villagers foraging for wood on Mt Paiko (everyone is entitled to winter quota) were disturbing the peace. They were requesting a 1 km square ‘exclusion zone’ centred on the monastery she reported. The vote had just come in and only two members of the council had opposed the request. It was passed almost unanimously. I seemed a bit of a flimsy reason to me but it was unclear if this was a territorial expansion with land ownership passing to the Church or something more along the lines of a zone of exclusion as I wrote above.

Despite the mayor’s lack of enthusiasm I took full advantage of the geographic benefits of the region. I didn’t have access to one of Dirk’s bikes but I did have a pair of trainers. The views from the altitude of Pendolofo, at a modest 600m or so, are still breath-taking. You look down upon the fertile plains of Central Macedonia stretching south eastwards to Thessaloniki, illuminated best at night against the shore of the Mediterranean. Further to the south the snowy hump of Mt Olympus looms large on a clear day and to the northwest the Belasica range mark the junction between FYROM (Macedonia the country), Bulgaria and Greece. The snowline on this range was quite visible about two-thirds of the way up at this time of year.

Quite by coincidence the next run I took in the area was in the shadow of another monastery, that of the Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene of Lesvos. We were many miles from that particular island but the story of these venerated Saints is an interesting one. I first heard it from Brother Gregory. I’d arrived huffing and puffing at the gates to the monastery after ascending along a brand new stretch of road, another gripe of Maria’s, feeling a little awkward in my running attire. However it seemed of no consequence to Brother Gregory who ushered me in through the guest entrance to the impressively large complex of buildings.

Once again I was flattered to be served a mug of hot tea, a plate of pastries and a generous bowl of honey too. Gregory tended to the steady flow of local devotees visiting the monastery on this Sunday morning and chatted to me in-between. Although this monastery was only founded in 1992 the history of the Saints to whom it’s devoted goes back far further. I refer to a web source(2) for further information:
Sts Raphael, Nicholas and Irene suffered martyrdom by the Turks on the island of Lesvos (also called Mytilene) on April 9 1463 AD, after the fall of Constantinople. St Raphael was the Abbot of Karyes near the village of Thermi on the island. St Nicholas was a Deacon at the monastery, and St Irene was the 12-year-old daughter of the major of Thermi. The three saints were at the monastery with the village teacher and St Irene’s father when the Turks raided it.

These saints were unknown for about 500 years after their martyrdoms during the Turkish occupation of Lesvos. In 1959 the three saints appeared to the people on Lesvos in dreams and visions. They guided excavations of their own graves, called people to repentance, and cured many kinds of diseases.

I found Brother Gregory an engaging and thoughtful man. He told me that he’d given up everything to be there and that the story of the saints’ martyrdom and the relatively recent rediscovery of their remains had ‘changed his life.’ We talked for some time and he promised to send me the English version of a book on the three saints upon its publication some time this year. Many miracles have been attributed to these saints and some of these accounts seem to strain the sinews of rational belief. Read more here.

As it was a day of remembrance for the souls of the departed he allowed me to light a candle in the narthex of a small chapel near the entrance. I was also invited to stay for lunch and though I was sorely tempted I declined saying that someone was waiting for me back home. That much was true but there was also no way I could run the 5 or so kilometres back on a full stomach. Maybe I should have settled for an afternoon stroll and taken the lunch.

More by this author on his very excellent blog.

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