“Tinos, where the little hanging offerings of crutches, bandages and paintings, testify to the miracle having taken place, and remind one once again that here, as in the ruined and forsaken shrines to Aesculapius, healing and divination are one.” – Lawrence Durrell – ‘Reflections on a Marine Venus’
Having acquired a taste for using the ferries to visit other islands we took a trip during the second week to the intriguing little island of nearby Tinos, which is a secretive place that doesn’t feature very often on holiday itineraries. As we approached the port we could see that not being a tourist island it wasn’t going to any special effort to become one and the harbour front was functional and utilitarian and without the ribbon of colourful bars and tavernas to which we had become accustomed.
Actually, although it didn’t seem a tourist hot spot to us as we approached the harbour, it turns out that Tinos, a large island just northwest of Mykonos, is in fact the most visited of all Greek Islands but not with overseas visitors because 90% of the visitors are Greek and since Greeks come looking for an authentic experience even the most tourist friendly places retain a feeling of originality and visiting the island is a unique experience.
One of the reasons so many Greeks visit Tinos is that it is an intensely religious island famous most of all for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria which holds a reputedly miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and is the venue for an annual pilgrimage that is perhaps the most notable religious pilgrimage in the region of the eastern Mediterranean. Many pilgrims make their way the eight hundred metres from the ferry wharf to the church on their hands and knees as sign of devotion. It was extremely hot and it was hard enough work just walking up the long hill to the church so I imagine that you would have to be seriously determined to do it on all fours, although to be fair there is a strip of red carpet at the edge of the pavement to stop pilgrims ripping their hands and knees to shreds.
On the way to the church there were old fashioned stores selling various sizes of candles to take to the church and instead of postcards there were racks of cards each with a picture of a part of the body. The shopkeepers could speak no English so couldn’t explain what these were but we eventually worked it out for ourselves. If you have a bad leg then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and leave it there so that God doesn’t just forget about it after you have gone.
We reached the brilliant white Renaissance style Church and went inside to see the miraculous icon which according to tradition was found after the Virgin appeared to the nun, St. Pelagia, and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried. By coincidence the icon was found on the very first days after the creation of the modern Greek State and henceforth Our Lady of Tinos was declared the patron saint of the Greek nation. Inside the church it was hard to find because it was dark and oppressive with the sickly aroma of incense exaggerated by the heat of the burning candles but eventually we found it, almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and with a line of people waiting their turn to admire it and place a gentle kiss upon its base.
After we had seen the church and wandered around the gardens for a while we walked back down the long hill and back to the harbour where we walked rather aimlessly until we came across the best of the bars that we could find and stopped for a drink while we waited for the return ferry to Mykonos.
One of the absolute highlights of a Greek holiday has to be the excitement of a Greek party night and I can say that without fear of contradiction that the best one I have ever been to was on Mykonos at Agios Ionnis towards the end of the holiday. The venue was a rustic bar in a village in the hills and as well as the food and the wine and the dancing also had table dancing, setting fire to the floor with lighter fuel dancing and plate smashing. Breaking plates is linked with the Greek concept of kefi, which is the spirit of joy, passion, enthusiasm, high spirits, or frenzy. Some say that it wards off evil spirits. Others maintain that breaking plates symbolises good luck (especially for potters I should imagine). Whatever it means it is a lot of good fun.
Breaking plates like this is now considered a dangerous practice due to flying shards, and perhaps also because of intoxicated tourists who have poor aim and may hit innocent bystanders. It is officially discouraged and in Greece, as well as in the United Kingdom, a bar or restaurant that wants to do it requires a license. Tucked away in the hills, I doubt if this place had a license but it didn’t last long and they very quickly substituted the plates with paper napkins to throw around. Mind you if you think plate smashing is dangerous in the old days they used to throw knives at the dancers feet as a sign of respect and manhood. This was a bit reckless and not surprisingly, due to countless injuries, that tradition gradually changed to the present-day flower throwing alternative, which is a bit pansy but a whole lot safer.
After the traditional meal of lamb washed down with razor blade wine we watched the locals perform the dances correctly and then we were all unleashed onto the dance floor with a frenzy of high kicks and waving arms as we danced with total disregard for the Greek heritage and culture that these dances are supposed to represent. What great fun it was as we kicked up the dust as we danced and as it got hotter and hotter the dances got faster and faster. Goodness knows what the traditionalists thought of it all. Thank goodness that the Greeks are most tolerant people. OPA!
The fortnight in Mykonos was a good holiday and maybe I will go back one day but for now I am happy to backpack and wander among the islands using the ferries to transport me around.