“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’
The ferry from Syros took us to the intriguing island of nearby Tinos which is a rather secretive place that doesn’t feature very often on holiday itineraries. As we approached the port we could see that not being a holiday island it wasn’t going to any special effort to become one and the harbour front was rather 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 the Greek Islands. Not by overseas visitors however because 90% 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 more genuine and unique experience than say Mykonos or Santorini.
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 all of the eastern Mediterranean.
Many pilgrims make their way half a mile or so from the ferry wharf to the church on their hands and knees as an extreme 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 ragged strip of dusty red carpet at the edge of the pavement to stop pilgrims ripping their hands and knees to shreds or getting stuck in the melting tarmac.
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 little English so couldn’t explain what these were but we eventually worked it out for ourselves. If you have a bad limp then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture and so on.
It occurred to me that if you are going to crawl to the church you will probably need a knee picture.
Anyway, you take this postcard picture to the Church and ask for a cure to whatever it is that ails you and secure it to an icon and when you leave, just to be certain, so that God doesn’t just simply forget about it shortly after you have gone you light a candle to remind him. The bigger the candle the better and some of these monsters, without exaggeration, were easily four feet tall and a real fire hazard I can tell you!
We reached the brilliant white Renaissance style Church, gleaming like a fresh fall of snow and went inside to see the miraculous icon which according to tradition was conveniently found after the Virgin appeared to the nun, St. Pelagia, and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried.
There is a familiarity to these stories that generally include a simple nun or young children – Knock in Ireland, Fatima in Portugal and even Joan of Arc in France. The Virgin never seems to appear to a sceptic academic or someone in high office in the Church such as a Bishop or a Cardinal.
By suspicious 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 quite hard to find because in contrast to the bright sunshine outside it was dark and oppressive with the sickly aroma of incense exaggerated by the heat of the burning candles. 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.
All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this cleaning ladies armed with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.
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 ferry to Mykonos.
Tinos is an odd sort of island but I am glad that I took the detour to visit it.
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