On the day we visit Corfu the island presents itself from its most glorious side. Turquoise bays with crystal clear waters, with rocks shimmering below the surface and people in colourful swimwear dotting the beaches. The sea, shimmering blue and iridescent, competing for brilliance with the dark green of the cypresses and the ancient olive tree groves.
We are here to visit the fabled Monastery of the Virgin, also known as the Paleokastritsa Monastery. A Byzantine Orthodox Monastery, so strange in its ways to me who was raised a Protestant, yet familiar at the same time. I am excited to enter this foreign world of differently interpreted beliefs in a country that just seems to want to endear itself to me with its sheer beauty and Mediterranean elegance.
It’s a sizzling hot summer’s day when we step out of the coach which has just brought us up the mountain in Corfu’s lesser known West. The monastery is remote, the way up here steep. The perfect place for a reclusive community of monks. Yet, it also comes with the advantage of stunning views of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.
We step through the entrance gate into a classic 18th century maze of courtyards, shoulders covered, immediately enchanted by the colourful display of flowers all around us. There are potted geraniums, and masses of pink bougainvilleas. From the archways hang green grapes and angel trumpets, thus surrounding us with their fragrances and bright colours from all sides. The contrast with the whitewashed walls of the buildings couldn’t be starker.
The monks have created a Garden Eden here, a paradise on Earth. The flowers are representative of nature’s glory, their shapes, colours and perfumes opening our hearts and our senses. We have not even arrived at the church and yet we can feel the magic of this very special place.
The church feels small on the inside due to the Orthodox praxis of separating the different sections of the building with walls. On the one end there is a beautiful iconostasis with a set of Holy Doors. Decorated with icons it is the divide between nave and sanctuary, a quintessential part of the Orthodox building plan.
The icons along the walls and on the iconostasis are striking. Many of them are adorned with gifts by believers such as foils filled with little keepsakes or jewellery, depending on the wish or the purpose. Incense vessels are hanging low from the ceiling. They are beautiful arrangements of multiple droplets, not unlike candelabras. Votiv candles and bee wax candles in front of the icons illuminate the little building and offer a soft, warm light.
It’s familiar yet, strangely, it’s not.
Outside, the sun remains strong and brilliant. From the little terrace we can see the bright blue of the Mediterranean, the tourist boats anchoring in the bay nearby, the rocky islet in the distance. It’s a peaceful place, this Paleokastritsa Monastery, welcoming and meditative.
One our way out we visit a traditional oil press – the little shop sells olive oil. There is also a small ecclesiastical museum with icons from the 17th to the 19th century and a Corfu bible from the 13th century.
We are leaving this Byzantine Monastery a little while later, a secluded Garden Eden that has left a lasting impression on us.
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