Visiting Agia Paraskevi in Syros

When in Syros, one must-do activity is to climb the steps to the old Latin town of Ano Syros, or, Upper Syros. The upper town is a charming maze of small streets and alleys topped by the church of Agios Giorgios. VC describes the amazing views from the from the town and the church. However, surprisingly, one vista he doesn’t mention is that across the ravine to the small cluster of white buildings around the church and former monastery of Agia Paraskevi, with its ‘melon-shaped dome’, which he chanced upon on his ride to the highest point in the island, the summit of Mount Pyrgos.

From Agios Giorgios church, and from the map, it looks as though an old cobbled monopati goes from the road at the foot of the upper town and climbs its way up and over to Agia Paraskevi. I was determined to get there this time. I’d wanted to visit a few weeks before but the weather had not been good enough. I was staying in the lower town at the Diogenis so, to avoid having to first climb to Ano Syros the next day, I decided to do it the lazy way and take the bus to the village of Alithini. It’s then just an easy 10-minute walk to the church – a little over 1km.

The hillside grew wild and stern above the inhabited cities, and Pyrgos the summit was still afar off when we came to a white gateway, and through this were carried into a place made beautiful by the hand of man; called Hagia Paraskévi.

The church and it’s surrounds truly are beautiful, immaculately maintained and a veritable oasis on the otherwise barren hillside. The ‘hand of man’ was still beautifying it as more work was being carried out on its ‘melon-shaped dome’ while we were there. I took lots of photographs, some of which can be seen on the main Syros page.

The late Archbishop Methodios had a residence here which is still in the possession of his family. But the place looks like a monastery, and is all but uninhabited.

The house was certainly inhabited when I visited. I could hear the sounds of people enjoying themselves inside the house where, over a century before, a presumably sober Methodios would have spent many a restful day.

There was everything just as VC had described it: ‘the centre of its wide court of blue and grey marble’; ‘the chapel with a melon-shaped dome and cross above it’; and ‘an open Loggia with stone seats that disclosed through its columns a view of the city and the sea below’. It’s no longer a monastery but the church is still in use and, I found out later, is popular for weddings – what a perfect way to start married life together.

there is a crypt entered by a marble door, and a cloister open to the sea and laid with a black and white pebbled floor

I found the crypt, almost like a small chapel, with a tomb at one end. On the same level as the crypt are well-maintained gardens with fruit trees and I have to confess to ‘stealing’ two fallen apricots which would probably have rotted had they been left on the ground. I put them in my rucksack and they were delicious later on in the day as I walked down to the seaside village of Kini.

When VC visited, the church was locked, but on my visit I was lucky to be able to feast my eyes upon the beauty of the inside, denied to VC.

Just as I had finished my visit and was sitting under the shade of the loggia, the owners of the happy voices I’d heard earlier appeared from the house. They were all very stylishly dressed and extremely sociable. I learned a little later that one charming couple, Mr. and Mrs. Martinos, were the owners of the entire place, including the church and Methodios’ house. They seemed surprised at my knowledge of the history of the church so I ‘treated’ them to a reading from VC’s book. “It really is a perfect picture of the place,” Mrs. Martinos said, and then from her husband came the real surprise. “Of course,” he said, “you know that Methodios is buried in the crypt.” This was an incredible discovery and, after the couple and their guests had left, I revisited the crypt to ensure I’d not missed anything.

Another surprise followed. I’d noticed Mr. Martinos talking to one of the staff and gesturing toward me. Shortly afterwards, a couple appeared from the house and offered me coffee. The coffee arrived with delicious biscuits, ice-cold water and an enormous bowl of fruit: melon and apricots, which I suspect were produce from the gardens. Such hospitality and kindness to strangers – some things in Greece never change!

That evening, back at the Diogenis, the girls were keen to know about my visit to Agia Paraskevi. A few weeks before, they’d been kind enough to telephone for me to check when the church would be open to visitors. “Athanasios Martinos is a very successful businessman and does a lot for the community,” Laura told me. “He’s known in Syros for being a very kind man.” I think I’d already discovered that earlier in the day!

Searching for the Papas of Sts. Anargyris

I set out one morning from Ermoupoli to follow part of the route which VC had taken on his way to Della Grazia, now Posidonia. My mission was to try to discover more about the priest of the Church of St. Anargyris at Ano Manna. The church is actually dedicated to the two saints, Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian and should really be called Sts. Anargyris as in its latinised Greek name of Agioi Anargyroi .

In the book, VC recounts meeting the priest, Papas Chalkis, and his wife, who tell him the sad story of the loss of their son, killed by the Turks while piloting a British plane which came down in the Dardanelles. VC left a number of loose threads in his account and I hoped to find evidence of living descendants who might be interested in learning the details of the intimate conversation which took place between them. I also hoped to maybe find family graves or memorials.

Certainly, the road up to Ano Manna has changed considerably over the intervening years but, especially as one gets further from the city, it’s still possible to identify some of the elements he described.

The road first passed up a valley full of reeds and market-gardens watered by Persian wheels, under the new buildings of the American Refugee School. Then it climbed the bare hills under the Aegean sky.

The reeds and market-gardens can still be seen further on but the section before the American Refugee School (see the blog about finding the school) is now almost completely urbanised and, unsurprisingly, the “Persian wheels” are long gone, however, the impressive remains of a Persian Wheel can be seen in Posidonia.

Approaching the Church of St. Anargyris
Approaching the Church of St. Anargyris

It takes about an hour of easy walking to get up to the village on foot; VC travelled in a horse-drawn cab. Coming upon the village, one sees the church sitting high on the hill amongst the trees. It’s still a “handsome church” and the priest’s house, “on a terrace raised above the marble court”, is still there, although now expanded by a newer building to its right.

As I walked up onto the terrace, the barking of the dog alerted a young woman inside to my presence and she came to the door, surprised to find a foreigner speaking gibberishGreek  to her. She was a chirpy girl. Half in Greek and half in English I learned that the priest was out but would be back shortly. I could walk around and look at the church, she told me, and she asked if I’d like some water or maybe a coffee while I waited – it’s good to see that some things in Greece haven’t changed since VC’s day!

The Papas' house
The Papas’ house

The small kitchen garden is still there as described by VC and striking red geraniums still line the garden wall. As I wandered around the church grounds, I came across a plaque on the wall of the church listing all the priests since the church was built. There at the top was Michalis Chalkias, NOT CHALKIS, as VC had told us was the son’s name, and hence the priest’s also.

Shortly, a car arrived and a lady, a young boy and the priest in his robes climbed out and greeted me. Papas Antonios and I introduced ourselves. I explained that I would like to see inside the church but that I also had another reason for visiting.

On my mention of Papas Chalkias he threw up his arms in surprise and disbelief. Bit by bit, I disclosed the details of VC’s meeting. The lady eagerly took over from me, reading from the book that I’d brought and translating it for the priest, all the while, his arm around my shoulder, clearly delighted that somebody should bring such news of part of the life of one of his revered predecessors.

He knew of the son who was killed but was unaware of the other seven of their children who’d died previously. Most importantly, he confirmed that it was Papas Chakias’ remaining son, Konstantinos, who had later followed in his father’s footsteps to become priest of Agioi Anargyroi. He believed that the family line had ended with the death of Konstantinos and he was unaware of any other family members or any graves or memorials.

He laughed heartily on hearing that VC was offered ouzo. On VC’s mention of the lavender outside the house, he reached down into the garden beside him, plucked a sprig, rubbed it it his palm and picked another for me to do likewise.

Papas Antonios proudly introduced me to his son Alexander, a bright, polite young boy, who’d attained ‘A’ grades in French and English at school and was to start German in the next school term.

The card from Papas Antonios
The card of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian from Papas Antonios

The key to the church was fetched, and what a key! The brass antique, a good 15-20 centimetres long, was handed to me. I briefly weighed it in my hand – not one you’d want to drop on your toe, I thought! Papas Antonios kissed a card containing images of the church’s saints and passed it to me. We descended the steps and walked across to the church. To the right of the porch, inside which was the main door, the Papas showed me the marble tablet I’d already seen while awaiting his arrival. He pointed out the very first entry bearing the inscription “Michalis Chalkias 1900-1935”. Half way down the list was the son, “Kontantinos Chalkias 1943-1944”. At the very bottom he pointed to his own entry “Antonios Chalaris 1992 – “, his terminating year, thankfully, still blank. I moved my finger further and further across the tablet, by way of wishing him a long life. He laughed, “I’m 48 years old” he said, but his boyish face belied those years.

St. Anargyris Church Ano Manna
St. Anargyris Church Ano Manna

We stepped inside the porch. The Papas inserted the huge key into an equally enormous keyhole and gestured for me to turn it – “Turn it twice” he said. With a satisfyingly heavy ‘clunk’ on each turn, the door opened into a church interior as “handsome” as its exterior. The Papas pointed out the icons by Chypris, seen by VC, and, with his permission, I photographed the icons and the interior of the church. I left the Papas at prayer inside and went to sit under the shade of one of the huge cypress trees gracing the courtyard of the church.

Papas Antonios Chalaris holds up the key to the church of Agioi Anargyris
Papas Antonios Chalaris holds up the key to the church of Agioi Anargyroi

Presently, he re-appeared. I asked whether I could have a photograph of him in front of his church. He seemed pleased to honour my request and as I was about to press the shutter, with a chuckle he exclaimed “Wait! Let’s do it with this.” holding up the antique key to the church. I would like to think this was his way of giving me a very personal souvenir of my visit to Agioi Anargyroi.

We said our goodbyes and I promised to send him the part of the book that had so stirred him earlier.

I started on my journey back down into Ermoupoli turning over in my mind what Papas Antonios had told me about the end of the Chalkias family line and what I’d encountered in the Greek cemetery in Ermoupoli the day before. I’d gone there looking for signs of graves or tombs bearing the name ‘Chalkis’. I’d seen a stone inscribed with the name ‘Chalkias’ but had dismissed it as not being the same family, in the belief that VC had given us the correct name. Now I knew differently.

Once back in town, I headed again for the cemetery but, try as I may, I could not find again the stone engraved ‘Chalkias’. I spied a priest coming down the path and approached him. In Greek, I told him I was looking for a grave of a family named ‘Chalkias’. Unsurprisingly, my poor Greek was not understood and he called across a younger man who introduced himself as Panos. He spoke absolutely perfect English, having spent time in Scotland, and being an English teacher and teacher trainer at the University of the Aegean. “Why are you interested in this man Chalkias,” Panos asked “are you a family member?” I explained about VC’s book and his meeting with old Papas Chalkias back in the late-1920s. As I told him the story, he relayed it in Greek to the priest I’d accosted.

It was at this point that the most amazing coincidence unveiled itself. “This priest,” said Panos, “is the great grandson of Papas Chalkias and he knows about his son, the pilot, and the way he died. In fact, he tells me there is a street in Ermoupoli named after him”.

I had so many more questions to ask and I wanted to clarify for certain that the priest was the son of Konstantinos. But Panos excused himself and the priest. “Excuse me, we’re burying my mother today,” he told me to my utter embarassment. I was appalled at my own insensitivity not to have realised that the priest was there to conduct a funeral and that Panos was surely part of that service. Panos gracefully dismissed my apologies as being absolutely unnecessary. I proffered my condolences and we said our goodbyes.

The next day, my last on this visit to Syros, I found the street in Ermoupoli named after the pilot Ioannis Chalkias.

Ioannis Chalkias - Hero of Greece
Ioannis Chalkias – Hero of Greece

I returned to Syros 3 weeks later to continue my research. In the archive section on the 1st floor of the museum in Ano Syros, I found more about Ioannis Chalkias. Protected under the glass of a display box was an old document, ‘Heroes who died for Greece’. At the very top was Ioannis Chalkias.

Searching for the Near East Relief Mission Orphanage

Being touched by VC’s description of Syros’ welcoming of displaced refugee children in the 1920s, I was keen to discover whether the building which formed the Near East Relief Mission’s orphanage still existed.

I asked as many local people as I had contact with whether they knew the building but, unfortunately, while some knew something of the history of the period, I could find nobody who knew anything about the building itself.

From old photographs, I could ascertain that it was out past the Neorion shipyard, probably close to the road which leads to the airport and on to Vari. When I told the people in my hotel that I was walking out there, they told me that a former Syros prison was also on that road.

The Syra Orphanage
The Syra Orphanage

I found what I thought was the prison enclosed by a high wall topped with barbed wire. I managed to peer in through a gap in the gate but couldn’t see much other than a few sheep grazing in the grounds. I continued on in my main quest to locate the orphanage.

The Syra Prison?
The Syros Prison?

Going this way, then that, checking from any suitable vantage point, comparing the old photographs of the orphanage, I could find nothing to link the photographs with the vista before me. I reached almost as far as the airport before reluctantly giving up and starting my walk back into town.

As I got close to the ‘prison’, something struck about the formation of the windows in one of the ‘prison’ buildings which tallied with the old photograph. I counted, “one, two, three, four” rectangular windows followed by one round window, however, the old photograph showed FIVE rectangular windows.

One. two. three, four rectangular windows
One, two, three, four rectangular windows!

With my camera lens at its limit I could discern the outline of where the missing window had been bricked up. I’d found the orphanage!

The windows of the Syra Orphanage
The tell-tale windows of the Syra Orphanage

I took what photographs I could but the majority of the building is hidden behind trees. I even took the next road further on and got a better view from the back of the site but a full-on front image, as in the old photograph, eluded me.

I’d been completely wrong about the ‘prison’. What I think the people in my hotel were talking about was the old quarantine station, or lazaretto, along the same road. The orphanage had never been a prison. Alexis Athanasiou, the Vice-Mayor of Syros, told me that he thinks it continued as an orphanage until the late-1930s after which it reverted to the Greek government. The building is actually now part of a restricted area occupied by the Greek military.

A couple of days later, on my way to track down the ‘Papa of St. Anargyris’ I passed by the orphanage and took the road to Ano Manna. The road initially skirts the restricted area and I came to a gate with a barrier. I wandered in, hoping to be able to see the orphanage from a better vantage point. I didn’t see the soldier as I passed by him – but he saw me. That was the end of my attempt to get on to the military base. The soldier was very polite and understanding but insistent that I could go no further and that NO photos were possible. Oh well, maybe on some other trip I might be luckier. Or, maybe somebody else, with closer connections to the military might just manage to persuade whoever has the authority, to allow a photograph or two of the building today as a testament to the generosity and compassion shown by the Greek people to those seeking refuge in their hour of need.