Keys and other tribulations

Unlike a fair proportion of English country churches Greek churches are seldom left unlocked*. How this figures with the Greek habit of leaving house doors wide open and their fabled and genuine honesty is a mystery. Locals, when asked, "Why do you lock your churches?" usually answer along the lines of "someone will come in and steal the icons". As many churches are basically empty save for the odd chair and a pile of candles this doesn't hold much water (and though I have been informed of thefts the storytellers are invariably vague about timing and hard evidence). Be this as it may the fact is that you will frequently be thwarted by firmly locked doors. There may be some justification for this - When I revisited Ag. Iannis at Keria in the Deep Mani I was dismayed at what I saw. It used to have some ancient gravestones built into its exterior walls - not any more. Two have been prised out of the stonework by thieves. But be this as it may, it doesn't take much to put up a notice saying where the keys are, but no-one ever does. All I can put it down to is that, in my experience, locals are rather baffled that one might actually want to see inside the churches.

*Mind you, read Simon Jenkins' diatribe on this subject in his excellent book, Thousand Best English Churches and one begins to realise this is a universal problem…

A typical small mono chambered church (Exohori). Fragments of 18th century frescoes which have been whitewashed over. A table with oilcloth covering. On it a bottle of oil and wicks for the lamp, a gilt, mass produced stand filled with sand to hold candles. Modern mass produced icons - here of Ag. Charalambos and St. George.

To gain entrance to a locked church you have to be philosophical and resourceful. In a village or town wander about and ask "Signomi, Pou ine to klithi tis ekklesias?" (Excuse me, where is the key to the church?) and point a lot and make the appropriate hand motions to anyone you meet. Most will give you unintelligible replies (that's the fun of only knowing a few sentences of a foreign language - you can never understand the reply) or shrug their shoulders - they don't know. But often someone's face will light up and they will either dive off and return clutching a large key or will lead you to the key holder. In more established places it might be useful to search out the Papas, the local priest (though there may well not be one in that village - as in many countries one priest looks after a number of parishes). Then again it might not. The Papas I have encountered seem to be equally divided beween lovely smiling old gents who are delighted that someone wants to look inside their churches and others who are offhand and frankly unhelpful. Also remember that many churches still belong to families and the priest may have no regular access to them. Often a lay figure seems to be the keyholder rather than the Papas.

In more remote locations it is still worth hanging about - it's surprising who has noticed your arrival and I have been amazed to see little old ladies in black appear, seemingly from nowhere, and smilingly open church doors for us. Also look around you. On rare occasions I have found keys "hidden" under mats and stones or in cracks in walls (careful about thrusting hands into unseen places - serpents and scorpions could be there first). The locking of doors can also be somewhat arbitrary. Churches locked one year are unlocked the next and vice versa. It all adds to the frisson of exploring churches. Wherever possible I have indicated the state of play when I last visited a location - but be warned this may have been some years ago and from my own experience the situation can in fact change from day to day.

Graffiti is unfortunately not confined to bus shelters and can be found inside many churches. This example is from Moni Lykaki. The earliest dates to the late 1890s


Some of the older churches have been adopted by the local antiquities section or Ephorate (Ephoria in Greek). In many cases this has merely meant sticking up a sign telling one what the church is called and then ensuring it is firmly locked. The offices of the antiquities section of the local prefecture will be in the local city an hour or so's drive away and will probably be closed for lunch or not answering the 'phone - and even Greeks complain of their unhelpfulness - perseverance is needed. Sometimes they have put in a system whereby someone is the keeper of the keys for certain churches and can be found at a certain location. The 26th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities look after many churches in Exo Mani and is based in Kalamata. Although they boast an email address they don't answer it. If you're fluent enough in Greek to try a telephone conversation the number is + 30 2721 0 22534 or 26770 and Fax is + 30 2721 0 22534. I thought it best to actually go along and ask them about individual churches. The Ephorate is in one of the few remaining pre-earthquake buildings a few blocks up from the seafront in Kalamata. The address is 10 Methonis & Kanari Street. After a fair bit of hovering in corridors - there was no sign of a receptionist - eventually I got to talk to a very pleasant young archaeologist. She explained (in a mixture of German, English and Greek) that I had to fill in a form, which would be passed to her boss for approval, then a few days later I was to phone their man in Exo Mani who would take me, in my car, to the churches. I could photograph the churches and use the photographs for articles and non-profit purposes but if I used them for a book I'd have to pay them an undisclosed fee. All rather longwinded but it worked relatively smoothly - though Spiros - the very nice man with the keys, speaks not one word of English or anything else other than his native tongue. I got a Greek friend to phone him.

For access to the best (or rather most famous) churches in the Mesa (Deep) Mani (Episkopi, Ano Boulari, Tourlotti etc.) the Lakonian Ephorate (the 5th) have (as far as my knowledge goes, I haven't checked this for some years) Dimitris Kolokouris who sits in Areopolis Post Office with a large bunch of keys early of a morning and will take you to wherever you want to go - he speaks some English. He can be a bit elusive and bobs between Gerolimenas, Pirgos Dirou and Areopoli and may have already nipped off with other church seekers. His 'phone number is 0733 052953 and his father owns the first kafeneion on the left as one drives into Pirgos Dirou from Areopolis - Dimitris is reputedly often there on a Wednesday - the local market day. The latest details on the 5th Ephorate website state that the Keyholder's phone number for Ag. Varvara at Erimos is +30-7330-52202, the only location in Mesa Mani they indicate on their website- they've thoughtfully failed to construct the webpage with their address and phone number on it.

In the pages of this website, wherever I can, I have indicated where the key is kept or how to get it - but this can change and some of my knowledge is a few years out of date.

Some of the helpful locals who have let me into churches.

On the left two gents from Panitsa and to the right Eleni at Ag. Sofia, Gournitsa

Churches are rarely lit and it is in the nature of Greek churches to have few and even then very small windows which are usually in the cupola. Take a torch, make sure your flash is working on your camera and open the front doors as wide as possible. If a priest or keyholder is present ask first before blazing away with your Pentax. The key holder may be indulgent of your taking photographs but it is theoretically forbidden. Sometimes, I suspect, the local heritage experts have told the keyholders that flash photography will fade the frescoes. This is scientifically rubbish and anyhow very unlikely with the number of visitors most Mani churches receive but be prepared for a negative wag of the finger. I've had a number of occasions when there is some extremely ambivalent shrugging of shoulders at my request to photograph - and have taken this as a Yes. No-one so far has wrestled me to the floor. You may be encouraged to light a candle for which a small donation is expected and even if you are a raving unbeliever remember to ostentatiously leave a small amount of cents in the offering basket.

More helpful keyholders - Brother and sister (I forgot to ask their name!) at Monastery of Ag. Theodoros, Proastio and Eleni from Ag. Vasilieos, Kelefa

If the keyholder is either a priest or a lay member of the church then respect the sanctity of the Bema. This area beyond the iconostasis is reserved for the ordained and if you try and poke your nose in when they are present you will be told to desist. Official Ephorate keyholders are, in my experience, usually happy to let you go anywhere. It used to be that trousers and long sleeved shirts were necessary for men and long skirts and full arm/shoulder cover de rigueur for women. In active churches and especially monasteries this is still true but in most country churches you'll be the only ones there and there is an increasing tolerance by local priests of tourist wear - though don't expect a pair of crotch revealing shorts, flipflops and a skimpy singlet to meet with priestly approval. If in doubt carry a) if male - a pair of long trousers and a long sleeved shirt or b) female - a light wrap around long skirt and long sleeved top with you and change behind the nearest olive tree. By the way I recommend long trousers for exploring - not so much for the above holy reason but because undergrowth in Greece can be extremely prickly and I can still hear the shrieks of discomfort uttered by companions who insisted on sporting shorts.

Unlike most ancient Greek sites most medieval, Byzantine and later edifices are open to anyone who can find them (only the most spectacular and well known sites such as Mistra are not and you will have to pay to enter). Some of the sites are in a poor state of repair and it goes almost without saying that there are opportunities for accidents especially in castles where masonry is in a crumbling state. There may be a Greek Health and Safety Executive but they don't seem to be very effective and there will be few warning signs and absolutely no balustrades. Take care! Equally I hope I don't need to tell travellers to respect the places they visit. Even the most remote and dilapidated sites are still in use (if only on the church's saint's day) and you will see evidence of worship (that's what the plastic bag containing a Coke bottle full of olive oil and a collection of wicks is). Please leave sites as you found them so that others can worship their deities and enjoy their beauties and delights.

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